The word ‘humour’ has its origins in the humoral medicine of the ancient Greeks, who believed that the balance of fluids in the human body influenced health and emotion. The Greeks described these fluids using their word for juice or sap. The Latin word for body fluid was ‘humor’, giving us the word we use in English to describe this idea. Now I’ve got that out of the way, I can approach what we now regard as humour.
Our sense of humour changes with age
Humour can be found anywhere, this is me trying to drag my bulk out of an oversized deckchair at Cannon Hall, Barnsley, April 2022. Hours of fun.
Things that we see as funny differ at different times in our lives. Children tend to find slapstick such as Punch and Judy, slipping on a banana skin, or custard pie in the face and so on very funny, whereas adults can develop a coarser and more satirical blend that can only develop with maturity and at least a basic knowledge of the adult world. Jokes, puns and double entendres fall squarely into the adult world of humour.
An example of a double entendre joke would be something like ‘A blonde walks into a bar and orders a double entendre, and the barman gives her one’.
Using humour to rattle establishment’s cage
Rattling the cage of established norms has been the aim of comedy writers as long as they have been writing comedy.
William Shakespeare’s works are full of naughtiness, innuendoes and very rude words, but unlike modern comedians, who swear just to get a reaction, these words actually served a purpose in describing something or someone. Still, in both cases the aim is often the same: to rattle the establishment with humour.
It is generally accepted that humour is a healthy trait. However, opinions on what constitutes acceptable humour differ greatly. Views as to what cages need rattling and how far change over generations and cultures. I suspect the Chubby Brown crude comedy style would have been very popular within the mainstream population back in the 15th and 16th century. it still is now but with a much more limited audience.
Who and how far to offend?
Ricky Gervais and Jimmy Carr both advocate that there is no subject off limits for a joke and support the idea that people often mistake the subject of a joke with the actual target. There are undoubtedly some people who are offended by everything or offended on someone else’s behalf, and we can attribute the phrase ‘we can’t please everyone all of the time’ to these situations and move on. Gervais and Carr are certainly in a privileged position of being well able to do this. Their stage shows are very well attended by people who appreciate their particular type of humour and, as they are talented enough to earn money elsewhere, they don’t have to care about being cancelled.
Still, most of us would agree we should be mindful of our surroundings and whom we might offend. I am not brave enough to write down many of the jokes I find funny but that isn’t because I’m concerned with being cancelled but, like most people, I am sensitive to a possible offence.
There are many jokes that I have found funny that I wouldn’t repeat. But I have to admit I do like a good mucky joke. Fear not everyone, there isn’t one here but there are dozens that involve: a young chap entering a brothel and asking what he can have for a fiver; a travelling salesman stranded in the country given shelter in a farmhouse but has to sleep with the farmer’s daughter; two of my favourites involve a young couple struggling to make ends meet and she has to go out on the game; and the one about four nuns killed in a car crash who have to confess their sins to St Peter. I’m smiling even as I write this.
The (not always PC) humour of Mae West and Zsa Zsa Gabor
Funny quotes are often attributed to the same small number of people, even if they didn’t say any of them, but we think they should have. Mae West and Zsa Zsa Gabor are credited with a treasure trove of these, particularly on the subject of men/husbands.
A Gabor one would be “Men are like fires, they go out when unattended”, or “I’ve never hated a man enough to give him his ring back”. She had nine husbands and lived to a ripe old age of 99. She was once asked, “How many husbands have you had?” and her answer was “You mean apart from my own?”.
Mae West came from a generation before Zsa Zsa Gabor and developed her style of innuendoes and muckiness before the sensors persuaded everyone to frown on that sort of thing. She also managed a good age of 87. A couple of her quotes were “Ten men outside the stage door you say? Send one away, I’m tired”, and “When I’m good I’m very good; when I’m bad I’m better”.
By the way, the Royal Air Force have a habit of giving nicknames to different items and the name given to their inflatable life jacket during WWII was ‘a Mae West’. The reason being that when the life jacket, which is in fact more like a waistcoat, was inflated, there was something about it that reminded them of the attributes of the lady herself. This name has now drifted into standard English and is an essential item for anyone working near water.
Other quotable quotes
Albert Einstein, William Shakespeare, Winston Churchill and Oscar Wilde are often mentioned as being the origins of many famous quotes.
Albert Einstein: “I do not know what weapons will be used in WW3, but WW4 will be fought with sticks and stones.”
William Shakespeare: “I would challenge you to a battle of wits, but I see you are unarmed.”
Winston Churchill: “History will be kind to me for I intend to write it.”
Oscar Wilde: “Freedom of speech is not freedom from consequences.”
Author E B White (1899–1985), once said, “Humor [he was an American so he used the wrong spelling] can be dissected as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process.”
I find comedians to be quick-witted, talented and intelligent. They should be MPs. At least when they got it wrong we would be able to get a good laugh out of it.