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“Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand,” said Mark Twain. As if laughter is a strong wind that knocks over even the most robust people.
Humour has many guises. But a thing is funny when, in some way that is not actually offensive or frightening, it upsets the established order. Every joke is a tiny revolution. George Orwell said, “If you had to define humour in a single phrase, you might define it as dignity sitting on a tin-tack.” Whatever destroys dignity and brings down the mighty from their seats, preferably with a bump, is funny – and the bigger the fall, the bigger the joke.
With this in mind, I set off to the Round House to watch The Oh Fuck Moment, an interactive comedic and poetic piece of theatre which explores what happens in the moment just before we fall off our dignified perch. Chris Thorpe ushered us into a mock boardroom where his partner, Hannah Walker, was on hand dishing out cups of tea. We took our place at the table, faced with a chaotic mess of post-it notes, pens and paper. Hannah then launched into an anecdote about her former office life and the fuck ups that ensued. We immediately started laughing. Between the two of them they slammed poetry and anecdotes about the ridiculous situations people find themselves trapped in on a daily basis.
“When shooting stray dogs from the abandoned nuclear plant, do not pick up pebbles to take home as souvenirs for they may be contaminated with radioactive material and therefore dangerous to you and your family.”
Chaos is clearly the norm, order the exception. They asked us to write down (and eventually share) a moment from our own history of fuck ups: when you put your cat in the wheelie bin, when you pressed ‘Send’ on that email and realised you’d invited your boss around for sex, the time you got drunk and snogged your girlfriend’s sister – all the moments we can’t take back, for which no apology will ever be enough.
Hannah and Chris’ poetic anecdotes are spliced with dark human error. These “Oh Fuck moments” go beyond humour to a commentary on human behaviour. We cringed on hearing the story of a young man who was found dead on his living room floor, outstretched towards his phone. He had bled to death; he had been bleeding for three hours before he thought to reach out for the phone, and then it was too late.
We work backwards through the sequence of events: past the blood-stained tea towel on his sofa – as he had sat down to watch TV, and past the mess in the kitchen – as he made himself a snack, to that moment in the bathroom when he thought it was a good idea to pleasure himself by inserting the top end of his hockey stick up his anus while balancing against the wall in front of the sink mirror. “Oh Fuck” would have come to him just after he slipped and impaled himself on the hockey stick. This resulted in major, life-threatening internal bleeding, and yet he waited for three hours before he attempted to call for help. What was going through his mind whilst he carried on watching TV for an hour? What was he thinking as, bleeding to death, he made himself a sandwich instead of calling an ambulance?
In a plethora of such moments, Chris and Hannah exposed these embarrassments and the ridicule we suffer (if not publicly then within our inner narrative), slap it on a light plate – tweezers at the ready – and declare quite seriously, “We are not perfect beings capable of fuck ups, but fuck ups sometimes capable of perfection.” The chaos of life is more natural than contrived order, one which we often punish ourselves for disrupting – or one that punishes us into silence, too scared to admit our foolishness. We constantly fear being the butt of a joke; words can cut like Spanish knives if you’re on the wrong side of a witty critique.
“Now, as I understand it, the bards were feared,” said British comic book writer Alan Moore once in an interview with Engine Comics. “They were respected, but more than that they were feared. If you’d pissed off some witch, then what’s she gonna do: Your hens are gonna lay funny, your milk’s gonna go sour – no big deal. You piss off a bard, forget about putting a curse on you, he might put a satire on you. And if he was a skilful bard, he puts a satire on you; it destroys you in the eyes of your community. It shows you up as ridiculous, lame, worthless, in the eyes of your community, in the eyes of your family, in the eyes of your children, in the eyes of yourself, and if it’s a particularly good bard, and he’s written a particularly good satire, then 300 years after you’re dead, people are still gonna be laughing at what a twat you were.”
Often referred to as “The Bard of Salford”, old punk poet John Cooper Clarke looks something like a crow and an aged Rolling Stone. Having once performed on the same bill as The Sex Pistols, The Fall and Joy Division, Clarke now cracks jokes to an audience of largely middle-class, middle-aged couples who were possibly once punks themselves. I saw him recently at the Stoke Newington Literary Festival in London. Despite his age, his energy and mischief were boundless as he launched into some poems and a fast-paced, satirical blend of humour and social commentary on stage.
“Two-tone stretch nylon yellow stripes on navy blue
I got a brand new track suit
I got the old one too”
What Clarke finds most amusing is laughing at his own stories and at the Goth-rebel caricature he has become, and we in the audience tittered along as he rolled from gag to poem to anecdote. He and his contemporary Linton Kwesi Johnson influenced a generation of younger poets and dub artists involved in a revival of popular poetry in Britain, though he seems to focus more on the ridiculous today.
“In a cybernetic fit of rage
She pissed off to another age
She lives in 1999
With her new boyfriend – a blob of slime
Each time I see her translucent face
I remember the monster from outer space”
His jokes were obvious and silly, read out between witchlike cackles and huge slurps of a martini. In a rich Mancunian accent, Clarke took the piss out of “ponces”, the “prim”, anyone who needs a knock down – “He makes love like a footballer! He dribbles before he shoots!” – and most notably, himself.
At the core of humour is human error. Good gags and big mistakes have always been documented, often eclipsing triumphs and successes. George Orwell points out in England Your England that when it comes to war poetry, there is no poem about Trafalgar or Waterloo: “The most stirring battle-poem in English is about a brigade of cavalry which charged in the wrong direction.” Perfecting the moment that a mistake is made is what clowns must learn at clown school. As the mouth turns down and the shoulders cave inwards, up rises the lost order, the unknown. It is always the space between confidence and fear that makes an audience shake with laughter.
Juliette Golding studied at Cheltenham Ladies' College and The University of Manchester before going on to study creative writing in San Francisco. She moved to London as a script writer and marketing executive and is in the process of completing a book of short stories. She currently lives in East London.