Books: A blast of Jacobson's Organ

John Lloyd sizes up a theory of comedy that stretches its point

Seriously Funny: from the ridiculous to the sublime by Howard Jacobson, Viking, pounds 20

This is a rich but indigestible bouillabaisse of a book; a prodigious mix of the whole canon of western thought about comedy from Aristophanes, Rabelais, Baudelaire, Jung, Freud and Bergson at one end to Bernard Manning, Jo Brand, Roy "Chubby" Brown and Les Patterson at the other. So who am I, a simple jokeherd toiling at the Mount of Bottoms, to say that after all that research the author doesn't know what he's talking about? Either that, or he does know but has no intention of sharing it with us, viz: "Comedy is invariably on the side of plenitude; it is expansionist not reductive; it knows that less means less and only more means more". Any the wiser? Nor me.

Howard Jacobson has his moments, with interesting things to say and vivid ways of saying them; but too often he's tempted to be, like Jonathan Miller, "too clever by three-quarters". The list of names above gives you a pretty good idea of how the book works. Either it's expatiating on the theories of discredited old misery-guts like Bergson and Freud or it's ankle-deep in knob-gags. There are no half-measures. The often impenetrable prose is lavishly nuggeted with erudition, like smarties on a child's cake. I nodded off a few times, only to be jolted awake by another of Jacobson's huge range of false penises staring me in the face. Like a Dutch girl I know, forced to take the traditional stroll through Amsterdam the night before her wedding with a dildo strapped to her forehead, Jacobson too has de penis on de brain.

He claims that "The entire experience of theatre-going, for the Greeks, was phallus-centred." Just as you're beginning to wonder whether that might not be a bit of an exaggeration, he whips out a vase displaying a satyr balancing a wine-jug on his knob and then he's off: "If that makes satyr the earliest comedian, later comedians have not failed to learn from him. Herakles has his club. Harlequin his batte. Grimaldi his stove- poker. Punch his universal cudgel. The jester his marotte and bladder. Ken Dodd's tickling stick is clearly in the ithyphallic tradition."

I love that "clearly". Clear is what it is not: less than one reader in cent mille knows what ithyphallic means. Patronising it is, bien sur, and also cojones. Occam's razor: of two alternatives, choose the simplest. A tickling stick is what it says it is, a stick which offers the threat or promise of being tickled. Up yer undercarriage, missus, to be sure; but that doesn't stop it being a feather duster.

If there is even a hint of a sentient being holding something in its paw, from Sooty to a statue of Queen Victoria, then to Jacobson it's a cock. Now, it was I who once convinced the Controller of BBC2 to broadcast the Cunnilingus Song. Genitals tickle me as much as the next man. But this is commitment of a different order. After 85 pages of knobs and arses, Hopi Indians lobbing shit at each other, satyrs balancing amphorae on stiffies and Scandinavian deities plaiting their pubic regions to goats' beards, I thought: "is this guy getting enough?"

I looked him up on the fly-leaf. Goaty-looking feller. Beard. Priapic proboscis; shagged-out looking eye. Then I had my Britannica CD Rom search for "jacobson". The very first entry it threw up was: "Jacobson's Organ: region of chemically sensitive nerve endings in the oral cavity (my italics) of many vertebrate animals. Jacobson's organ is most strongly present in snakes". This richly phallic passage is more than just a striking coincidence. It is an explanation. What do you expect? Jacobson's Organ is more famous than he is.

There's another odd thing about this book. Like that new novel by Sean French and Nicci Gerrard, it seems to be written by two people. One is the Jacobson who was "born in Manchester in 1942"; the other the Jacobson who "studied English under F R Leavis". The Mancunian is responsible for most of the best bits. He has a lively, expressive style. He makes jokes, is painfully honest, and has the advantage that he writes almost exclusively in English.

The Leavisite, I suspect, may not be a person at all but some form of software. He's a Eurothesaurus, perhaps, with a simultaneous translator function and a bizarre taste for Zuni and Hopi pueblo clowns who drink urine and chuck poo at each other.

The first bloke is a nervous, touchy individual with a larger than usual personal space, frightened of clowns, spiders and teenagers, who lurches alarmingly between weeping and contempt. He's like some anatomical diagram of a person, all his insides spread out to view. His academic alter ego is altogether more dispassionate. And very well read. I suppose we all ought to know what an apophthegm is, but anhedonic, evaginations, agelast?

Anyway, one Jacobson sets off round the world to find out why people laugh for the accompanying Channel 4 series. He doesn't have much fun. People jostle him. They have pustules. They smell of vinegar. He is nearly thumped by a Navajo Indian; a Venetian harlequin tries to pull off his nose at the Carnival.

Meanwhile, the other Jacobson tours fifth-century BC Athens, the Commedia dell'Arte, the Middle Ages etc, meeting only poets, psychologists and philosophers. They neither jostle nor smell. They opine.

