Back when I was a slip of a lad, I used to love the Granada TV show, The Comedians. I used to laugh along at the jokes and tried to remember them all so I could tell them to other people. Sadly I never recognised the jokes as being racist, sexist and homophobic. In my eyes, they were just funny! They made me and other people laugh.
Perhaps one of the most profound pieces of television I ever saw was COMEDIANS, a screenplay version of Trevor Griffiths seminal play about…well a school for stand-up comedians. It appeared on the BBC’s Play For Today series in 1979 and to this day, I still find it incredibly moving and recognise the journey I made from start as a lover of jokes to finish…when the penny dropped. A year or so later, I went to university and studied the play as a set text in the Drama of Comedy module.
Jonathan Pryce (Gethin Price) and Bill Fraser (Eddie Waters) are the standout performers in this drama and to this day Gethin’s performance in front of impresario, Bert Challenor (Ralph Nossek) still makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up (see below). Perhaps this was the performance that brought about the arrival of alternative comedy…who knows.
Why don’t we tell jokes anymore?
We used to perform them, perfect them.
Huddled in corners wherever we worked;
In between the storage racks
And the fork lift trucks…
Or in pubs, bars and clubs;
Delivered in a fug of smoke,
Farts and beery belching.
It was definitely a man thing
We used to keep stores of them…
One joke told by another would set off
One of your own…like a firecracker;
Memory fireworks…exploding with mirth.
Now we just read them off our phones
In a monotone drone.
We don’t tell jokes anymore…
Just read them.
Like works of art they were,
Honed and perfected by the telling.
I’m sure the first jokes were about women;
Men sat at the fireside outside a cave.
Take my wife…no go on…
Take her…use my club.
Undermining ‘the not me’.
It was definitely a man thing.
Then we told jokes about the neighbouring tribe,
The next village or town.
There was no harm in putting outsiders down
As long as they were from somewhere else.
As long as they were ‘the not us’.
It was always the way (or was it?).
Remember the days of the music hall?
Variety…the only spice of life back then.
The working class told jokes about
Our lot…the things that united us…
Our poverty…our hardship…our equality.
Ah equality…what happened with that one?
We were all equal except for the nobs
Who weren’t a target because…well…
They were out of our league…
And that had always been the way
For what is rich and powerful
If there is no poor and weak?
And telling jokes kept us happy…content…
Preserving the oral tradition
Whether laughing out loud
Or stifling sniggers with jokes about
The Irish, Pakistanis and…Behave!
Jokes which bolstered our own lack of worth
By reinforcing theirs.
Jokes were never shared with the targets
Because deep down we knew…
We knew they were cruel
But the laughter, like the taste of meat,
Justified the butchery.
And there on ITV were The Comedians,
Filmed at Granada Studios, Manchester.
A mile away from St Peter’s Field
“Tonight, the Comedians are…”
Like us…common people…
Experts…at making us laugh.
I tried so hard to remember their jokes
So I could tell them at work next day.
One after another, like shots fired at Peterloo.
Bang…bang…bang, like shots fired at Peterloo.
Because they were funny, I never questioned
Why the stupid man had to be Irish;
Why the mean guy had to be Scottish;
Why the gay man had to be camp;
Or why only one woman appeared
Amongst fifty comedians
Throughout some eighty episodes?
Her name only recalled by an online search.
It was definitely a man thing.
Here’s a joke
A rich man, a poor man and an immigrant
Sit down at a table to share a cake.
The rich man, using a golden cake slice,
Cuts the cake into ten pieces.
He puts one piece on a plate
In front of the poor man
And whispers in his ear
“That immigrant wants your cake.”
He then walks away
Taking the rest of the cake with him.
Not very funny, I know
But that’s how it is
When the joke is on you.
© gray lightfoot