A Stephen Leacock sample: “Many a man in love with a dimple makes the mistake of marrying the whole girl.”
Who most deserves Paradise? Only those who make others laugh, says Stephen Leacock, English-born, but Canada’s first and foremost humorist. It was said that more people had heard about him than about Canada. Leacock has roused enough laughter to deserve Paradise himself. He created the line “Many a man in love with a dimple makes the mistake of marrying the whole girl.”
Leacock also wrote what is perhaps the funniest short essay ever on banks – or rather about his first bank account. “When I go into a bank I get rattled,” he said. “The clerks rattle me; the sight of the money rattles me..” In his nervousness, he asked to see the manager “alone,” much to the bank’s alarm — they thought he must be a detective who had prised open their secrets. The rest of the essay? You should read and enjoy it “alone”.
Most recorded humour is perhaps from the worlds of literature, journalism, cinema and theatre. Imagine what a fun place Paradise would be with the likes of Leacock, P.G. Wodehouse, Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, Jerome K. Jerome, Ogden Nash, Art Buchwald, R.K. Narayan or the great comedians of Hollywood and Bollywood.
Humour sports many faces — stories, anecdotes, essays, jokes, dialogue, one-liners, epigrams. Its form is varied and diverse: caricature, farce, slapstick, parody, irony, hyperbole, repartee. Presentation styles are many too: humour could be loud and boisterous; subtle and sophisticated; naughty and bawdy; dry and deadpan; dark and morbid; self-deprecating; epigrammatic.
Leacock is delightful, but I think Wodehouse would top any popularity poll of humorists in India. The Wodehousian world of earls, butlers, pigs and aristocrats appeals to our sense of the ridiculous as nothing else does. So does a sentence like “She had more curves than a scenic railway.” In one Wodehouse novel, Lord Emsworth is put off by a pompous speech on “the proudest moment of my life.” He takes the mike and says, “My proudest moment was when my pig won the first prize in the agricultural show.”
When Samuel Johnson, compiler of the first English dictionary, proposed to a lady who had helped him through thick and thin, she responded: “You should know that I’m poor and have no connections. To make it worse, an uncle of mine has been hanged.” Replied Johnson: “I am poor too, have no connections either. No relative of mine has been hanged so far, but I have many who deserve to be hanged.” Johnson married the lady, and it was one of the happiest marriages in the world of literature.
Indians are often pilloried as humourless. But this is true only of people in power, not of the average Indian. Proof: the very popular jokes and cartoons in our newspapers and magazines; the e-mail forwards of hundreds of jokes on the Internet; the mandatory comedians of Bollywood or Mollywood; the thriving laughter clubs in our metros; the all-night theatre in villages that draws huge crowds — at least partly for their gags and slapstick.
The Time magazine once had a rough encounter with Indian humour. During the 1960s, it ran a vitriolic profile of V.K. Krishna Menon, describing him as a “malevolent-looking coffee-coloured bachelor.”
The magazine was glad to get a complimentary letter from four Indian readers and promptly published it. The readers had odd-sounding names — which were actually unprintable words of abuse in Hindi. When the issue was out, there was an outcry, and the red-faced Time staff withdrew thousands of copies from circulation.
Among Indian editors, Khushwant Singh is the one most associated with humour – through his personality as well as his work as writer and editor. When actress Nargis requested the use of his Simla cottage for a holiday, Khushwant said: “Sure, provided I can brag to everyone that you slept on my bed.” Nargis guffawed.
Later, both became members of the Rajya Sabha, and someone introduced Nargis to Khushwant.
Nargis said, “I know him quite well, in fact I have slept on his bed.” The politicians around were shocked, but Khushwant and Nargis roared with laughter.
One of India’s best-loved humour columnists was the late Behram Contractor (pseudonym: “Busybee”). He once wrote a memorable piece on the “Bores of India.” His pick for India’s No.1 bore was Morarji Desai, then Chief Minister of Bombay. Reason: not merely did Morarji make boring speeches, said Busybee, he made laws to bore everyone.
He enforced prohibition strictly, and even ordered that all hotels cease entertainment by midnight.
But few could surpass the late V.D. Trivadi for short, funny, humour pieces. “When I stole the President’s shirt” was a masterpiece. Trivadi says he was inspired by the 1966 movie “How to steal a million” (starring Peter O’Toole and Audrey Hepburn) into performing a similar feat.
He managed to break into Rashtrapati Bhavan and steal the President’s best shirt. He then sent the President what he thought was a crisp straightforward ransom note: “I have the shirt and am willing to trade it for the right sum.”
After some weeks he got an envelope from Rashtrapati Bhavan containing not a cheque but a message of congratulations on the garment unit he proposed to set up!
The peerless Art Buchwald, who has perhaps made more people smile than anyone else, said “The world is mad or slightly nutty. All I do is to record it.”
That’s perhaps what many comedians and humorists have done over the years – in the process, booking their space in Paradise!
(The writer’s email is firstname.lastname@example.org)
Keywords: sense of humour