A point of view: That joke isn't funny any more

Stepping on a banana skin Image copyright Thinkstock

Will Self asks why people laugh at jokes which he doesn't find funny, and whether there's such a thing as the wrong type of humour.

Nothing is funny twice - I mean that. In fact, most things that are meant to be funny aren't even funny once, let alone twice. But in that case - I can hear your protests helium-squeaking through the ether - why do people repeat anecdotes, jokes and witticisms with such frequency? Why do we listen to and watch repeats of comedy programmes? Why do we chuckle indulgently when our partners tell the assembled company about the amusing thing that happened to them in Madeira - or possibly Margate - although we've heard it recounted 10,000 times before, and every fibre of our being cries out not to laugh, but to commit a grievous assault upon their repetitive person? The answer is that humour is not produced by a formula or a recipe - guffaws cannot be arrived at by a series of mathematical operations. You understand this soon enough if you speak to anyone who works in the burgeoning academic field of comedy studies.

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I kid you not. Comedy studies. While most of academia is straightforwardly risible, this is one area of scholarly endeavour that's resolutely unfunny. Something about analysing what makes us laugh uncontrollably, renders these scholars tight-lipped, ashen-faced and on the distinctly uptight side. It could be those who are attracted to comedy studies are already intractably serious, but I suspect it's also an occupational hazard, the problem being that nothing is funny twice. "Wit," Friedrich Nietzsche said, "is the epitaph of an emotion." And if anyone should've been able to speak with authority on the matter it was he, whose philosophy has at its core a theory of perpetual recurrence - civilisation repeating itself, like a bad joke. What Nietzsche - who wasn't exactly a laugh-a-minute - understood only too well, was that laughter is a form of closure. When our diaphragms convulse, our shoulders shake, and tears come to our eyes, we're no longer in any position to experience the finer feelings that have been annulled.

And what are those finer feelings? By and large, warmth, caring, love - the complex of emotions that we gather together under the general heading of sympathy. Not all humour consists in laughing at the spectacle of someone else's painful pratfall - but the vast majority of it does. Even the subtlest of ironising cries out for slapstick. I was once standing in a queue at Schiphol Airport when I dropped the bulky English Sunday newspaper I was holding under my arm. The multiple sections slid away across the well-polished flooring, and the man behind me in the queue said a single word, 'Zwaar', to his companion, who doubled up in silent laughter. As I was leaving the airport I asked my own Dutch companion what this meant, and he too had to restrain himself as he replied: "Heavy."

But rest assured, I'm not going to use the rest of our time together to recount such formerly amusing incidents. I only raised this one to underscore the fact that humour is, by and large, situational. "You had to be there" is something often said when an anecdote falls flat, just as "It's the way she tells them" is the explanation for why we've succumbed yet again to a hopelessly old joke. Timing, serendipity, the chance concatenation of otherwise irreconcilable phenomena, the shock of the new - these are the elements that combine to produce that sublime moment of hilarious abandonment, they cannot ever be precisely repeated, try as we might. And we do try - and how very trying it is. Not just the old school friend, who even well into middle age hasn't quite grasped that his party piece has become a desiccated fig leaf barely hiding his unfunny bone, but the continuous canned laughter that accompanies the situational comedy of our own unfunny lives.

Friedrich Nietzsche 1844-1900

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  • German writer and philosopher, famous for saying "God is dead", also for the concepts of eternal recurrence and the "ubermensch" (superman)
  • Believed science (especially Darwin) had revealed a world without inherent order or meaning
  • Argued that the Christian system of faith and worship was not only incorrect, but harmful to society because it suppressed the will to power which was the driving force of human character
  • Ideas were very influential in 20th Century philosophy and literature. They were also wilfully interpreted by German Nazis to justify their own ideology
  • Nietzsche suffered a severe mental breakdown in 1889, and died after a series of strokes

BBC Radio 4 - Great Lives, Friedrich Nietzsche

You know the one I mean. You walk in on someone watching a hilarious television sitcom, but rather than concentrating on the actors and their exquisitely scripted lines, you hear instead the laughter track, one that, while it may have been recorded using a live audience, watching live comedy, has since been subjected to post-production, so each physical flourish and verbal furbelow of the piece can be garnished with appropriate laughter. The person you've walked in on continues to happily chortle, but you - being so to speak out of sync - hear only the counterpoint of artificial laughter: Chuckle… chuckle… titter… guffaw! And again: Chuckle… chuckle… titter… guffaw!

