Watch your words, and your jokes

Auntie Sylvie is buried in the Kew cemetery, that place with thick red brick walls along High Street in Kew.

I didn’t know her well. She was on my husband’s side, and developed cancer around the time my second child was born.

They buried her soon after she had visited me in the maternity ward.

I took my new baby to her funeral and mingled with my husband’s cousins at the wake. Thereafter I saw none of them again.

It happens in large families, with relatives far flung. But I remember Auntie Sylvie as the one person I know who lies buried in the Kew Cemetery. 

The other day as I drove past this cemetery with my grandsons in the car, the older one mentioned his granddad’s ‘fantastic’ joke.

 ‘People are dying to get in there,’ my grandson said and pointed to the gravestones visible from the side street.

He thought the joke hilarious, but his younger brother needed help in understanding the play on words for ‘dying’.

I groaned inwardly. The first time I heard this joke I thought it funny, but I’ve heard it too many times since, to enjoy it. 

This sets me thinking about comedy, not only about those ‘Dad jokes’ that set most people’s teeth on edge. Certainly their father’s jokes have lost their appeal to our daughters and to me but sometimes he still manages to come out with something that has all the freshness and vitality of a good joke. 

Nothing like Hannah Gadsby’s jokes though.

Even so, I must concede, compared to my husband who has a sense of humour which he likes to share with people, an often dry sense of humour that relies on wordplay, puns or practical jokes, Hannah Gadsby is a professional comedian.

It’s her job to make people laugh. But these days ever since her one person show Nannete she has morphed into a story teller who can not only make you laugh but also make you cry. 

I’ve been trying to understand the difference.

Gadsby talks about comedy far more eloquently, when she tells her audience about the nature of a joke, the set up and then the punch line. Whereas a story has a beginning middle and end, there needs be no punch lines but there needs to be something happening to turn it from an anecdote into a story, one that bears repeating.

Something to drag it up from the weight of the everyday into something more meaningful, that rescues the story out from solipsism into something universal, with which others might reverberate. 

When Hanhah Gadsby describes herself as ‘a little bit lesbian’ she’s taking the mickey out of herself but also having a joke at our expense. The way we want to classify people into neat categories that pigeon hole us all into absolutes. 

When my husband joked last night to our daughter who was about to go into town for an evening with friends, ‘Beware of African gangs,’ we both knew he was trying to have a go at the government and media for stereotyping certain people who are deemed foreign and therefore dangerous.

He does not believe his daughter should be wary of such people. Still his joke nudges too closely towards racism. 

I cringed but didn’t bother to pull him up on it at that moment.

These days we’re forever dragging my husband back into a world where so many ideas about what’s okay and what’s not okay have changed, and this includes all racist, sexist and misogynistic talk.

It’s not easy for him, born in the late forties and a creature of his times.

Some of the things my husband said to me when we were young about women who had not yet formed a relationship, trouble me deeply now but at the time, I saw them as the norm.

He wasn’t the only one. A compliment to a woman: ‘She’s a real spunk bucket’. For those not in the know, ‘spunk’ is another word for sperm.

In the seventies and eighties, we used such expressions blithely. 

‘She’s as dry as a nun’s nasty,’ another commonplace statement. I thought it okay at the time though now it turns my stomach.

The prejudice against women who have chosen not to behave in hetero-sexual ways for complicated reasons that are unfathomable to your average so-called red-blooded man. 

I’m relieved to be alive at this time, as challenging as it might be.

I’m relieved that I’m not yet buried in the Kew cemetery like Auntie Sylvie and can join with others who question the language of years past, the language that objectifies women.

Language that also puts some men into positions that are also uncomfortable for those who are sensitive and might prefer not to engage in this misogynistic caper where men and women are classified into two separate categories that warrant different treatment, unbalanced treatment instead of recognising we’re all people, irrespective of our foibles, our gender, our bodies.

We all deserve one another’s respect, to give and to receive. 

Including Auntie Sylvie, even after she’s dead and gone. 

One thought on “Watch your words, and your jokes”

  1. Humour sure has changed over the years. I think back to at-the-time revolutionary shows like ‘The Goon Show’ and struggle to understand why it took so long for adult humour to grow up. By “adult” I mean refined, nuanced, thoughtful, thought-provoking. Not simply funny. Funny is easy. Kids can do funny instinctively. GSOH: Good sense of humour. They put that in dating ads. I’d love someone to go with NSOH. (Work it out. Don’t make me say it.) I like to think I’ve a good sense of humour despite being a grumpy bugger and it is possible to balance the two; remember Les Dawson. “I laugh because I must not cry, that is all, that is all,” said Abraham Lincoln. I don’t imagine there’s ever been a politician more laughed at than his current successor. And the humour is SO creative. It does no good. It won’t help remove him from power any more than the million signature petition with get the latest season of ‘Game of Thrones’ remade (I mean, seriously, that is funny). Laughing is something to do when there’s nothing to do. I read through the main functions of humour as listed by Avner Ziv and I’m not sure which of the five I’d file that under, maybe ‘Defence against fear and anxiety’. Humour is a defence but it can also be used to attack. Of course these days there’re a lot of things that we don’t joke about because it’s not politically correct to mock z, y or z. I’m not sure I’m in favour of it if I’m being honest but then I’m a Scot and we’re born with thick skins; to survive growing up here you have to be able to take a joke.

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