Here, I’ve got a new joke for you. There was this gnu walking down the street … I even got a laugh at the Glasgow Empire with that one. Only a titter mind. It surprised me they knew what a gnu was. Mind you, that’s going back a bit. They’d just look at you now, the kids these days, even if they’d never heard the gag before, they’d just look at you with that look on their face. There’s only one place you see an expression like that and that’s from a stage. It’s no wonder they keep the lights down low but you can usually make out a few rows – it’s how I gauge an audience, by those I can see – and if they’re not laughing, or worse still, if they’re laughing in all the wrong places – then you’ve got problems my old son. Problems, because they’re not getting the joke any more – you’ve became the joke and that’s not very funny. It’s not nice being laughed at.
You know what’s wrong with the country? Plenty. There’s plenty wrong with the country but there’s one thing especially: it’s lost its sense of humour. We went through two world wars and we could still laugh at ourselves, but not any more. Oh, I know there’re still comedians out there, people calling themselves comedians at any rate – third rate comics who should still be doing the rounds of the working men’s clubs, but they’re not funny. They think they’re amusing because people laugh at them but that’s not the same. I listen to them and I feel sorry for their audiences because they’re not. They’re laughing at nothing because there’s nothing to laugh at. They’ve all forgotten what funny is.
I read somewhere that they’ve started teaching comedy in some of the drama schools. I don’t know. You can’t teach people to be funny. You can’t melt humour down, bottle it and have a good ol’ spray all over before you step out on stage. Of course there’s a science to it, the pun, double entendre, the one-liner, the shaggy-dog story – I’ve used them all at one time or another – and, honestly, I don’t know why a chicken crossing the road stopped being funny because I really don’t know why it was funny in the first place. It’s called a sense of humour because that’s exactly what it is mate – you feel it, inside, intuitively, in your guts. I had my time – I’m not complaining – but nothing lasts forever.
A comedian told a joke in a forest but there was no one there to hear it. So was it funny? I don’t know the answer to that one either. All I know is that once my audience turned their backs on me I stopped being funny, there was no one to be funny for, no one to entertain. “Crack joko ergo sum,” as the pigs say in Latin: I joke therefore I am. I used to ask my wife after a show, “Edna? Was I funny, Edna?”
“Was I really funny?”
“Yes dear, you were really funny.”
“I really made ‘em laugh didn’t I?”
“Yes, dear, you made ‘em laugh. You always make ‘em laugh and always will make ‘em laugh. Now will you please get changed so we can go and eat?”
It was like Jesus asking Simon just how much he loved him. I miss Edna. She never understood but she was always there, with my keys or my glasses or “’Ow's about a nice cup of hot tea?”
It’s a funny ol’ thing – life – but it doesn’t make me laugh any more. It used to. I used to see the humour in everything but it went away. Maybe that’s where the rot set in. It’s not enough to tell a joke. You have to believe it’s funny or it won’t work. Audiences are like kids; they can tell if you’re just going through the motions.
Maybe the problem was we all started to take the whole thing too seriously. Good comedy is like foreplay; the punch line’s never the main thing. You know there’s one coming and that’s fine but you like being led up the garden path despite yourself. A joke is more than the run up to a punch line. You can’t fake laughter. If all you do is crack joke after joke after joke you’ll end up beating your audience to death. I guess that’s where I went wrong. If they weren’t laughing themselves sick then I didn’t think I was doing my job properly. It was an indictment. I took it personally. The thing is, I always looked at the audience there and I felt I had to make them laugh. I think Ken worked it out at seven titters a minute but I’ve never been one for figures you can’t hang a strapless little number on. They were there, they were willing, we were all adults, but someone had to take charge. Somewhere along the line the love vanished.
I used my wife as a punch bag too, verbally mainly (and she could give as good as she got let me tell you), but I could be handy with my fists too when I’d had a few too many. It’s a matter of public record. I don’t know why. You always hurt the one you love. No, I don’t suppose that is an answer. She kept wanting us to go and see about it – she knew I couldn’t do it alone - but I couldn’t just go and be a guy who beats up on his wife. I’d end up being “the personality” who beats up on his wife. I was never one for interviews. I’d do Parky but that was about it. You can’t trust the Press. They’ll bowl you a googly as soon as look at you and that’s just not cricket. I heard someone quoted as saying there’s no such thing as bad publicity but they’re wrong. They’ve obviously only been attacked as a personality and not a person.
I mean, where did the guy on stage end and I begin? We looked the same, like twins I suppose, but who was the evil one? Of course Edna loved me well before he came on the scene. I know a lot of the lads ended up with girls from the chorus and the like, like Eric and Ernie, but Edna and I were an item long before. You don’t want to know the number of jobs she’s had to do on the side to prop up my career in the early days. I can’t remember a time when she wasn’t around; even now she’s still with me. You know, there wasn’t a piece of stand up I didn’t try out on her before anyone else. She was the toughest of rooms. I couldn’t just give up on her and I guess she felt the same. Far easier to give up on yourself. Actually, it was Edna who got me to come in here. I don’t know why she stayed. We hadn’t been a couple, proper like, in a long time. It was the same with the fans – and I still have them out there, I even get the odd letter – but nowadays they watch tapes of me when I was at my peak, in my heyday, and I send them signed photos that are twenty years out of date. Nostalgia’s a terrible affliction. The truth of it all is you can’t teach old dogs new tricks. All I have left is to roll over and die but I never managed to do that gracefully before, especially at the Glasgow Empire. I doubt I’ll do it now. They never loved me. They never knew me. They loved the guy on the stage. I bet I’ll end up buried in that bloody trilby too. It bothered me after a while that. Edna loved the guy she married. She never stopped. She only stayed with me because I looked like him. I knew that. I know she didn’t love me in the end but I don’t blame her. Hell, I didn’t even like me.
Sometimes after I’d pulled myself back together again, after the booze had worn off, I’d go to Edna and hold her. I never meant to hurt her. She’d ask me to say, “Poor baby. Everything’ll be all right,” and I would believe her because I’d be feeling so bad. I never meant to hurt her. She’d actually tell me what she herself needed to hear even though she knew it wasn’t true, even though we both knew it wasn’t true. It must have been funny to watch us. It didn’t make any sense at all. Even at a time like that I needed a blinking script.
There’s supposed to be a do today, an award thingy – that’s what the nurse said – they’re giving that guy I used to be on stage a prize, a fellowship I think she said (book tokens more likely, it’s as much as he deserves…more), but I’m not going, can’t be bothered. They can’t make me. Edna would’ve made me get dressed. “Get your trousers on you silly man, or you’ll catch your death,” she’d say but she’s not here so there’s no point.
Let’s face it, my whole life’s been a joke and I don’t get it. Maybe the joke’s on me but I really don’t get it. Maybe that’s what Saint Peter’s got sitting in front of himself outside those pearly gates – God, I’ve told enough jokes about them in my life – and that’s what it is, a joke book. I guess that would make me laugh. It’s been too long. I could do with a good laugh.
© Jim Murdoch, 2008
Funny strange by Jim Murdoch was read by Clive Greenwood at the Liars’ League Crime & Punishment event on Tuesday 9 September, 2008
Jim Murdoch is a Scottish writer living just outside Glasgow. His poetry appeared regularly in small press magazines during the seventies and eighties. In the nineties he turned to prose-writing and has completed four novels and a collection of short stories. His first novel, Living with the Truth, was published in May 2008. You can find out more about him on his blog, The Truth About Lies.