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 Reza. A 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.