Musing on Amusement

Why am I so suspicious of laughter?  Not that spontaneous kind that bubbles up from a lively conversation or a shared observation of life in its many tricky forms.  No, not that kind.  I’m thinking of the canned variety, the forced ho ho ho of a dodgy looking Santa, or a comedian laughing at his own jokes.  Maybe it’s too many hearings of The Laughing Policeman on Two Way Family Favourites as a child?  Too many occasions of not seeing the joke and sitting stony faced in a room filled with empty hilarity?  Or more often seeing the joke coming a mile off and knowing that it won’t be funny when it lands like a dead bird in my lap?

Why is the analysis of comedy much more entertaining than the comedy itself; the intellectual endeavour more engaging than the damp squib silliness that results?

Why, when someone asks me to explain that piece of unhelpful writing advice show don’t tell, do I always use humour as my example?  If I read a description of something as ‘hilarious’ (or that theatrical review cliché ‘rolling in the aisles with laughter’), that’s an example of ineffective telling, as my automatic assumption is that something entirely unamusing except to an idiot has occurred, and I am bounced out of whatever world the writer was attempting to create.  In contrast, if I read a scene which brings a twitch to the corner of my mouth, then that is genuinely amusing, and the author has shown me something funny, and I have stayed in their world.

Is ‘funny’ even an objective measure?  Why do so many people insist so doggedly that X and Y are funny, apparently allowing no room for a different opinion, brooking no debate?

Maybe I could do a PhD on why comedy isn’t funny.  Would there be a market for that, I wonder?  I could have lots of good arguments along the way – so long as I didn’t have to go to any stand up comedy gigs. The last one of those was less than successful for all concerned.  It really wasn’t my fault the compere interpreted my hard fought for ‘neutral face’ as antagonistic.  I should just have relaxed into looking as bored as I felt.

I’m working hard here to avoid falling into another rant against the conformity of so called alternative comedy, canned laughter and the herd mentality…… Just so long as no-one tells me I simply have to see XYZ as ‘they’re really funny, honestly’.

Life might be so much easier if I were easily amused.  There would be so much more to watch on television for a start.  I might have to confess, though, that I spent six days at the Edinburgh Festival and didn’t see a single comedy act; apart from the fat fellow off one of those boys clubs TV shows who took the taxi we got out of at Bristo Square.  He was wearing a surprising amount of eye liner for a big bloke at 4 o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon, Edinburgh notwithstanding.

Is that funny?  Interesting, incongruous perhaps, but no, not a titter, not even a twitch.

Let’s think instead of times that I have laughed, or had to bite the inside of my cheek to stop myself…… that wedding of two young lawyers where the vicar progressed slowly, sliding inexorably, no way to stop him, from talking about how well they would have been trained in resolving disputes towards the topic of divorce.  Even when I gained control of my own suppressed laughter, I could feel the wooden pew shaking where someone further up the row was failing in their own attempts.

Or that Russian production of Anne of a Thousand Days where Henry VIII and Cardinal Wolsey dressed in tight lycra, striped to the waist and fought each other with whips….over the future of the Church of England.

But then, neither of these were comedies.

I always sound like a real misery.  Can’t tell a joke; doesn’t like comedy; gets bad tempered in a farce.  Just so long as no-one starts to counsel me about the fact that I do have a sense of humour.  We’ve been down that road before, when I had to endure a whole week of effective communication training being positively encouraged any time I said something remotely amusing.  It’s hard to tell someone so seriously sincere and yet so lacking in basic intuition that you were joking.

Theatre Twice in One Day

It’s not often that the stars align so that it’s possible to catch two West End shows in one day, but this Thursday was one such red letter day.

First, it was Shrek The Musical, at Theatre Royal Drury Lane.  I’ve only ever seen bits of the film, so it hadn’t really occurred to me just how specifically it was directed at children, and of course, a matinée performance is just the time to take the under-10s.  I was therefore somewhat apprehensive when I saw the dozen or so crocodiles of small children waiting outside the theatre being shouted out by already frazzled looking adults.

But, once inside, the extra buzz of chatter and rustling of restless bottoms on seats gave me the feeling that I was about to see a pantomime. Every now and again there would be a moment of audience reaction, a special sort of tinny, rattling laughter that reminded me of a Crackerjack audience; that collection of children in their school uniforms and Brownie and Boy Scout outfits cheering the silliness of a Friday afternoon teatime television.

