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July 1st 2018
Humour is funny.
That's as good as it's going to get today, I'm afraid. But let's talk about jokes, baby. I came across this post on Twitter a while ago: Now, Twitter is a great place to go if you want to discover all the ways that men are terrible and women are great. There seem to be new ones every day. Also, the place to be if you enjoy conversations along the lines of:
Woman: "All men are awful!"
Man: "Er... no we're not."
Woman: "See what I mean?!"
Anyways, I don't know who Jennifer Wright is and I'm not sure how her tweet popped up in my timeline, but I'm going to ignore her silly generalisations - or should that be genderalisations? (I told you the first sentence was going to be the peak) - and think about the different approaches to joke-telling.
Unfortunately I am not unfamiliar with the scenario above, where you tell a joke and are met with silence. I mean, not all the time. But enough. For example, only on Friday I was playing a fun board game called Sagrada, and I said that it sounded familiar. Nothing. My approach in this situation was to explain that what I had just said was a hilarious Sagrada Familia joke - yes, I used the word "hilarious" - and it turned out that my audience (aka "two other people at the table") had missed it the first time round, and so roundly agreed, once understood, that it was epitome of hilarity. Or something like that. On paper I guess this is the approach that Ms Wright deplores, but hopefully it was understood that I was, well, joking when I described the original joke as hilarious. Making a joke against myself, essentially.
Which brings me to a phrase that is in frequent usage in the Thomas family: "A manly boy ought to be the first to tell a joke against himself" (or, in short-hand, simply "a manly boy" will do). The line comes from one of the wonderful William Brown books by Richmal Crompton, and the context probably isn't important, but it rather chimes with my view of anecdotes in general.
For example, when someone tells me a story about how they outwitted a colleague, or made the whole room fall about laughing with a comic observation, or in some way showed themselves to be quite the genuis, I am a little unappreciative of the tale. It's just a way to make themselves look good. Tell me a story about how you drove the wrong way down a one-way street, though, or flew to the wrong Washington, or accidentally burned your socks, and I am all ears. (These stories are, sadly, fictional). Man, woman, or manly boy, I think these make you come off best.
Speaking of which, did I tell you about how I once missed a flight to Edinburgh? Some other time, perhaps.
The other thing I really don't enjoy in joke-telling is when people preface their story with "This will make you laugh". Golly, the pressure. This might be something that's peculiar to me - it's probably the same thing that makes me incredibly bad at receiving gifts - but with such focus on my response I tend to come off rather fake, even when I have genuinely enjoyed the joke / gift.
Oh, and while I'm complaining about stuff, can I call a moratorium on the phrase "wrong on so many levels", unless it's genuinely relating to something that is wrong on at least two levels? (I'll make an exception for the lovely Tim Vine joke about crime in multi-storey car parks).
Circling back to where I started, Kathy Letter complained in The Times a few weeks ago that the Wodehouse prize judges were sexist, having only awarded their prize to two women in 17 years. She may well be right, but she didn't help her cause by packing her column full of jokes that were pretty dire. Here you go:
"There are many technical terms a budding comic author must master. For example, do they know that "brontosaurus" is an anthology of works by 19th-century English literary sisters? Then there's grammatical precision. A double negative is a complete no no. And it's mandatory that a comic author has a good epitaph. Something along the lines of "Finally, a good plot".
Actually, none of those lines are terrible in and of themselves: I think the problem is more about context. If you're a woman writing a column about how women are funny, you're putting a hell of a lot of pressure on yourself to, well, be funny. So, presenting three bah-dum-tish lines in a row was possibly not wise - it's the columnist's equivalent of the "This'll make you laugh" moments I mentioned above - but with the added insinuation Lette was making the case for all of female humour with these gags. That's a level of pressure that no jokes can survive.
Similarly, if you're writing a potentially ill-judged blog post about the finer points of humour, it might be a mistake to kick off with a "Humour is funny" line that, let's be honest, doesn't really work on any level.

what was I listening to?
Wild, Cool & Swingin' - Wayne Newton
what was I reading?
Far From the Madding Crowd - Thomas Hardy
what was I watching?
I, Tonya
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