The joke's on me

Giacinto Palmieri on an unexpected laugh

During a recent preview of my Edinburgh show an episode occurred to me that made me think about comedy, its pleasures and its risks.

Unfortunately to explain what happened I'll have to describe one of my routines and quote some jokes, but I hope I'll not spoil it too much for anybody. There is a moment in the show where I pretend to receive a phone call from my mother (that was the first spoil: now you know that she is not really calling me!). As she insists I marry the daughter of a friend, I protest: ‘But she has only one eye! [pause] What do you mean, “That would highly boast your possibilities”?. That's a nice turn of phrase for somebody who doesn't speak a word of English!’.

Given that one of the main themes of the show is language, I intended that last line to be the real punchline, revealing the absurdity of the entire conversation But what I didn't bargain for was the massive laugh I got at previous line about the one eye being an advantage for any potential bride of mine.

It's true that a female voice in the audience shouted, ‘That's so unfair!’ (unless my subconscious played a trick at me there), but the general feeling was the audience were expressing an enthusiastic agreement with my mother’s supposed judgment. So, were they laughing with me or were they laughing at me?

The line, I guess, it's quite a fine one. In some Roman and mediaeval celebrations a ‘fool’ was elected Carnival King and enjoyed absolute power for a day, at the end of which he was killed. Today we live in gentler times, but I think that something of that role survives in the modern comedian. In a sense, the comedian sacrifices himself as a laughing stock.

There is also a implicit agreement going on that says: I give you, the audience, permission to laugh at me, so you don't need to feel guilty about it. The pleasure is, in part, the pleasure of doing something that would normally not be socially acceptable, but here is  allowed. Which, I guess, is the essence of carnival.

Probably the most extreme example is when a comedian with a disability made jokes about their own condition. I'm thinking, for instance, of Liz Carr, Laurence Clarke or my brother-in-open-spot arms Max Turner. Laughing at accents, nationalities or ginger hair can be allowed in many ‘normal’ social conditions, but laughing at disabilities is definitively taboo. These comedians bravely allow us to do just so for the duration of their set.

So, why was I slightly upset by that reaction? After all, I have never considered my looks one of my strongest assets, even if I have never targeted one-eyed women for that reason, which would only make sense if I was in some way three-dimensionally challenged.

I guess the reason why that episode left a bitter after-taste is that my looks weren't the subject of the routine, which was more about Italian mothers and the absurdity of the two of us speaking in English. Of course, I was conscious of the comic potential of that turn of phrase, but I wasn't really granting the audience the licence to laugh at the way I look. Now I will, I'll keep that line in my set and enjoy the big laugh.

In the meantime, to the girl who shouted ‘That's so unfair!… drink?

Giacinto Palmieri: Italian Misfit in on at Laughing Horse @ The Counting House, 12.45pm, August, 15 to 30.

Published: 3 Aug 2009

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