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
music Malik left the Asian leg of the band's world tour after being signed off with stress last week
News
Author J.K. Rowling attends photocall ahead of her reading from 'The Casual Vacancy' at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on September 27, 2012 in London, England.
peopleNot the first time the author has defended Dumbledore's sexuality
News
‘The Late Late Show’ presenter James Corden is joined by Mila Kunis and Tom Hanks for his first night as host
news
Arts and Entertainment
Joanne Harris, author of Chocolat and Blackberry Wine, wrote a blog post attacking the app and questioning its apparent 'strong Christian bias'
books
Arts and Entertainment
Leading light: Sharma in London

books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall

Mexican government reportedly paying Bond producers for positive portrayal in new filmfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Disney’s flying baby elephant is set to return in live-action format
filmWith sequels, prequels and spin-offs, Disney plays it safe... and makes a pachyderm
Arts and Entertainment
Nazrin with Syf, Camden
photography
News
The QI Elves photographed at the Soho Theatre. They are part of a team of researchers who find facts for the television programme 'QI'.
people
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv0-star review: Sean O'Grady gives it his best shot anyway
News
Brooke Magnanti believes her reputation has been damaged by the claim
books
Arts and Entertainment
A large fire has broken out in London's historic Battersea Arts Centre
art
Arts and Entertainment
Orla Brady as Anne Meredith, MyAnna Buring as Elizabeth Quinn and Joanna Vanderham as Katherine McVitie in Banished
tvReview: Despite the gritty setting, this drama is as fluffy and soppy as a soap opera
Arts and Entertainment
Julianne Moore and co-director Richard Glatzer, standing, on the set during the filming of ‘Still Alice’ in New York
film
Arts and Entertainment
Great British Sewing Bee finalist Matt Chapple
tvReview: He wowed the judges with an avant garde dress
Arts and Entertainment
Driven to the edge: 'Top Gear' producer Oisin Tymon is said to have had a row with Clarkson
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Nazi officer Matthias Schoenaerts embarks on an affair with married French woman Michelle Williams in 'Suite Francaise'
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Prime movers: Caitriona Balfe (centre) and the cast of Outlander
TV
News
Feasting with panthers: Keynes
books
Arts and Entertainment
Strung out: Mumford & Sons
music
Arts and Entertainment
Avant-garde: Bjork
music
Arts and Entertainment
Despite a decade of reform, prosecutions and convictions of rape has remained consistently low
arts + entsAcademic and author Joanna Bourke in warning to arts world
Arts and Entertainment
Electro Velvet, made up of Alex Larke and Bianca Nicholas, will represent the UK at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015
music
  • Get to the point
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.

    The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

    The saffron censorship that governs India

    Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
    Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

    How did fandom get so dark?

    Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
    The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
    The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

    Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

    Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
    Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

    Disney's mega money-making formula

    'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
    Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

    14 best Easter decorations

    Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
    Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss
    Tony Blair joins a strange and exclusive club of political leaders whose careers have been blighted by the Middle East

    Blair has joined a strange and exclusive club

    A new tomb has just gone up in the Middle East's graveyard of US and British political reputations, says Patrick Cockburn
    Election 2015: Meet the top 12 wacky candidates seeking your vote in May

    Election 2015

    Meet the top 12 wacky candidates seeking your vote in May