What to say about the show?  It was silly and a lot of fun, taking pops at fairy tales and sending up rival musicals; it’s also got its share of sly humour and clever stagecraft.  There was tap dancing, talking gingerbread and stuffed animals, but no particularly memorable tunes, with the exception of I’m a Believer which they performed from the top of a green wedding cake as an encore.

Perhaps my favourite image was that of the dragon, looming out of the stage at us, its wings raised, ready to fly, the men manipulating it, black clad and athletic, underneath.

Fortified by a couple of glasses of wine and a pizza, next on my agenda was The Complete World of Sports (abridged) by Reduced Shakespeare Company.  It’s always a risk having me at comedy, because so much of it does nothing other than irritate me, but I always try to approach it with an open mind.

And this was fun, silly dressing up with funny hats and wigs, with occasional pratfalls , but it’s also sharp and witty, satirising many of the clichés of sport and its reporting, ridiculing the hyperbolic metaphors and poor grammar.  The performers react to the audience, and even seek audience participation (I’m glad I didn’t know in advance), but by doggedly avoiding eye contact I escaped selection.

Following on the sports theme, I was even home in time to catch the television late night Olympic round-up which featured both John McEnroe and Daley Thompson, two of the favourites from my youth, both of their fiery personalities now mellowed, transforming them into outspoken and amusing national treasures.

All in all, a day of entertainment.

A Five Year Sentence by Bernice Rubens

A couple of weeks ago I was a bit early to meet a friend for an afternoon cup of tea.  I started sifting through the basket of books outside one of the charity shops in Muswell Hill and came across a slim volume A Five Year Sentence by Bernice Rubens.

I was drawn in by the first paragraph:

‘Miss Hawkins looked at her watch.  It was two thirty.  If everything went according to schedule, she could safely reckon to be dead by six o’clock.’

As first lines go, it’s pretty intriguing and so I paid the 25p necessary to secure the book.

It’s an odd little story, and I went through phases of enjoying it followed by ones in which I found its humour a little too bleak for my mood.  It’s not laugh out loud funny, but it is definitely comic, from the initial set up to its unexpected conclusion.

Miss Hawkins has spent her life doing as she was told, from her days in a strictly run orphanage, through her employment at a sweet factory to which she was passed by the cruel Matron.  Facing her retirement, with no further instructions to follow, she plans to end her life just as soon as her leaving party is over.

But that was before her colleagues gave her a five year diary as a parting gift.  Conditioned by her life of obedience she cannot die before the diary is completed.

In that respect it reminded me a little of the start of the Jean Rhys story (I think it’s After Leaving Mr Mackenzie) in which the heroine contemplating suicide, delays it because she has paid her rent to the end of the week, and wouldn’t want to waste the money.

But it take Miss Hawkins a good deal longer to feel anything other than terrible resignation over her five year sentence.  To start with she records the banal daily non events of her life, but then comes upon the idea of writing about something that had not yet happened, and then treating that as an instruction to herself.  Thus she starts on an increasingly bold set of adventures, the instructions for which she sometimes forgets having written in the book.

Still rather lonely and isolated Miss Hawkins creates a companion for herself by painting a moustache on the mirror above her dining table, which when she holds her head at a particular angle reflects back the image of Maurice.  Maurice becomes both her confidant and her conscience, and when she becomes bolder in her ambitions and the tasks she sets herself, he has to be banished to under the bed until he no longer disapproves.

And there is plenty to upset Maurice after Miss Hawkins meets Brian at the library and starts to experience exciting  new aspects of life that Matron had warned her so vehemently against.

Originally published in 1978, it is a bit of a period piece now, and at moments a bit bleak, but if you like your humour oblique it’s worth a look.

Drinking in the office

I was prompted by one of those ‘do you remember when’ conversations with a friend from my Moscow days to reflect on the different approaches it is possible to have to office parties, drinking, and having fun; not that I would claim to be that good at any of them.

When I first arrived to work in Moscow in the mid 1990’s the firm I worked for already had an established habit of having the fairly frequent birthday drinks or celebratory get togethers in the largest of the office’s meeting rooms.

The senior managers of the office were Brits from the ‘let’s all go to the pub on a Friday’ tradition.  I think partying in the office was a solution to the problem that there were not that many places nearby that were pleasant to drink in, or which it was possible to persuade the younger team members, especially the young women to go.

The system had quickly become well established; a couple of the junior members of the department and one of the firm’s drivers would go out to the kiosks and come back with imported beer, fruit juice, shampanski (usually sweet, warm and very difficult to open), vodka, chocolates and fruit (oranges or bananas), if they could find any.  They would arrange the spoils of the shopping excursion in a semi circle on the conference table; there would be plastic cups and paper plates for the fruit.

One of my English colleagues mentioned, not long after he arrived, that in the UK we often had wine too, as well as a few savoury things, perhaps, ‘maybe nuts?’ he suggested.  And thereafter there were always Georgian wine (not recommended) and nuts of unpredictable variety, peanuts, sometimes salted, sometimes raw, other times plain cob nuts or hazelnuts, arranged neatly on a paper plate.

The drinks would be timed to start at 6ish, but there was always a slow start.  The Brits would stay at their desks to finish their work before turning off their computers, packing up their desks and then plunging into the party.  Many of the Russians would leave their desks at the appointed hour, go for 15 minutes, drink one glass of shampanski, eat a handful of chocolates and then return to their desks.  We were lucky to overlap.

There would always be wine left at the end of the evening; I concluded that no-one liked wine.

I often found myself sipping my warm shampanski while chatting to one of my colleagues who would throw their head back, down a shot of vodka in one and follow it with a swift beer chaser.  At the time I think it was still relatively rare to find the mixers like tonic or cola with which they might otherwise have diluted the vodka.

When it came time to organise my leaving do, I recall announcing that, as a final last hoorah, I would have some decent wine to drink.  As I’d never seen anyone else even try the Georgian wine that had been left at the end of most parties, I only bought 6 bottles of averagely decent French wine, and also stocked up on the usual shampanski, beer and vodka.

Turns out it was only Georgian wine that no-one liked.

To make sure I had something to drink, I spent the evening holding my plastic cup in one hand and a bottle of the wine in the other.

‘Is that real wine?’ people asked holding out their glasses for a top up.

It’s a description of ancient history now.

The story of the dustbins of Pimms in the park by the river will have to wait for another day….

Caught out by my own ‘efficiency’

By my calculation this is my 48th successive daily post; that’s quite something for me – it’s four dozen, or a day short of seven weeks and 13% of the way towards the 365 day target.

Although I have called this blog ‘Reading and Writing’, ‘rithmatic is never far from my mind.

Give or take a bit, each post is about 500 words long, which gives me a year to date tally of getting on for 24,000 words.  In the context of the speed at which I produce words for my fiction, that is a lot.

Not such blue sky thinking

As a neophyte blogger, to complete the challenge to post something daily, at a reasonably regular time each day to satisfy an early request of one of my readers, I have had to develop a system.

Rule 1 is that every viable idea has to be used; some are better than others, but it is vital to the process not to be too self critical, and not to spend too much time agonising about each one.

Rule 2 is that I always have a completed post ready the night before, so that I do not have a panic in the morning.  I have become adept at using the facility to ‘schedule’ ‘publication’ for a particular date and time.

The combination of Rules 1 and 2 operating in harmony is that, recently, I have had at least a couple of posts all ready in my back pocket at any given time.

I have upped my pace this last week as I was going to be away from home with no guarantee of access to the internet, visiting friends and family, and hopefully will have too many other things to do.  To ensure continuity of service I have ‘banked’ a number of posts in advance.

I found a problem with this approach today.

The amusing thing I found on the internet on Tuesday, and which I wrote about then for the post for Saturday, was published in, of all places, the Daily Mail, on Thursday.  So when I thought I was sharing a minority amusement with you, you may have already read about in the outraged columns of the bastion of the reactionary.

It is a reflection of how quickly information flows around the internet, and that I was not the only person whose attention was caught by the wit of Lydia Leith’s idea; and I hope that the report that she has already sold out of her ‘Throne Up’ sick bags is true.

But I have learnt that if I want to be first-ish then I have to work smartly and efficiently as the latter alone may not always be enough.

Gilbert and George…….

Gilbert and George, The One Show, Phil Tufnell and art.

