The jokes that time forgot

Related Topics
I was saying the other day that The Guardian was once known as the home of misprints, but that as it had shaken off that reputation, we needed a new one. I suggested the Radio Times as a source of misprints and asked for offerings, which of course has led to many kind readers sending me misprints from The Independent, so I'll hold fire on that one for a while ...

But the idea of Aunt Sallys generally is an interesting one, the way in which something can be exceedingly funny to everyone one year and be forgotten the next. One year we think it is hilarious to say "Norway - nul points", and the next we wonder why we ever laughed. Nothing ever stays funny (except perhaps sex, death and other people's misfortunes). Our favourite targets fall out of fashion and are forgotten.

There was a time, not so long ago, when you could get an instant laugh by invoking the name of Group 4. Not any more. We still remember, sort of, that Group 4 became accident-prone for a while and kept losing things and people it was guarding, but it's a distant memory now and too faint to raise a laugh. Historians will have to tell us why we laughed.

Similarly, I can remember my father laughing at comedians on the radio making fun of the groundnut scheme, and Beveridge, and rationing, and nylon stockings. It must be a good many years since anyone got a laugh out of the groundnut scheme, yet the equivalent of the groundnut scheme is always turning up.

In the last week or two, Channel 5 has become an instant laugh object. I can't get Channel 5 and I don't want to, but even I know enough about it to register jokes about it. (Mark you, I can also remember a time when Channel 4 was good for instant laughs, as a symbol of all that was pretentious and avant-garde and unwatchable.)

I have heard comedians in the last few weeks get laughs out of the Spice Girls (I'll scream if I hear the one about Old Spice Girls again) and I have heard the jokes about Dudley Moore coming back to do pantomime in Southampton (I'll scream if I hear the one about "Your movie career! It's behind you!" again) but I wager that unless someone writes down the reasons behind these passing outbreaks of jokes, we may be baffled in 10 years' time as to why anyone should have thought they were funny.

Some targets do last a long time. Quentin Crisp records that when he first arrived in London people were still whispering stories about Oscar Wilde. Well, I can beat that. When I first went to school, people were still making Oscar Wilde jokes.

(I can even remember one. Here it is. Oscar Wilde comes out of prison and checks into a hotel, where he is seen going to his room with one of the hotel's page boys. He is stopped by the hotel manager, who says: "Oh, Mr Wilde - I thought you were going to turn over a new leaf!" "So I am," says Wilde, "but I think I'll just get to the bottom of this page first ..." At the age of 13, when I had never heard of Oscar Wilde and wasn't aware of homosexuality, this joke took some explaining.)

Oscar Wilde had been a butt of jokes in his lifetime, of course, whether at the hands of Gilbert and Sullivan, or Punch, or the music hall, but we are told that jokes about the Royal Family are something new, and that respect has always precluded them being made an Aunt Sally. This may be true in this country, but not elsewhere.

Edward VII, when Prince of Wales, was regarded abroad not as a future monarch but as a lecherous old brute. When he went to Paris, his female companion was not always the woman to whom he was married, and on one of these occasions some French humorist inserted in the French papers an advertisement saying: "Princess Alexandra wishes it to be known that she is the rightful Princess of Wales, and that anyone else trading under that name or carrying out her functions with the Prince of Wales is an impostor and should be treated as such."

One cannot imagine anyone in Victorian England making such a joke. Nowadays people do joke about the Prince of Wales, but in a very different way, and one day we will have to have the jokes about him talking to the flowers explained as well, just as young people today have no idea why we once laughed at the very mention of George Brown being drunk, or the Red Dean, or Sabrina, or the unfinished Sydney Opera House, or Red Robbo, or parking meters, or Mrs Mills, or Andrew Lloyd Webber, or Centre Point, or Brendan Behan, or the Sinclair C-5 ...

Did someone say, or John Major?

React Now

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

** Female PE Teacher Urgently Required In Liverpool **

£120 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Liverpool: Job opportunities for Secon...

** Cover Supervisors Urgently Required In Knowsley **

£60 - £65 per day: Randstad Education Liverpool: Job opportunities for Seconda...

Java developer - (Intershop Enfinity)

£40000 - £50000 per annum + benefits: Ampersand Consulting LLP: Java Developer...

School Office/ Finance Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Ilford: School Office/ Finance Assistant Long t...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Oscar Pistorius is led out of court in Pretoria. Pistorius received a five-year prison sentence for culpable homicide by judge Thokozile Masipais for the killing of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp  

Oscar Pistorius sentence: Judge Masipa might have shown mercy, but she has delivered perfect justice

Chris Maume
Oscar Pistorius at the High Court in Pretoria  

Oscar Pistorius has been sentenced to five years in prison - but what then?

Rosie Millard
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album