What’s so funny?

8 Feb

I believe the answer to this question is “people” – human beings. People can often be at their funniest when they’re not trying to be funny at all. Most people believe they are unique. There’s some truth in that thought but others go much further and believe that they are the only sane person on the planet.

“All the world is queer save thee and me, and even thou art a little queer.” Robert Owen (Welsh philosopher and philanthropist 1771-1858)

Some people think that the world revolves around only them. The British nation used to feel like that. Back then, in days gone by, they described mainland Europe as the “the continent”. On a dark and damp morning in the 1950’s the headline of the London Times proclaimed “Fog in channel – Continent cut off.”

Speaking of the continent, I am reminded of a witty one-liner about a place called Frinton-on-Sea. This is a resort on the east coast of England in the county of Essex. It is a quiet place, populated by retired geriatrics – the last resort? This part of the Essex coast is one of the nearest points to “the continent”. A few miles north of Frinton-on-Sea is the port of Harwich. It used to be a popular starting point for English holiday makers who were brave enough to travel to mainland Europe. The ferry’s advertising slogan was:-

“Harwich for the Continent! “

How exciting! Not to be outdone, a wag from Frinton extrapolated this slogan:-

“Harwich for the Continent!

Frinton-on-Sea for the incontinent!”

Let’s move on…

“Oh, what a great gift we would have if we could only see ourselves as others see us.” Robert Burns (Scottish poet 1759-1796) said that. He knew, of course, that we cannot view ourselves with complete, detached objectivity and wouldn’t life be boring if we could? We would lose all the humour to be found in observing how people perceive their place in the world and how they prevent reality from interfering with that perception.

I am not suggesting that I want to laugh at people but rather with them. Pathos and empathy are essential ingredients of humour. Watching people skilfully reconcile their perception of self with the real world is like watching a tightrope walker or a trapeze artist.  We marvel at their ability to defy gravity, as we fear for their safety. We also laugh, nervously, from the relief of knowing that we are not a risk of harm from what we are watching.

Some people work hard to present themselves in the most favourable light. Is this selling or acting?

“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.”

Take me, for example. Most people I know call me Danny but that wouldn’t be good enough for an author – so I became Daniel. It’s commonly acknowledged that your name sounds more intellectual if you stick a middle initial into it. So I have moved from plain old Danny Boy to Daniel M. Doyle – author, wit and raconteur.

In Ireland, where I live, our president is Michael D Higgins. He’s a Michael Daniel and I’m a Daniel Michael. So who knows? Today I am talking to you and tomorrow – maybe the presidency of Ireland? Am I losing the run of myself perchance?
Lots of people in Ireland like to answer a question with a question. For example:-

“Excuse me. Can you tell me where is the nearest Post Office?”

“Is it stamps you’re after?”

Some people might find this to be a funny reply but it is merely good selling. The respondent is looking for more information so that he can accurately determine the requirements of the inquirer. There might be a sweet shop around the corner which sells stamps – so the inquirer actually has no need to visit a Post Office at all.

What is logical to one person might seem perfectly illogical to another. For example, a visitor takes a taxi to a remote house in rural Ireland. Eventually the taxi turns off the road and proceeds along a narrow boreen. After a few miles the passenger says:-

“This boreen is very long?”

The driver replies, logically:-

“Well sir, if it was any shorter it wouldn’t reach.”

Humor must not only make us laugh – it must also make us cry. I don’t cry about sad things or the terrible misfortunes of others but I do get a bit bleary-eyed when I see the best of human nature displayed in people. When I see qualities such as unconditional generosity and bravery I know that these people are not aware of how great they are. As with the funny side of humor, they are just being themselves. The tears flow from the sensation of experiencing beauty – as in a painting or a piece of music. We are momentarily lifted out of our day-to-day lives and reminded that life can be wonderful!

Sometimes I get it wrong. I make an inappropriate or flippant comment about a subject which I should have left well alone. My standard technique to recover this situation is to quote from Lord Byron’s Don Juan:-

“And if I laugh at any mortal thing ‘tis that I may not weep.”

I have achieved mixed results from this manoeuvre.

Daniel M Doyle

(This piece first appeared in the December 2014/January 2015 edition of InD’tale Magazine)

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