My Discovery of England by Stephen Leacock
X.--Have the English any Sense of Humour?
It was understood that the main object of my trip to England was to find out whether the British people have any sense of humour. No doubt the Geographical Society had this investigation in mind in not paying my expenses. Certainly on my return I was at once assailed with the question on all sides, "Have they got a sense of humour? Even if it is only a rudimentary sense, have they got it or have they not?" I propose therefore to address myself to the answer to this question.
A peculiar interest always attaches to humour. There is no quality of the human mind about which its possessor is more sensitive than the sense of humour. A man will freely confess that he has no ear for music, or no taste for fiction, or even no interest in religion. But I have yet to see the man who announces that he has no sense of humour. In point of fact, every man is apt to think himself possessed of an exceptional gift in this direction, and that even if his humour does not express itself in the power either to make a joke or to laugh at one, it none the less consists in a peculiar insight or inner light superior to that of other people.
The same thing is true of nations. Each thinks its own humour of an entirely superior kind, and either refuses to admit, or admits reluctantly, the humorous quality of other peoples. The Englishman may credit the Frenchman with a certain light effervescence of mind which he neither emulates nor envies; the Frenchman may acknowledge that English literature shows here and there a sort of heavy playfulness; but neither of them would consider that the humour of the other nation could stand a moment's comparison with his own.
Yet, oddly enough, American humour stands as a conspicuous exception to this general rule. A certain vogue clings to it. Ever since the spacious days of Artemus Ward and Mark Twain it has enjoyed an extraordinary reputation, and this not only on our own continent, but in England. It was in a sense the English who "discovered" Mark Twain; I mean it was they who first clearly recognised him as a man of letters of the foremost rank, at a time when academic Boston still tried to explain him away as a mere comic man of the West. In the same way Artemus Ward is still held in affectionate remembrance in London, and, of the later generation, Mr. Dooley at least is a household word.
This is so much the case that a sort of legend has grown around American humour. It is presumed to be a superior article and to enjoy the same kind of pre-eminence as French cooking, the Russian ballet, and Italian organ grinding. With this goes the converse supposition that the British people are inferior in humour, that a joke reaches them only with great difficulty, and that a British audience listens to humour in gloomy and unintelligent silence. Peoplc still love to repeat the famous story of how John Bright listened attentively to Artemus Ward's lecture in London and then said, gravely, that he "doubted many of the young man's statements"; and readers still remember Mark Twain's famous parody of the discussion of his book by a wooden-headed reviewer of an English review.
But the legend in reality is only a legend. If the English are inferior to Americans in humour, I, for one, am at a loss to see where it comes in. If there is anything on our continent superior in humour to Punch I should like to see it. If we have any more humorous writers in our midst than E. V. Lucas and Charles Graves and Owen Seaman I should like to read what they write; and if there is any audience capable of more laughter and more generous appreciation than an audience in London, or Bristol, or Aberdeen, I should like to lecture to it.
During my voyage of discovery in Great Britain I had very exceptional opportunities for testing the truth of these comparisons. It was my good fortune to appear as an avowed humourist in all the great British cities. I lectured as far north as Aberdeen and as far south as Brighton and Bournemouth; I travelled eastward to Ipswich and westward into Wales. I spoke on serious subjects, but with a joke or two in loco, at the universities, at business gatherings, and at London dinners; I watched, lost in admiration, the inspired merriment of the Savages of Adelphi Terrace, and in my moments of leisure I observed, with a scientific eye, the gaieties of the London revues. As a result of which I say with conviction that, speaking by and large, the two communities are on the same level. A Harvard audience, as I have reason gratefully to acknowledge, is wonderful. But an Oxford audience is just as good. A gathering of business men in a textile town in the Midlands is just as heavy as a gathering of business men in Decatur, Indiana, but no heavier; and an audience of English schoolboys as at Rugby or at Clifton is capable of a wild and sustained merriment not to be outdone from Halifax to Los Angeles.
