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?
FM: No – I DIDN’T WANT HIM TO TAKE OFFENCE….
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.