x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Never look inside a sausage, or a joke

A joke explained is no longer a joke, a sausage explored no longer a tasty meal.

I was listening to a podcast the other day, one of those madcap radio talk shows in the UK. A few minutes in, one of the presenters cracked a joke that was so obscure, none of his co-hosts got it. The guy should have kept his mouth shut and moved on. Instead, he attempted to explain himself - there was a pun, you see, a play on words. What followed was the longest five seconds of silence you'll ever hear. The show never really recovered.

This reminded me of a class I took in college, Styles and Techniques of Comedy, which broke humour down into its constituent parts: incongruities of scale, the puncturing of human dignity, the violation of taboos and so on. For about six months afterwards, I didn't laugh at anything. Even my favourite joke ever (What's brown and sticky? A stick!) became mired in theory: Ah, yes, the defeat of expectation, achieved through the use of a homonym. When I was young, my grandmother gave me a piece of advice: "Never look inside a sausage." She went a bit mad not long after saying this, but I think the advice stands up. If you've ever explored a sausage, you'll know: there are things in there you don't want to see.

It's the same with jokes. Their entire existence relies on our not looking at what's inside. A joke explained is no longer a joke. The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once said: "It is man alone who laughs; he alone suffers so deeply that he had to invent laughter." Nietzsche, as it happens, also went mad shortly after saying this, so it's possible that borderline psychotics just have good insights into these things. Anyway, the point I'm getting at is this: if we ever needed a bit of uncomplicated laughter, it's now.

Look at this oil spill we're having. Better yet, look at the zany schemes they've dreamt up to stop it. My personal favourite was "top kill", a process that involved blasting the ruptured well with high-pressure jets of "junk" (that is, rubbish) in the hope that it would get clogged up. It didn't, but fish who had tired of their oil diet now had a new range of toxicy tidbits. Earlier this month, a ship that was collecting oil from the gushing well caught fire, possibly after it was struck by lightning. This is true.

In another radio podcast I listened to recently, the host speculated that the person heading up BP's containment efforts might be Wile E Coyote. "You can just see him, can't you," he said, "standing on that burning ship, holding up a little sign that reads 'Drat', before crumbling into a heap of ash on the deck." You see what he was doing there?