Do we take ourselves to seriously? Should we emphasise the humour in Humanism more? What is fun? Laughter? Is there such a thing as the politically correct joke? What are we to make of controversial comedians like Roy Chubby Brown and Bernard Manning? Why are circus clowns so frightening?

Navajo Indians set great store by a babyís first laugh. The family are expected to throw a party the instant the baby laughs (usually at about forty days old) and the bill goes to whoever is believed to have made the baby laugh first.

Virtually every race and culture has a fairy story to tell of an unhappy princess figure who everyone (kings, knights, noblemen, wizards, professional jesters, etc) fails to cheer up, before some nobody falls over and makes an unintentional fool of himself, making her laugh, gaining her hand in marriage and inheritance of the kingdom. Seduction as a prelude to intercourse often works best in a party atmosphere. This is why carnivals and street festivals have a high phallic content in float and costume designs. It is also guaranteed that your partner will be most inflamed with jealousy if s/he finds you laughing at someone elseís jokes. Laughter lowers our inhibitions, and relaxes us.

"It is generally accepted that laughter, like exercise, releases endorphins and enkaphalins - the body's natural painkillers, into the bloodstream. Most doctors also agree that laughter stimulates and relaxes the muscles, the nervous system, the inner organs, the respiratory system, and the heart. American research scientist, Dr. William Fry has suggested that 100-200 belly laughs a day are equivalent to a ten minute jog." (The House Of Mirth by Andy Crawford in Hotline magazine. Autumn/Winter 1998. Virgin Trains passenger magazine).

Religion - Some faiths around the world believe the gods find us amusing. We see legends of gods debasing themselves to take part in human affairs; Krishna amused himself by stealing the clothes of the goat herd girls as they bathed in the river. Zeus seduced mortal women and turned men into donkeys. In German, the word selig means both Ďsillyí and Ďblessedí (Note the title of a Woody Allen film, Zelig, has its roots here). The Bible has a few jokes in it; Cainís retort to God, who is looking for Abel, (killed by Cain); "What am I. my brotherís keeperí is quite a put down line under the circumstances. Elisha sadly missed the joke in a passage seldom quoted in sermons for its intolerance. (2 Kings 2, 23-5). "And he (Elisha) went from there to Beth-el: and as he was going up by the way, there came forth little children out of the city and said unto him, go up, thou bald head, go up, thou bald head." And he turned back and looked on them, and cursed them in the name of the LORD. And there came forth two she bears out of the wood and tare forty and two children of them."

Being a slaphead, I sympathise with him, but his reaction is somewhat humourless, and those taking jokes badly fare badly. Shakespeareís puritanical Malvolio (Twelfth Night) becomes increasingly more the target of the viscous jokes of his household for his unsmiling sense of decorum. In reality, in some towns, when jesters went dancing from and through each house in a town for alms, those refusing to co-operate, carrying on working or refusing to wear green garters and false but exaggerated genitalia in public were dragged to ducking stools and stocks for their lack of good cheer. Too much praise grows irksome and contrived. The royal and wealthy households from the 15th to the 19th centuries employed permitted fools, who were able to mock and slander the wealthy quite freely even in public.

St. Paul saw the value of clowning to the travelling missionary apostles of his day. (1 Corinthians 4,10) We are fools for Christís sake." Many monks took this literally, especially Francis of Assisi who called his radical hippie order the clowns and fools of Christ. The Church however resented that the acting and buffoonery was taking over the sense of serious clerical duty. Some were even seen depicting Christ as a clown. The 1291 Council of Salzburg ordered that "the clergy must not be jesters, goliards or buffoons; if they pursue such disgraceful accomplishments for a whole year, they are to be stripped of all ecclesiastical privileges."

The ruling was often overlooked by those attracting laughing converts more than crying fearful ones. The Mystery and miracle plays of France, and later Britain often had the austere crucifixion passion play preceded by sketches, skits and ballad performances of a humorous and bawdy nature. In these the jesters were the devils and the demons,. Their excesses in sexuality and greed were excused as the audience knew they were dammed. They got away with much that might have been censored. In one drama a devil attempts to steal a millerís soul out of the manís backside, but unwittingly takes a lump of excrement to hell instead. The devils then agree to leave the smelly souls of millers alone forever.

Telling jokes in polite company is terrifying. We donít want to fail to amuse, any more than a comedian wants to lose a paying audience. Itís pitiful to see a child trying to impress grown ups with a joke and fluffing his lines. We also want to be seen to get and appreciate the joke. Many in the audience at comedy clubs laugh along with the crowd without really knowing what was funny. It seems taboo to do otherwise. The professional comic always tells the same story of his origins. He found that making people laugh and acting the fool won him respect and spared him the wrath of school bullies. Moral, if you canít fight, wear a daft hat.

Political correctness - Does this neutralise the impact of humour? In many cultures the audience at a comedy event would be pelted with excrement and urine by clowns. Now, its custard pies and water substitutes. No one wants to offend too much. Bernard Manning may tell apparently racist jokes, but it is often those he insults, (Pakistani's the Chinese, blacks, etc) who clamour for front row seats at his shows. Manning is more annoying when he tells every reporter he meets just how much unpublicised charity work he does as though that excuses his excesses in other areas). Iím not advocating that Humanists revive mother in law and racial jokes here. I believe that comedians should know their audience better than Manning has been able to judge of late. Times have changed. His act seems dated. Interestingly however, humour has rarely if ever been used in genuinely fascist and nazi and neo-nazi propaganda, which stays terribly serious about its vile mission. Here is a typical uncensored Manning joke. "A ĎPakkií goes to the job centre and asks for work as a conductor. They nail him to a chimney in Oldham". Absurdist, but openly appealing to deep rooted racial fears of Pakistanis taking all the jobs. Such jokes are dangerous. That the Pakistani is seen to meet a violent death adds to its dangerous nature. Jacobson argues that manning serves a cathartic purpose with such jokes by lancing the boils of our prejudices and letting the hateful pus run free. Jacobson sees this as the duty of all humorists.

Sometimes I laugh at a joke and feel guilty at the same time. Is there a way out of such a trap? In fact, in many fascist states, including Hitlerís Germany, comedians, and humorists were among the first to be locked up, deported, and sometimes executed. Funsters, by their nature poke fun at everything. Humour is by nature indiscriminate. Everyone gets it in the neck without exception. In police states, the humorist perishes. If he canít laugh at the authorities too, his career is over. The comedian hates everybody, just as much as he loves them.

What of comedyís greatest dysfunctional family fun show for kids; Punch and Judy. What are the politically correct brigade who clip a comedians claws to make of the greatest wife beating, baby thumping, death, devil, police and sausage abuser of them all? Perhaps it should be updated so he attacks social workers as well.

Main source of research for these notes - Howard Jacobsonís SERIOUSLY FUNNY. Channel Four/Viking 1997. Quotes; "If comedy, in all its changing shapes, has one overriding preoccupation, it is this; that we resemble beasts more closely than we resemble gods, and that we make great fools of ourselves the moment we forget it." And - "Mirthless and clean, we vanish as though we had never been." And " "Where are we most vividly alive? In our Laughter. So what is deathís greatest prize? The sound of our laughter. Therefore, in order to defy death, we must show that we can still laugh."

Arthur Chappell