“I am enclosing two tickets to the first night of my new play; bring a friend, if you have one,” wrote playwright George Bernard Shaw to Winston Churchill.
“Cannot possibly attend the first night, will attend the second…. if there is one,” responded Churchill.
This essay is written in defense of humour. In fact, it is really about jokes, some tasteful others not, and the need for laughter. Why the need? I believe we’re living in an age that has created a lot of angst in the general population - a feeling of emptiness brought on by the modern world. A world that has left us all time-deprived, working too much, always on-call and available 24/7 because of those damn modern communication devices. We are also, and largely, divorced from the natural environment. This situation is not good for us. I’m convinced that the totality of all these aspects leads to a sense of “something missing” or outright despair. The Canadian artist Alex Colville succinctly put it, “Anxiety is the normality of our age.”
I must admit that I love hearing and telling jokes. I find it a balm for daily life. A “belly laugh” releases a day’s tension. It’s interesting to note that many jokes tend to be insulting in nature, and in varying degrees. The light-hearted exchange between George Bernard Shaw and Winston Churchill is the harmless kind. As long as a joke is relatively civil then all is fine in my view. However, when the insults are pushed too far, into racial and ethnic territory, then they are not acceptable. Nevertheless, so many people, my young self included, indulge in making fun of various nationalities and groups. In my youth it was jokes about “Newfies” (people from Newfoundland), the Irish and certain professions… lawyers for instance.
The majority of my jokes in my teens were about the English and the French… all based upon the stereotypes of the times. I was particularly hard on the French – this is, in itself, rather comical. My father’s first language, and my name, was French. We lived in an English community just north of Montreal during my teenage years. English was my mother tongue. All my close friends at high school were English and we all made fun of the French kids. We called them “Pepsi’s” because they drank pop all the time (even at breakfast!). Pretty harmless stuff we thought. However, there were some jokes that were nasty. As an example, we used to put a beret on top of a pair of shoes and ask “What’s that?” After a few moments of silence and “I don’t knows” we’d answer, “It’s a Frenchman with the shit kicked out of him”. Crude, yes, politically correct no. Luckily for me, even my French father laughed at that one. He was a good sport.
Obviously, there are all kinds of humour. Many times it can fulfill even a greater role than simply producing laughter. Despite their shortcomings jokes serve to make the world a better place and maybe increase our understanding at times… and often help us get through some tough periods. As writer Tom King noted, “Sometimes looking at a tragic moment at a particular angle provides a bit of humour and deepens the tragedy at the same time.” In my own experience, in hospitals and at funerals, in particular, I’ve seen spontaneous jokes lighten up the mood without diminishing the gravity of a situation.
Getting back to content of jokes I find it’s important to reflect on the intonation and phrasing… and, even more importantly, the context. There is no question that some jokes “cross the line” of acceptability. For me these are jokes that are specifically about things a person, or group, cannot change (unless they are of the self-deprecating sort). For instance, calling someone short (BTW – I’m short!) or laughing at a deformed hand is not kind, or excusable. While making fun of someone’s parsimonious nature or their refusal to eat peas is perfectly fine. In these later examples you’re basically laughing with that person versus at them. And there’s a big difference.
Some terrific examples of humour that include serious insults that are, in the context of the relationship, basically harmless. I’ve found more humour from Winston Churchill that involved his exchanges with Lady Nancy Astor (who was also a member of the British parliament). During their over lapping political careers they had many verbal duels despite being from the same political party. Here’s one of my favourites:
Lady Astor – “Winston if you were my husband I’d poison your tea.”
Churchill – “Madame, if I were your husband I’d drink it.”
That is a funny joke and said in a light-hearted manner. One insult fends off another, like two people fencing for sport – the barbs are harmless. This repartee between the two of them was an ongoing phenomenon. Another famous exchange seems less innocuous and predicated by Churchill’s love of brandy (and wine) which he often consumed throughout the day.
Lady Astor – “Winston, you are drunk.”
Churchill – “And you, Madame, are ugly. But I shall be sober in the morning.”
Obviously, according to my definition of unacceptable humour, this joke seems to cross a line. Churchill is making fun of something Lady Astor couldn’t change, but… I did some research and found some pictures of Lady Astor that were quite the opposite of “ugly”. She was a rather beautiful woman. I therefore think Churchill was simply being mischievous… or he was drunk. Or, he was trying to justify drunkenness as only a temporary state to ward off those critical of his drinking habits. I ended up discounting all these explanations and settled on revenge as being his motivation. In looking for context of his “ugly” remark I found a much earlier exchange. When Lady Astor was first elected and became the first woman to take a seat in parliament Churchill commented:
“Having a woman in the House of Commons is like having one intrude on you in a bathroom.” To which Lady Astor replied: “You’re not handsome enough to have such fears.”
My love of jokes endures and on the whole I stick to my rules of acceptability. The goal is to get everyone laughing, even the person who might be the butt of the joke. In my older years I carefully avoid ethnic stereotyping and mean spirited jokes (and wish I spoke French better as I’ve grown up to be a true blue Francophile). I especially like humour that plays off marriage trials and tribulations. Here’s a classic joke involving two out my three favourite things, wine and love (bring on the music!):
After 25 years of marriage a couple has just finished dinner and are half way through a second bottle of wine. The wife lifts her glass…
Wife – “Without you I would have never made it through all these years.”
Husband – “Darling, is that you or the wine talking?”
Wife – “That’s me talking to the wine.”
My final point is to try to look for humour in all things. In the name of “political correctness” or religious earnestness please don’t throw out the proverbial baby with the bath water. Laughing is good for the soul! Many studies confirm that it’s good for our physical health and mental well-being. A friend of mine once met the Dalai Lama. Like many others, he was impressed with the great leader’s wisdom and amazing countenance. But what struck him the most was the man’s humour and tendency to break-out into laughter – a true sign of enlightenment? Perhaps.