It’s like one of those writing exercises: use all of these unrelated words in a sentence,  a paragraph, a story.  See how ridiculous/surreal/believable/suspenseful/tragic you can make it.

But on one evening this last week, there they all were, at the same time, on my television.

What were Gilbert and George thinking?

What were the BBC thinking?  Given the bewildered look on the face of the woman presenter throughout, (and the way she said ‘urethra art’ with not a glimmer of irony or amusement) I’d say she wasn’t thinking anything.

It has to have been one of the more surreal half hours broadcast by the BBC.   They had Gilbert and George sitting on their sofa in the studio and made them sit through a film about sensationalism in art, presented by Phil Tufnell, a former cricketer.  There’s a sense of humour at work there, somewhere.

I’ll admit that I’ve never really known what to make of Gilbert and George, and their gnomic utterances on the show didn’t really help me.

Having recently been introduced to the world of Twitter I decided to see what was being tweeted about it while it was happening.  Unsurprisingly the comments fell into two broad categories, those who are fans of the artists and were bemused at their participation in teatime telly, and those who were wondering ‘who are those blokes?’

So I’m not really any the wiser.

According to what  ‘those blokes’ said, I understood that art finds them, they don’t choose it.  While I’m prepared to believe that a tiny little bit, I think they are a bit disingenuous to imply that they are not selecting and editing, and presenting what they find in a particular way to satisfy their sensibility.

Still none the wiser, and now my interest in them is exhausted.

They did say something that made me laugh when I first heard it, and maybe they were joking, but it did make me think.

They don’t cook, ever.  It eliminates the need to shop, prepare, cook and wash up, thus freeing up time to find art; they eat out at the same restaurant every day instead.

I like eating, and occasionally cooking, too much to follow them on that route.  And given the evidence of all the cookery blogs out there in the digital world, there probably aren’t that many people who would sympathise with their sentiment that cooking takes up time that could be used more creatively.

There are, however, tasks which I dislike performing but which I allow to fill up time when I could be doing something better; tasks which others might regard as essential but for which I could find alternative ways to handle than having to do them myself.  Dusting and vacuuming are on the list, as well as washing the kitchen floor and waiting in line at the supermarket check out.

Watching rubbish on television would be number one on that roll call if it weren’t for the occasional weird gem that appears.

Sense of humour failure

Humour’s a funny thing, as the saying goes.

I’ve been reading some of the comment on Ricky Gervais’  hosting of the Golden Globes with a degree of puzzlement;  he has apparently offended people by not being amusing.

Now, as I’ve never thought he was entertaining, this hardly feels like news.

But then, I don’t like comedy.

If I ever do watch it, I imagine it’s a bit like asking a dyslexic person to read a big block of text.  I know what’s its function is, I can see the constituent elements, but it doesn’t communicate anything to me.

I once made the mistake of replying, when asked at the beginning of an ‘Assertiveness Course’ (yes, really; it wasn’t my money) if I enjoyed comedy.

‘No. I don’t have a sense of humour.’

I then had to suffer for the three days of the course being ‘positively reinforced and encouraged’ every time I said anything even remotely amusing.

In exasperation, at the final feedback session, when the facilitator started on at me again about how much of a sense of humour  he thought I had, I virtually shouted ‘I know. I was only joking.’

At that moment, he found it extremely difficult to conceal his own humour failure.

A theatre review that even hints at rolling around the aisles with merriment, will put me off immediately.  The mention of  ‘farce’ has me heading for the door.

I have sat in the middle of a row in a packed theatre feeling like the only person not laughing, irritated by the idiocy of the mirthful people sitting around me.

A good friend, who knows my taste, will often say

‘I thought it was very funny.  You’d hate it.’

With supreme arrogance I once decided I would enter a BBC competition for new sitcom writers.  I had an idea, which I still think has potential, but most likely in a different form.

As part of my preparation, and bearing in mind until that point I don’t think I’d ever watched a whole episode of any sitcom from beginning to end, I borrowed some box sets from a friend.

I wanted to understand about the structure of them, the limited sets, limited cast, necessity of characterisation and set up and pay off, all within 30 minutes.

It was torture, especially the ones with laughter tracks.

I’m unlikely to try it again, and will seek my laughs in real life instead.

%d bloggers like this: