There was a time when we all used to laugh a lot. It may be the economic times we are in or a whole generation of funny people has gone. Whatever it is, I am bereft of this passing. Let’s take an example of where I tried to raise a laugh recently. I am sure we all know about Fifty Shades of Grey. It appears to be causing some kind of furore about eroticism. Oh dear, I thought, been there before. D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, John Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure better known as Fanny Hill, Hubert Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn and even Voltaire’s Candide have come up against the censor’s marker and cause public consternation. So, E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey was just asking for it.
People were discussing it on Facebook. I have not read it and do not intend to. I have each of the above titles and they stand on my shelves because I bought the first three when they were banned and the latter to find out why. Eroticism is disappointing, not that it is my thing anyway. I fed on the controversy and said that I thought it had been written by E.L. Wisty. Who? Most of you will ask. A few older souls will nod, some smile knowingly. E.L. Wisty was a satirical imaginary character played by Peter Cook in the Beyond the Fringe review, later on television. The most legendary sketch is one that tells of his ambition of becoming a judge whereby not having the required Latin made him fail "the rigorous judging exams". So he became a coal miner instead. He passed the exam and said that, "They only ask you one question. They ask, 'Who are you?' and I got 75% on that." E.L. Wisty was a totally bland, monotone know-it-all. Cook normally presented him in the form of monologues and sketches in which he bores members of the public. He was renowned for bothering members of the public on park benches on such topics as newts, tadpoles and royalty. He believed in peace through nudism, inalienable rights, and his friend Spotty Muldoon. One could go on.
A couple of people Googled E.L. Wisty and suddenly the whole tone of comments about Fifty Shades of Grey changed. The point I made had changed that book into the joke some of the people commenting had tried to provoke. I am old enough to remember the character and somehow imagine Peter Cook would have taken the book and put it firmly on the Wisty agenda.
Satire and outrageous humour have persisted until very recently. There are people who probably listen to Radio Four online as I do and hear Beachcomber, Meet the Huggetts (not that funny but OK), the Goon Show and other classics from the 1950s and early 1960s that fed into the golden age of satire. Follow the path and sooner or later TW3, That Was The Week That Was, on television for a mere two years at the beginning of the 1960s will spring to a few minds. It ended abruptly when the BBC gave the reason that 1964 was an election year. It was felt that ‘the show's political material could compromise the corporation's impartiality’. If I may quote an old pal Graham McCann in a book with the title Spike & Co., who said the programme succeeded as it challenged the "convention that television should not acknowledge that it is television, the show made no attempt to hide its cameras, allowed the microphone boom to intrude and often revealed other nuts and bolts of studio technology." Spike in that book title naturally refers to Spike Milligan, his Puckoon and the Second World War memoires series of books are purest satire.
A leap on to closer times and Spitting Image hit our screens in 1984. It is probably fresh in some minds, but finished in 1996, a sad passing. It found fame and durability in many countries with umpteen spin-offs in the USA and versions here in Europe that included Las noticias del guiñol in Spain, Hurra Deutschland in Germany, several versions in Italy and here in France Le Bébête Show on TF1 and the most excellent Les Guignols de l’info on Canal Plus. All lampoon politicians and other public figures. No doubt Fifty Shades of Grey is due a guest appearance by hook or by crook. The title lends itself perfectly.
There is a lot to laugh at. I draw attention to some examples only. Much of it is lead by British satire here, but let us not forget the Simpsons, South Park, Catch 22 or L’il Abner that came out of the many USA examples, Titanic magazine in Germany, Charlie Hebdo and Le Canard enchaîné and several satirist here in France and the whole world seems to love Monty Python’s Flying Circus after all. A lot of good humour seems to have gone, not enough people are laughing. I have only touched on satire, which is my favourite form of humour, but there is far more than just that out there most places. Laughing makes the world go round, somebody once said. I think he or she was right and whether you prefer slapstick, stand up, outrageous situation comedy or any other form, why are you not laughing enough? What, I ask, would E.L. Wisty have made of this state of affairs?