Image copyright ALAMY

This is the miserably contrived cachinnation that nowadays follows us wherever we go, and we could be forgiven for taking it at once universally and personally. The cosmos is laughing at our entire species, revelling in the awful mess we've got ourselves into - and at one and the same time bell-like laughter tolls for us, and us alone. In some ways this hilarity over nothing whatsoever is a distinctively modern phenomenon. The proliferation of stand-up comedy venues, the tittering on television and the roaring on the radio - all of it continues to increase in volume. For the most part the humour (if we can call it that) constitutes obscenities, or the invocation of sexual or other bodily embarrassment. The first time a comedian utters an obscenity we laugh out of shock, when it's repeated we laugh a little less - and so on until we're punch(line) drunk. By the time the obscenity has been uttered for the umpteenth time we're reacting in a Pavlovian fashion, as a laboratory dog salivates when an electric buzzer has been substituted for a juicy steak. Our laughter has been processed by repetition and then canned. We have become the laughter track for an unfunny world.

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Image caption The Crazy Gang, 1955

This is not to suggest that things were much funnier in the past - or at any rate, you had to be there to find the way they told relentless, repetitive innuendos remotely amusing. The organs of humour were exactly the same - the genitals and the bowels - it's just that they were draped in double entendres. But (I hear you still expostulating), "That's never been the sort of thing I laugh at, I have a sophisticated sense of humour, I delight in the subtlest of irony and the most inventive of satirical tropes, I lose myself in the giddy spirals of surrealistic verbal invention. It's you - you are the sourest of pusses, you whose deep, lugubrious voice nonetheless descants with callow cynicism. You want to make everything as cold and dark and shrivelled as your own miserable sclerotic heart."

Taking the joke apart

"Analysing comedy is like dissecting a frog. Nobody laughs and the frog dies" - Barry Cryer

"Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die" - Mel Brooks

Well, up to a point, yes. I do think we could benefit from losing a great swathe of so-called "humour" from our culture, and you should've grasped by now that it's not the first "boom" I object to in "boom-boom!" but the second. It's often said that there are only seven plots, or three subjects for pop songs, but there's a far greater paucity of jokes. Just two - the funny ones and their unfunny reiteration. Humour, to be worthy of the ascription should be spontaneous, playful and inventive. Some of the funniest times in my life have occurred when a small group of friends, over an evening or even a few days, have generated a dialect of comedic and satiric references known only to us. Such in-jokes are often derided - but the truth is that jokes are usually funny in inverse proportion to their universality, because the more widely understood humour is, the more likely it is to have been previously disseminated. And I think I may've mentioned before that nothing - and I mean bupkis - is funny twice.

Image caption Will Self (far left) in Shooting Stars with Matt Lucas, Vic Reeves, Bob Mortimer and Ulrika Jonsson

I don't expect to win many converts to my campaign for real amusement. I even anticipate attempts to silence me by what we must perforce call organised comedy. Don't be surprised if I'm found with a rubber chicken stuffed down my throat, or tickled to death in a back alley. I shan't mind if you laugh at my death - after all, it hasn't happened before - but on learning of it I hope you'll recall these lines from Alexander Pope's Dunciad, his great satire on the unutterable dullness of our repetitive culture: "You by whose care in vain decry'd and curst/ Still Dunce the second reigns like Dunce the first."

A Point of View is broadcast on Fridays on Radio 4 at 20:50 BST and repeated Sundays 08:50 BST or listen on BBC iPlayer

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