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An essay by Max Beerbohm

The Humour Of The Public

Title:     The Humour Of The Public
Author: Max Beerbohm [More Titles by Beerbohm]

They often tell me that So-and-so has no sense of humour. Lack of this sense is everywhere held to be a horrid disgrace, nullifying any number of delightful qualities. Perhaps the most effective means of disparaging an enemy is to lay stress on his integrity, his erudition, his amiability, his courage, the fineness of his head, the grace of his figure, his strength of purpose, which has overleaped all obstacles, his goodness to his parents, the kind word that he has for every one, his musical voice, his freedom from aught that in human nature is base; and then to say what a pity it is that he has no sense of humour. The more highly you extol any one, the more eagerly will your audience accept anything you may have to say against him. Perfection is unloved in this imperfect world, but for imperfection comes instant sympathy. Any excuse is good enough for exalting the bad or stupid brother of us, but any stick is a valued weapon against him who has the effrontery to have been by Heaven better graced than we. And what could match for deadliness the imputation of being without sense of humour? To convict a man of that lack is to strike him with one blow to a level with the beasts of the field--to kick him, once and for all, outside the human pale. What is it that mainly distinguishes us from the brute creation? That we walk erect? Some brutes are bipeds. That we do not slay one another? We do. That we build houses? So do they. That we remember and reason? So, again, do they. That we converse? They are chatterboxes, whose lingo we are not sharp enough to master. On no possible point of superiority can we preen ourselves save this: that we can laugh, and that they, with one notable exception, cannot. They (so, at least, we assert) have no sense of humour. We have. Away with any one of us who hasn't!

Belief in the general humorousness of the human race is the more deep- rooted for that every man is certain that he himself is not without sense of humour. A man will admit cheerfully that he does not know one tune from another, or that he cannot discriminate the vintages of wines. The blind beggar does not seek to benumb sympathy by telling his patrons how well they are looking. The deaf and dumb do not scruple to converse in signals. `Have you no sense of beauty?' I said to a friend who in the Accademia of Florence suggested that we had stood long enough in front of the `Primavera.' `No!' was his simple, straightforward, quite unanswerable answer. But I have never heard a man assert that he had no sense of humour. And I take it that no such assertion ever was made. Moreover, were it made, it would be a lie. Every man laughs. Frequently or infrequently, the corners of his mouth are drawn up into his cheeks, and through his parted lips comes his own particular variety, soft or loud, of that noise which is called laughter. Frequently or infrequently, every man is amused by something. Every man has a sense of humour, but not every man the same sense. A may be incapable of smiling at what has convulsed B, and B may stare blankly when he hears what has rolled A off his chair. Jokes are so diverse that no one man can see them all. The very fact that he can see one kind is proof positive that certain other kinds will be invisible to him. And so egoistic in his judgment is the average man that he is apt to suspect of being humourless any one whose sense of humour squares not with his own. But the suspicion is always false, incomparably useful though it is in the form of an accusation.

Having no love for the public, I have often accused that body of having no sense of humour. Conscience pricks me to atonement. Let me withdraw my oft-made imputation, and show its hollowness by examining with you, reader (who are, of course, no more a member of the public than I am), what are the main features of that sense of humour which the public does undoubtedly possess.

The word `public' must, like all collective words, be used with caution. When we speak of our hair, we should remember not only that the hairs on our heads are all numbered, but also that there is a catalogue raisonne' in which every one of those hairs is shown to be in some respect unique. Similarly, let us not forget that `public' denotes a collection not of identical units, but of units separable and (under close scrutiny) distinguishable one from another. I have said that not every man has the same sense of humour. I might have said truly that no two men have the same sense of humour, for that no two men have the same brain and heart and experience, by which things the sense of humour is formed and directed. One joke may go round the world, tickling myriads, but not two persons will be tickled in precisely the same way, to precisely the same degree. If the vibrations of inward or outward laughter could be (as some day, perhaps, they will be) scientifically registered, differences between them all would be made apparent to us. `Oh,' is your cry, whenever you hear something that especially amuses you, `I must tell that to' whomever you credit with a sense of humour most akin to your own. And the chances are that you will be disappointed by his reception of the joke. Either he will laugh less loudly than you hoped, or he will say something which reveals to you that it amuses him and you not in quite the same way. Or perhaps he will laugh so long and loudly that you are irritated by the suspicion that you have not yourself gauged the full beauty of it. In one of his books (I do not remember which, though they, too, I suppose, are all numbered) Mr. Andrew Lang tells a story that has always delighted and always will delight me. He was in a railway-carriage, and his travelling-companions were two strangers, two silent ladies, middle-aged. The train stopped at Nuneaton. The two ladies exchanged a glance. One of them sighed, and said, `Poor Eliza! She had reason to remember Nuneaton!'... That is all. But how much! how deliciously and memorably much! How infinite a span of conjecture is in those dots which I have just made! And yet, would you believe me? some of my most intimate friends, the people most like to myself, see little or nothing of the loveliness of that pearl of price. Perhaps you would believe me. That is the worst of it: one never knows. The most sensitive intelligence cannot predict how will be appraised its any treasure by its how near soever kin.

