Tag Archives: Arts Week 2012

Jokes, Laughter and Literature

This post was contributed by James Brown, from Birkbeck’s External Relations Department.

One of the first books I owned was Allan Ahlberg’s Ha Ha Bonk joke book. A collection of mostly bad puns and word play. As a child, I used to bring terror on holiday in joke book form, by forcing family members to relive my favourite jokes until they pleaded for mercy – a kind of verbal waterboarding. The title of the book is a promise that the jokes will make you laugh so hard that your head will fall off, which is a rash promise given quite how subjective jokes are. Standard fare is “What happened to the man who stole a calendar? He got twelve months.” Ha ha. Bonk.

But, as Adam Smyth (Birkbeck lecturer in Renaissance Literature) explained at Jokes, Laughter and Literature (part of Birkbeck’s Arts Week) joke books and their popularity or otherwise are nothing new. In 1600, twelve years after his death, Tarlton’s Jests was published as a collection of the jokes of Richard Tarlton. He was a renowned clown and actor of the day, who is said to have been a favourite of Queen Elizabeth, and whose witticisms and songs were extremely popular at the time. Unfortunately, his humour may not have found favour with William Shakespeare. An original draft of Hamlet has the Prince warning Yorick of the perils of overacting clowns, performing jokes that the audience already knows. Tarlton had been a member of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the theatre group for whom Shakespeare wrote much of his work, and Yorick is said to be based on him.

Lecturer in Modern Literature Kate McLoughlin went on to talk us through the three main theories in philosophy for why people find jokes funny. Perhaps Shakespeare is indulging in Thomas Hobbes’ theory of superiority, which is that generally we laugh at other people’s misfortune. In Tarlton’s case, he’d just died, and misfortune doesn’t get much more misfortunate than that. But misfortune in itself surely can’t be enough. I went to an open mic night at a comedy club recently, where the floor was open to anyone brave enough to give five minutes of their best jokes. I’m in awe of anyone who has the courage to stand in front of a room full of strangers asserting that they’re funny enough for you to want to pay to hear their jokes, but the results were mixed; for some, the loudest response to their one-liners was the sound of dreams being ruthlessly crushed. Those who didn’t raise a laugh were misfortunate; but sadly weren’t funny.

On the other hand, Immanuel Kant’s Incongruity Theory has it that finding something funny revolves around derailed expectations, with the best punch lines being unpredictable. It would be interesting to find out how Kant thought his theory stacked up against an episode of My Family, but by the time the sitcom was written Kant had died a couple hundred years ago, as indeed had some of the jokes. But neither does the theory explain why catchphrase comedy is, or at least has been, so popular – where knowing exactly what a character is going to say, and the anticipation of it, is from where much of the audience derives humour. Sigmund Freud’s theory of what humans find funny is the relief theory, that we funnel energy from sexual repression or pent-up emotion; as a ritual to ward off tension. It’s certainly true that laughter can release tension, but is that the same as saying that jokes are what causes relief?

American journalist HL Menken said that “a philosopher is a blind man in a dark room looking for a black cat which isn’t there”. I’m no more qualified to say what makes people laugh than a giraffe is to breakdance. Perhaps it’s easier to say what’s absolutely not funny. To return to the comedy club, it’s relatively easy to define what’s not funny. A full two years after its creation, one of the aspiring comedians opened their set with a line about how the iPad sounds like it’s a feminine product.

Ha ha indeed. But definitely no bonk.


The Writers’ Hub: Self-Publishing – Vanity Fair or Brave New World?

This post was contributed by Catriona Jarvis, an alumna of Birkbeck’s MA Creative Writing.

Attendance was high and the audience attentive at this Room 101 panel discussion deftly chaired by Julia Bell, senior lecturer on the MA Creative Writing at Birkbeck who introduced us to the panel: Orna Ross, Irish writer of both novels and poems and founder of the Alliance of Independent Authors; Alison Baverstock, writer and lecturer on the MA in Publishing at Kingston University, and Karen Inglis, children’s author.

It was extremely heartening, not only to hear from such a talented and successful all-woman panel, but also to hear their unanimous message that self-publishing works, and that it is most certainly not the option for those who can’t cut the mustard. Far from it! It puts the author in the driving seat and brings her closer to her readers.

Orna, who was a journalist before becoming a published novelist, (encouragement for those of us who have been many other things and are now striving to become published novelists…), unhappy that publishers were, in her view, selling to retailers such as supermarkets and chain stores rather than readers, wrenched her two-book deal away from Penguin and e-published instead.

Perceiving the need for a non-profit organization to represent and support writers, Orna launched the Alliance of Independent Authors at the latest London Book Fair. She had last been there as a writer and felt there was a gulf as the only writers there seemed to be the celebs. This year, however, there was a big ‘e-section’ and a most definite sense that there is a place for both e-publishing and other self publishing, with flexibility for authors to move between self-publishing and the more traditional route.

Although we are watching the re-arrangement of the deck chairs, they are not on the Titanic, says Alison Baverstock. Self-publishing is not just for those who comprise slush piles. There are huge numbers of good writers out there, but publishing houses are culling their lists. In what is now a vast proliferation of media, authors are required to market themselves. But she was firm that the industry is not on the run and certainly not dead. Rather, this cloistered world is opening in order to share the bread and wine and this is an exciting time. Writers need to have a blog and be seen and heard on Utube and twitter (NB. Alison reads book reviews on twitter). (Caution: use one form of social network properly rather than all of them badly. Spend no more than ten minutes, three times a day networking). Above all there must be professionalism. Services are now available from those such as professional publishing for the self-funding writer and the Society of Editors and Freelance Proofreaders. As Alison pointed out, well-managed publishing is invisible and any self-publishing must be highly professional. One option is to build a profile through self-publishing and then turn to the traditional publishers for professional publishing and marketing services (although most authors do not come into public view until their third book…). In what is another big change of policy, the Society of Authors will now admit you if you have self-published and sold at least 200 copies of your work in a year.

