Watching American television comedy programmes is an odd experience. At the end of a thirty minute broadcast there is a feeling of having missed something, of, perhaps, not having paid attention at an important moment, for there seems to have been little to have prompted laughter. Humour is a very particular thing, it seems to require a degree of familiarity, if not identification, with the characters and situation of the events. Reading Christopher Fitz-Simon’s “Eleven Houses: A Memoir of Childhood”, perhaps it is an acquaintance with characters similar to those described, living in the area in which they lived, being able to imagine the incongruity of the moment, that lends great humour to Fitz-Simon’s description of an evening in Kilkenny.
“Nicky’s sixth birthday came in November, and there was a wonderfully spooky magic-lantern show in the darkened sitting room. The lantern had been discovered in a cupboard on the top floor, and Hubert thought his grandparents must have bought it to amuse his father when he was a little boy. It was made of shiny wood and its metal parts were brass; the glass slides were square and contained in boxes labelled The Sleeping Beauty and The Babes in the Wood and Sinbad the Sailor in old-fashioned print. The pictures projected were in very bright colours and the wicked people had frightening faces with big red lips and slanty eyes like wolves. In The Babes in the Wood the parents were shown dying in a four poster bed; their faces were completely white, they looked about a hundred years old and the babes were being lifted up to kiss them goodbye by a fat nurse in a mob-cap with big blobby tears streaming out of her eyes while two evil robbers peeped in through the lattice window.
The person showing the slides was supposed to read the stories from a dog-eared pamphlet. Hubert hadn’t really sorted the slides or, indeed, studied the book, so when he was reading out, “The roc seized Sinbad in its scimitar-like beak by the hem of his garment, O best beloved, and bore him off to its nest on the highest pinnacle of the Beauteous Mountain, intending him to be devoured by the little rocs who were screaming for a tasty meal of human flesh”, the picture that appeared on the bedsheet that Peggy had drawing-pinned to the wall showed the Archdeacon’s widow in a wheelchair being pushed into Ennisnag Church”.
Reading the account of the party to the Best Beloved, she looked blankly and said, “why would there be a lantern slide of the Archdeacon’s widow?”
Humour is particular.