Has there ever been a more bone-crushingly, mind-numbingly, pull-the-duvet-up-over-your-head-and-hide depressing year than 2016? And perhaps the most depressing thing of all is that it is barely half way through. Has there ever been a greater need for laughter to throw shards of light through the deepening gloom? Or a more difficult time to try to be funny?
Let me put this in context. I was six years old when man first walked on the moon. Our parents dragged us from our beds before dawn to witness this epoch-defining occasion on a crackling, jumping television screen in the corner of the kitchen. Mum even cooked us a proper English breakfast, an event that was almost as rare in the Teckman household as a stroll on the lunar landscape. Then, just as Neil Armstrong emerged from The Eagle and began his historic descent down the steel steps towards the moon’s surface, my brother Mike tipped his bacon and eggs into his lap meaning that one of the most important sentences ever uttered was experienced by my family as “That’s one small step for man . . . aaaughhh!” as hot yoke made contact with Mike’s inadequately protected, pyjama-clad groin.
And that’s the Gospel truth – by which I mean it has been pieced together from the oft-repeated recollections of my parents and older siblings before being committed to paper for the first time many, many years later. That’s the oral tradition of story-telling – a system that works well for delivering an amusing anecdote but is perhaps less effective as a way of determining fundamental truths and beliefs.
With a grim circularity given yesterday’s tragic events in the same city, the first major international incident I can definitely recall without the help of others’ memories is the terrorist attack on the Munich Olympics in 1972. I remember going to bed that evening happy in the knowledge that, according to the BBC, the Israeli athletes had all been rescued only to wake up the next morning to the news that, in fact, eleven had been killed.
So, I have been conscious of the news and of the almost limitless depths of man’s capacity for both extraordinary achievement and extraordinary cruelty for almost four and a half decades and still I maintain that this year is the worst of them all. In the past seven months, we have seen ongoing and increasingly intractable conflicts in many parts of the world, horrific terrorist attacks with ever increasing death tolls, and the breakdown of what we have always assumed to be the normal workings of parliamentary democracy with campaigns on both sides of the Atlantic fuelled by lies and defamation more than ever before. (I appreciate that for many people politics has always been the questionable art of lying more effectively than your opponents but never in my recollection has it been as pronounced as during the EU referendum in the UK and the Presidential nomination process in the US where the deployment of demonstrable facts has actually proved detrimental to the campaign.) The regular untimely deaths of a galaxy of superstar celebrities has just served as a dusting of bitter icing on an increasingly unpleasant tasting cake.
So, not a great time to be peddling one’s wares as a writer of humorous prose one might think. Or is it?
The great film director and screenwriter Billy Wilder said “If you’re going to tell people the truth, be funny or they’ll kill you”. In Medieval England, jesters were used by those in power not just to make them laugh but to tell them the unpleasant truths that others would baulk from for fear of losing their heads. More recently, in the Second World War, during the long, dark hours of the Blitz, entertainers – my own father among them – would go down into the bomb shelters and underground stations where families cowered in fear of their lives and put on shows to lift their spirits.
It is, paradoxically perhaps, at times like these when good comedy is needed more than ever. The more unstable the world becomes – the more ridiculous its alleged representatives; the more bizarre its democratic outcomes; the more extreme its problems – the more we need to be able to laugh at ourselves and, with due respect and affection, at each other. As Joseph Heller did in the sixties and Amis (per et fils) did in the seventies and eighties, we need to poke a stick into the ants’ nest and chuckle at the inhabitants as they rush out, scurrying in all directions and none. Ultimately, it will be our ability to find humour in our differences rather than hate that will raise us above the nihilistic Dementors who seek to divide us and rule. It is time to fight back – to reclaim all that is special about our culture and civilisation – with the wittily wielded pen rather than the savagery of the sword.
This post is brought to you by Jon Teckman.