When I was younger, my father told me about how, in his youth, a DJ had, on air, explained how to catch a polar bear. Here’s how it’s done; Find a frozen lake, and cut a hole in the ice. Take a packet of peas and place them in a circle around the hole. Hide behind a snowdrift and wait. And when a polar bear comes up to take a pea, kick it in the ice-hole.
It’s a good joke. I loved it, partly because I thought it was funny, but mostly because it meant that my father thought I was man enough to hear a rude joke. And for a child in South Africa in the seventies, that was rude. It had certainly been rude enough to get the DJ fired a few decades before. Bodily functions were not funny in the fifties.
It still makes me smile. That’s what jokes are for. But they’re not the same thing as wit. You don’t have to be clever, or quick, or interesting to tell them. They’re sledgehammers. Weapons of mass destruction in the war for attention.
Picture this scene. You’re at a dinner party. It’s a good one. One end of the table is arguing about politics. Everyone’s shouting, and no-one’s going to win, so everyone’s enjoying belittling each other’s candidates, questioning their integrity, and making guesses about their parentage.
At the other end, a man and a woman who just met are falling in love by bickering happily about Indie music. There’s a shy, quiet, but strangely attractive woman next to you who hardly says a word, but every time she opens her mouth, something smart, surprising and fascinating comes out.
Everyone’s having a high old time. But then Dick clears his throat. He’s sitting at the head of the table, his carefully chosen spot. “Have you guys heard”, booms a voice like a foghorn, “the one about the two Irishmen and the proctologist?” He pauses, and looks around, making sure that he has everyone’s attention. And then he launches into it. He does it well, pausing in all the right spots and never overdoing the accents. He winds up; “That’s not a thermometer, Mick, that’s my pen!” And lets out a huge guffaw, slapping the closest back and staring down anyone churlish enough not to laugh. And laugh they will. Sincerely or not. Because it’s the polite thing to do.
Here’s what’s really happening. Dick has looked around and seen a bunch of happy people having a good time. Everyone is taking part. There’s give and take. This will not do. It’s not about Dick. So he makes it about Dick. He may as well stand up, tap on the side of a wineglass with his spoon and announce “Right, everyone. The party is over. Time for everyone to focus on me. Eyes up, shy-girl, no looking away. Pipe down, politics-boy. I’m the only one who gets to talk now. I even get to decide how you react. Me me me.”
When he’s done, one of three things will happen. He’ll be so pleased with himself he’ll tell another. Or Mr Johnson across the table will feel the sharp prod of envy and tell a joke of his own, initiating a second-hand humour arms-race. Or everyone will go back to their business. But the political debate will never quite get off the ground again. Shy girl will disappear back into her own silence, never to utter another word. And the potential lovers will chat awkwardly about movies, connection broken. Soon everyone will start looking for their coats. Dick will leave last, patting himself on the back for being the life and soul of the party yet again.
I’ve got nothing against jokes. I like them. They’re fun to read, and it’s great when comedians make them. We pay them to. They lighten up even the driest of after-dinner speeches, and can break the ice for a group of strangers who just met. But they have no place in vibrant conversation. A joke is not your story. It’s someone else’s. You’re just passing it on. There’s no give and take. It’s a set piece in the middle of the happy chaos of a melee, like a football team pausing mid-play to do the Macarena.
Give me wit any day. That’s something that makes a conversation sparkle. It’s all your very own, and it’s thrown out like a T-shirt at a rock concert, to be enjoyed only by those lucky enough to catch it. It doesn’t need any fanfare and gets in no-one’s way.
At round about the same time as the polar bear joke, South Africa was visited by a famous Russian ballet company. When another DJ mentioned that he had been to see them, his co-presenter asked him what he had thought of the performance. “It was”, he said, completely deadpan, “A load of Bolshoi!” He got fired too. Fun was against the rules in the fifties, and poo did not exist.
I sure neither guy was overjoyed, but somehow I feel like Bolshoi guy must have felt better about his dismissal. Polar bear guy lost his job for passing on a second hand story, but Bolshoi guy’s moment of glory was all his very own. He sparkled.