Miles Kington: We have the technology to make anyone funny

'There must have been good jokes about stagecoach travel, canal trade, tall ships. Where are they now?'
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The Independent Online

There's a series going out at the moment on Radio 4 about Peter Sellers, in which they have dug up some very early recordings of his first outings on TV and radio. One sketch, now 50 years old, was particularly interesting, because it depended on your knowledge of technology to make you laugh. We tend to think that technology is something that happens only today, but of course the history of technology covers the invention of gunpowder and construction of the pyramids, as well as mobile phones...

Anyway, Sellers played the part of a Hungarian professor who had just arrived in Britain. He spoke quite good English. But halfway through every sentence he made a sizzling noise. "I am very glad to be here in Britain where sizzle sizzle fizz pop the weather is so nice and cool..."

"Where did you learn to speak such good English?" said the interviewer.

"Oh, by listening to... crickle crackle fizzle... short wave radio," said Sellers as the Hungarian.

Nice idea. But funny? Not really now. Technology has moved on. You might still make jokes about interference on police messages on short wave, but the vagaries of long-distance radio..?

The last comedian whom I can remember doing it was, of all people, Kingsley Amis. Somewhere in the bowels of the BBC archives there is a recording of Amis doing his imitation of President Roosevelt doing a radio broadcast to Europe.

It was quite a good imitation of an American president. But what made it special was that he incorporated the fading and strengthening of transatlantic radio signals into his imitation, so that a straight American accent would gradually descend into total interference and then rise above it again. Clever stuff. Funny. Or it would be, if we had ever listened to wartime broadcasts ebb and flow in that manner and knew what he was parodying.

Every time technology advances, it brings new jokes and kills old jokes,and when that new advance is superseded, the new jokes die with it. There must have been good jokes about stagecoach travel. About canal trade. About tall ships and hot-air balloons. Where are they now?

Even phone jokes live and die. In my youth there was a riddle about the Pope: Q. What's the Pope's phone number? A. VAT 69. Impossible to tell that joke now, because we don't have letters in phone numbers, certainly not abbreviations like REG for Regent, or VAT for Vatican, and maybe we don't have VAT 69 whisky any more either, which I would know for sure one way or the other if I had a research department.

Incidentally, would you like another long-lost phone joke? Of course you would. Here we go: Q. A man has lost his hat. What is his phone number? A. AVEnue 1 ( ='Ave a new one... ).

Here's another one. Q. His brother loses his hat as well. What is his phone number? A. AVEnue 12. ( 'Ave a new one, too. ) Pretty hot stuff, eh? But they make no sense in an all-digital age.

There was a time when I played the double bass in the brilliant cabaret quartet Instant Sunshine, and one of our surefire numbers was the imitation of an old 78 record player that went too slow, and then stuck in a groove, and then went too fast. Believe me, it was very funny. But not everyone laughed, and among those there must have been some who had never seen a 78 player in action. I myself have an old 78 player in my possession, and when I wind it up and demonstrate it to visiting children, they go very quiet at the idea that quite good sound reproduction can be obtained without the benefit of electricity, but none of them ever expresses a desire to have one.

And now we come to the modern era, and to such jokes as the one perpetrated on Ned Sherrin's Radio 4 programme Loose Ends by the man calling himself Crichton Wheeler, who purported to have Splicer's Disease and spoke as if his sentences had been badly tape-edited. (It was quite funny the first time round. It was just a shame that Sherrin elected to have him on his programme week after week after week, as it was always the same joke.)

And beyond that we have all the computer jokes and all the text-messaging jokes and all the mobile-phone jokes, stretching away to eternity, and I might tell you some if I knew any, but all I know about them for certain is this: one day not too far away they will all in their turn be as dead and buried as jokes about semaphore and Morse code.