Tag Archives | sacred art of joking

Stupid Woman

Our august parliamentarians leave the majestic home of democracy with the phrase ‘Stupid Woman’ ringing in our ears. Is it a vicious sexist slur, revealing the dark misogynistic heart of the Leader of the Opposition? Is it a Tory fabrication, mendaciously smearing the character of their political foe? Or is it merely a statement of fact?

As a voter, I don’t really care. But as a sitcom writer, I am interested.

In many ways, this tawdry political storm in a teacup is wonderfully apt end-of-act scene which neatly encapsulates so much about the last year in Westminster. As season finales go, it’s unexpected, bizarre and entirely in keeping with previous episodes.

For sitcom geeks like me, the phrases has another resonance. The chosen insult of the day is a catchphrase from another well-known and scarcely believable farce about European politics gone badly wrong, Allo Allo. The only difference is the addition of the word ‘You’.

Never a show to shy away from repetition, this phrases feature in one of those moments that was almost guaranteed to happen every week. (Computers are now intelligent enough that they could probably write an episode of Allo Allo with an algorithm) The hero of the show, Rene would be propositioned by one of his waitresses who were bafflingly in love with this overweight, aging café proprietor. Here is one such incident:

Others have probably noticed this link between Corbyn’s words and Rene’s, but have probably not been as geeky about it as I am going to be here. Why is it funny when Rene Artois says it?

On reading those very words, some may cry out that it wasn’t funny either then or now. That’s often a knee-jerk response that one has to deal with when talking about jokes. Comedy is a bit of a confidence trick and some people like to defend themselves against all such tricks by folding their arms and not playing that game. If that’s you, you can stop reading now and have a nice life. (It won’t be all that nice).

Have the killjoys now left the room? Good. We continue.

When Rene Artois says ‘You stupid woman’ it is funny. You can hear lots of people laughing. That laughter isn’t fake or canned. They thought it was funny. They did the joke week after week, so it was clearly effective and worth revisiting, which in turn made it even funnier. And up and down the UK (and Germany, I’m told), millions of people laughed along.

But why is it funny? It has good basic rhythm. That’s a start. What’s more, Edith, whose intellect is being impugned, isn’t the sharpest tool in the box. But then, in Allo Allo, no-one is. It’s a panto filled with buffoons and clowns. But that’s not really why the line is funny.


The line is funny because of the situation. Rene is trying to defend the indefensible. He is obviously making a pass at a sexy French waitress and been caught red-handed. He is about to cover his tracks with a scarcely plausible cock and bull story. The line ‘You stupid woman’ was often followed by another line like ‘Isn’t it perfectly obviously what I was doing?’ A lie is then spun, and Edith believes it. Because she is stupid. And a woman.

It does sound a bit sexist now, doesn’t it? No point in pretending otherwise, but times change. It didn’t seem quite so bad in the 1980s which was a more sexist time. And let us also bear in mind this is a 1980s depiction of France in the 1940s during wartime, which was more sexist again.

Complicated, isn’t it?

In some ways, it isn’t that complicated. You just need to understand the importance of context.

That’s the point I make in my forthcoming book, The Sacred Art of Joking. Context is crucial. It’s such an obvious point that it seems hardly worth making and yet jokes are now in the news virtually every week. Someone has said a word that is deemed unsayable ‘in any context’. They must be hounded from office or have their honorary professorship taken away. Someone did a comedy routine ten years ago and are not sufficiently ashamed of it. They must be prevented from hosting an awards ceremony. So perhaps this is a truth that is so obvious, we’ve forgotten that we actually know it.

In The Sacred Art of Joking, I make the point that the words used in a joke tell you virtually nothing about whether or not those words should have been said or not. We cannot isolate phrases and words. It just isn’t good enough.

I go on to discuss some examples in more detail, especially in the realm of religion since God-fearing can be especially humourless and prone to lose their minds at the use of certain words. Hopefully, readers will find them to be sane words, in a world that’s lost its mind.

The Sacred Art of Joking is out on Jan 17th in UK and you can pre-order a signed copy directly from me here (UK Only) or find the book on Amazon (UK). For those in USA, you’ll have to wait ‘til March.

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The Secret Rules of Comedy

A colony, rookery, huddle or waddle of penguins?

Everyone loves a collective noun: a murmuration of starlings, a murder of crows and a parliament of owls. A group of ravens is an ‘unkindness’ or ‘conspiracy’. Why birds merit such elaborate collective nouns is beyond me.

I was reflecting on this with my dad many years ago. We were in a car and in quick succession saw two learner drivers. I wondered what a collective noun for learner drivers. My dad suggested ‘a clutch’. Nice one, dad.

You can tell I’m a writer and that I’ve been involved in the Writers Guild of Great Britain for a couple of years because I’ve gone out of my way to credit my dad for that joke. I could easily have passed that joke off as my own, but that would be wrong.

I spend a lot of time with other writers, and occasionally we wonder what a collective noun for writers should be. We usually end up with things like ‘a disappointment’ or ‘a moan’. Writers tend to be fairly nervous and shy types. Maybe it should be ‘a quiver’. (I know, Dad’s joke is better)

I’m not just a writer, but a comedy writer. (I clearly get it from my dad.) I realise that saying I’m a comedy writer is a bold claim. My writing is intended to amuse. I write mostly situation comedies (Bluestone 42 or Hut 33), along with the odd play.

When comedy writers get together, the vibe is different. The collective noun should reflect that. I would suggest the collective noun for comedy writers should be ‘a deconstruction’. After all, that’s what comedy writers do. In order to amuse, parody or satirise, we look for ways of getting our hooks into the subject matter. Pretty soon, one hook presents itself, which is to deconstruct the genre or the form. 

Getting To The Point

Writers have been doing this for longer than one might think. One of the first works of fiction in modern English is The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentlemanby Laurence Sterne in 1759. One could call it a novel, but it’s more of a spoof memoir in which Tristram, the narrator, is clearly unable to tell the story of his own life clearly, demonstrated by the fact that the work runs to nine volumes, and he doesn’t even get to his own birth until volume 3. That’s the joke.

If you’re hungry for yet further deconstruction, watch Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in the movie version of this book called A Cock and Bull Story, about a failed attempt to turn Tristram Shandy into a movie. It’s deconstructive, self-referential heaven. Or hell, depending on your point of view.

Visual Art is just the same. For hundreds of years, and especially in the last century, artists have been asking the question ‘what even is art?’ This is the question at the heart of the long-running West End  play Art by Yasmina RezaA man called Serge buys a painting for a considerable sum. It’s white lines on a white background. It looks like a blank canvas. Serge’s friend, Marc, is furious that Serge has wasted his money on it. But he is happy with the art. Why can’t Marc be? Who says what art is anyway?

In The Sacred Art of Joking, I write about how comedy works and why it so easily goes horribly wrong. There is a myth that we all like to believe is that jokes must have rules. There has to some explanation for why Things Are Funny. But I’m not so sure.

Grand Unified Comedy

The idea of some Grand Unified Theory of comedy is an attractive idea. Our physicists persuaded tax-payers to spend billions of pounds on a Large Hadron Collider so that they could join up the laws of physics into one law that explains everything. It’s too early to tell if they’ll succeed. Some of them seem pretty confident, but then they’d have to be after coaxing all that money out of us.

Comedy doesn’t work like laws of physics and here’s why: jokes are inherently anarchic.

They tweak your nose; they ring your doorbell and run; they drop ice cubes down your back; and on some occasions, like a blinded Samson with his last gasp of supernatural strength, they bring the whole edifice crashing down around our ears. Jokes can do that. Ask the people who work at Charlie Hedbo.

Establish a joke format with some rules, and immediately a comedy writer will start doing jokes about the format, thereby undermining it and making all future jokes in that style seem rather naïve.

It’s a pity that there aren’t any comedy laws, as the media and governments seem desperate to find some way of navigating the choppy waters of jokes and offence. Every week or so, a prominent person’s Twitter feed is ransacked for any light-hearted comment that could be wilfully misunderstood before it is presented at someone who could conceivably take offence. The pointing and shrieking can then begin, until the celeb or politician in question grovels for forgiveness. (See the story of Professor Tim Hunt) We are witnessing an arms race of offence, where each victim must sound more devastated and humiliated than the last. Where will it end?

Flicking Matches in St Paul’s Cathedral

The Church should have something to offer here. Jesus made people laugh. He also deliberately caused offence. I look at numerous examples in the book. Sadly, over the centuries, the Church generally has turned the sense of humour failure into an art form, and there are various reasons for that.

A key reason is the desire of order and control. Church is serious. The Bible is serious (it isn’t, entirely, but it seems so). If people start laughing, ecclesiastical authority is apparently undermined. Telling jokes in church would be like flicking matches around in the old wooden St Paul’s Cathedral: very high risk, and entirely pointless.

The Church needs to recover Her sense of humour, and be quick to laugh, rather than scowl or burst into tears. After all, Christians regularly confess their sins. We should know our own failings and have the humility to laugh at ourselves. Only then can we be the beacons of bonhomie that our society so desperately needs.

The Sacred Art of Joking by James Cary is published by SPCK in January 2019. More information and pre-ordering options here.

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