It is often said that sarcasm is the lowest form of wit. This is not true. It is the limerick. It is a form popularised by Edward Lear, and his versions were painfully unfunny, given the lack of punchline. The final line was a close variant of the first line. So there’s not really a joke there. For example:
There was a Young Person of Smyrna
Whose grandmother threatened to burn her.
But she seized on the cat,
and said ‘Granny, burn that!
You incongruous old woman of Smyrna!’
Even at the time, it’s hard to believe that anyone was falling about over this kind of material. Perhaps Lear’s limericks lack the punch because the were apparently folk poems that were only ever intended to be filthy. That would certainly explain why one of the few funny limericks is the one about the lady from Devizes. (Google it). Presumably Lear was prevented from printing such bawdy verse, or it was considered beneath him. The limerick has thus always been the Pete Best of comedy formats, lagging even behind the almost-as-dismal Knock Knock joke.
I mention all of this because there is a funny limerick which is suitable for work, rather pleasing and curiously theological. I stumbled across is many years ago and has been locked in my mind ever since. And I remembered it this afternoon. It appeared in a book of verse in 1924 and is attributed to Ronald Knox.
The first limerick encapsulated Berkeley’s philosophical principle that “To be is to be perceived”, philosophically related to the hack student conundrum of whether a tree falling over in the forest makes a sound. (I wrote a joke about this in 1999, in which some people set up an experiment to prove this one way or the other. They went back to find the tree had fallen on the recording equipment).
Knox’s limerick however goes thus:
There once was a man who said: “God
Must think it exceedingly odd
If he finds that this tree
Continues to be
When there’s no one about in the quad.”
Witty, but not hilarious. But here’s the reply, also attributed to Knox, is as follows:
Your astonishment’s odd;
I am always about in the Quad;
And that’s why the tree
Will continue to be,
Since observed by
Lovely, isn’t it?
For future reference, I plan to write a book about how comedy works (and often goes wrong), currently entitled A Good Sense of Humour. Do join my mailing list (on the right) for news on developments of that, and to be kept informed of other blog posts and activities. Or pick up my book Death by Civilisation.