Introducing our recent public debate on humour at London’s Royal Society of Arts, Laurie Taylor discovered that laughter can be a serious business
As this event was the first occasion when Jonathan Miller would be speaking as the new president of the Rationalist Association, we wanted to choose a topic that would allow him to draw upon some aspect of his own public life and one which also had a particular resonance for humanists.
It didn’t take long to come up with the subject of humour. For although Miller has claimed that he is not a natural comedian, few would now disagree with Kenneth Tynan’s contention that his involvement with Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and Alan Bennett in Beyond the Fringe in the early ‘60s changed the face of British comedy.
Neither is there any difficulty in making a connection between humour and humanism. Few humanists would wish to deny the role that humour, from Voltaire’s Candide onwards, has played in subverting fundamentalist claims, in ironicising religion’s core beliefs. But there are less clear-cut issues. How, for example, might humanists cope with the paradox that while humour is a way of asserting a common bond between people of different backgrounds, it is also a conventional way of perpetuating stereotypical differences?
But perhaps the most interesting humanistic questions about religion concern the nature of its evolutionary role. Why is humour a distinctively human trait? What function does it serve for the species? How has it changed through history? What advantages does it confer? Is it an instrument for ensuring co-operation, a survival strategy, or a way of dealing with unconscious mental tensions? Is it the only weapon we have in the fight against the precariousness of existence, the knowledge of our own finitude? It didn’t take Jonathan Miller long to reach his own distinctive take on such questions.
Jonathan Miller, president of the Rationalist Association
“One of the things which has always struck me about humour is that we are ready to pay a great deal for it: comedians often become very wealthy as a result. That must mean that it gives us a great deal of pleasure. But why is there such an extraordinary pleasure attached to this peculiar convulsive respiratory activity? I believe that one of the reasons we seek it is because it mobilises cognitive versatility. And the evolutionary advantage of cognitive versatility is self-evident: the smarter you are about categories, the smarter you are about similarities, about dissimilarities, about differences and resemblances, the smarter you are in dealing with life’s cognitive challenges.”
Miller went on to suggest that what was happening could best be explained by reference to the “unconscious”, not the Freudian unconscious full of repressed sex, an “extremely uninteresting concept”, thought Miller, but rather what he called “the enabling unconscious”. “We have not enough room on our personal neurological desktop for everything we know. There is not enough room in consciousness. So we store it on an internal hard disk. It is this stored enabling unconscious which allows us to speak English fluently without having to constantly refer to a dictionary. It’s what enables us to sleep on a problem and wake up with the answer. We have no way of listing the entire content of our enabling unconscious. It is not available to us by introspection. It simply appears, we hope, at the moment when we need it. It’s the need and situation which mobilises this capability. So, if, for example, I were to ask you to list all the words that you know, you would come to a dead end at about 3000, but all of you know at least 30,000. These only arrive when you are speaking, when they come flowing up from the unconscious.”
He had, he told us, now reached the point where he could propose a basic theory about the nature of humour. “Humour mobilises what we knew all along but were not conscious of until the joke makes it available to us. I’ll give you an example from a cartoon in the New Yorker. Two explorers are up to their necks in a swamp and they are holding their rifles above their heads and the man behind is saying to the one in front, ‘Say what you like, McMurtry, quicksand or no, I have half a mind to struggle.’
“Now, one of the things about that joke is that it mobilises our familiarity with the notion that you don’t struggle in a quicksand because you will drown. But it also mobilises the much deeper cognitive notion about the nature of action and volition. Struggling is not something which you can have half a mind to do. You go flat out at it. So the reason why we laugh at that joke is not merely because it reminds us of the familiar advice about not struggling in a quicksand, but because it also reminds us of the nature of the distinction between voluntary and involuntary action. It reminds us of the sort of thing that the great Oxford philosopher Austin talks about in his famous plea for excuses: it is to do with those things for which we can actually claim, ‘I did it because I knew I was doing it’, and those things which we did because we couldn’t help ourselves doing it. The cartoon works because it brings to light categorical distinctions which are absolutely vital to our moral lives as a co-operative species.
“I’ll give you another example. I used to watch Peter Cook doing his famous sketch in which he begins by saying, ‘I could have been a judge but I didn’t have the Latin.’ Once again there are deep categorical distinctions being raised about qualifications and the idea that Latin is the only thing that qualifies you to be a judge. But then he went on to oppose the judging exams with the mining exams. Compared to them, he said, the judging exams were extremely rigorous. ‘People come out of the exam saying, “My God, what a rigorous exam.”’ Well, that reiteration of ‘rigour’ is part of the humour and we are already amused by the notion of there being a mining exam. He then said that ‘the mining exams were extremely unrigorous. They only ask you one question, “Who are you?” And I got 75 per cent on that.’ There are two wonderfully humorous items in that: the idea that knowing who you are might be a contribution to a qualifying exam, but also the idea that you might only get 75 per cent on your own name. That raises deep questions about what it is you must know 100 per cent.
