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24 November 2020updated 03 Aug 2021 9:39am

From the NS archive: On seeming funny to other people

13 March 1937: Why we should laugh at one another.

By New Statesman

In 1937, the writer YY took issue with the idea that it was not just impolite to laugh at the working-class but a sign of what George Orwell termed “sniggering superiority”. But why so? Was it really a matter of looking down on people or wasn’t it more a case of the human instinct to find other people – their accents and ways – inherently humorous? After all, he said, Punch magazine regularly poked fun not just at Cockney charwomen but at High Court judges, members of the clergy, upper-crust foxhunters and all manner of class types. Indeed YY recalled being the butt of the joke – catcalled in the street – when he used to wear his hair unfashionably long. It all added to the gaiety of the nation, he reckoned, and no group had a right to think themselves above the humour – however unsophisticated – of others.

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A curious theory has arisen during the present century to the effect that it is indecent to make a working-man the subject of a joke. I see that in his new book, The Road to Wigan Pier, Mr George Orwell seems to support this heresy. Discussing the upper class attitude towards “common” people, he writes: “What is this attitude? An attitude of sniggering superiority punctuated by bursts of vicious hatred, Look at any number of Punch during the past 30 years. You will find it everywhere taken for granted that a working-class person, as such, is a figure of fun, except at odd moments when he shows signs of being too prosperous, whereupon he ceases to be a figure of fun.”

Here, I think, Mr Orwell is confusing two entirely different things – political propaganda against the struggle of the workers for better conditions and the play of the comic spirit on workers as on every other class of society. Or, if he is not confusing them, he is suggesting that they are different aspects of the same hostile attitude.

For myself, I do not see why a working-man should not be a figure of fun in a professedly comic paper. If Punch could not portray a working-man as a figure of fun, it would justly be accused of having no sense of humour. Punch certainly has never drawn its figures of fun exclusively from the working-class. I have seen in its pages funny admirals, funny colonels, funny foxhunters, funny clergymen, funny doctors, and funny rich men as well as funny navvies and funny charwomen. To make fun of a member of this or that class is not evidence that one is hostile to the class. If the fun is good, it is evidence merely that one has a sense of humour.

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WS Gilbert, for example, though a hard-bitten Conservative, made excellent fun of the House of Lords in Iolanthe. It is true that a number of Conservatives at the time looked on the opera as dangerous propaganda against the Peers, and I think it was withdrawn for some time from the D’Oyly Carte repertory. But that was only because jokes at one’s own expense have a way of seeming dangerous or, as Victorian dames used to say, unnecessary. Gilbert, however, had to look out for figures of fun and to take them where he found them. He happened to find judges funnier than plumbers, and so he gave us a comic judge. Admirals, officers in the Guards, a society lion, even the sacred ruler of Japan – he saw that all these could be turned to uses of entertainment; and, in the result, the stalls laughed at them as loudly as the gallery. Was their attitude, then, one of “sniggering superiority”? Perhaps. It may be that there is an element of sniggering superiority “in most comedy – that, as we laugh, we do feel somehow superior to all these peers and colonels and curates of the comic stage. If so, it seems to me that “sniggering superiority” within reason might be defended as a healthy expression of high spirits.

[see also: From the NS archive: The great birth control debate]

Take Dickens, again. He certainly makes great fun of members of the working-classes. Sam Weller and the footmen he meets at Bath, and Sairey Gamp – we are made to laugh at their very accents; and this is said by some to be the most snobbish of all kinds of laughter. If I analyse my feelings towards the comic characters of Dickens, however, I do not discover that I feel any more superior to working-class Sam Weller with his constant confusion of his “v’s” and his “ w’s” than to bourgeois Mr Winkle, as he collapses on the ice or as he is chased round the Crescent in the small hours by the jealous Captain Dowler. In point of fact I have a much greater respect for Sam Weller than for Mr Winkle. So great is my respect for Sam Weller that, if I were to be reincarnated as a Dickens character I am inclined to think it is as Sam that I would choose to be reborn.

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From this I conclude that snobbishness cannot be the true explanation, as some maintain it is, of our laughter at other people’s accents and blunders of speech. We laugh at accents that are different from our own simply because they are different. It does not matter to what class the accent belongs: the haw-haw accent sometimes attributed to the upper classes on the comic stage seemed to me in my boyhood as funny as the more democratic gutturals of a Scotch comedian in the music-halls. Every accent, indeed, except the accent of my own small world in Belfast seemed in some in way grotesque and unnatural and therefore funny, and even in Belfast there were accents that seemed funny.