The trouble is that citing learned authority has never been any guarantee of truth. No-one's right about everything. Take Aristotle. How seriously can we take his assurances on comedy, when he also assures us that the universe revolves around the earth? Quoting Bergson's line that "the attitudes, gestures and movements of the body are laughable in exact proportion as that body reminds us of a mere machine" is to be expected. But did no- one laugh before the invention of machinery?

In the contest for the best lines, the comics beat the philosophers hands down. Bernard Manning, for instance: "They say you are what you eat - I'm a cunt". It's a great joke, if you like that sort of thing, but Jacobson's comment? "Good to be reminded that there's a bit of a gourmand and a bit of a pig in all of us".

A bit of a gourmand? If you ever have the misfortune, as I once did, to watch Bernard Manning eating a sandwich, Hopi shit-throwing ceremonies will hold no terrors for you. What's funny about such jokes is not that they are rude or "remind us of our animality" - that's incidental - but that they're clever. They make completely unexpected, but logical connections between disconnected things. The other reason Manning gets the laugh is because it's true. He is a cunt, he knows it, and we know it. He no more reminds anyone of themselves than a pile of rotting antelope flesh resembles a clarinet.

It is not animality, or mortality or all that stuff we feel when offered a good joke. It is delight: delight at the unexpectedness, the neatness, the logic of the uncoupling of the mind from one train of thought to another.

But what's Jacobson getting at under his mound of arses? Here's the nub: "If comedy, in all its changing shapes, has one overriding preoccupation, it is ...that we resemble beasts more closely than we resemble gods, and we make great fools of ourselves the moment we forget it". He enlists Bergson: "Laughter cannot be absolutely just. Nor should it be kindhearted either. Its function is to intimidate by humiliating."

I'd guess this book comes from a man without children. No-one who lives with a one-year-old, whose gurgling hilarity clearly comes from nothing more sinister than the sheer merriment of being alive, of being able to walk, of having a mummy who loves you, could have written it. The comedy of cruelty is only one kind of comedy. Plenty of funny things have nothing to do with the body's mortality or phalluses.

It seems to me that Howard Jacobson's view is so one-sided precisely because he lacks a sense of being alive. He won't join in. Anything pagan, remote, foreign or ancient, no matter how gross or stinky, is "exuberant". But let him go to Blackpool pier and he is moaning about the weather, the tea, the hotel and the "shit in the shops, shit on the beach, shit in the amusement arcades". Pueblo shit, oh, mahhvellous. Shit shit, he don't like.

Touchingly, he says as much himself. After the horrible experience in Venice, he staggers back depressed to a cafe: "How vitalizing carnival looks on the printed page. How irresistible in all its communal contortions... As long as you never have to leave the house". Despite it all, I felt quite sorry for the guy.

John Lloyd is a comedy producer who started "The News Quiz", "Not The Nine O'Clock News", "Spitting Image" and "Blackadder"

Arts and Entertainment

photography
Arts and Entertainment
Adolf Hitler's 1914 watercolour 'Altes Rathaus' and the original invoice from 1916

art
Arts and Entertainment
Scare tactics: Michael Palin and Jodie Comer in ‘Remember Me’

TVReview: Remember Me, BBC1
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tvThe two new contestants will join the 'I'm A Celebrity' camp after Gemma Collins' surprise exit
News
The late Jimmy Ruffin, pictured in 1974
people
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Northern Uproar, pictured in 1996
people

Jeff Fletcher found fame in 1990s

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the new Paddington bear review

Review: Paddingtonfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Tony stares at the 'Daddy Big Ears' drawing his abducted son Oliver drew for him in The Missing
tvReview: But we're no closer to the truth in 'The Missing'
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

music
Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Len Goodman appeared to mutter the F-word after Simon Webbe's Strictly performance

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T makes his long-awaited return to the London stage
musicReview: Alexandra Palace, London
Arts and Entertainment
S Club 7 back in 2001 when they also supported 'Children in Need'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Bruce Forsyth rejoins Tess Daly to host the Strictly Come Dancing Children in Need special
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan plays Christian Grey getting ready for work

Film More romcom than S&M

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Review: The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
The comedian Daniel O'Reilly appeared contrite on BBC Newsnight last night

comedy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    In a world of Saudi bullying, right-wing Israeli ministers and the twilight of Obama, Iran is looking like a possible policeman of the Gulf

    Iran is shifting from pariah to possible future policeman of the Gulf

    Robert Fisk on our crisis with Iran
    The young are the new poor: A third of young people pushed into poverty

    The young are the new poor

    Sharp increase in the number of under-25s living in poverty
    Greens on the march: ‘We could be on the edge of something very big’

    Greens on the march

    ‘We could be on the edge of something very big’
    Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby - through the stories of his accusers

    Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby

    Through the stories of his accusers
    Why are words like 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?

    The Meaning of Mongol

    Why are the words 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?
    Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

    Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

    Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
    Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

    The last Christians in Iraq

    After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
    Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Britain braced for Black Friday
    Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

    From America's dad to date-rape drugs

    Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

    The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
    Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
    Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

    Flogging vlogging

    First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

    US channels wage comedy star wars
    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

    When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible