Thursday, October 27, 2005

Laugh, Damn It - or You're Next

Each year since 2003, I've intended to put up a celebratory, commemoratory or commiseratory post on the general theme of what's changed in the blogosphere since I started. I think, of the three alternatives listed, a commiseratory post would probably be the most appropriate, in view of our complementary misfortunes; I'm stuck with the pernicious, and ultimately narcissistic, habit of blogging, you're stuck with the equally pernicious habit of reading this guff.

There's been a lot of bloggage over the past few days on the derision bloggers have been getting from a couple of op-ed dunces; among other things this has led to some debate over at John Quiggin's blog on the nature of humour. I've so far resisted the temptation to get too involved in it. Although I'm sometimes accused of being a droll writer, I have little confidence that I could tell anyone how to be funny or defend a claim that I'm much funnier than anyone else. Humourists (especially the self-styled ones) don't seem too good at defining what they do. For example, here's an incomplete James Thurber quote on the difference between the humourist, the wit and the satirist:

The wit makes fun of other persons; the satirist makes fun of the world; the humorist makes fun of himself ...

That statement is somewhere between half-right and completely wrong. It certainly doesn't apply very well to Thurber's own writing; he's often very witty and not necessarily through poking fun at other people. When you complete the quotation, it starts to sound more plausible, but it might still be a little inflated:

... but in so doing, he identifies himself with people--that is, people everywhere, not for the purpose of taking them apart, but simply revealing their true nature.

Why present the incomplete quotation? Because that's the form in which I first found it on one of those quotes from famous people sites. Which shows a second problem that occurs when humourists get into defining their craft; they get misunderstood and misquoted.

When I started this blog, it was with two motivations. One was the belief that my daft ideas were just as worthy of space on the Internet as all of the other daft ideas I was reading at other people's blogs. The other was to demonstrate that there was at least one lefty in the world with a sense of humour and, what's more, on a good day I could be a damn sight funnier than either Tim Blair or Professor Bunyip. Over time, the writing changed; the humour became a means, rather than an end. Mixed in with the pointed topical humour, I started doing other stuff. Some of that other stuff was to do with exorcising personal demons, like thoughts of brain devouring scrambled eggs and the grey plasticine assassin who stalked my dreams one memorable night or, as in this case, a nasty memory that just keeps coming back, no matter how hard you try to shut it out.

Remember Biafra? I do, for two reasons. It was the first African famine to rate on prime-time TV for one. And the other is that it somehow spawned the worst joke I've ever heard in my life. Some of you may wish to skip the next few italicised paragraphs: there's some pretty offensive stuff in there.

Lunchtime at Greenfields High, in the asphalt section of the schoolyard where the third formers hung out. Slim, the accredited class clown, came up to me and said, "Hey Gummo, you heard the one about the Australian, the Biafran and the Jew?"

"No." I answered; he took that as an invitation to tell the joke.

"Well there's this Australian, this Biafran and this Jew, see, and they're travelling on a train together. This blow-fly comes in through the window and buzzes around the Australian and he waves it away." Here he matched gesture to speech, miming the action of waving away a fly. "It buzzes the Jew, and he waves it away too. Then it flies over to the Biafran and he does this:"

Slim grabbed an imaginary fly out the air, put his hands to his mouth and made gobbling noises.

"Well, the Australian was put off and he looked out the window; so did the Jew. A bit later a moth fies in the window. The Australian waves it away andit flies over to the Jew. The Jew grabs it," Slim grabbed the imaginary moth out of the air, "turns to the Biafran and says 'Oy maate? You vant to buy a moth?"

There was a pause, while I remembered that when the accredited class clown tells you a joke, you're supposed to laugh. But I wasn't quick enough, or hearty enough. He looked at me with a scornful expression and said "What's the matter, Trotsky? Aincha gotta sensayuma?"

It would be pleasing to editorialise this incident as an expression of precocious good taste or political correctness. Any claim I might make to the former would be somewhat compromised by my compendious knowledge of franger jokes and my dubious reputation, among my peers, for having the dirtiest mind in the school. The simple fact is that I didn't laugh because I didn't find Slim's joke particularly funny. Jew jokes didn't bother me that much at that time of my life. Possibly it was tossing in the Biafran that took it out of the realm of genuine humour and into the realm of things you'd damn well better laugh at if you know what's good for you.

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