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Into the Ditch

On humor.

I have no sense of humor. I know this because so many people have told me so. And I agree with them because there is nothing more humorless than to try to argue against such a judgement. Nothing that I can do can alter this. I once claimed to have obtained a certificate showing that I had no sense of humor, from an invented Bundesstiftung fur Humorlosigskeit (Federal Foundation for Humourlessness) in the unfunny German town of Salzgitter. My critics took me seriously, of course. I have from time to time made successful unscripted jokes in debates and broadcasts, which have caused people to laugh. I have been known to provoke laughter in private conversation, too. Sometimes, I have been known to laugh myself, a grim business. I could call witnesses to these events, but this would be an act of humorlessness in itself and so it would be futile. As I have no sense of humor, it does not count.

To have a sense of humor, you need official backing. My country’s sometime prime minister, an Alexander Johnson, used to appear under the comical stage name of “Boris,” and was proclaimed officially funny by being awarded a regular slot on an officially funny British T.V. program. This led to his becoming a major political figure, mobbed in the street by enthusiasts who to this day know nothing of the man or what he thinks, but forgive him most things because he was linked in their minds with laughter. Yet, when it came to a choice between shutting down his entire country over Covid, or not doing so, he turned out not to be funny at all. What was the use of all those imitations of P.G. Wodehouse if he had not imbibed the spirit of the books and their author—a deeply serious refusal to take things seriously unless it is strictly necessary? Wodehouse’s work, it is worth noting, is steeped in the King James Bible which he heard and read as a young man. The Bible, of course is serious poetry about serious matters. Even so, I think I have even detected a joke among the words of Christ himself, in Matthew 15:14. He dismisses the Pharisees with the words “Let them alone: they be blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch.” Well-timed, as I am sure they must have been, I can easily hear these words followed by laughter. And can this have been the only occasion? I always imagine Our Lord’s preaching taking place before multitudes of poor, hungry, distressed people, brought to Him above all by His healing power. I suspect they were often quite tense. I would be astonished if He never used laughter to make His point.

And profound seriousness is no bar to laughter. Winston Churchill managed a joke or two in the face of potential invasion and national annihilation. Recalling in 1941 the defeatist French Marshal Philippe Petain’s prediction of a year earlier that “in three weeks Britain would have its neck wrung like a chicken,” Churchill made one of the best brief jests that any national leader has ever made. “Some chicken!” he said to the Canadian Parliament, which alone might have been enough, and which won him applause and mirth. But after a few beats he added the words “. . . Some neck!” with a timing that any professional comedian might envy, and it is still a pleasure to watch the ancient film of it.

For what is a sense of humor, if it is not a sense of proportion?

But what is laughter and why does it matter so much? It can be a deadly danger. I was once laughed off a platform, in my student Trotskyist days after a brilliant heckler made a public fool of me. I was standing on some sort of barrow at a large meeting, trying to link two issues—the arrival of Asian refugees from Uganda in the English city of Leicester, and a dock strike. Much as we supported both these things, I was struggling to show how they were linked, apart from in the winding pathways of my Marxist-Leninist mind. And, as the heckler yelled “There are no docks in Leicester!” (which was quite true, Leicester being landlocked), someone else wittily gave the barrow a great shove. So I rolled off sideways towards the edge of the room, silenced, humiliated, incapable of speech or action, while the audience cackled to see my previous arrogance and confidence punctured so completely. For the first time in my life I fully understood some words I had often read: “I wished the ground would swallow me up.” I would experience the same thing nearly twenty years later, when I asked Boris Yeltsin a question in perfectly good Russian at a crowded London press conference, and the beastly man pretended he couldn’t understand it because it suited him not to answer it. How my colleagues and rivals hooted. How I wanted to disappear.

The person who becomes a figure of fun is, for the moment at least, a sort of outcast. He can only hide in shame and hope that the thing will be forgotten in time. And this gives another clue to what laughter is. The French philosopher Henri Bergson, one of the few people ever to think hard about laughter, concluded that there was often complicity in mirth. Suppose you find yourself on a late train, where a group of football supporters are gathered further down the carriage. And you may notice that they laugh a lot. But if you listen to what their leader is saying (for it is the leader who is getting the laughs) it is not very funny. In fact, for most people, it is not funny at all. You can be sure that at least one of those laughing men does not get the joke, and is laughing only to fit in. The laughter is an affirmation of belonging to the group and has nothing to do with real amusement. It also has something to do with power or status. The late Malcolm Muggeridge once discussed the macabre phenomenon of “royal humor,” where the monarch is granted laughter in response to practically anything he says. His finest example was of a group of workmen on a hot day, to whom the King of Portugal said, “Hot, isn’t it?”, whereupon they fell about laughing. Many of us (I am one of them) have encountered, or perhaps been, bullies who have disguised their demands or rebukes in apparent jests, at which the victim must at least smile, or he will be seen as a troublemaker and punished in some other, humorless, way.

Then there is the question of sex. Women, I believe, often have completely different senses of humor from men. In Kingsley Amis’s fine and savage novel Girl, 20 there is a description of an all-in wrestling match which I think is one of the funniest things ever written. I have no doubt this reveals something horrible about me, but there it is. I have introduced quite a lot of people to it, and have found that, while men usually find it funny, women generally do not. Try it yourself and see. Then again, many people will laugh if a man trips and falls in the street, but if a woman does this, it is (quite rightly) not funny at all. Laughter can also co-exist with, and be brought about by, pure horror. There is a terrible scene (based on a real event) in Costa-Gavras’s film The Confession about the Slansky show trials in Communist Prague in 1952. The accused have all been tortured and starved into confessing to impossible crimes, and as one of them gives evidence, his trousers suddenly fall down because he is so thin. Some of the audience laugh, then the police guard laughs, and the other defendants laugh, until everyone is laughing, even the poor trouserless man himself is laughing. Yet all know that he will very soon be sentenced to death and hanged, as in real life he was. Ever since I first saw this macabre scene, I have been baffled by the common view that laughter denotes happiness. It simply does not, though it can provide a sort of relief from tension, which is a very different thing. A person laughing, as most of us have noticed, looks very like a person weeping.