This sentence, which I admit to be somewhat mannered, has the merit of bringing me straight to the point at which I have been aiming; that, though the public is composed of distinct units, it may roughly be regarded as a single entity. Precisely because you and I have sensitive intelligences, we cannot postulate certainly anything about each other. The higher an animal be in grade, the more numerous and recondite are the points in which its organism differs from that of its peers. The lower the grade, the more numerous and obvious the points of likeness. By `the public' I mean that vast number of human animals who are in the lowest grade of intelligence. (Of course, this classification is made without reference to social `classes.' The public is recruited from the upper, the middle, and the lower class. That the recruits come mostly from the lower class is because the lower class is still the least well-educated. That they come in as high proportion from the middle class as from the less well-educated upper class, is because the `young Barbarians,' reared in a more gracious environment, often acquire a grace of mind which serves them as well as would mental keenness.) Whereas in the highest grade, to which you and I belong, the fact that a thing affects you in one way is no guarantee that it will not affect me in another, a thing which affects one man of the lowest grade in a particular way is likely to affect all the rest very similarly. The public's sense of humour may be regarded roughly as one collective sense.

It would be impossible for any one of us to define what are the things that amuse him. For him the wind of humour bloweth where it listeth. He finds his jokes in the unlikeliest places. Indeed, it is only there that he finds them at all. A thing that is labelled `comic' chills his sense of humour instantly--perceptibly lengthens his face. A joke that has not a serious background, or some serious connexion, means nothing to him. Nothing to him, the crude jape of the professional jester. Nothing to him, the jangle of the bells in the wagged cap, the thud of the swung bladder. Nothing, the joke that hits him violently in the eye, or pricks him with a sharp point. The jokes that he loves are those quiet jokes which have no apparent point--the jokes which never can surrender their secret, and so can never pall. His humour is an indistinguishable part of his soul, and the things that stir it are indistinguishable from the world around him. But to the primitive and untutored public, humour is a harshly definite affair. The public can achieve no delicate process of discernment in humour. Unless a joke hits in the eye, drawing forth a shower of illuminative sparks, all is darkness. Unless a joke be labelled `Comic. Come! why don't you laugh?' the public is quite silent. Violence and obviousness are thus the essential factors. The surest way of making a thing obvious is to provide it in some special place, at some special time. It is thus that humour is provided for the public, and thus that it is easy for the student to lay his hand on materials for an analysis of the public's sense of humour. The obviously right plan for the student is to visit the music-halls from time to time, and to buy the comic papers. Neither these halls nor these papers will amuse him directly through their art, but he will instruct himself quicklier and soundlier from them than from any other source, for they are the authentic sources of the public's laughter. Let him hasten to patronise them.

He will find that I have been there before him. The music-halls I have known for many years. I mean, of course, the real old-fashioned music- halls, not those depressing palaces where you see by grace of a biograph things that you have seen much better, and without a headache, in the street, and pitiable animals being forced to do things which Nature has forbidden them to do--things which we can do so very much better than they, without any trouble. Heaven defend me from those meaningless palaces! But the little old music-halls have always attracted me by their unpretentious raciness, their quaint monotony, the reality of the enjoyment on all those stolidly rapt faces in the audience. Without that monotony there would not be the same air of general enjoyment, the same constant guffaws. That monotony is the secret of the success of music-halls. It is not enough for the public to know that everything is meant to be funny, that laughter is craved for every point in every `turn.' A new kind of humour, however obvious and violent, might take the public unawares, and be received in silence. The public prefers always that the old well-tested and well-seasoned jokes be cracked for it. Or rather, not the same old jokes, but jokes on the same old subjects. The quality of the joke is of slight import in comparison with its subject. It is the matter, rather than the treatment, that counts, in the art of the music-hall. Some subjects have come to be recognised as funny. Two or three of them crop up in every song, and before the close of the evening all of them will have cropped up many times. I speak with authority, as an earnest student of the music-halls. Of comic papers I know less. They have never allured me. They are not set to music--an art for whose cheaper and more primitive forms I have a very real sensibility; and I am not, as I peruse one of them, privy to the public's delight: my copy cannot be shared with me by hundreds of people whose mirth is wonderful to see and hear. And the bare contents are not such as to enchant me. However, for the purpose of this essay, I did go to a bookstall and buy as many of these papers as I could see--a terrific number, a terrific burden to stagger away with.

