Downhill: Steven Wright

Before Milton Jones and Tim Vine, but considerably after Hildegard von Bingen, there was Steven Wright, king of deadpan brevity.

Went out and bought myself a decaffeinated coffee table.

With that wording, and his delivery, that version is superior to some that you’ll find online.

This next “joke” is widely attributed to Milton Jones, but I swear I heard it Steven Wright doing it around thirty years ago:

Shortly before he died, my grandmother [pause] smeared my grandfather from head to toe in lard. After that, he went downhill very quickly.

Again, online versions are less well crafted. I distinctly remember the pause—he’s already got the audience thinking, WTF…

Like Daoist ritual, the texts are very fine on the page, but it’s all about performance. So here are some of his classics:

Inevitable further link: Stewart Lee’s routine on the Sardine joke and joke ownership.

Humour: why?

Perhaps it’s time for a pensée, or apercu, about some of the seemingly incongruous juxtapositions on this blog.

I realize some of these jokes may try the patience of disgruntled readers who have come here, in all innocence, seeking insights into the Wisdom of the Ancient Sages or the Mastery (sic) of the Great Composers. And indeed vice versa: anyone here for laughs will be pretty cheesed off to have to plough through blow-by-blow accounts of Daoist ritual and Messiaen.

Humour has always played a major role in my rapport both with my colleagues and local subjects—but that’s not the card I’m going to play.

Rather, humour can serve to console, to resist, to create ludic connections. It’s no more universal than music—but just as in Daoist ritual (which not only uses language creatively but incorporates segments to entertain mere mortals), and just as in WAM (thinking, for instance, of Haydn and Mozart), humour reminds us of our humanity.

Anyway, I like it.

Jokes (again, like Daoist ritual) are created by people, they take on a life of their own, transmitted in different versions over time for changing audiences. And despite silent, empty, versions in print, they thrive on and evolve through live interaction in performance.

However (and once again, like ritual or music), I’m sure this can become less satisfying for the professional, churning out the same routine night after night for an unfamiliar audience. That’s why Stewart Lee is so great, and it’s what makes his book How I escaped my certain fate so thoughtful. But that’s not important right now.

An orchestral classic

À propos orchestral humourStewart Lee does a typically labyrinthine riff giving the old sardine joke his signature going-over:

Loath as I am to spoil the fun, in the WAM biz where people used to employ me, this story is famously attributed to the brilliant percussionist and all-round piss-artist Gary Kettel.

A hooliganesque Cockney, Gary was What They Call “a breath of fresh air” in the staid orchestral scene. During Boulez’s golden years at the helm of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducting many challenging works, he much admired Gary’s musicianship, and they formed a charming and unlikely bond.

The version handed down to posterity in the orchestral biz (which beyond Gary’s own recollections has some further effective, if fanciful, detail) goes like this:

Once (this must have been in the mid-70s) he was on tour in South America with the London Sinfonietta, doing the, um, challenging Eight Songs for a Mad King.

So Gary’s at this fancy British Council reception after the gig in Buenos Aires or somewhere, getting quietly pissed in a corner on his own, and this posh bird comes up to him and goes,
“I say, I don’t believe we’ve been introduced—weren’t you playing in the concert? I did so enjoy your delightful rendition of that charming work!” [that’s a nice touch, by the way, if you know the piece, but that’s not important right now]. “Do please remind me,” she goes on, “what was it you were playing?”
“Oh, I fool around a bit on the drums, luv,” goes Gary—”So wot you doin’ ‘ere then?”
“I’m here with my husband.” she replies loftily.
Gary goes on, chummily, “An’ wot does your old man do then, darlin’?”
“My husband’s in oil!” she exclaims, proudly.
Gary goes, “What is he, a fuckin’ sardine?”

I like the details here. And the punchline is a good instance of the importance of the word “fuckin’ ”—not least for rhythm and euphony. The story also reflects musos’ own delight in “deviating from behavioural norms”.

Keen as I am on the ancestry of texts (my book ch.11), just as one does in exploring the relation and transmission of Daoist texts (well, I say “one”…), I wonder: Gary’s not sure, but could he have heard it from Tom O’Connor, or did they both get it from someone else, and so on (zzz)?

The Tom O’Connor version is less personal and less funny—which is precisely what makes it a suitable victim for Stew to mangle, a banal ground-bass lying prone for his endless florid divisions, a Goldberg variations from hell…

For further detail, see How I escaped my certain fate, pp.257–69—by now tuned into the De Selby footnotes in The third policeman, (and here), you will find further verbose and erudite annotations there too.

Pub conversation

Stewart Lee always hits the nail (here, the xenophobes) on the head. Discussing the perils of moving to the countryside, he observes:

In London, if your pub becomes a BNP pub you can easily go to another one. But in a village where there is only one pub you have to make the best of it and try and join in the conversation.
“Evening.”
“Oh, hello. Er… Hated any new races lately?”
“Yes, Polynesians, actually. And blacks as usual, obviously. Yourself?”
“Oh, you know, just the Jews mainly. You know me.”

Creative writing footnote: the “Yourself?” is finely observed, astutely capturing the chummy Faragesque language.

The check-up

Comedians’ autobiographies are not always edifying, but Arthur Smith’s memoir My name is Daphne Fairfax is a lovely warm and thoughtful book—not least for his account of his father.

But that’s not important right now“. One of Arfur’s favourite jokes is widely told:

A man goes to a doctor for his annual check-up.
The doctor says: “Well, I’m afraid you’re going to have to stop masturbating.”
“Oh no,” says the man. “Why?”
“Because,” says the doctor, “I’m trying to examine you.”

This is another instance of what is known (ironically, in this case) as the “pull back and reveal”, where you (zzz) describe something and then reveal that the situation is not what people would expect. Stewart Lee gives it a typically thorough going-over (How I escaped my certain fate, p.196–7).

Book cover

Having just shown that I don’t only do jokesStewart Lee does occasionally do some, and it must be mortifying for him to find them cited in online soundbites, callously plucked out of their labyrinthine context—like this:

My granddad always said, “You should never judge a book by its cover”… And it’s for that reason that he lost his job as chair of the British Book Cover Awards panel.