Doctrinaires may ask what fun there is in another man pronouncing a word differently from oneself. All I can say is that simple minds have always found such things funny, as they Irish bulls and howlers in examination papers funny. You cannot analyse the joke: you can only see it. What is there funny in a child’s pronouncing “upholsterer” as “eweful steerer”? Or is it not funny? I, at least, have always thought it so.

To me it seems that differences of speech appeal to our sense of humour for much the same reasons as differences of dress. Turn up a volume of Punch belonging to the early Edwardian period or almost any Victorian period, and you will, if fairly normal, find the costumes of the fashionable women in the drawings more amusing than the jokes. If you think that this is due solely to the comic genius of the artists, turn to an entirely serious photograph album of the same period, and you will find the costumes that have gone out of fashion have a way of appearing quite as ludicrous as the Cockney sentences of a Punch charwoman. The colonel’s lady playing croquet in the Nineties is as grotesque a figure as Judy O’Grady mishandling the King’s English to-day. The women of today, who seem so perfectly dressed to us, will be regarded as freaks of fashion by their successors 20 years hence. Sniggering superiority on the part of the women of 20 years hence? Up to a point, perhaps, yes. If so, may it not be that a little sniggering superiority is a great help towards enduring and even enjoying a life that is far from being all beer and skittles?

[see also: From the NS archive: The Waste Land by TS Eliot]

The chief point of my argument is, however, that our laughter at oddities of speech as at out-of-date fashions has nothing to do with class-hatred, but is due almost entirely to the feeling that people with different conventions from our own are grotesque. Take, for example, the Victorian mockery of men who wore their hair long. I myself as a youth let my hair grow longer than was customary, mainly, I think, from a lazy disinclination to visit the barber. As a result, I was constantly assailed by members of the working-classes with ribald shouts. I could not walk past a group of factory-girls during the lunch-hour without being pursued by a chorus of loud and hilarious cries – “Get your hair cut”, “Cheating the barber” and so forth. Working youths who had been to the theatre would sometimes burst into laughter and yell “Hamlet” after me, or “Van Biene” – the name of a longhaired cellist who used to appear in a play called The Broken Melody. Even when I came to London, where I had heard that the population were too indifferent and too polite to stare even at a Chinaman, bus-drivers as they passed used to wave their whips and whistle the tune of “Get your hair cut”, grinning round at their passengers. This was all rather embarrassing to a shyish man, but I was compensated to some extent by the reflection that as a figure of fun I was making a slight addition to the happiness of a deserving portion of the community. Never for a moment did I suspect those factory girls and bus-drivers of class feeling or of indulging in sniggering superiority at my expense. So far as I could see they were as good-humoured in their enjoyment of the grotesqueness of long hair as readers of Dickens were in their enjoyment of the grotesqueness of Sam Weller’s dialect.

[see also: From the NS archive: Gilding the axis]

Jokes of this kind may not be the highest form of humour, but it will be a humourless wodd in which they cease to exist. I doubt whether the working-classes themselves would feel grateful if all the comic working-men were Bowdlerised out of Dickens and the comic papers. A working-man can be just a good a figure of fun as General Goering, and I cannot see why he, any more than General Goering, should be sacrosanct from laughter.

There was a time when the Irish – or a section of them – objected to the Irishman being made a figure of fun in fiction and on the stage, and when song like “Phil the Fluter’s Ball” and “Matt Hannigan Aunt” were denounced as national insults in the Patriotic Press. It was held – and I held it myself – that the stage Irishman, as he was called, was the enemy of the real Irishman and helped to persuade the world at large that the Irishman was a buffoon, unfit for self-government. I now think that I may have been wrong. That figure of fun probably won far more affection for Ireland than he ever alienated. I am convinced that the same is true about the working-classes, and that their progress will not be impeded for a single hour by their genius for producing comic characters, as the Church and the peerage do. Even in the classless world of Utopia, I hope that human beings will continue to be sufficiently different to seem figures of fun to each other. As it is, a working-man today who is a figure of fun is appreciated and laughed at by no one more than by his fellow working-men. That is one of the best omens for the future of humanity.

Read more from the NS archive here and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

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