George Austin asks what, if anything, is funny
A friend who was a canon at a parish church cathedral in the North of England had a monthly communion round. Always he had to end it at the home of two elderly spinster sisters, who loved to have a chat over a cup of tea and cakes. The conversation turned one day to television, and both sisters complained that that there was hardly a programme their modesty allowed them to watch. ‘Except for the one with that nice Mr Humphries in it, of course – there’s never anything rude in that.’ An interesting comment on Are You Being Served? in which every other word had a double meaning.
Rudeness is sometimes in the ear of the beholder but crudeness is not, and much television humour seems in recent years to have moved firmly from the rude to the crude. Take for instance that old series, The Likely Lads with James Bolam and Rodney Bewes and compare it with the nearest modern equivalent, Men Behaving Badly, whose writers seem to feel they are only adult if they expand the bounds of what should be acceptable to modern audiences. Contrast that with the great West End revues of the 50s and 60s such as For Amusement Only or solo comedy performances by Joyce Grenfell. Would they even attract an audience today?
When I was a primary schoolboy, I recall that at one point we learnt words describing body parts and sexual activities. We couldn’t use them at home, but at school it was a source of great hilarity to introduce them into conversation. Giggle, giggle! But that kind of humour, if humour it was, we put away as a childish thing when we were sufficiently grown up to go on to the secondary school. Yet some of what is now offered as an adult approach to humour on television seems in reality to be frozen in the immaturity of childhood crudity.
For there is crude and there is rude. The Carry On films were rude but very funny, and Mr Humphreys was in that same vein, as was Private Pike’s innocence about the relationship between his mother and Uncle Arthur in Dad’s Army.. After all, sex, like the Church of England, is not without its hilarity. But crudity in some current shows is not just in the jokes but also in the language. I was astonished in the United States some years ago to hear how frequently the F word was used on television. Since then we have caught up (as we always do), and in some shows it seems almost to be a politically correct requirement.
It does, of course, have its place, but that place does not happen to be by my fireside. And it can be funny. An enterprising school one Christmas decided to have an ad hoc nativity play in which the children, having been told the story, would produce the dialogue as they went along. Parents were invited, the mayor came complete with ball and chain, and since it was a Church school even the Bishop was present.
It began with the children introducing their characters, beginning with Mary: ‘I’m Mary and I’ve just come here to Bethlehem all the way from Nazareth on a donkey and I’m worn out.’
Then Joseph: ‘I’m Mary’s husband and she’s expecting a baby and we’ve nowhere to stay.’
Enter the Innkeeper: ‘I’m the innkeeper and if they come to my pub asking for a room I shall tell them to f*** off.’
There was at first the silence of the aghast, and then the whole audience (except for the headmistress) collapsed in hysterical laughter. A true story, but an experiment which was never repeated.
Of course we all need words we can use to express frustration and some good old Anglo-Saxon words describing bodily functions can serve that purpose very well. We Christians should be more concerned about dialogue in which ‘God’ and ‘Jesus Christ’ are used as expletives. That is common enough on television and I find it deeply offensive. I wonder if the writers would find it as acceptable to offend the followers of non-Christian faiths.
Perhaps we are not in a position to complain. After all, some years ago a General Synod chairman pronounced that the use (by a bishop, as it happened) of the word ‘God’ in such a way was in order, whereas more recently another chairperson called a member to order for saying ‘shit’. No doubt the King James translation will be avoided if ever the reading during morning prayers at a Synod session includes 1 Sam 25.22 or 34, 1 Kings 14.10, 16.11 or 21.22, 2 Kings 9.8 or 18.27 or Isaiah 36.12. The seventeenth century was more earthy than the twenty-first.
The only Synod debate I attended between 1996 and 2000 was the deeply unsatisfactory and much structured one on homosexuality, and I wondered then whether a member used the word ‘buggery’ would have been brought to order, even though that is the nub of the orthodox Christian’s opposition.
We need to laugh, not least at ourselves. Unfortunately there are those who seem entirely to lack a sense of humour. Shakespeare’s Cassius was one such:
‘Seldom he smiles, and smiles in such a sort
As if he mocked himself, and scorned his spirit
That could be moved to smile at any thing.’
Like Penelope Keith’s character, Margo, in The Good Life, they seem to want ask, despairingly, ‘Would someone please tell me why you are laughing?
A couple of years ago, I was asked to join in the April Fools Day hoax on the Today programme on BBC Radio 4. I had supposedly been appointed Chairman of the Church’s Lottery Liaison committee, and it was going to be my task to introduce lottery outlets in all our churches. Clergy for and against were interviewed and an experimental preview was included.
A husband and wife who had heard the item wrote to me (‘from a brother and sister in Christ in the love of the Lord Jesus’ – always ominous in listeners’ letters) to say that if it were true it was a sin by the Church and if it were a hoax it was a sin by me for deceiving them.
I replied to say that human beings are the only creatures made in the image of God, and since we are the only creatures with a sense of humour then that must be part of his image. For Christians, that should be the heart of the matter.
George Austin is a writer and broadcaster. He was formerly Archdeacon of York