Let me explain by way of a story.
There was once an American jazz guitarist called Eddie Condon who in the Thirties was roused to indignation by the arrival in America of Hugues Panassie. Panassie was a French jazz critic and record-producer who had come over to the States to supervise a few recording sessions using American jazz musicians. Bad enough his being European - but French! "How come this French guy is coming over here to show us how to make jazz records properly?" seethed Condon. "Do I tell him how to jump on a grape?"
Well, that is the story. It is not, however, the whole story. Because Condon had a gift for that kind of phrase (I remember him once writing: "I arrived at the club in a state of perfect equilibrium - half man, half whisky...") and his gift obviously appealed to the jazz-loving Alistair Cooke, whom I once heard recounting the story about Panassie on the radio. The odd thing was that Cooke got it wrong. He told it all right as far as the punch line, but then had Condon say: "Do I tell him how to jump up and down on grapes?"
Obviously, this punch line means the same thing. Equally obviously, it is wrong. It is much funnier for the grape to be in the singular, for Condon to say: "Jump on a grape", both because the tone is more contemptuous, and because the image of a Frenchman jumping up and down on a single grape is funny. But Cooke got it wrong. And I wondered how a man like Cooke could get it wrong.
I wondered again on Sunday, when listening to Desert Island Discs, how a good actor like Warren Mitchell could get a story wrong. He told Sue Lawley that he knew a funny Jewish story about a desert island, in that tone of voice which made it clear he was about to tell it. I wondered if it was the same one I had been told long ago, the one about the Jew who is rescued after years of being marooned on a desert island, and who is asked by the rescuing naval officer why, after years of solitary building on this otherwise unoccupied island, there are now two synagogues.
"Well, you see that one over there?" says the Jewish castaway. "That's the one we don't go to."
It was indeed the same story that Warren Mitchell was going to tell, with its same delicious overtones of snobbishness, exclusivity and intolerance common to all religions. But he told it rather differently. In his version the two synagogues are specifically Orthodox and Reform, and when asked why there are two, the Jewish castaway says: "See that one over here? That's the Reform Synagogue. I wouldn't be seen dead in there!"
It doesn't work that way, does it? You can see why, without being able to pinpoint it, but it's something to do with losing the casual dismissiveness, the offhand, throwaway intolerance of "That's the one we don't go to..."
Like most people, I probably don't tell jokes very well myself (and don't often try), but like most people I can see why others get it wrong, and am often tempted to help them. Luckily, I resist this temptation. It would be inviting disaster, not to say a punch on the nose, to take a man aside and say: "Look, that joke you didn't tell very well just now, and which didn't get much of a laugh - I think I could help you improve it..." It would be about as tactful as taking him aside before his marriage and telling him he's marrying the wrong girl, or criticising the way he drives a car...
In fact, there is a whole bunch of activities in which we never get properly instructed, and have to pick up from behind the bike sheds, as it were, and never really get right. Telling jokes is one. Marrying is another. Then there's making love, parenting, dealing with dogs, catching a barman's eye, tying a bow-tie... all those things that we have to attempt at some time, and usually get wrong without admitting it, and never learn to do properly.
That's what my series of evening classes is going to be all about, in fact. No basket-weaving or pottery. Just classes in things like telling funny stories properly, whistling with two fingers in your mouth, riding a bicycle, making shadow figures on the wall, brewing your own whisky...
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