A discursive look at Napoleonic & ECW wargaming, plus a load of old Hooptedoodle on this & that

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Hooptedoodle #248 - an Organisation and Methods approach to the Music Hall

I’m not sure why I was thinking about this. Having thought about it, I reminded my wife about it, and I had a good laugh (again) – there is a faint risk that I have mentioned this story here before, since I am fond of it, but I don’t think so.

The underlying theme is the ancient world of the English music hall theatre – and especially of the seaside variety show. The significance of the seaside thing is simply that it was always a tradition that audiences when on their holidays would laugh at or applaud anything, even if

(1) It was rubbish

(2) They hadn’t understood it

(3) They hadn’t heard it properly

(4) They had heard it – last year, same theatre, same act

Hence the longevity of all those tap-dancing children, idiot ventriloquists and performing seals – and so on. Life forms which could not have survived for an instant in any other environment.

The focus of our study tonight, my friends, is the 2-man comedy act. Everything was very formalised – you might say formulaic. There will be a Funny Man and there will be a Stooge (who is even less funny than the Funny Man), and there is a classic form of (terrible) joke which has a very strict format. The following well-known examples will serve:

Funny Man: I say, my wife has gone to the West Indies.
Stooge: Gone to the West Indies? Jamaica?
FM: No – she went OF HER OWN ACCORD….

FM: I say, my dog has no nose.
Stooge: No nose? How does he smell?

FM: I say, there’s a man outside, stealing your gate.
Stooge: Stealing my gate? Did you try to stop him?

And that’s quite enough – you will certainly know other examples, and they will all be funnier than the chosen three.

To get to the point, my musician friend The Hat and I got to discussing this form of joke, over a beer. We felt that, though it might be traditional, it was due a bit of a makeover. First of all, we considered simply changing the expected punchline, since no-one would notice and they would laugh anyway, since the joke form has a kind of rhythm which makes it obvious in which gap the laughter is required. If, we reasoned, the first example (the Jamaica one) ended with the FM saying, “No – she went to Trinidad” then it completely defeats any last trace of humour, since the wretched pun is cancelled, but we were pretty sure the laughter would be undiminished – in fact, we ourselves would laugh along quite loudly, so it might actually be increased a little.

However, we realised we were really just playing around with the idea, and that it would make more sense if we set ourselves some serious objectives – made our improvement more worthwhile in some way. Well, most English seaside resorts these days are a bit short of money, so we thought that if somehow we could simplify the jokes a bit – shorten them – it would get them over quicker. Since they weren’t funny to start with, the cash saving of not having the janitor hanging around for quite so long (waiting to sweep up), might be very welcome. We quickly became aware that our new, streamlined versions of the jokes were not funny at all, but the originals were not noticeably funny either, so we persevered.

The first modification was to cut out a line – this meant that the Stooge now delivered what served as a punchline (or at least the last line in the exchange, even if it lacked punch). Thus, with some change in job titles, the first example now reads:

FM1: I say, my wife has gone to the West Indies.
FM2: Gone to the West Indies? I bet she went of her own accord.

You may debate whether this ranks as an improvement – certainly the cost accountants on the council are very pleased – the comedy act now only lasts 4 minutes in total.

We think the new format will become accepted, though it may take a little while to bed in with the more conservative audiences, but we have not been idly resting on our laurels – we have an even shorter version in the laboratory – the most efficient joke form yet developed:

FM: I say, my wife has gone to the West Indies of her own accord.

Or, another of our examples:

FM: I say, my dog smells terrible.

Good, eh? You getting the hang of this? The council will love it, because we’ve actually got rid of one complete employee, and the delivery time is even shorter. Fantastic. We think it still needs a little work, but maybe you could all do a little offline testing for us – convert some jokes of your own to this new, efficient format, and try them on your friends. In the pub, if you like. I’d be delighted to know how you get on – The Hat and I are dedicated to continuous improvement, and we appreciate any help we can get.


  1. In today's business environment of do more with less, your idea has merit. As for a CQI effort, the process may be streamlined under your rules but the skit doesn't deliver the same punch.

    I could envision an observational humorist making hay with your latest iteration of:

    FM: I say, my wife has gone to the West Indies of her own accord.
    FM: I say, my dog smells terrible.

    An observational comedian would have the audience rolling in the aisles with those two!

    You may be on to something...what, I'm not sure.

    1. It probably depends on one's initial Critical Success Factors - the council in question works on the principle that the audience will laugh even when it isn't funny, so cost becomes the important element. We can debate whether cheap crap is better than dear crap.

    2. ...do you think we should hold off on Phase Two?

    3. Of course not! Inspiration is fleeting. Strike now!

  2. Your UK readers may recall that Morecambe and Wise spent much of their career starting the joke about two old men sitting in a deckchair, but never getting beyond the first line. They still got the laughs though.

  3. There was a sketch on Radio 4 a few years back in which only two FM punchlines were repeatedly delivered, in the style of Eric Morecambe. They were:

    EM: You can't get the wood, you know;


    EM: it's the way he walks!

    It was very funny.

  4. Like a great many people who have a tendency to periodic depression, I have a great love of jokes and humorous stories – I am especially partial to the absurd and sometimes the tasteless – I am also interested in why things are funny, or not.

    This is a bit old-hat now, and I make no pretence at understanding either the psychology or the metadata behind The Joke Form, but when I used to Do Computers we used to ask applicants for analysis jobs to tell us a good joke. This was not mere sadism – I strongly believe that a joke is one of the most common, everyday applications of that mysterious thing called lateral logic. If your intending analysis recruit cannot remember, appreciate or tell a decent joke then view him with suspicion. For a joke to work, the denouement must be in some way related to the preceding story line, but it must be subtle. If the connection is too obvious – if the end of the joke is predictable – then it is not funny. One way in which it can be predictable, of course, is if you have heard it before. On the other hand, if the punchline makes no sense in the context of what has gone before then you don’t “get it”, and the tickle is not there. It has to be just right.

    There are special cases – exceptions. Once the joke form is established, its style, its social traditions, its structure, even its inherited repertoire, then departing from the expected joke procedure can become humorous in its own way. A couple of the streamlined examples in the post are of this type – if you are familiar with the original music-hall skit then the lateral tickle is that, if you recognise it, you can reverse engineer it for your own entertainment. It becomes amusing because we have messed with the listener’s expectation – the end was lateral in a way which he did not anticipate.

    Here’s an example I like. The Limerick form is well known – if someone starts a Limerick, you recognise the rhythm, and if you haven’t heard it before then all you have to do is keep quiet for 20 seconds or so and delivery will be complete. Consider, then, one of my favourites:

    There was a young man from Dundee
    Who was stung on the nose by a wasp.
    When asked if it hurt,
    He said, “No, not really –
    In fact it can do it again if it really wants to.”

    If this is amusing at all then it is only because of the number of ways in which it disobeys the rules of Limerick structure – the listener probably did not expect it to work out like that, but the underlying (approximate) Limerick form ties it to what was expected in a lateral sort of way.

    There are also circumstances in which the Joke You Have Heard Before is funny anyway. When I used to Do Music, my pal Fergie the Trumpet Player used to regularly be called upon to give us yet another performance of his famed monologue about a drunken Scots preacher telling a biblical tale that goes disastrously wrong. After many, many hearings, the bit about Samson slaying people with the arse-bone of a giraffe would still reduce the audience to hysteria – I think, though, that this was more to do with the virtuoso delivery.

    Humour. Interesting subject.

    1. I used to wonder at the time whether all of those laughing at Morecambe and Wise actually knew the joke. Of course, with the arrogance of youth I assumed that older people didn't think about, understand, or have, sex.

      Here's one in your format; is the joke well known enough?

      I say, you can't wash your hands in a buffalo.

    2. Very good - I like it. We need to get people used to jokes being in this new, snappy style. Prof De Vries has suggested "I say, the chicken preferred the other side of the road", which is a little weird, but OK (not his first language - better than my Flemish jokes though).

  5. I think you are on to something, but if the audience know the jokes intimately, why not go the whole hog and just give each one a number. Imagine the cost savings! You dispense with two employees and the associated overheads, dressing rooms, etc, and replace the whole lot with a big piece of card and a magic marker. The janitor (who is the one indispensable employee) writes the night's joke numbers on the card and stands it up on a chair on the stage. When the audience have split their sides laughing at the jokes and gone home, he then destroys the card (to prevent anyone stealing the material) before he sweeps up. Now that's efficiency.

    1. This is a splendid contribution - thanks for this. The Hat asked me to mention to you that if you wish to join our project team, we were thinking of offering our services to the NHS, the Brexit negotiations and a couple of other worthy causes.

      I thought you were leading up to the joke about the guys in prison, who entertain themselves in the evening by shouting out joke numbers. The new guy tries it out, shouting a fairly low number (to be on the safe side). From this point there are two variations - either (1) the number is greeted by total silence, because he told it poorly, or (2) the place is in uproar, because they haven't heard this one before.

      Would we have union problems if the janitor had to provide the comedy entertainment? I've met the odd amusing janitor, and I've experienced a few comedians who should have been janitors, but this is a much more explicit crossover.

    2. I admit I hadn't considered the possibility of demarcation issues and a possible demand by the janitors for extra pay or royalties for their creative input. Needs work perhaps.

      I did consider the occasional use of Roman numerals, as a form of alternative comedy.

    3. Apparently, initial discussions with the shop steward of the local chapter of the T&G section of Unite the Union have started, and there seems to be some scope for agreement. The union's view is that it will be all right for the janitor to supply the comedy, provided he no longer has to do the sweeping up. There is also a proposal from Equity (the entertainers' union) that they require a minimum of 10 years' guaranteed employment for the displaced comedians, which - since they will not now be required in the theatre - means that they also want a heated Portakabin on the pier, equipped with cooking facilities and a decent quality set of dominoes. Oh, and a TV. Oh, and free parking. Oh, and double pay at weekends.

      The Roman numerals would be OK - as it happens, the janitor has a bachelor's degree in Classical History.

  6. A variant might be as follows:

    I say, I nose my say's got no dog..
    Really, how does he terrible?

    I think you'll find I've used all the right words, but not necessarily in the right order..

  7. I admire the rigorous application of CQI and lean production methodologies in this key area of economic activity. I note that there are opportunities revealed in this domain by the efficiency inherent in recycling and repurposing old "comedy" material, rather than investing countless person hours in R&D. The way was perhaps blazed by Messers Atkinson and Curtis some years ago: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joke_(sketch)

  8. In my family we were had such a limited fund of jokes that we eventually just assigned them numbers. After dinner, while we consumed our hot gin by the peat fire before bedtime, we would call out the numbers and laugh uproariously.
    Occasionally visitors would observe this practice, and think they could do the same.
    "11!" they would cry. Stony silence.
    "Errr, 49!" Crickets.
    "107?' Contemptuous snickers.
    Eventually they would ask what they were doing wrong and why weren't we laughing?
    'Because you weren't telling them right.'


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