In a sketch called The Funniest Joke in the World, Monty Python's Flying Circus featured a hack writer, Ernest Scribbler – played by Michael Palin – who in 1943 stumbles on an idea so hilarious that, rereading his own lines, he laughs himself to death. The effect is repeated on his mother when, mistaking the joke for a suicide note, she progresses from mourning to helpless hilarity, with fatal results.
Soon, as explained by the documentary-style voiceover, the British army is investigating the joke’s military capability. It first tests it on one of its own soldiers, exposing him to a printout of the words from a range of 50 yards. When he dies, too, it has the joke translated into German – carefully, by a team working on one word each, for their own safety – before deploying it on the Western Front to devastating effect and winning the war.
Jokes new and old are still very much in circulation. It's just that now, instead of saying 'Did you hear the one about?', we share emails, memes and YouTube videos
Viewers never find out what it was. But, as usual, Monty Python’s audiences were laughing anyway at the inspired absurdity of the joke about the joke, which, like many of their sketches, turned traditional notions of comedy on their head. When Scribbler’s deadly words are decommissioned after the war and buried somewhere in Berkshire, it seemed to mirror what the Python team had done to the old-style joke in general.
From the generation that grew up with the Flying Circus emerged the “alternative” comedians of the 1980s and beyond. They used personal, observational humour rather than time-honoured set pieces that typically started with someone walking into a bar or visiting the doctor.
Some veteran stand-ups thought the new comedians were alternative only in the sense of not being funny. But those who didn't adapt started to look like dinosaurs. The Dubliner Dave Allen was one who somehow straddled the divide, his suave bar-stool storytelling hovering entertainingly between the old and the new.
Do people in offices and factories still tell jokes today (or did they, before Covid)? Not nearly so much as we used to, it seems, although jokes new and old are still very much in circulation.
It’s just that now, instead of saying “Did you hear the one about?”, we share emails, memes and YouTube videos, where the lines are ready-made, road-tested and told by somebody else.
As well as being less of an effort, this is also lower risk. One of the downsides of the traditional method was that the joker had to announce it in advance. If it wasn’t very good, the results could be embarrassing. As the comedian Penn Jillette – the speaking half of Penn and Teller – put it in a 2005 documentary: “A joke is a way to say, ‘I’m going to do something funny now. If I don’t get a laugh at the end I’m a failure.’”
This paper's Myles na gCopaleen could take a casual phrase such as 'I'll drink you under the table any day' and twist it into a Gothic murder mystery
The classic joke ranged in length from the one-liners of Dorothy Parker to the page-long epics of this paper's Myles na gCopaleen, who could take a casual phrase such as "I'll drink you under the table any day" and twist it into a Gothic murder mystery set in 1880s London and culminating (spoiler alert) with the narrator under a table, decanting his liquefied victim into a wine glass.
The typical length, however, was somewhere in between, with a brief set-up, a bit in the middle, and a punchline.
While not, for health reasons, sharing the joke that won the war, Monty Python did leave us a less lethal example, courtesy of the German counteroffensive. Unfortunately for the Nazis, their attempts, while well engineered and containing all the right components, did not kill anyone. This despite the Führer himself delivering their best effort at a Nuremberg-style rally:
Hitler: "My dog has no nose."
Adoring crowd (in unison): "How does it smell?"