I have gone steadily through them, one by one. My main impression is of wonder and horror at the amount of hebdomadal labour implicit in them. Who writes for them? Who does the drawings for them--those thousands of little drawings, week by week, so neatly executed? To think that daily and nightly, in so many an English home, in a room sacred to the artist, sits a young man inventing and executing designs for Chippy Snips! To think how many a proud mother must be boasting to her friends: `Yes, Edward is doing wonderfully well--more than fulfilling the hopes we always had of him. Did I tell you that the editor of Natty Tips has written asking him to contribute to his paper? I believe I have the letter on me. Yes, here it is,' etc., etc.! The awful thing is that many of the drawings in these comic papers are done with very real skill. Nothing is sadder than to see the hand of an artist wasted by alliance to a vacant mind, a common spirit. I look through these drawings, conceived all so tritely and stupidly, so hopelessly and helplessly, yet executed--many of them--so very well indeed, and I sigh over the haphazard way in which mankind is made. However, my concern is not with the tragedy of these draughtsmen, but with the specific forms taken by their humour. Some of them deal in a broad spirit with the world-comedy, limiting themselves to no set of funny subjects, finding inspiration in the habits and manners of men and women at large. `HE WON HER' is the title appended to a picture of a young lady and gentleman seated in a drawing-room, and the libretto runs thus: `Mabel: Last night I dreamt of a most beautiful woman. Harold: Rather a coincidence. I dreamt of you, too, last night.' I have selected this as a typical example of the larger style. This style, however, occupies but a small space in the bulk of the papers that lie before me. As in the music-halls, so in these papers, the entertainment consists almost entirely of variations on certain ever-recurring themes. I have been at pains to draw up a list of these themes. I think it is exhaustive. If any fellow-student detect an omission, let him communicate with me. Meanwhile, here is my list:

Hen-pecked husbands
Old maids
Frenchmen, Germans, Italians, Niggers (not Russians, or other foreigners of any denomination)
Long hair (worn by a man)
Bad cheese
"Shooting the moon' (slang expression for leaving a lodging-house without paying the bill).

You might argue that one week's budget of comic papers is no real criterion--that the recurrence of these themes may be fortuitous. My answer to that objection is that this list coincides exactly with a list which (before studying these papers) I had made of the themes commonest, during the past few years, in the music-halls. This twin list, which results from separate study of the two chief forms of public entertainment, may be taken as a sure guide to the goal of our inquiry.

Let us try to find some unifying principle, or principles, among the variegated items. Take the first item--Mothers-in-law. Why should the public roar, as roar it does, at the mere mention of that relationship? There is nothing intrinsically absurd in the notion of a woman with a married daughter. It is probable that she will sympathise with her daughter in any quarrel that may arise between husband and wife. It is probable, also, that she will, as a mother, demand for her daughter more unselfish devotion than the daughter herself expects. But this does not make her ridiculous. The public laughs not at her, surely. It always respects a tyrant. It laughs at the implied concept of the oppressed son-in-law, who has to wage unequal warfare against two women. It is amused by the notion of his embarrassment. It is amused by suffering. This explanation covers, of course, the second item on my list--Hen-pecked husbands. It covers, also, the third and fourth items. The public is amused by the notion of a needy man put to double expense, and of a woman who has had no chance of fulfilling her destiny. The laughter at Jews, too, may be a survival of the old Jew- baiting spirit (though one would have thought that even the British public must have begun to realise, and to reflect gloomily, that the whirligig of time has so far revolved as to enable the Jews to bait the Gentiles). Or this laughter may be explained by the fact which alone can explain why the public laughs at Frenchmen, Germans, Italians, Niggers. Jews, after all, are foreigners, strangers. The British public has never got used to them, to their faces and tricks of speech. The only apparent reason why it laughs at the notion of Frenchmen, etc., is that they are unlike itself. (At the mention of Russians and other foreigners it does not laugh, because it has no idea what they are like: it has seen too few samples of them.)

So far, then, we have found two elements in the public's humour: delight in suffering, contempt for the unfamiliar. The former motive is the more potent. It accounts for the popularity of all these other items: extreme fatness, extreme thinness, baldness, sea-sickness, stuttering, and (as entailing distress for the landlady) `shooting the moon.' The motive of contempt for the unfamiliar accounts for long hair (worn by a man). Remains one item unexplained. How can mirth possibly be evoked by the notion of bad cheese? Having racked my brains for the solution, I can but conjecture that it must be the mere ugliness of the thing. Why any one should be amused by mere ugliness I cannot conceive. Delight in cruelty, contempt for the unfamiliar, I can understand, though I cannot admire them. They are invariable elements in children's sense of humour, and it is natural that the public, as being unsophisticated, should laugh as children laugh. But any nurse will tell you that children are frightened by ugliness. Why, then, is the public amused by it? I know not. The laughter at bad cheese I abandon as a mystery. I pitch it among such other insoluble problems, as Why does the public laugh when an actor and actress in a quite serious play kiss each other? Why does it laugh when a meal is eaten on the stage? Why does it laugh when any actor has to say `damn'?

If they cannot be solved soon, such problems never will be solved. For Mr. Forster's Act will soon have had time to make apparent its effects; and the public will proudly display a sense of humour as sophisticated as our own.

[The end]
Max Beerbohm's essay: Humour Of The Public