“Finally a word about jokes. Jokes, with certain conspicuous exceptions, do not arise from the wit of the individual who utters them. They are like rental cars: you never know who has been driving the joke before you tell it. We know this from the frequent prelude to a joke: ‘Stop me if you’ve heard this one.’ Oscar Wilde would never have said, ‘Stop me if you’ve heard this witticism.’ Jokes are anonymous, they are like brief folk tales, and they have an extremely folk tale structure. There are Englishmen and Irishmen and a Jewish fellow, and there is the pub they go into.
This formulaic structure helps in their use as items of conviviality. They are like rounds of drinks. And the joke doesn’t belong to you any more than the drinks you buy for others. Jokes establish intimacy between people who do not have occasions for genuine intimacy, which is one of the reasons why I believe that men tell jokes a great deal more than women. Women have grounds for intimacy which allow them to talk intimately at the outset in a way men don’t.’”
Martin Rowson, political cartoonist and author
Martin began by talking about how eager people are to show that they have a good sense of humour, before introducing his distinctive account of how humour makes life possible.
“Four years ago I attended Michael Foot’s 90th birthday party at the Gay Hussar. I had just presented Foot with a cartoon as a birthday present and was standing in Greek Street with a photographer who wanted my contact details, which I proceeded to write down for him in my sketch book. As I was doing this Alistair Campbell, then still Blair’s Director of Communications, walked out of the restaurant and started shouting at me in the street. ‘Fucking typical,’ he yelled, startling several passers-by. ‘Martin fucking Rowson signing fucking autographs. What a wanker.’ When I protested that I was doing nothing of the kind, he shouted, ‘Of course you fucking are, you fucking prick,’ and carried on in this vein for a couple of minutes until he got bored and wandered off. Now, that may strike you as exactly the type of foul-mouthed bullying you would expect from Alistair Campbell but then I realised he was doing something else entirely. He was actually trying to be funny. He was using a sort of primitive humour to endear himself to me. He wanted me to think he had a sense of humour. And that kind of brutal joshing was the best he could come up with.
“The real point about humour is not that it makes us human, but that humour is an adaptation that helps us to cope with the pure awfulness of being human. We all understand from a very early age the inevitability of our own personal extinction. Without an ameliorating adaptation like humour we would all spend our entire lives screaming in existentialist terror. We laugh at everything: at each other, at each other’s misfortunes, at our leaders. We laugh at disaster and degradation, we laugh at the revolting mysteries central to our existence like sex and piss and shit. When we laugh we release those lovely endorphins that make us feel better. It’s like booze and dope, another mood-altering high that makes our lives bearable.
But remember: when we cry we release almost identical hormones and it’s laughing and crying and all the other emotions that evolution has equipped us with that make us truly human.”
Natalie Haynes, author and stand-up comedian
Before engaging directly with the subject Natalie felt she had to express some alarm at the news from Jonathan Milller that women don’t tell jokes very often, as she’s been telling her accountant that was how she’d been earning her living for years.
Her approach to the subject was historical, a demonstration, with reference to the comedy of Aristophanes, of how humour was a necessary presence even in societies riven by warfare and internal conflict. She confessed to feeling a particular affinity, however, to a Roman writer.
“The history of what I do begins with Juvenal. He was capable of standing up in front of a room full of people and ranting in return for money. His rants are sometimes incredibly informed, sometimes really chaotic. He is always furious and his ideas have stayed in our language in a way that nobody could possibly have foreseen. Whenever anyone discusses ID cards or the current proliferation of CCTV they invariably quote Juvenal from Satire Six: ‘who guards the guards?’ In fact when he used this phrase he was talking about whether a man with an unfaithful wife should employ someone to look after her. But who, he asks, is going to stop your guard fucking your missus, given that you’re paying him to stop anyone else doing it. Juvenal is not particularly political but he is the first observational comic. He looks around at the streets of Rome and says these streets are dirty and dangerous and people throw sewage on you. So why don’t you all leave Rome? And go to the country! Are you kidding? It’s full of idiots and bumpkins. I hate them. He does what comics do all the time. He sets up an example and then smashes it to bits.”
Natalie closed with some points about contemporary comedy in Britain and the return of racist jokes, not the traditional racism of people like Bernard Manning, but its new variants.
“Instead of telling jokes about Pakistanis, we now use the Welsh or the gypsies. I always think if gypsies had only got the same PR as the Jews people would remember they too were wiped out in the Holocaust. People excuse it by saying it’s ironic. Ironic racism looks an awful lot like the old racism to me, except your eyebrows are very slightly higher when you say it.”