The language of comedy

Michael Monkhouse on why only English jokes are funny

Omid Djalili once quipped: ‘I'm the only Iranian comedian in the world. That's three more than Germany.’

Giggles aside, I spent three years there and he's right. Our Teutonic friends are hardly laughter-free but their culture doesn't really embrace comedy. Their sitcoms are all clumsily dubbed from the Americans 20 years on, and the closest they get to stand-up is groansome character monologues with cheesy orchestral fanfares telling you when to laugh.

Italy's no different. They love a laugh but lack a comedic tradition. London boasts around 200 comedy venues - anything from stadiums to shy adolescents in a pub - the Eternal City has one. I counted. It's open Monday (when nobody leaves the house) and Tuesday (so comedy is out of the way for the week). Plus, most Italians don't know what a sitcom is - telly series Yes, Comedy films sure, but a series generating comedy? No signor.

There are theories as to why the Brits and the Yanks enjoy the gag monopoly. They range from the fanciful (finely-tuned Wildean sensibilities) through the pretentious (laughter unites, hence ritualises society) to the plain nasty (we're too repressed to deal with life straight).

Or maybe it's simpler. It's our language. Because English has a snap and a rhythm you don't get in other tongues. Every comedy manual quotes the Bard: ‘Brevity is the soul of wit.’ And I'll quote Bob Monkhouse: ‘I do things on purpose to annoy my wife. In the morning I wake up - she hates that…’

'She hates that…' Three words, three syllables, a great example of a reversal. I tried it in Italian: six words, 12 syllables and a great example of cluttered patter.

More importantly, ours is a wondrously flexible language, just right for wordplay. I'm not just talking postcard puns, though without them the Carry On team might've been out of a job. I'm talking about a single preposition upturning a whole concept (‘I got a watch for my husband. Nice deal’). Even a pause gives food for thought. Compare:

'I came face-to-face with a tiger.'

'I came, face-to-face with a tiger.'

Smut notwithstanding, words have myriad meanings which can be twisted to the comic's advantage. The true joy of English, though, is its near-total freedom from declensions. Nothing pesky like adjectives agreeing with nouns, articles agreeing with case, sad comics agreeing with the constraints of language. Which is perfect for surprise:

‘It's difficult introducing your first partner to your mother. Especially 'cause my mother's racist, agist and anti-Semitic. So when I introduced my partner, a black 60-year-old Jew… But she likes him now.’

This delightful line works because, typically, the key informantion is held back until the punchline. Tricky in other languages as you have to modify the boyfriend-defining adjectives. You can try and find ones that don't change, but they're so rare you lose the rhythm and the audience starts to guess what's afoot. And take said punchline - no linguistics lessons here, but in neo-Latin languages you say 'he pleases her' and ruin the last-things-last rule. Plus, the he/she is optional so if you add it you not only baulk but - again - give a clue as to what's coming. Pretty hefty preparation for an off-the-cuff gag.

And the variety of idiom! We scoff at cliché, but when the late lamented Kevin Turvey spouts: ‘It's the early bird that catches worms,’ we laugh not so much at the silliness as at his stupidity and our superiority. In fact Logan Murray's book Teach Yourself Stand-Up suggests a game taking a well-worn phrase and comically subverting it ('Red sky at night, my house is on fire. Red sky at morn, it's still on fire'), which wouldn't work if the phrase wasn't well-worn in the first place. Esteemed sitcoms - notably Seinfeld and Frasier - have based entire episodes on expressions being misunderstood, which usually means taken literally. And The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy won a laugh and a precious plot-point on 'The best-laid plans of mice.'

I'm not trying to degrade comedy into a series of snidey wordgames. I love the elaborate meanderings of Eddie Izzard, the gentle whimsy of P. G. Wodehouse, the in-yer-face slapstick of Stan Laurel (a picture's worth a thousand words and all that) But as all comedians know, one verbal shift can turn a clanger into a classic. We can hate that 'Take my wife, please' line. But it's better than 'Would somebody please be so kind as to take my wife?'

So language is powerful. And you couldn't wish for a tougher one than ours.

  • Michael Monkhouse teaches at the British School in Rome.

Published: 4 Apr 2008

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