When I was little, my parents often took me to the circus, where I especially liked the clowns. Most of them didn’t tax my immature mind with subtle jokes or even unsubtle puns.
They would just fall down all of a sudden, and each pratfall made the child in me laugh. Mind you, at that age the child in me was, well, me. I was a child from top to bottom and childish humour appealed to me.
Now I’m happy to report that my inner child hasn’t gone away in the decades that have since passed. He is still there, albeit remaining small while the rest of me has grown big (too big if you listen to Penelope). The rest of me can appreciate – sometimes, on a good day, even produce – sophisticated humour.
I can laugh out loud reading Aristophanes, for example. Or Rabelais. Or La Rochefoucauld. Or Dickens. Or Gogol. Or P.G. Wodehouse. Or Waugh. That’s the grown-up part of me, enjoying a good day out.
But then I also remember the ‘70s, when my inner child laughed his head off at the opening sequences of Saturday Night Live, those featuring Chevy Chase. I know this dates me, but hell, anyone can find out how old I am by looking up my Wikipedia page.
Real slapstick should catch you off-guard, with a pratfall coming at a moment when you least expect it. The beauty of those opening sequences was that everybody knew exactly what was going to happen: Chevy would crash down in spectacular fashion. And then, still on the floor, he’d shout exuberantly: “Live! From New York! It’s Saturday Night!”
The inner child of me had a field day – I laughed every time. It wasn’t the appreciative laughter of a grown-up. It was the unrestrained guffaw of a child, who plays Peter Pan by stubbornly refusing to grow up.
This brings me to public speakers, especially politicians. They have to ration their humour, even if they are capable of it. That doesn’t mean they have to shun it altogether, but they should watch their step.
When I was a budding copywriter, an old hand told me not to overindulge my funny side. “People don’t buy from clowns,” he told me. “They buy from serious men.”
Yes, the odd joke adds spice to a message, but it can’t be the message. Politicians know this too, as they are aware that coming across as serious men (or women, or other) is good, but coming across as gravely ponderous isn’t.
That’s why they like to slip the odd joke in. For example, I remember Ronald Reagan, then 73, debating Walter Mondale in 1984. The moderator asked the president if he thought age was a factor in that campaign.
A tricky question, but Reagan saw it coming. “I promise not to hold my opponent’s youth and inexperience against him,” he said, and the national audience laughed in record numbers. Reagan won the debate and the subsequent election hands down.
Good for him, he was capable of a good line, or at least of delivering one. Actually, I take that sneer back – Reagan could also improvise a joke, as anyone who watched him on Firing Line can confirm.
An earlier Republican president, Gerry Ford, didn’t possess that ability, but he still didn’t want to appear all dour and ponderous. So he’d do slapstick, vying with Chevy Chase for the laurels of the best pratfaller in America.
Ford would joyously tumble down the Air Force One stairs and every other set of steps he could find. And once he went Chevy one better by falling up the stairs, and you must agree that takes some doing. Americans laughed heartily. (They then voted for his opponent, but that’s a separate story.)
I did too. The inner child of me rejoiced in every tumble, while the grown-up would reach a sensible conclusion that, however meagre our talents are, we owe it to ourselves to make the best of them. If some people can’t come up with witticisms, they can still add gaiety to our lives by falling down, or even up, the stairs – whether they mean it or not.
In fact, I wouldn’t jump to a hasty conclusion of which it is. We may think a politician’s fall was accidental, but in fact it may have been carefully planned in advance. Rather than berating ourselves for gloating about old people’s frailty, we should laugh away – that might have been the desired effect.
In fact, we should compliment a falling politician for brightening up our day. This way we can always watch the telly, with the sound turned off, whenever he graces the screen with his presence. Chances are he’ll execute another hilarious tumble, tickling the inner child in us pink.
Give him top marks, if not necessarily your vote, for trying: the chap wants to put you in a good frame of mind. Then again, he may be preparing a fallback position for his career. Should he lose the next election, he could retrain as a slapstick comedian.
Why am I carrying on about pratfalls, slapstick and politicians? No idea. After all, sometimes I have something to write and at other times I have to write something. James Joyce would have called it stream of consciousness.