Media Types: The humour columnist: Laugh? I nearly wrote a column about it

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The Independent Online
THAT'S him, over there in the corner, the one scanning six newspapers at once, scribbling on a legal pad as he whispers into a dictaphone; the one who looks as if he is about to cry, even when he laughs. That's the humour columnist, writes Mat Coward.

Don't bother trying to engage him in badinage, you're unlikely to get a civil grunt out of him, let alone a joke. He doesn't mean to be rude - except when he's being paid for it - but he's got rather a lot on his mind right now. And none of it is very funny.

For a start, he has just wasted an afternoon churning out 800 light-hearted words on post-Communist dictatorships for Budgerigar Review and it was not until he was halfway through a savagely ironic account of 'The things caged birds say]' for Euro-Left Today that he realised he had his assignments mixed up again.

Then everyone expects him to be verbally witty, just because he can do it in print. At least, he thinks that is what everyone expects of him; in fact, they expect nothing of the sort because they have all read his 'stuff'.

And if that isn't bad enough, he's been reading his competitors' stuff. That always gets him down because it's so obvious that they - unlike him - dash off their brilliant work in less time than it takes to make a cup of Ovaltine. (All humorists drink Ovaltine; they also dress soberly and live in maisonettes. Not because of any clown/Hamlet complex, but because as teenagers they were too busy developing a style to acquire any.)

The humorist knows this is a tough, ugly, deeply unfunny world, against which his only ally is the valuable squint in his inner eye, which is liable to correct itself - 'with disastrous consequences]' - at any moment. His natural enemy is the sub-editor, who may be defined (frequently is, indeed, by plagiaristic humorists) as a person who never sees a joke, not even by appointment. The first law of subdom is that if any line in a column is to be cut, or any word fundamentally misspelt, then let it be the one that carries the point of the entire piece. If the humorist deliberately misspells a word for comic effect, the sub will correct it.

Even worse is the editor who glances through an article on political correctness - probably written by a humorist, though she couldn't be expected to realise that - and decides that what her pet columnist's copy needs is ethical cleansing. It is pretty well impossible to maintain comic rhythm in an article littered with him/hers and s/hes.

When a humorist has an idea that actually makes him laugh, watch out. Successful drug pushers don't shoot up, ambitious pimps don't sample their merchandise and busy humorists rarely have the time, or the inclination, to engage in self-amuse (sic]).

So if the man who writes the funny bits should ever, by chance, manage to write a bit that even he finds funny, he's likely to become obsessed with it. Next time he gets stuck for a wacky hook on which to hang a blistering broadside against the Government's local authority reforms he'll think, 'Hey, I know] I'll do that thing again where I turn all the politicians into characters from Dr Who] Hell, if it makes me smile, it's got to be good]'

That's one explanation for a phenomenon that often puzzles readers: 'Why do these people keep writing the some damn column, over and over again?' Another, more practical, answer might be: 'You try being freshly funny every day, clever-clogs, and see how long you last.'