Being amused is a wonderful treat. At one extreme, whatever was funny causes a burst of uncontrollable laughter that takes over the body. At the other, a wry smile is the only sign of a contentment which, for a moment, dominates the mind. Interestingly, although the time and place of the guffaw-inducing episode is usually remembered, the joke itself never again seems that funny. However, the contented-smile joke, which occurs when the mind alone is tickled, remains funny for ever.
This blog tells of three ‘mind-tickling’ jokes, all of which occurred during lectures and were the result of impromptu asides; two of them were made by members of the audience, one by the lecturer himself. By their very nature, such impromptu comments are said spontaneously without allowing time to think, so it is hardly surprising that sometimes such jokes go wrong.
The inspiration for writing this blog comes from a story told at a recent ‘zoom’ lecture on the 1951 Festival of Britain. As a nine-year old, I visited the Festival Hall and, since then. it has been very special to me.
During the lecture, a short clip was shown of an interview with Sir Hugh Casson who had overall responsibility for the architecture of the Festival and the Hall, and is now one of my heroes. With his self -effacing manner, Casson tells how he had just given a talk during which a woman at the back of the lecture theatre shouted out that she couldn’t hear a word of what he was saying. Within seconds, a man further forward responded “I have heard every word and would gladly change places with you.” It is this story, with its moment of wonderfully understated mischief, that now dominates my memory of that zoom lecture. Typically, this mind-tickling joke bears being repeated again and again.
The second joke arose during a meeting of pharmacologists, those scientists who study how drugs and medicines work; as a career clinical pharmacologist myself it was the sort of lecture I would attend. A rather hesitant speaker had told the audience of his studies on the effects on snails of an experimental new anti-sickness drug to be used in patients. At question time, a member of the audience asked how the snails behaved when given the drug; after some hesitation the speaker told how they slowed down adding that it was difficult to describe the changes precisely. In no time an old professor in the front row popped up and asked “Would it be right to say that they were in any way sluggish?”. This aside still makes me smile.
The third joke took place in the 1990s and on this occasion I was the speaker. There would have been well over a hundred students in the audience that day and, as usual I regularly scanned them as I spoke. On one sweep I spied a student with her head on the desk space in front of her. Seeing students asleep in my lectures always annoyed me and, as was my practice, I asked her neighbours to wake her up. After several nudges she awoke only to fall asleep again. Towards the end of my lecture she woke enough to pay attention and at a moment when my talk allowed I turned to her and, after commenting how her sleeping had irritated me and it was a waste of her time coming, I found myself saying something along the lines “Well, at least when you get home this evening you can tell your flat mates that this afternoon you slept with fifty male students”.
When the talk was over she came up to me at the lectern and said very firmly – “I found your comment very insulting – I am a lesbian.” Immediately I realised the inappropriateness of my ‘joke’ and apologised unreservedly. This type of joke leaves little time for thinking and on this occasion it had all gone very wrong.
There is an added pep when jokes are made in lecture theatres as they break a traditional boundary. In the theatre world – and lecturing to students or any audience, is, by it’s nature, very much theatre – there is strong belief in an invisible ‘fourth’ wall that separates performers from their audience. In keeping, conversations across the wall – a term coined by Molière – are in many ways taboo and, of course, breaking taboos is very much the stuff of humour.
Just as being amused is wonderful, making jokes is pretty good too. For the jokester, however, it comes with a warning – quick repartee brings with it risk.
The illustration is a photo of a rather dandy Grove snail looking anything but sluggish. I thank Klaus Vartzbed for permission to use his picture.
For helping me write this blog, I would like to thank Sarah, Neil, Rohan and Vivien.