Books: A blast of Jacobson's Organ
John Lloyd sizes up a theory of comedy that stretches its point
John Lloyd is a television producer whose credits include ‘Spitting Image’ and ‘QI’. His ‘1,339 QI Facts to Make Your Jaw Drop’, co-authored with John Mitchinson, is published by Faber. ‘Spitting Image’ is at the Cartoon Museum, 35 Little Russell Street, London WC1A 2HH until 1 June
Saturday 01 February 1997
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"
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