I used to love the Marx Brothers and Laurel and Hardy comedies from the 1920s and 1930s.I would watch them on television, as a boy with my father He saw them first in the local cinema when he too was a boy in the 1930s . I could see how these old comedies tapped into the absurdities of everyday life, pumped them up full of air to bursting  point and then exploded them with exaggerated  comedic glee. I think watching them was a great preparation for a life lived mostly in Northern Ireland, in the second half of the twentieth century and the spawning , glittering twenty-first. Back then in the dawning age of  mass communication and the almost-new  novelty  of film, these old comics and comedians  used their vaudevillian skills to entrance a wide -eyed audience with slapstick  eccentricity and  attacks on the pomposity of the established order.

There was a time when we were allowed to laugh.

 In the 1960s Johnny Speight wrote a ground-breaking television sit-com  called .”Til Death Us Do Part”…The characters he invented for this  mirror of our times  were caricatures  of  an average English household.The main focus was on  Alf Garnett {who was played by a fine Jewish actor called Warren Mitchell} Speight wrote Alf as a misogynist, wife-beating, racist  anti-youth , ultra-conservative  bigot. He was such  a cartoon that he was the repository of every awful trait that could be conceived to inhabit any errant  household. His “lazy layabout Socialist”  son was played by Tony Booth who in real life was to be  the  alcoholic lover of Coronation Street’s Elsie Tanner and father of Tony Blair’s future wife Cherie. The show was a hit. People across the televisual nation laughed at how it exposed the grisly underbelly of racism , ultra-conservatism and so on for us to laugh at.

The thing is , as sometimes happens out there in the real world…..some people did not see the join between the artifice of a TV show with actors and the actual reality. For them, reality was blurred. They held the Alf character as a living breathing hero.For them he was real. He was a friend .That’s the thing about humour.Nobody can tell you when it’s  the time or place to laugh. It’s why  laughter tracks are sometimes dubbed on afterwards.As Ken Kesey might have said ..”You’re either on the bus or you’re off it”.

Many people took offence with that TV show.They were uncomfortable with the awful truths it unearthed but it went on to spawn the kind of humour that brought on  the absurdism of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, the likes of the late Rik Mayall ‘s Young Ones and the political puppetry of Spitting Image. We had our own watered-down versions  in Northern Ireland in the shape of the Hole in the Wall Gang and Give my Head Peace..

The thought struck me though while reading Jude’s column about Nelson McCausland. recently…. When are we really allowed to laugh? Are there real rules slipping into place with encroaching Political Correctness , implying that we simply will not be allowed to poke fun at things we too find absurd…Will we not be allowed to laugh at  a political banality or make  playful reference to Mr Poots’s ears?Will we not be allowed to question and laugh at  some strange religious beliefs or cultural tics that are alien to our worldview?  Will we not be allowed to laugh along and with the playfulness of Morris Dancers or Mummers or laugh out loud at a Minister of our government telling us that the earth is 6000 years old?

We are living in increasingly strange times .If you had told anyone forty years ago that they would sell bottles of clear water in supermarkets all over the land  or ban smoking while you supped your pint, you’d have been laughed out of the bar and onto the street.

Will we soon need a government booklet  The Rules for Laughter and Social Deportment” be updated annually and signed off on like a MOT certificate … Then we’ll all know what is really funny again….

12 Responses to IS IT STILL ALL RIGHT TO LAUGH THESE DAYS? by Harry McAvinchey

  1. Gerry Cappa June 19, 2014 at 5:54 pm #

    Just laugh if it is funny. Some things don’t strike me as funny, though; like racism, sectarianism, sexism – all the usual hate crime ‘isms.And I’m not duped by the lame excuse of the Jeremy Clarkson school of ‘Political Correctness has gone mad and is choking my civil liberties’ either.
    I laughed at Alf Garnett, not with him. Johnny Speight hated racism, and exposed it as the hideous blight on civilised society it was, and still is. I didn’t laugh at ‘Love Thy Neighbour’ but I seem to recall it was a very popular sit-com at the time. Is that the time Clarkson and his ‘Top Gear’ lads hark back to? When a racist conceit was the platform for Engerland uber alles?
    If there is to be a laughing rule, I would propose it should be along the lines of, ‘If you find racism funny, don’t then blame the mythical beast of ‘Political Correctness’ for confirming you as the racis you are’.
    p.s. did Alf Garnett really spawn the singing lumberjack? I would have though the Pythons had a different pedigree.
    p.p.s can we deduce that Elsie Tanner was Cherie’ ma?

