“If it’s a girl they’re calling her Sigourney after an actress. And if it’s a boy they’re naming him Rodney, after Dave.”
Trigger, as portrayed by the late Roger Lloyd-Pack, used this simple line referring to the imminent birth of Del Boy’s child in “Only Fools & Horses” to intertwine typical social intricacies and his character’s idiosyncracies, playing on audience expectations to render the essence of the pun much more comedic than the situation might otherwise have been. Simple inversion of prediction is probably the most effective form of comedy. Tommy Cooper, whose jokes and magic antics made for popular and memorable viewing, exploited audience expectation expertly when relating a joke; “My neighbour came round the house at 4 o’clock this morning, banging on the door. Good thing I was up playing the bagpipes.” Les Dawson, in his pianoforte sketches, and Eric Morecambe, in the famed “Andrew Preview” sketch, also played on these false predictions with, shall we say, unique interpretations of famous works (or, paraphrasing Morecambe, playing all the right notes but not necessarily in the right order).
Yesterday, David Cameron, delivering a speech to the Westminster Correspondents’ Dinner, also inverted expectations whilst outlining his priorities for the coming year and his remaining in this parliamentary term. Ostensibly serious, he declared his first priority to be “keeping the bald spot under control”, whilst lauding his hairdresser for making cuts and inhibiting a recession simultaneously.
Other inversions of prediction tend to be somewhat less humourous; the 5-0 whitewash in the most recent Ashes series comes to mind for English cricket fans. Others are simply interesting; a score of ‘8’ for Gordon Brown on the tea-time quiz “Pointless” when 100 people were asked to name chancellors of the exchequer, or the shock of watching David Suchet sans moustache and Belgian accent.
What forms these expectations? As members of society, we have individual childhood foundations, familial influences and life experiences, yet there is sufficient communal interest and knowledge to merit a wealth of popular comedies – “Only Fools & Horses”, “Miranda” and “Morecambe and Wise”, for example, which pull large audiences. The 1978 Christmas special of “Morecambe and Wise” drew 28 million viewers, a huge proportion of the population with television sets. Does nationality – shared heritage and language – relate strongly to what we find funny? British comedy and German comedy are very different, with exchange of broadcasts being rare. British and American comedy are more similar, yet different in terms of development and intricacies. The British sense of humour is unique; self-deprecating, often finely engineered and sometimes subtle, it is distinct from the more simplified, ostensible and ‘easy’ US comedy, designed for different audiences.
Expectations are also played out ostentatiously for comedic effect. Henning Wehn, self-described German comedy ambassador to the UK, preys upon the stereotypes of Germans as obsessed by punctuality, efficient and direct. Yet in fact this succeeds as comedy because our expectations as governed by the stereotypes we know to be untrue: hence subconsciously we, as the audience, are not in reality expecting it and therefore the ploy works.
Is this a question of nationality, then, since so too are stereotypes? Is all comedy different across the world due to the discrepancy in expectation?
As Tommy Cooper would say, I was indecisive: now I’m not quite sure.