There is, however, one vital difference between American and English audiences which would be apt to discourage at the outset any American lecturer who might go to England. The English audiences, from the nature of the way in which they have been brought together, expect more. In England they still associate lectures with information. We don't. Our American lecture audiences are, in nine cases out of ten, organised by a woman's club of some kind and drawn not from the working class, but from--what shall we call it?--the class that doesn't have to work, or, at any rate, not too hard. It is largely a social audience, well educated without being "highbrow," and tolerant and kindly to a degree. In fact, what the people mainly want is to see the lecturer. They have heard all about G. K. Chesterton and Hugh Walpole and John Drinkwater, and so when these gentlemen come to town the woman's club want to have a look at them, just as the English people, who are all crazy about animals, flock to the zoo to look at a new giraffe. They don't expect the giraffe to do anything in particular. They want to see it, that's all. So with the American woman's club audience. After they have seen Mr. Chesterton they ask one another as they come out--just as an incidental matter--"Did you understand his lecture?" and the answer is, "I can't say I did." But there is no malice about it. They can now go and say that they have seen Mr. Chesterton; that's worth two dollars in itself. The nearest thing to this attitude of mind that I heard of in England was at the City Temple in London, where they have every week a huge gathering of about two thousand people, to listen to a (so-called) popular lecture. When I was there I was told that the person who had preceded me was Lord Haldane, who had lectured on Einstein's Theory of Relativity. I said to the chairman, "Surely this kind of audience couldn't understand a lecture like that!" He shook his head. "No," he said, "they didn't understand it, but they all enjoyed it."
I don't mean to imply by what I said above that American lecture audiences do not appreciate good things or that the English lecturers who come to this continent are all giraffes. On the contrary: when the audience finds that Chesterton and Walpole and Drinkwater, in addition to being visible, are also singularly interesting lecturers, they are all the better pleased. But this doesn't alter the fact that they have come primarily to see the lecturer.
Not so in England. Here a lecture (outside London) is organised on a much sterner footing. The people are there for information. The lecture is organised not by idle, amiable, charming women, but by a body called, with variations, the Philosophical Society. From experience I should define an English Philosophical Society as all the people in town who don't know anything about philosophy. The academic and university classes are never there. The audience is only of plainer folk. In the United States and Canada at any evening lecture a large sprinkling of the audience are in evening dress. At an English lecture (outside of London) none of them are; philosophy is not to be wooed in such a garb. Nor are there the same commodious premises, the same bright lights, and the same atmosphere of gaiety as at a society lecture in America. On the contrary, the setting is a gloomy one. In England, in winter, night begins at four in the afternoon. In the manufacturing towns of the Midlands and the north (which is where the philosophical societies flourish) there is always a drizzling rain and wet slop underfoot, a bedraggled poverty in the streets, and a dimness of lights that contrasts with the glare of light in an American town. There is no visible sign in the town that a lecture is to happen, no placards, no advertisements, nothing. The lecturer is conducted by a chairman through a side door in a dingy building (The Institute, established 1840), and then all of a sudden in a huge, dim hall--there sits the Philosophical Society. There are a thousand of them, but they sit as quiet as a prayer meeting. They are waiting to be fed--on information.
Now I don't mean to say that the Philosophical Society are not a good audience. In their own way they're all right. Once the Philosophical Society has decided that a lecture is humorous they do not stint their laughter. I have had many times the satisfaction of seeing a Philosophical Society swept away from its moorings and tossing in a sea of laughter, as generous and as whole-hearted as anything we ever see in America.
But they are not so willing to begin. With us the chairman has only to say to the gaily dressed members of the Ladies' Fortnightly Club, "Well, ladies, I'm sure we are all looking forward very much to Mr. Walpole's lecture," and at once there is a ripple of applause, and a responsive expression on a hundred charming faces.
Not so the Philosophical Society of the Midlands. The chairman rises. He doesn't call for silence. It is there, thick. "We have with us to-night," he says, "a man whose name is well known to the Philosophical Society" (here he looks at his card), "Mr. Stephen Leacock." (Complete silence.) "He is a professor of political economy at--" Here he turns to me and says, "Which college did you say?" I answer quite audibly in the silence, "At McGill." "He is at McGill," says the chairman. (More silence.) "I don't suppose, however, ladies and gentlemen, that he's come here to talk about political economy." This is meant as a jest, but the audience takes it as a threat. "However, ladies and gentlemen, you haven't come here to listen to me" (this evokes applause, the first of the evening), "so without more ado" (the man always has the impression that there's been a lot of "ado," but I never see any of it) "I'll now introduce Mr. Leacock." (Complete silence.)
Nothing of which means the least harm. It only implies that the Philosophical Society are true philosophers in accepting nothing unproved. They are like the man from Missouri. They want to be shown. And undoubtedly it takes a little time, therefore, to rouse them. I remember listening with great interest to Sir Michael Sadler, who is possessed of a very neat wit, introducing me at Leeds. He threw three jokes, one after the other, into the heart of a huge, silent audience without effect. He might as well have thrown soap bubbles. But the fourth joke broke fair and square like a bomb in the middle of the Philosophical Society and exploded them into convulsions. The process is very like what artillery men tell of "bracketing" the object fired at, and then landing fairly on it.
In what I have just written about audiences I have purposely been using the word English and not British, for it does not in the least apply to the Scotch. There is, for a humorous lecturer, no better audience in the world than a Scotch audience. The old standing joke about the Scotch sense of humour is mere nonsense. Yet one finds it everywhere.
"So you're going to try to take humour up to Scotland," the most eminent author in England said to me. "Well, the Lord help you. You'd better take an axe with you to open their skulls; there is no other way." How this legend started I don't know, but I think it is because the English are jealous of the Scotch. They got into the Union with them in 1707 and they can't get out. The Scotch don't want Home Rule, or Swa Raj, or Dominion status, or anything; they just want the English. When they want money they go to London and make it; if they want literary fame they sell their books to the English; and to prevent any kind of political trouble they take care to keep the Cabinet well filled with Scotchmen. The English for shame's sake can't get out of the Union, so they retaliate by saying that the Scotch have no sense of humour. But there's nothing in it. One has only to ask any of the theatrical people and they will tell you that the audiences in Glasgow and Edinburgh are the best in the British Isles--possess the best taste and the best ability to recognise what is really good.
The reason for this lies, I think, in the well-known fact that the Scotch are a truly educated people, not educated in the mere sense of having been made to go to school, but in the higher sense of having acquired an interest in books and a respect for learning. In England the higher classes alone possess this, the working class as a whole know nothing of it. But in Scotland the attitude is universal. And the more I reflect upon the subject, the more I believe that what counts most in the appreciation of humour is not nationality, but the degree of education enjoyed by the individual concerned. I do not think that there is any doubt that educated people possess a far wider range of humour than the uneducated class. Some people, of course, get overeducated and become hopelessly academic. The word "highbrow" has been invented exactly to fit the case. The sense of humour in the highbrow has become atrophied, or, to vary the metaphor, it is submerged or buried under the accumulated strata of his education, on the top soil of which flourishes a fine growth of conceit. But even in the highbrow the educated appreciation of humour is there--away down. Generally, if one attempts to amuse a highbrow he will resent it as if the process were beneath him; or perhaps the intellectual jealousy and touchiness with which he is always overcharged will lead him to retaliate with a pointless story from Plato. But if the highbrow is right off his guard and has no jealousy in his mind, you may find him roaring with laughter and wiping his spectacles, with his sides shaking, and see him converted as by magic into the merry, clever little school-boy that he was thirty years ago, before his education ossified him.
But with the illiterate and the rustic no such process is possible. His sense of humour may be there as a sense, but the mechanism for setting it in operation is limited and rudimentary. Only the broadest and most elementary forms of joke can reach him. The magnificent mechanism of the art of words is, quite literally, a sealed book to him. Here and there, indeed, a form of fun is found so elementary in its nature and yet so excellent in execution that it appeals to all alike, to the illiterate and to the highbrow, to the peasant and the professor. Such, for example, are the antics of Mr. Charles Chaplin or the depiction of Mr. Jiggs by the pencil of George McManus. But such cases are rare. As a rule the cheap fun that excites the rustic to laughter is execrable to the man of education.
In the light of what I have said before it follows that the individuals that are findable in every English or American audience are much the same. All those who lecture or act are well aware that there are certain types of people that are always to be seen somewhere in the hall. Some of these belong to the general class of discouraging people. They listen in stolid silence. No light of intelligence ever gleams on their faces; no response comes from their eyes.
I find, for example, that wherever I go there is always seated in the audience, about three seats from the front, a silent man with a big motionless face like a melon. He is always there. I have seen that man in every town or city from Richmond, Indiana, to Bournemouth in Hampshire. He haunts me. I get to expect him. I feel like nodding to him from the platform. And I find that all other lecturers have the same experience. Wherever they go the man with the big face is always there. He never laughs; no matter if the people all round him are convulsed with laughter, he sits there like a rock--or, no, like a toad--immovable. What he thinks I don't know. Why he comes to lectures I cannot guess. Once, and once only, I spoke to him, or, rather, he spoke to me. I was coming out from the lecture and found myself close to him in the corridor. It had been a rather gloomy evening; the audience had hardly laughed at all; and I know nothing sadder than a humorous lecture without laughter. The man with the big face, finding himself beside me, turned and said, "Some of them people weren't getting that to-night." His tone of sympathy seemed to imply that he had got it all himself; if so, he must have swallowed it whole without a sign. But I have since thought that this man with the big face may have his own internal form of appreciation. This much, however, I know: to look at him from the platform is fatal. One sustained look into his big, motionless face and the lecturer would be lost; inspiration would die upon one's lips--the basilisk isn't in it with him.
Personally, I no sooner see the man with the big face than instinctively I turn my eyes away. I look round the hall for another man that I know is always there, the opposite type, the little man with the spectacles. There he sits, good soul, about twelve rows back, his large spectacles beaming with appreciation and his quick face anticipating every point. I imagine him to be by trade a minor journalist or himself a writer of sorts, but with not enough of success to have spoiled him.
There are other people always there, too. There is the old lady who thinks the lecture improper; it doesn't matter how moral it is, she's out for impropriety and she can find it anywhere. Then there is another very terrible man against whom all American lecturers in England should be warned--the man who is leaving on the 9 P.M. train. English railways running into suburbs and near-by towns have a schedule which is expressly arranged to have the principal train leave before the lecture ends. Hence the 9-P.M.-train man. He sits right near the front, and at ten minutes to nine he gathers up his hat, coat, and umbrella very deliberately, rises with great calm, and walks firmly away. His air is that of a man who has stood all that he can and can bear no more. Till one knows about this man, and the others who rise after him, it is very disconcerting; at first I thought I must have said something to reflect upon the royal family. But presently the lecturer gets to understand that it is only the nine-o'clock train and that all the audience know about it. Then it's all right. It's just like the people rising and stretching themselves after the seventh innings in baseball.
In all that goes above I have been emphasising the fact that the British and the American sense of humour are essentially the same thing. But there are, of course, peculiar differences of form and peculiar preferences of material that often make them seem to diverge widely.
By this I mean that each community has, within limits, its own particular ways of being funny and its own particular conception of a joke. Thus, a Scotchman likes best a joke which he has all to himself or which he shares reluctantly with a few; the thing is too rich to distribute. The American loves particularly as his line of joke an anecdote with the point all concentrated at the end and exploding in a phrase. The Englishman loves best as his joke the narration of something that actually did happen and that depends, of course; for its point on its reality.
There are plenty of minor differences, too, in point of mere form, and very naturally each community finds the particular form used by the others less pleasing than its own. In fact, for this very reason each people is apt to think its own humour the best.
Thus, on our side of the Atlantic, to cite our own faults first, we still cling to the supposed humour of bad spelling. We have, indeed, told ourselves a thousand times over that bad spelling is not funny, but is very tiresome. Yet it is no sooner laid aside and buried than it gets resurrected. I suppose the real reason is that it is funny, at least to our eyes. When Bill Nye spells wife with "yph" we can't help being amused. Now Bill Nye's bad spelling had absolutely no point to it except its oddity. At times it was extremely funny, but as a mode it led easily to widespread and pointless imitation. It was the kind of thing--like poetry--that anybody can do badly. It was most deservedly abandoned with execration. No American editor would print it to-day. But witness the new and excellent effect produced with bad spelling by Mr. Ring W. Lardner. Here, however, the case is altered; it is not the falseness of Mr. Lardner's spelling that is the amusing feature of it, but the truth of it. When he writes, "dear friend, Al, I would of rote sooner," etc., he is truer to actual sound and intonation than the lexicon. The mode is excellent. But the imitations will soon debase it into such bad coin that it will fail to pass current. In England, however, the humour of bad spelling does not and has never, I believe, flourished. Bad spelling is only used in England as an attempt to reproduce phonetically a dialect; it is not intended that the spelling itself should be thought funny, but the dialect that it represents. But the effect, on the whole, is tiresome. A little dose of the humour of Lancashire or Somerset or Yorkshire pronunciation may be all right, but a whole page of it looks like the gibbering of chimpanzees set down on paper.
In America also we run perpetually to the (supposed) humour of slang, a form not used in England. If we were to analyse what we mean by slang I think it would be found to consist of the introduction of new metaphors or new forms of language of a metaphorical character, strained almost to the breaking point. Sometimes we do it with a single word. When some genius discovers that a "hat" is really only "a lid" placed on top of a human being, straightway the word "lid" goes rippling over the continent. Similarly a woman becomes a "skirt," and so on ad infinitum.
These words presently either disappear or else retain a permanent place, being slang no longer. No doubt half our words, if not all of them, were once slang. Even within our own memory we can see the whole process carried through; "cinch" once sounded funny; it is now standard American-English. But other slang is made up of descriptive phrases. At the best, these slang phrases are--at least we think they are--extremely funny. But they are funniest when newly coined, and it takes a master hand to coin them well. For a supreme example of wild vagaries of language used for humour, one might take O. Henry's "Gentle Grafter." But here the imitation is as easy as it is tiresome. The invention of pointless slang phrases without real suggestion or merit is one of our most familiar forms of factory-made humour. Now the English people are apt to turn away from the whole field of slang. In the first place it puzzles them--they don't know whether each particular word or phrase is a sort of idiom already known to Americans, or something (as with O. Henry) never said before and to be analysed for its own sake. The result is that with the English public the great mass of American slang writing (genius apart) doesn't go. I have even found English people of undoubted literary taste repelled from such a master as O. Henry (now read by millions in England) because at first sight they get the impression that it is "all American slang."
Another point in which American humour, or at least the form which it takes, differs notably from British, is in the matter of story telling. It was a great surprise to me the first time I went out to a dinner party in London to find that my host did not open the dinner by telling a funny story; that the guests did not then sit silent trying to "think of another"; that some one did not presently break silence by saying, "I heard a good one the other day,"--and so forth. And I realised that in this respect English society is luckier than ours.
It is my candid opinion that no man ought to be allowed to tell a funny story or anecdote without a license. We insist rightly enough that every taxi-driver must have a license, and the same principle should apply to anybody who proposes to act as a raconteur. Telling a story is a difficult thing--quite as difficult as driving a taxi. And the risks of failure and accident and the unfortunate consequences of such to the public, if not exactly identical, are, at any rate, analogous.
This is a point of view not generally appreciated. A man is apt to think that just because he has heard a good story he is able and entitled to repeat it. He might as well undertake to do a snake dance merely because he has seen Madame Pavlowa do one. The point of a story is apt to lie in the telling, or at least to depend upon it in a, high degree. Certain stories, it is true, depend so much on the final point, or "nub," as we Americans call it, that they are almost fool-proof. But even these can be made so prolix and tiresome, can be so messed up with irrelevant detail, that the general effect is utter weariness relieved by a kind of shock at the end. Let me illustrate what I mean by a story with a "nub" or point. I will take one of the best known, so as to make no claim to originality--for example, the famous anecdote of the man who wanted to be "put off at Buffalo." Here it is:
A man entered a sleeping-car and said to the porter, "At what time do we get to Buffalo?" The porter answered, "At half-past three in the morning, sir." "All right," the man said; "now I want to get off at Buffalo, and I want you to see that I get off. I sleep heavily and I'm hard to rouse. But you just make me wake up, don't mind what I say, don't pay attention if I kick about it, just put me off, do you see?" "All right, sir," said the porter. The man got into his berth and fell fast asleep. He never woke or moved till it was broad daylight and the train was a hundred miles beyond Buffalo. He called angrily to the porter, "See here, you, didn't I tell you to put me off at Buffalo?" The porter looked at him, aghast. "Well, I declare to goodness, boss!" he exclaimed; "if it wasn't you, who was that man that I threw off this train at half-past three at Buffalo?"
Now this story is as nearly fool-proof as can be. And yet it is amazing how badly it can be messed up by a person with a special gift for mangling a story. He does it something after this fashion:
"There was a fellow got on the train one night and he had a berth reserved for Buffalo; at least the way I heard it, it was Buffalo, though I guess, as a matter of fact, you might tell it on any other town just as well--or no, I guess he didn't have his berth reserved, he got on the train and asked the porter for a reservation for Buffalo--or, anyway, that part doesn't matter--say that he had a berth for Buffalo or any other place, and the porter came through and said, 'Do you want an early call?'--or no, he went to the porter--that was it--and said--"
But stop. The rest of the story becomes a mere painful waiting for the end.
Of course the higher type of funny story is the one that depends for its amusing quality not on the final point, or not solely on it, but on the wording and the narration all through. This is the way in which a story is told by a comedian or a person who is a raconteur in the real sense. When Sir Harry Lauder narrates an incident, the telling of it is funny from beginning to end. When some lesser person tries to repeat it afterwards, there is nothing left but the final point. The rest is weariness.
As a consequence most story-tellers are driven to telling stories that depend on the point or "nub" and not on the narration. The storyteller gathers these up till he is equipped with a sort of little repertory of fun by which he hopes to surround himself with social charm. In America especially (by which I mean here the United States and Canada, but not Mexico) we suffer from the story-telling habit. As far as I am able to judge, English society is not pervaded and damaged by the story-telling habit as much as is society in the United States and Canada. On our side of the Atlantic story-telling at dinners and on every other social occasion has become a curse. In every phase of social and intellectual life one is haunted by the funny anecdote. Any one who has ever attended a Canadian or American banquet will recall the solemn way in which the chairman rises and says: "Gentlemen, it is to me a very great pleasure and a very great honour to preside at this annual dinner. There was an old darky once--" and so forth. When he concludes he says, "I will now call upon the Rev. Dr. Stooge, Head of the Provincial University, Haroe English Any Sense of Humour? to propose the toast 'Our Dominion.'" Dr. Stooge rises amid great applause and with great solemnity begins, "There were once two Irishmen--" and so on to the end. But in London, England, it is apparently not so. Not long ago I had the pleasure of meeting at dinner a member of the Government. I fully anticipated that as a member of the Government he would be expected to tell a funny story about an old darky, just as he would on our side of the water. In fact, I should have supposed that he could hardly get into the Government unless he did tell a funny story of some sort. But all through dinner the Cabinet Minister never said a word about either a Methodist minister, or a commercial traveller, or an old darky, or two Irishmen, or any of the stock characters of the American repertory. On another occasion I dined with a bishop of the Church. I expected that when the soup came he would say, "There was an old darky--" After which I should have had to listen with rapt attention, and, when he had finished, without any pause, rejoin, "There were a couple of Irishmen once--" and so on. But the bishop never said a word of the sort.
I can further, for the sake of my fellow-men in Canada and the United States who may think of going to England, vouchsafe the following facts: If you meet a director of the Bank of England, he does not say: "I am very glad to meet you. Sit down. There was a mule in Arkansas once," etc. How they do their banking without that mule I don't know. But they manage it. I can certify also that if you meet the proprietor of a great newspaper he will not begin by saying, "There was a Scotchman once." In fact, in England, you can mingle freely in general society without being called upon either to produce a funny story or to suffer from one.
I don't mean to deny that the American funny story, in capable hands, is amazingly funny and that it does brighten up human intercourse. But the real trouble lies, not in the fun of the story, but in the painful waiting for the point to come and in the strained and anxious silence that succeeds it. Each person around the dinner table is trying to "think of another." There is a dreadful pause. The hostess puts up a prayer that some one may "think of another." Then at last, to the relief of everybody, some one says: "I heard a story the other day--I don't know whether you've heard it--" And the grateful cries of "No! no! go ahead" show how great the tension has been.
Nine times out of ten the people have heard the story before; and ten times out of nine the teller damages it in the telling. But his hearers are grateful to him for having saved them from the appalling mantle of silence and introspection which had fallen upon the table. For the trouble is that when once two or three stories have been told it seems to be a point of honour not to subside into mere conversation. It seems rude, when a story-teller has at last reached the triumphant ending and climax of the mule from Arkansas, it seems impolite, to follow it up by saying, "I see that Germany refuses to pay the indemnity." It can't be done. Either the mule or the indemnity--one can't have both.
The English, I say, have not developed the American custom of the funny story as a form of social intercourse. But I do not mean to say that they are sinless in this respect. As I see it, they hand round in general conversation something nearly as bad in the form of what one may call the literal anecdote or personal experience. By this I refer to the habit of narrating some silly little event that has actually happened to them or in their sight, which they designate as "screamingly funny," and which was perhaps very funny when it happened but which is not the least funny in the telling. The American funny story is imaginary. It never happened. Somebody presumably once made it up. It is fiction. Thus there must once have been some great palpitating brain, some glowing imagination, which invented the story of the man who was put off at Buffalo. But the English "screamingly funny" story is not imaginary. It really did happen. It is an actual personal experience. In short, it is not fiction but history.
I think--if one may say it with all respect--that in English society girls and women are especially prone to narrate these personal experiences as contributions to general merriment rather than the men. The English girl has a sort of traditional idea of being amusing; the English man cares less about it. He prefers facts to fancy every time, and as a rule is free from that desire to pose as a humourist which haunts the American mind. So it comes about that most of the "screamingly funny" stories are told in English society by the women. Thus the counterpart of "put me off at Buffalo" done into English would be something like this: "We were so amused the other night in the sleeping-car going to Buffalo. There was the most amusing old negro making the beds, a perfect scream, you know, and he kept insisting that if we wanted to get up at Buffalo we must all go to bed at nine o'clock. He positively wouldn't let us sit up--I mean to say it was killing the way he wanted to put us to bed. We all roared !"
Please note that roar at the end of the English personal anecdote. It is the sign that indicates that the story is over. When you are assured by the narrators that all the persons present "roared" or "simply roared," then you can be quite sure that the humorous incident is closed and that laughter is in place.
Now, as a matter of fact, the scene with the darky porter may have been, when it really happened, most amusing. But not a trace of it gets over in the story. There is nothing but the bare assertion that it was "screamingly funny" or "simply killing." But the English are such an honest people that when they say this sort of thing they believe one another and they laugh.
But, after all, why should people insist on telling funny stories at all? Why not be content to buy the works of some really first-class humourist and read them aloud in proper humility of mind without trying to emulate them? Either that or talk theology.
On my own side of the Atlantic I often marvel at our extraordinary tolerance and courtesy to one another in the matter of story-telling. I have never seen a bad story-teller thrown forcibly out of the room or even stopped and warned; we listen with the most wonderful patience to the worst of narration. The story is always without any interest except in the unknown point that will be brought in later. But this, until it does come, is no more interesting than to-morrow's breakfast. Yet for some reason or other we permit this story-telling habit to invade and damage our whole social life. The English always criticise this and think they are absolutely right. To my mind in their social life they give the "funny story" its proper place and room and no more. That is to say--if ten people draw their chairs in to the dinner table and somebody really has just heard a story and wants to tell it, there is no reason against it. If he says, "Oh, by the way, I heard a good story to-day," it is just as if he said, "Oh, by the way, I heard a piece of news about John Smith." It is quite admissible as conversation. But he doesn't sit down to try to think, along with nine other rival thinkers, of all the stories that he had heard, and that makes all the difference.
The Scotch, by the way, resemble us in liking to tell and hear stories. But they have their own line. They like the stories to be grim, dealing in a jocose way with death and funerals. The story begins (will the reader kindly turn it into Scotch pronunciation for himself), "There was a Sandy MacDonald had died and the wife had the body all laid out for burial and dressed up very fine in his best suit," etc. Now for me that beginning is enough. To me that is not a story, but a tragedy. I am so sorry for Mrs. MacDonald that I can't think of anything else. But I think the explanation is that the Scotch are essentially such a devout people and live so closely within the shadow of death itself that they may without irreverence or pain jest where our lips would falter. Or else, perhaps they don't care a cuss whether Sandy MacDonald died or not. Take it either way.
But I am tired of talking of our faults. Let me turn to the more pleasing task of discussing those of the English. In the first place, and as a minor matter of form, I think that English humour suffers from the tolerance afforded to the pun. For some reason English people find puns funny. We don't. Here and there, no doubt, a pun may be made that for some exceptional reason becomes a matter of genuine wit. But the great mass of the English puns that disfigure the Press every week are mere pointless verbalisms that to the American mind cause nothing but weariness.
