Howard Jacobson: There's only one thing a sense of humour will get you – and that's into trouble

As long as you keep making jokes you don’t have to listen to anybody else

Share
Related Topics

I'm under orders to stop being entertaining, or if that sounds vain, to stop trying to be entertaining. Doctor's orders. Wife's orders. Friends' orders. Enough with the jokes. And don't say, "Enough with the jokes, already", because that sounds as though you're still trying to be entertaining.

At one level this isn't difficult to obey. Nothing is that funny any more. The how many houses has Jacqui Smith fiasco – husband watching blue movies in the one in Redditch, policemen counting the number of nights she is at home in the one in south London, something about rooming with her sister, the feeling you get that at any moment she will claim she has been rooming with you – reader, it's no longer amusing. Ditto Gordon Brown's daily discomfiture. Ditto the idea of Cameron doing any better. Ditto a new novel by Dan Brown. Ditto – while we're on books, and what could be less amusing than books – the ex-X Factor winner Leona Lewis signing copies of her autobiography at Waterstones.

Her what? Her autobiography. Leona Lewis is 24 and she, or someone, has written her autobiography. Should be funny but isn't. Should be funny that countless thousands of young girls will be buying it to learn how they too can become an ex-X Factor winner and write, or have someone else write, their autobiographies, but it isn't.

You'll have examples of your own. Of what should be funny but isn't. Maybe you know a banker on a bonus. Maybe you live next door to Nick Griffin. Maybe you're waiting for a letter. Should be, but isn't.

But my being told to stop telling jokes doesn't really have anything to do with whether anything is funny or not. The best jokes, anyway, illuminate what isn't funny in the slightest. Think Hamlet in the graveyard, discussing stand-up with the skull of Yorick. Get you to my lady's chamber, tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must come – make her laugh at that. Death and dissolution: those are the true province of comedy.

Hence my trying to be entertaining every time I visit the doctor. "So what's wrong with you?" my wife asks when I get back. "Oh, nothing," I reply. "What do you mean nothing? What did he say?" I hang my head. The truth is I can't remember what he said. And why is that? Because I wasn't listening. And why was that? Because I was entertaining him.

It seems a reasonable thing to do while I'm doing it. Into his surgery of no hope his patients troop, one morbid case after another, diseased, distraught, self-obsessed. He needs someone to lighten his morning. And given where his hand is, I need someone to lighten mine. So I do wit. When his hand starts shaking I wish I hadn't. But I have this idea that if I can make him feel more cheerful while he's exploring me he won't find anything. "Ha, ha, ha, guess what you've got" seems unlikely, don't you think? So without exactly having formulated a theory of laughter and good health, I must believe that as long as we're both having fun there won't be any malignancies in my body. But that means I don't concentrate on what he says and can't remember what he reckons is or isn't wrong with me when I get home.

My wife now forbids me entertaining anybody who comes to the house on business. Particularly those who meticulously charge us by the minute. "I have noticed," I told the man who came to fix the microwave last week, "that you haven't deducted any time for laughing at my jokes." Whereupon he fell into more paroxysms of feigned laughter but still didn't stop the clock. I wondered why my wife was glaring at me. "You can pay for that one," she said afterwards.

What the hell! Four and a half hours to fix a switch at 75 smackers an hour starting from when he rang the doorbell. Worth it for the comedy alone.

Recently my wife and I had a blood test together. Not a fetish, just something we needed to do to save time. The phlebotomist wore a trainee badge. "So how many have you done?" I asked. My wife glared. "Forty-eight," he said. "And how many of those have lived?" My wife glared again. He smiled. "All, I hope," he said. "Until now, maybe." He was doing my wife at the time and in the exchange of banter failed to press hard enough on the square of lint that goes over the puncture. As a consequence a purple bruise the size of a tennis balls spreads over her arm. My fault. I distract a trainee phlebotomist with a joke and my wife is disfigured.

"But at least he's had a more than usually entertaining morning," I tell her.

In fact, those you entertain don't always thank you. A number of years ago I stumbled into the Brooks Brothers store in Regent Street, fancying a pair of canary yellow Ivy League cord trousers I'd seen in the window and was surprised to find the entire sales staff lined up, as though to greet the Queen, but evidently, on this occasion, lined up to greet me. Were they familiar with this column? My novels? Had I found readers on a scale only Leona Lewis dare dream of?

"Highly appreciated but not necessary, guys," I said, expecting applause. Not a one of them moved a muscle. "Stand easy," I told them. Not a flicker. "Do I just measure my own inside leg, then, or what?" I asked. Still no acknowledgment, unless you call the icy contempt of 15 stuffy Brooks Brothers salespersons an acknowledgement.

It was only as I was leaving the shop without canary cords that the chimes of bells sounded and I learnt that the staff had been marking the anniversary of 9/11 with two minutes' silence. The rest of Regent Street had been doing the same. The only unquiet thing anywhere was me. The entertainer.

I suppose it's terror on my part that does it. As long as you keep making jokes you don't have to listen to anybody else. What was it George Eliot wrote in Middlemarch about the necessity of a certain kind of moral deafness, without which we would die of the roar which lies on the other side of silence? Which of us really wants to hear what the doctor has to tell us? Or what celebrity has to advertise, or what the ideologue demands, or what the greedy have to say in their own defence? Better to drown it all out with something funny. If you can think of something funny.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey/ South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Recruitment Consultant / Account Manager - Surrey / SW London

£40000 per annum + realistic targets: Ashdown Group: A thriving recruitment co...

Ashdown Group: Part-time Payroll Officer - Yorkshire - Professional Services

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful professional services firm is lo...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Nicola Sturgeon could have considerable influence over David Cameron in a hung parliament  

General Election 2015: What if Cameron were to end up in hock to the SNP?

Steve Richards
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before