The tragedy of comedy, for those who work at creating it, at least, is that jokes will go off. This is a phenomenon familiar to joke-receivers as much as tellers. Who does not detect a fishy odour whenever someone begins a tale with a man walking into a bar? Even the best ones can only be cellared for so long before they turn, as anyone passingly acquainted with the classics will attest. The eternal joke is very rare; little always has and always will work. Pratfalls, maybe – schoolboy humour, broadly speaking, but the shelf-life of satire or any jokes involving social commentary tends to be shorter, not surprisingly, given the load of cultural context they have to bear in order to be intelligible. I have a lot of pity for these miserable, rotten gags, struggling vainly to retain their relevance. I try to force a laugh, or chuckle politely, and I find it quite heartening when an old joke succeeds at reinventing itself, as they occasionally do. I came across one such recently when I was picking through the comedic wasteland of Punch, that inexhaustible repository of mid-nineteenth century England’s often outworn wit, its pages filled with caricatures of obese be-whiskered patriarchs stuffing their elastic maws with oversize slices of Victoria sponge inscribed “Duty on Hair-Powder Act”, inscrutable drolleries so many historical and literary researchers have leafed through, bemused or benumbed. This is it:
It caught my eye because it reminded me of an image I was shown not long ago, snapped of a gaggle of girls – the photographer’s teenaged daughter and her friends – seated in a bedroom, allegedly “hanging out together,” the photographer had claimed, each absorbed in her own smartphone. Different technology, same joke, underpinned, I think, by the same anxiety that real human interaction, mediated by nothing bar visceral experience, is under threat from the technological innovations that we have assimilated into our daily lives. By using such devices, these artists claim, we are somehow damaging ourselves and relationships. I thought, too, of Michael Leunig’s famous sunrise cartoon, which is another variation on the theme:
What is this essential, authentic, real communication with whose fate we are so vitally concerned that this joke in its various manifestations keeps becoming relevant? Can it really be said to exist at all? Such a position would seem to presuppose that there is nothing lost in face-to-face conversation, which is, on consideration, untenable. If I talk to you directly, is my expression not immediately limited by the degree to which I am capable of rendering my subjective experience into language? And I would be doing it off the cuff, at that. Of course, I could write down what I want to tell you, thereby permitting me to articulate the ideas I want to communicate to you more fully. I wouldn’t need anything as modish as these suspect products of “technology” to do that, would I, simply to write? Unless you wanted to call writing itself technology, and worry that it might have some sort of insidious effect on our minds, that it might implant forgetfulness in our very souls, say. But what sort of intelligent person would ever be concerned about that? Oh, wait… Plato was. No joke!