Prepare to hold your aching sides… This man was driving down a country lane and ran over a cockerel. Deeply upset, he went to a farmhouse and knocked on the door. A woman opened it and he said: “I appear to have killed your cockerel – I’d like to replace him.” “Please yourself,” she said. “The hens are round the back.” I can reveal that this was the first joke I told in public, in a student show at the Empire Theatre in Leeds in 1956. The year of that other landmark, the Suez Crisis.
One other joke I remember concerned a lion and a sheep sitting at a restaurant table. The waiter approached to take their order. The sheep ordered and the waiter turned to the lion. “Nothing for me, thank you,” said the lion. “Aren’t you hungry?” asked the sheep. “If I was hungry,” said the lion, “would you still be sitting there?” All right, you had to be there.
The key factor in enjoying a joke is accepting the initial premise. A lion and a sheep are sitting in a restaurant. You embrace the bizarre situation: “OK, what happened then?”. Good jokes are like little plays, they draw you in right from the start. One of my favourite jokes begins: “This ventriloquist was stranded in the Australian outback…” Admit it, you’re hooked. You have to know why and what happened. Unfortunately, as this is a family publication, I am unable to tell you, except that the denouement involves sheep. Did you spot that was the second reference to sheep? Animals feature frequently in jokes. They rely on the fact that you immediately accept an elephant entering a pub and ordering a drink. And speaking to the barman.
During our chat about jokes, Michael Grade and I strayed into the analytical, but finally agreed that surprise is the one crucial element. Incidentally, someone once observed that analysing comedy was like dissecting a frog. Nobody laughs and the frog dies. In the best jokes, you can’t see where it’s going and are pleasantly surprised by the sudden banana-skin/pulled rug that awaits. Some jokes defy logic, and looking back, you think, “That would never happen.” Of course it wouldn’t, but wouldn’t you like to have been there when the elephant entered the pub? Talking of which, the elephant noticed a pianist tinkling away in the corner. He lumbered over and as he listened to the music, a tear trickled from his eye. The pianist said, “Bring back memories?” “Oh yes,” said the elephant, “I recognise the keys.”
This conjunction of flippancy and a far-from-humorous subject is characteristic of many jokes. It depends on the attitude of the teller and the situation. Tragedies release a flux of tasteless jokes, usually, in this day and age, on your phone, and what has always fascinated me is when relating a somewhat tasteless, but, I hope, funny joke, people often laugh and then say, “Oh, that’s awful,” to which I reply “Why did you laugh first?” It must be some form of exorcism, a release from propriety, that makes us enjoy hitherto forbidden subjects.
Good jokes paint a picture in the listener’s mind and of course there can also be a visual element. The gifted Miranda Hart (left) regales us with a hapless, clumsy woman who falls down a lot, often accompanied by an aside to the camera. This highlights a welcome trend – the emergence of more women telling jokes, previously regarded as a male preserve.
I worked with the American comic Phyllis Diller some years ago. An attractive, articulate woman, she would appear before the audience with her hair standing on end wearing a bizarre ensemble of a costume and screeching in a loud, strident voice. When I asked her why, she said, “I’m a woman – I have to get noticed.” She cited Lucille Ball – another attractive woman who also played the clown – as a role model. Joan Rivers, in turn, has always quoted Phyllis Diller as a pioneer. Getting back to Ms Hart – what a lovely thought – her asides to camera remind me of Arthur Askey, a brilliant TV performer and, of course, Eric Morecambe, both of whom would turn to the camera and deliver a comment. The tradition survives.
So, what is “the joke”? It’s basically folklore, rooted in real life, but exaggerated for effect. We writers never claim to have written “a joke”, as in the elephant in the pub, but we are fascinated by how they originated. My own personal theory is that something happens in real life, then a bright mind thinks, “That would be funnier if she said it” and then someone else muses, “and if it happened in Paris” and thus the joke grows organically.
The joke is therapy, a momentary escape from the humdrum of life or, in some cases, the sheer misery or even horror of it. I firmly believe there are people in Zimbabwe telling Robert Mugabe jokes, albeit looking over their shoulder as they do so. The Stalinist regime in Russia and Hitler’s Germany unleashed many jokes, exchanged in mutual and private confidence. The joke is a common currency, which warms a gathering and loosens inhibitions. I have laughed at jokes from people in wheelchairs, and blind humour is legendary. A much admired blind parachutist, who had done a hundred or more jumps for charity, was asked how he knew when he was getting near the ground. He said, “When the lead on my guide dog goes slack.”
I’m humbly proud to be in the joke business. All we strive to do is give people a moment or two of relief from the daily grind. Oscar Wilde’s reputed last words were, “Either that wallpaper goes, or I do.”
In conclusion, I recall on that very same night the elephant was in the pub, a time traveller came in and the barman said, “A time traveller came in to a pub.” Oh come on, it’s a joke.
My Favourite Joke...
Jo Brand: "This 7ft bloke goes to his local swimming pool for a job as a lifeguard. First thing they ask him is, "Can you swim?" He eventually says: "I can't. But I can wade out pretty far."
Michael Grade: "A man comes home after work and says to his wife, "'Ere, I've just met the butcher and he tells me he's made love to every single woman in our street except one." "Well," she says, "That'll be that stuck-up cow at number 21."
Frank Skinner: "I went out with a mermaid once. What a body! 36, 24 - and three-and-six a pound."
Tim Vine: "the train arriving at platforms one, two, three, four, five and six... is coming in sideways."
Michael Grade and the World's Oldest Joke is on Wednesday at 9:00pm on BBC4