I’ve just read a very good book called On Humour by Simon Critchley. It came out in 2002, and it’s been reprinted numerous times, so it doesn’t need any help from me. It’s an erudite account of the philosophical questions raised by humour, and if that sounds a bit dull, it isn’t. It’s engagingly written and even witty in places.
But the book does have a problem which lurks under the facade of erudition and wit – it has much more to say about theories of humour than about humour itself. Perhaps that’s forgivable given that it’s a philosophy book, but as Critchley himself argues, ‘Any study of humour…requires fieldwork and detailed contextualization. Finally, it is only as good as its examples.’[i]
So what examples does Critchley draw on?
The truth is they’re all rather highbrow. The comic literature of the past gets a fair amount of attention, with Sterne and Swift getting a fair few mentions. As for more recent examples, he seems to be a big fan of that well-known contemporary comic novelist, er, Will Self. To be fair, I’ve only read one of Self’s novels, but although I thoroughly enjoyed it, I don’t remember laughing much. I reckon if you asked pretty much anyone for their top ten examples of contemporary laughtermakers, they’d be pretty unlikely to mention Will Self, except at a stretch possibly in the context of his former role as a panellist on Vic and Bob’s Shooting Stars.
I might also add that the examples – which the study is only as good as after all – seem to be outnumbered by the references to theory. Hobbes, Freud, and Mary Douglas are much bigger characters than Sterne, Swift or, er, Will Self.
What slightly annoys me is that the theory and the highbrow sources get treated with respect, whereas the few examples of popular comedy are treated fairly shoddily. On p.21, for example, Critchley cites seven gags. Whereas Freud’s and Sterne’s work are worthy of a proper citation, with full publication details being given in an endnote, here the only information we’re given is that the gags are ‘From various Marx Brothers’ scripts, Peter Chelsom’s wonderful 1994 film Funny Bones, and Samuel Beckett’s Endgame (Faber, London, 1958).’
So apparently, Beckett’s worthy of full publication details (although oddly, not a page reference), Chelsom’s film at least gets named, but the poor old Marx Brothers aren’t worth bothering with – in spite of being some of the few professional comedians mentioned in the book. Tommy Cooper fares worse than this later in the book, where a gag of his described as ‘great’ is quoted without so much as an endnote.
I don’t want to single Simon Critchley out for particular criticism here, because it seems to me that these choices are fairly typical in an academic context. Theory and accepted canonical works are treated with respect, but popular culture is treated casually or often simply ignored. I have found that criticism of my own work is often along the lines of, ‘This is all very well, but how can you possibly write about this without mentioning Barthes/ Schechner/ semiotics/ whoever/ whatever?’
It’s as if the theory – which only exists to help us understand things – is more important than the subject it’s applied to. Of course, the opposite will almost always be true. Shakespeare will always be more significant and brilliant than Shakespearean scholars. By the same token, I’m quite proud of the books and papers I’ve written about comic performance, but I won’t make the mistake of thinking that they’re more important than the performers whose work I analyse. I’ll never be more significant and brilliant than Richard Pryor, Ross Noble, or Gracie Fields.
If you pay close attention to the examples you’re looking at, you’d be surprised what comes out. For example, one of the jokes cited on p.19 goes like this:
‘Have you lived in Blackpool all your life?’, ‘Not yet.’
It’s a great gag, and my guess is that it’s the one he took from Funny Bones. However, it’s actually a much older gag than that. It often cropped up in the variety theatres of the early 20th Century, in sketches and routines by the likes of Albert Burdon, Collinson and Dean, and Sandy Powell.[ii]
You’ll notice that these three comedy acts are given a proper endnote, giving full publication details.
Simon Critchley, On Humour
, Abingdon: Routledge, 2002, p.66
[ii] See sketches and routines cited in Roger Wilmut, Kindly Leave the Stage! The Story of Variety 1919-1960, London: Methuen, 1985, p.41 (Albert Burdon), p.56 (Collinson and Dean), and p.103 (Sandy Powell)