As a writer whose main source of income has for many years been from stage comedies, I have always been intrigued by the subject of humour. I am not an instinctively funny person myself - I wish I was - but I have huge admiration and appreciation for those who are. Not, mind you, that I would wish to have similar personality traits. It is well known that many comedians and humorous writers have a dark side to their natures, and are often dogged by deep depression. It would seem that their humour is a defence mechanism against their blacker thoughts.
Indeed, when one thinks about it, that is what all humour is. A counter to the trials and tragedies of life. One does not laugh at beauty, goodness, or joy. One laughs at disaster, tragedy, and folly. The frightening fact that someone slipping on a banana skin might well break their back is countered by the sheer hilarity of the mental image. The black humour of the trenches or the concentration camps was virtually the only method of retaining sanity amongst such suffering.
Although, as I have said, I am not an inherently witty person myself, I do have an appreciation of comical situations and personalities, and it is this that I use when contriving a stage comedy. The sight of fallible humans caught in embarrassing situations is always a source of laughter, parodying as it does the predicaments that we all get into from time to time. Whether it's the imminent discovery of extra-marital affairs (sex is invariably the commonest cause of hilarity), or of financial or professional impropriety or mistaken identity, it is the threat of imminent destruction of lives, marriages, and relationships, that makes the basis for all stage and screen comedy. The task of the writer is to weave an ever more complicated plot around the initial opening dilemma or accident, which will hopefully extend at an accelerating pace towards a volcanic conclusion two hours later.
However, although the situation and the personalities involved are at the heart of the story, what has to keep it going at pace is the need for regular funny lines and moments springing from those elements. I am always in awe of the brilliant flow of laugh lines embedded in classic British TV comedies such as Fawlty Towers, Yes Minister, Blackadder, etc. And even more so at the timeless American shows such as Friends, Frazier, and Seinfeld, which somehow keep the laughs coming for hundreds of episodes (although the latter of course were written by teams of writers sitting around the table together and tossing ideas at each other. No one person could ever produce such a torrent of mirth with such consistency).
Overall, however, it is the thoughts of mankind's true comic geniuses that endure. Their names and their sayings are legendary, and are passed down through the decades - sometimes apocryphal, and often misquoted - but always because they cast an original light on an unfortunate aspect of life, which illuminates the human condition.
I am addicted to the famous sayings of such people and am often reduced to tears of laughter the tenth time of hearing them. They include quotes from Grouch Marx to Oscar Wilde, Winston Churchill to P.G. Wodehouse, from Bob Hope to Tommy Cooper. Allow me to present a few of these characters, most of whom are alas no longer with us, in the hope that the reminder of their thoughts may lighten your day.
Groucho Marx's name is probably unknown to the modern generation, but he was of course a member of the Marx Brothers whose black-and-white short films enlivened my cinema-going days of boyhood. Of the four brothers, it is his legacy that endures through his many brilliant witticisms. To him is attributed what is possibly the most quoted bon mot of all time:
-I would never join a club that would have me as a member.
When you think seriously about that, it encompasses the whole insecurity of human nature in a single line. Others of his that I love are: -I must say I find television very educational. The minute somebody turns it on, I go to the library and read a good book." (A thought surely yet more relevant today).
-The secret of life is honesty and fair dealing. If you can fake that, you've got it made.
-Marriage is a wonderful institution, but who wants to live in an institution?
-Those are my principles, and if you don't like them, I have others.
To a host:
-I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening. But this wasn’t it.
One could go on...
Oscar Wilde, a famous name even older than Groucho's, and from all accounts one of the most mesmeric conversationalists of all time, established a form of witticism which was uniquely his. It was based on the inverting of reactions or truisms about life:
-There are only two tragedies in life. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.
-To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance.
-The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.
-Bigamy is having one wife too many. So is monogamy.
His comedies are a constant flow of such ironical puns.
Certainly, the most quoted politician of all time is Winston Churchill. Having written a play about him, I found it relatively simple to slip into his mode of dry comment (although I would never claim to rival his genius). Some of his well-known remarks include:
-A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity. An optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.
-I am ready to meet my Maker. Another matter is whether my Maker is prepared for the great ordeal of meeting me.
-He has all the virtues I dislike, and none of the vices I admire.
And one of my favourite exchanges: Bernard Shaw, writing to Churchill: -I enclose two tickets for the first night of my new play. Bring a friend - if you have one.
Winston Churchill, replying: -Can't make it the first night. Will come to the second - if there is one.
Tommy Cooper was one of Britain's most naturally hilarious comedians, although not well known abroad. His particular brand of brilliantly misdirected magic tricks and absurd wisecracks was perhaps too essentially British to travel well. However, for the older generation who still remember his great clumsy, fez-topped presence and shoulder-shaking cackles at his inanity, he still represents the apex of comic personalities. Some of his more idiotic puns are:
-Two blondes walk into a building. You'd think one of them would have seen it.
-Phone answering machine message: 'If you want to buy marijuana, press the hash key.
-A lobster went into a seafood bar and pulled a muscle.
-What do you call a fish with no eyes? An fsh.
-Somebody complimented me on my driving today. They left a note on the windscreen saying, 'Parking fine.' So that was nice. Ah, he is sadly missed.
In modern times, to my mind, the funniest comedy writer is Ben Elton. The author of such TV gems as Blackadder and The thin blue line - both starring another comic genius, Rowan Atkinson - Elton has a facility for producing wonderfully constructed images that is unequalled.
-Baldrick, if I hear the words 'cunning plan' coming my way, our valued friendship will end with me cutting you up into strips and telling the prince that you walked over a very sharp cattle grid in an extremely heavy hat.
-I couldn't be more petrified if a wild rhinoceros had just come home from a hard day at the swamp and found me wearing his pyjamas, smoking his cigars, and in bed with his wife.
-You mean actors actually rehearse? I thought they just got drunk, stuck on silly hats and trusted to luck.
-Field Marshal Haig is about to make yet another gargantuan effort to move his drinks cabinet six inches closer to Berlin.
Ah, thank heavens for funny people! In these turbulent times, when the world is in a very unfunny place, we need them more than ever.