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On Seeing A Joke
by [?]

Almost any man can make a joke, but it sometimes requires a clever man to see one. It is said that a Scotsman “jokes wi’ deeficulty.” What we really mean is that it is often difficult to see a Scotsman’s jokes or even to know whether he is joking or being serious. As a matter of fact, the Scots are an unusually humorous race. They make jokes, however, with the long faces of undertakers, and one is sometimes afraid to laugh for fear of appearing frivolous on a solemn occasion. I have in mind one brilliant Scottish professor who, whether he is jocular or serious, invariably monologises in the tones of a man condoling with a widow. He half-shuts his eyes and folds his hands, and, for the first minute or two, takes an evil delight in leaving you in doubt whether he is launching into a tragic narrative or whether he will suddenly look up through his spectacles and expect to see you laughing. His English friends are in a constant state of embarrassment because they know that he is a humorist of genius, but his humour is so subtle that they do not trust themselves to see the point when it comes and laugh at the right place. Now, there are only two things that can make the professor look sterner than he looks while giving birth to a joke. One is, if you laugh too early: the other is, if the great moment comes and you don’t laugh at all. He makes no complaint, but he sits back in his chair, looking like an embittered owl. And everybody else in the room has a sense of ghastly failure–his own failure, not the professor’s. To miss seeing a joke is, in some circumstances, far worse than to miss making the point of a joke visible. If one were in the position of a Queen Victoria, one might, of course, quench the professor by merely saying: “We are not amused.” But even Queen Victoria, when she said this, did not mean that she had not seen the joke but that she had seen it and didn’t like it. It is not only the subtle and Scottish jokes, however, that are at times difficult to see with the naked eye. There is also the joke that hits you in the eye like a blow and blinds you. Captain Wedgwood Benn referred to a joke of this kind in the House of Commons on the authority of Mr Stephen Gwynn. A judge of the Irish High Court, he related, was recently travelling on a tram which was held up by Black-and-Tans. The Black-and-Tans, who, like the Most High, are no respecters of persons, called on the judge to descend, using the quaint colloquial formula: “Come down, you Irish bastard; put up your hands.” Captain Wedgwood Benn does not unfortunately possess a twentieth-century sense of humour, and he did not see this particular joke. The comedy of a judge’s being addressed as an Irish bastard did not strike him. I doubt if half-a-dozen members of the House of Commons realised the beauty of the joke till Sir Hamar Greenwood got up and explained it. “I happen to know the judge,” said the twinkling Chief Secretary. “He told the story himself with great glee, and here it is. Mr Justice Wylie, the last, and one of the best judges appointed in Ireland, was riding on a tramcar to a hunting meet. When he got to the end of his ride, there were some policemen on duty, and they did use a word which, I trust, no hon. Member of this House will ever use in calling him down from the tram. They did him no harm. He treated it as a joke, and he would be the man most surprised to find it quoted in the House and in the Observer as an example of the decadence of the Irish police.” I agree with Sir Hamar. A joke is a joke, and many Irishmen, unlike Mr Justice Wylie, are unduly thin-skinned. The only criticism I would make on Sir Hamar Greenwood’s idea of a joke is that he appears to suggest that it would have been less funny if the Black-and-Tans had done the judge some harm. I should have expected him rather to dilate on the attractions of life in the Irish police force for men with a sense of humour. Suppose the judge had been robbed of his watch, or had had his front teeth broken with the muzzle of a revolver like the University Professor at Cork, would not that have made the incident still funnier? Suppose he had been carried round as a hostage on a motor-lorry, or shot with a bucket over his head, as has happened to other innocent men, would it not have been a theme for Aristophanes, who got so much fun out of the idea of one person’s being beaten in mistake for another?