What’s so funny?

I recently discussed how I appreciated older television dramas to modern offerings. To me the more recent shows have lost the art of storytelling, they ignore proven production techniques and they neglect the real audience while playing to imagined viewers. I will grant one thing: they excel at acting.

I also have as much, or even more, trouble with modern-day humour. I enjoy a good joke so I always read the comics in the daily newspaper. In reality I read about two-thirds of them; the other one third I just don’t get. The few times Anna and I tried to watch stand-up comedians on TV, we ended up giving each other a blank stare and switching channels. Okay, so we were born 50 years too soon. Or should I say 50 years too late?

I have always liked to tell jokes and more than once as a younger person got in trouble because I aimed them at people who didn’t appreciate my sense of humour. I had a hard time understanding others’ reactions because I didn’t mind it when people told similar jokes on me. As I began to smarten up, I would think of something funny, then try to choke it back rather than offend. One day it dawned on me. Unless I knew a person really well and fully expected him or her to retaliate in kind, I should change the direction of the joke, aiming it at myself. When I learned that trick, I offended fewer of my friends. I’ll admit, at times I still blunder and find myself apologizing.

I learned more about joke telling from African friends in South Africa. Although living under strict laws to separate the races, many would laugh at themselves or their circumstances. One lady challenged me to take piano lessons with her. “We could play apartheid piano,” she said, dissolving into laughter. “You could play the white keys and I could play the black keys.”    

Listening to those old radio shows late in the evening from Toronto and Hamilton radio stations has reminded me how humour has changed in the last 50 or 60 years. The comedy programs of yesteryear frequently put down individuals, used stereotypes and played up the ignorance of others. Two of the worst come to mind. Older readers might remember The Life of Riley and The Aldrich Family. Chester Riley appeared as a stereotypical blue-collar worker, drowning in ignorance, and completely devoid of parental skills. Each episode portrays a bungling father who comes close to destroying the family or community. Just as Riley demonstrated the failure of fathers, the Aldrich’s pictured a dysfunctional family. Every member of the family lacked communication skills and made a mockery of family life.  

However, one old-time comedian got it right. Jack Benny had a style of his own. In an age when comedians depended on getting laughs based on stereotypical views of others, Benny took a different route. The radio character appeared as a direct opposite to the real Benny: cheap, intolerant, arrogant and self congratulatory. Benny allowed his supporting characters to get laughs at the expense of his failings. His masterful handling of those techniques made the show a success.

We should all copy Benny and my African friends and learn to laugh at ourselves.


Ray Wiseman