It is a terrible thing for an Englishman to be told he lacks a sense of humour. Charmlessness, fecklessness, sexlessness are bearable, but the charge of humourlessness really hurts. As a nation, we like to think we lead the world in laughter. We are uncharacteristically boastful about our chirpy irreverence, our irony, our worldly wit.
Either I am losing this great national attribute, or life is generally becoming less funny. New TV comedies have left me feeling bilious and out of sorts. Reading the news that Billy Connolly had walked off stage in a huff after someone had shouted that he was "shite", I found myself in sympathy with the heckler.
Just possibly, it is not me but the increasing ubiquity of "humour" in our culture which is the problem. Finding jokes everywhere, or sprinkling facetiousness where it is not needed, can be precisely a sign of humourlessness. Because there is a new fear of seriousness, a sort of half-hearted, imitation comedy is found in the most unlikely places. Increasingly on BBC2's Newsnight, for example, a serious subject is wrapped up in a feeble parody or comic routine by one of their effortfully zany correspondents.
Humour is the main selling-point of a new exhibition at the Hayward Gallery by David Shrigley, who has been widely praised for the wit of his cartoons, sculptures and animations. He proves that art "can be funny and fleeting and thoroughly enjoyable", according to the show's curator, Cliff Lauson.
Artistic jokes are not like jokes on TV or in a good newspaper cartoon: the most they are expected to elicit is a wry, knowing smile. Shrigley paints a red door on a wall and marks it "Door", has a cartoon of a sad-looking puppy with the legend "Save the Arts". A stuffed Jack Russell terrier stands on its hind legs with a banner reading "I'm dead". The artist is winningly modest about his work but, all the same, here it is, exhibited in some grandeur on the South Bank in one of our great galleries.
It is good to laugh at the ironies and contradictions of modern life, the critics have said, but is that always the case? At a time in our history of economic upheaval, personal suffering, civil war and environmental anxiety, it seems odd that the world of art – particularly the world of relatively new art – should respond with footling, mildly amusing cartoons and ironic titters.
The more of this light semi-humour is in the culture, the less real laughter is to be found. We should be living in a golden age of satire: bewildered Etonians in government, a hand-wringing Labour Party caught miserably on the middle ground, a third party dwindling as a result of the power it has craved for so long, competing hypocrisies surrounding business and green politics. Yet, because we are so busy with fiddling, self-referential humour about arts funding and stuffed dogs, the bigger picture is ignored.
The British obsession with humour, our conviction in the face of all the evidence that we understand irony better than the Americans, has led to the embarrassment which has attended the Billy Connolly tour. Like John Cleese, also on tour recently, Connolly was once a funny and bloody-minded outsider, but now, in his sixties, he is a comfortable member of the establishment, rich, landed and a friend to the Royal Family. Of course, he is not funny any more. Why should he be?
With very few exceptions, comedians lose the capacity to write sparky, original comedy in middle age. Connolly now expects himself to be taken seriously, and this tends to be a problem if you are a stand-up comedian. It is time to stop living in the past, to be confident enough not to ladle facetiousness on to art or current affairs. Only then, when we stop giggling, might we produce something genuinely funny.
Our bloodless campaigns
One of the more surprising developments of recent years has been the way that, against the background of losses in Afghanistan, a ceasefire seems to have been declared on any kind of criticism of the activities of our armed forces abroad, as if it were a matter of taste.
The recent BBC documentary Bomber Boys, presented by Colin and Ewan McGregor, was careful to devote several minutes at the close of the programme to an explanation of how, with modern technology and care, there is never now the danger of civilian "collateral damage" as there had been in the past.
In similar vein, a recruiting advertisement for the Royal Air Force presents a thrillerish recreation of an anti-terrorist operation at the end of which there are bangs but no casualties. The marketing message, pointing up the blurring of fact and fiction, is: "Be part of the story."
The result of this approach is that there are two types of wartime bloodshed: the horrors committed in Syria or Pakistan; and our own benign, efficient and oddly bloodless involvement. It feels like propaganda.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies