When you leave a city and then return, you see it with fresh eyes. I’ve spent the last two months back in London after over two years away. On my return, I feel as though I understand it both more and less. Less, because I don’t really know who One Direction are and I don’t get why everyone suddenly seems to be eating popcorn. More, because leaving often gives new perspective.
The biggest change I’ve noticed since being back is in England’s sense of humour. I’ve always been fascinated by the history of what makes us laugh, and how much it’s changed.
I was once told that when Jesus talked about a camel and the eye of a needle, to the audience of the time, he was actually making a massive, hilarious joke. They would have rolled about laughing at his preposterous visual humour. Fast forward a few hundred years, and people laughed at the village idiot. Onto the 21st Century and Charlie Chaplin brought the world to its knees as he pretended to fall over banana skins. In the sixties, Britain was in love once again with caricatures, puns, innuendo and slapstick. The ’80s were satirical, and by the ’90s no one actually had punchlines anymore – just surreal characters and nonsense scripts. By the turn of the century The Office brought irony back into fashion. And of course, it’s all cyclical. The Office didn’t invent irony, just as Fawlty Towers didn’t invent slapstick. As a nation, we go through ever-repeating cycles of what we think is funny.
I think it all depends on what else is going on in the world.
In the ’80s, Britain was on the up. Everyone (apart from the victims of Thatcherism) was making money fast. As a result, we could stand back and mock. Spitting Image’s satirical puppetry was universally popular, and stand-up comics sneered their way through routines about politicians’ gaffs.
Last week, I went to the theatre to see one of the West End’s biggest hits of the year: a remake of a French classic, now entitled ‘One Man, Two Guv’nors’. The play was delightfully innocent. Not a hint of irony, just rollocking slapstick, audience participation and show tunes. And this seems to be true of most British entertainment in 2013. TV has seen a sudden influx of comfy, cosy sitcoms, and the nation’s biggest selling comedian, Michael Macintyre, makes gentle observational jokes about losing socks behind the washing machine.
Why? Because actually, life’s pretty tough. We are living in the reality of a recession, politics is a mess of vacuous celebrity, marriages and families are breaking down and it continues to be impossible to keep up with the Joneses. Life’s tough. No wonder we want something gentle, warm and unthreatening to make us laugh. No wonder we long to return to the innocence of variety shows and music halls. No one wants to sneer at the politicians any more because the reality is depressing enough. No one really enjoys innuendo because there are no longer any taboos. And punchlines are back, because right now, we don’t want to think, we want to laugh.