chapter  13
14 Pages


A second reason for the failure of humour is performative inadequacy. I have heard it said by a professional comedian that even the tritest joke in the repertoire can get a laugh if delivered right; the example he gave was ‘Who was that lady I saw you with last night?—That was no lady (pausetwo-three) that was my wife!’ The example may be dubious, but the principle is beyond doubt: all jokes, and much humour, are dependent upon performance skills. Naturally there are exceptions, such as incidents in everyday life where someone provides unintended amusement to others. But the intention to arouse laughter commonly calls for performance skills, albeit of a minimal kind. My daughter aged around 11 once tried to tell me a joke that I remembered myself from school-days: ‘Did you hear about the two worms who went to the graveyard to make love in dead earnest/Ernest?’ Unfortunately she forgot the name, and said ’…in dead Arthur’. Actuallysince I remembered the original while she was talking-the result was funnier than the intended joke, but not for reasons that appealed to the teller. Of course, in most performative situations, such a degree of incompetence is rare-though we may recall the psychological experimenter, already quoted in Part II, who was instructed to read out a series of jokes in an unvarying monotone. Amateur performances may fail for a variety of reasons: insufficient rhetorical skills or bad timing in the sense of not picking a good moment for delivery, for example. Professional performances are more likely to fail because of some mismatch between repertoire and audience: different audiences have different stylistic and thematic preferences in comedy. This is the basis of Trevor Griffiths’ play Comedians, which the author uses to explore the political role of rhetoric: pandering to the audience’s lowest prejudices through a series of vicious racist and sexist stereotypes is clearly condemned (Palmer, 1987:15-18). In this respect, Griffiths’ play resembles Scorsese’s King of Comedy, which pursues Scorsese’s favourite theme of opportunism through a would-be comic who resorts to kidnapping to get on TV, and then delivers a performance of exactly calculated mediocrity which is successful with the audience.