  2. Francis D June 19, 2014 at 6:39 pm #

    LAD (Loyalists Against Democracy) provide a very realistic caracature of modern Ulster Loyalism, delivered with energy and verve. The ‘Parody Of Esteem’ motto and astute satires of flailing obstinate ‘Fleg protesters’ and their miopic intransigence is comic genius, but is it that outlandish? In reading the accompanying posts with its ground swell of followers, it is as if the collective Ahhh, someone is at last holding a mirror up to this imbecility and a cathartic laugh ensues is infectious. I have a couple of English friends who moved here with blinkered misconceptions of what this ‘tribal regional conflict was about. Within about a year of living in the north their eyes widened with ‘deep amaze’ at how their conditioned responses to Ireland had been ably blinkered by a media bias that we here are very tuned in to. “But the Emporeor very tuned in

    • paddykool June 20, 2014 at 8:55 am #

      Gerry : I think Clarkson has demonstrated very well that his idea of expressive freedom is to be allowed to make schoolboy racist and misogynist remarks whenever he pleases. It was never alright , ever, but a lots of little boys grew up calling each other “spaz” or whatever in the playground, just as Benny Hill made a career out of featuring semi-naked ladies in “comedic” situations. There was some compliance by the ladies too which didn’t help to clarify things..I think Jeremy just grew up in a different time when Japanese soldiers in children’s comics were referred to a “nips” or German soldiers were called “huns”. We all live in a very different world now to what was seen as acceptable a generation ago which has obviously confused a lot of people..By the same token , dress codes , manners and sexual mores of the 21st century have also confused older people too.

  3. Alhazred The Sane June 19, 2014 at 6:42 pm #

    Good article, but the author seems to have gotten one thing wrong. TDDUP didn’t spawn Monty Python, I doubt it was of any influence on the Pythons at all. The influential show that spawned Monty Python was Q5 by Spike Milligan, and also his previous work on The Goon Show radio series. Likewise, The Young Ones (which was mostly Ben Elton’s creation rather than Rik Mayall’s) was hugely influenced by their original stand-up club The Comic Strip. Both Monty Python and The Young Ones were sketch shows, while TDDUP was very much situational comedy, with a continuing story being developed from episode to episode.

    There were other sit-coms much influenced by TDDUP – The Likely Lads being the most obvious.

    • paddykool June 19, 2014 at 7:55 pm #

      yes… Thanks for pointing all that out Al….I did know that. In writing this stuff it is necessary to compress and edit ot whole tracts of info and storytelling or we’d be here all night.Yes…I could have taken you through Sgt Bilko, the Goons, Mad comic/ magazine, Help, Humbug, Robert Crumb,underground comix and Oz magazine…Do Not Adjust Your Set ?…and the late great jgenius of Marty Feldman …A line runs through them all like a stick of rock….but like I say…lots had to be left out just getting to the point…..Jude hasn’t time to read a book here!…..but thanks for the response all the Sam, mate…

      • paddykool June 19, 2014 at 8:19 pm #

        That’s ……all the same….dammit!

        • paddykool June 20, 2014 at 10:47 am #

          Dammit I forgot to mention Peter Cook and the Beatles too. The cultural influences that inspired comedy are all seamlessly connected . In the 1950’s and 1960’s especially all that talent was being funnelled relentlessly into our homes on a couple of TV channels, newspapers, books,magazines like Private Eye and scant radio….unlike today when the effect is dissapated through endless wall to wall 24 hour broadcasts and countless, never to be read ,web pages . We were fish in a barrell back then …every underground laugh was cherished .

          • Jude Collins June 20, 2014 at 11:17 am #

            What strikes me, looking back to all those shows, was that they were all British. Talk to anyone from the south – including those who would have received BBC – and the humour didn’t /doesn’t register with them. They had their own Radio Eireann, with shows I confess I never listened to – Dinjo (sp) and other such. I remember raising this with one of my sons – the extend to which, for example, even our playground games of cowboys and indians was drawing on American culture. Ditto all our comic books. Soft power or what?

  4. Francis D June 19, 2014 at 6:49 pm #

    ….mobile phones aptly expose my deficit in fine motors skills. To conclude, It was with wonder they used the term ‘The Emperor isn’t wearing any clothes’ with their ‘wooly liberal’ assessment of the pedantic and irrational excesses of Unionist intransigence. I remember when I had see them just after this Zen enlightenment cone Iilluminated them. I said to them Iin relation to some bigoted absurdity that it was ‘hilarious was it not’, ‘It is, and it isn’t’ they mused somberly. Hilarious, but then people get hurt….then its just not that funny, is it

    • paddykool June 19, 2014 at 8:00 pm #

      Francis…when I switch to iPad…in the evenings …I have the same keypad problems as you can see above…no chance to re edit …especially when the wine begins to kick in……

      • Francis D June 19, 2014 at 8:39 pm #

        Alas Paddykool, the Luddite in me hasn’t even the nous to sus out an editing function. Will work it out sometime I’m sure. A glass of wine sounds good to dull the commentry if we have suffer it with England getting by the first stage here….

    • paddykool June 20, 2014 at 3:19 pm #

      Yes Jude …We had no problem as children playing “Japs and Americans” or “Cowboys and Indians” ….very non PC when you think of it.. You’re right too about the culture divide .i can remember on occasion some very anti -british stretching even to the brand of potato crisps a pub would stock. .A lot of those old southern shows would have been on Radio Eireann and would have been seen as a bit “culchie” to our young Northern ears. .