But even worse than the use of puns is the peculiar pedantry, not to say priggishness, that haunts the English expression of humour. To make a mistake in a Latin quotation or to stick on a wrong ending to a Latin word is not really an amusing thing. To an ancient Roman, perhaps, it might be. But then we are not ancient Romans; indeed, I imagine that if an ancient Roman could be resurrected, all the Latin that any of our classical scholars can command would be about equivalent to the French of a cockney waiter on a Channel steamer. Yet one finds even the immortal Punch citing recently as a very funny thing a newspaper misquotation of "urbis et orbis" instead of "urbi et orbos," or the other way round. I forget which. Perhaps there was some further point in it that I didn't see, but, anyway, it wasn't funny. Neither is it funny if a person, instead of saying Archimedes, says Archimeeds; why shouldn't it have been Archimeeds? The English scale of values in these things is all wrong. Very few Englishmen can pronounce Chicago properly and they think nothing of that. But if a person mispronounces the name of a Greek village of what O. Henry called "The Year B.C." it is supposed to be excruciatingly funny.
I think in reality that this is only a part of the overdone scholarship that haunts so much of English writing--not the best of it, but a lot of it. It is too full of allusions and indirect references to all sorts of extraneous facts. The English writer finds it hard to say a plain thing in a plain way. He is too anxious to show in every sentence what a fine scholar he is. He carries in his mind an accumulated treasure of quotations, allusions, and scraps and tags of history, and into this, like Jack Horner, he must needs "stick in his thumb and pull out a plum." Instead of saying, "It is a fine morning," he prefers to write, "This is a day of which one might say with the melancholy Jacques, it is a fine morning."
Hence it is that many plain American readers find English humour "highbrow." Just as the English are apt to find our humour "slangy" and "cheap," so we find theirs academic and heavy. But the difference, after all, is of far less moment than might be supposed. It lies only on the surface. Fundamentally, as I said in starting, the humour of the two peoples is of the same kind and on an equal level.
There is one form of humour which the English have more or less to themselves, nor do I envy it to them. I mean the merriment that they appear able to draw out of the criminal courts. To me a criminal court is a place of horror, and a murder trial the last word in human tragedy. The English criminal courts I know only from the newspapers and ask no nearer acquaintance. But according to the newspapers the courts, especially when a murder case is on, are enlivened by flashes of judicial and legal humour that seem to meet with general approval. The current reports in the Press run like this:
"The prisoner, who is being tried on a charge of having burned his wife to death in a furnace, was placed in the dock and gave his name as Evans. Did he say 'Evans or Ovens?' asked Mr. Justice Blank. The court broke into a roar, in which all joined but the prisoner. . . ." Or take this: "How many years did you say you served the last time?" asked the judge. "Three," said the prisoner. "Well, twice three is six," said the judge, laughing till his sides shook; "so I'll give you six years."
I don't say that those are literal examples of the humour of the criminal court. But they are close to it. For a judge to joke is as easy as it is for a schoolmaster to joke in his class. His unhappy audience has no choice but laughter. No doubt in point of intellect the English judges and the bar represent the most highly trained product of the British Empire. But when it comes to fun, they ought not to pit themselves against the unhappy prisoner.
Why not take a man of their own size? For true amusement Mr. Charles Chaplin or Mr. Leslie Henson could give them sixty in a hundred. I even think I could myself.
One final judgment, however, might with due caution be hazarded. I do not think that, on the whole, the English are quite as fond of humour as we are. I mean they are not so willing to welcome at all times the humorous point of view as we are in America. The English are a serious people, with many serious things to think of--football, horse racing, dogs, fish, and many other concerns that demand much national thought: they have so many national preoccupations of this kind that they have less need for jokes than we have. They have higher things to talk about, whereas on our side of the water, except when the World's Series is being played, we have few, if any, truly national topics.
And yet I know that many people in England would exactly reverse this last judgment and say that the Americans are a desperately serious people. That in a sense is true. Any American who takes up with an idea such as New Thought, Psychoanalysis or Eating Sawdust, or any "uplift" of the kind becomes desperately lopsided in his seriousness, and as a very large number of us cultivate New Thought, or practise breathing exercises, or eat sawdust, no doubt the English visitors think us a desperate lot.
Anyway, it's an ill business to criticise another people's shortcomings. What I said at the start was that the British are just as humorous as are the Americans, or the Canadians, or any of us across the Atlantic, and for greater Certainty I repeat it at the end.