Karen Inglis wrote The Secret Lake and Eeek! some ten years ago and they sat on her hard-drive. Although Bloomsbury had liked what she wrote they said it was too short for a children’s book. She writes professionally, works on web design and has a blog (have a look at wordpress blog – it is free and easy to use!). She took the plunge and self-published with the benefit of help from The Advice Centre for Children’s Writers, both in hard copy (on demand) and online(see for example ‘lightning source’). A freelance artist found via the internet designed her book covers. She sells about 100 copies per month via Kindle, (Kindle also provides a lending library service, free to the reader with a small fee to the author). She designed the layout, picked the typeface and did all her own PR (for example through her local paper and her local bookshop- Waterstones). Be under no illusion that it is very hard work, but it brings 70% royalties instantly; there is no such thing as ‘out of print,’ and you are not ‘remaindered’ after a few weeks. (Caution: check the terms and conditions of any contract with great care).

Julia reminded us of the writing community that has grown from Tindal Street press.

Do not under-value your work. At 2.99 it equates to a greeting card, but at £4.99 it remains under the psychological £5.00 (or $5 barrier).

The writer was a resource to be mined but is now a partner with the publisher.

It is a nonsense that self-publishing is vanity, says Orna: vanity is embodied in intention.

It was also hugely affirming to hear from Alison that what fascinates us is what we want to read about, and that self-published authors are happy people.

Keep writing.

Get out there.

Catriona Jarvis (not out there yet…)

MA Creative Writing (Merit) Birkbeck, 2009


Naked Homo

This post was contributed by Lee Pritchard, a Birkbeck MA English student

At one point in Martin Lewton’s candid one-man performance ‘Naked Homo’, seen here before its short run at the Brighton Fringe, a small towel is utilized as a head scarf – the sketch, one of 8 that make up any one show, concerns a transvestite’s frank recounting of a recent encounter with a haberdasher. Sitting on a chair (the show’s only other prop and sole staging device) Lewton was visibly struggling to tie the towel – no bigger than flannel – around his head before he could start his monologue. After tying a loose knot he confides that it may well fall down later and that we will have to do our best to just imagine it in place. After a short burst of coy-feminine, cross legged introduction, the towel does indeed fall off. Martin gives a panto aside of ‘told you so’ and an unabashed smile in our direction before carrying on, unflustered. It’s a trivial memory of an otherwise smooth performance but one, I dare say, that could have actually been just as intentional as any other part of the choreography. What it allowed Martin to do was something quite crucial: it broke down the wall for only the briefest of moments, letting us all breathe a slight awkward laugh of relief that the naked man in the room was aware of his nakedness and that he could smile and share in our tightly hidden embarrassment, thus alleviating some small part of it.

Nakedness is not just a selling gambit for this show. It is, more than the ‘homo’ part, its very subject. How do we feel about parents talking to their son after he has just walked in on them having sex? Do we feel differently when considering that their parents are gay? How about gay and naked, standing in front of their son who, we learn, has had his own pre-pubescent homo-erotic encounter?  It is to Martin’s credit that he has been able to deftly ‘get at’ the now standard gay-drama issues (e.g. attitudes to casual gay sex in a post-aids era, cross-dressing, gay parenting, gay-hate and the secular popularity of summer ‘pride’ festivals) by simply adding the element of nudity. It speaks to a very British sensibility, perhaps, that finds itself even in these ‘unshockable’ times open-jawed at the sight of a naked actor bending over to show them a close-up view of their anatomy(!) Even more so as this performance has none of the Saddlers Wells high-art dance sheen that makes nudity acceptable to a paying cultured class; rather the point of nudity here is to give a wry, heel-kickingly proud prod in the sides of our less than modern relationship with sex and nudity. The aim is very much to make you smile, to make you go through all the phases of smiling that even the most prepared art-goer is likely to encounter: from wide-grinning embarrassment down to friendly, relaxed familiarity by the end of the show.

The real nakedness however, comes in those sketches that focus on the less than assured gay-personas. In an autobiographical sketch as Martin tells us, we hear a man’s life-long suppression of homo-eroticism blend with the guilt of his wife’s recent passing and the new lease of (sex) life this has granted him. The emotions are tenderly uncovered as Martin skilfully shrinks his body in on itself, covering his intimacy up in a ball of hand-wringing guilt as he learns to confront the real man he is finally learning to love. In a Q + A session after with Martin and director/partner Andrew McKinnon, we learn that this inauspicious rehearsal studio is surprisingly not the strangest space Martin has performed ‘Naked Homo’ in (suffice to say that the angle a seated diner has at a table looking up at a naked actor makes for quite a unique experience!) We asked if Martin had ever experienced any negative heckling at a performance or any walkouts – Andrew stepped in to tell us of a man, on his own and clearly gay who could barely conceal his discomfort and did indeed nearly walkout. The frankness of the themes explored perhaps, or the way that a friendly naked man can make you see old problems afresh, can provide for some a very affecting experience.