Playfulness and Possibilities

AUSSIE HUMOUR – Playfulness and Possibilities


Contributed by Ian M Johnstone


It is worth examining more closely the two elements of playfulness and of possibilities.


All humour is playful.  We talk about playing a joke or trick on someone.  A joke is like a game, in that it is “time out” from life.  Jokes are asides from the need to take life’s problems seriously.  They are in the land of “nothing matters” and “no-one cares”.  Humour is a holiday from seriousness.  Jokes are gloriously irrelevant.  Jokes are like games in lots of ways.  People who take jokes seriously are often thought of as spoil-sports for not joining in in the right spirit.  Just as games include an element of surprise, suddenness and unexpectedness is essential to a good joke.  Our second laugh at a joke is never as spontaneous and wholehearted as the first because the element of surprise has gone.  Just to tell a joke is to invite others to join in your enjoyment of it, much as people join in a game.  The game of jokes is safely and harmlessly played in the world of ideas.  There is a big difference between thoughts and ideas and images on the one hand and actions and doing things on the other.  There is a children’s joke about the man who planted a feather and thought he would grow a rooster.  Even in a practical joke it is the novelty and unusualness of the idea behind it that appeals rather than actually being drenched with water or getting raw egg on your face.


Possibilities in the area of ideas are infinite.  So, therefore, are opportunities of being playful with them.  It is probabilities that are limited.  With possibilities, reasoning can run wild, impracticality can go on a spree, sanity can have a spell, and the intellect a frolic.  Jokes give absurdity a chance of showing off, and what is out-of-the-question can at last have some attention paid to it.  Improbability can have its moment of glory.  Humour liberates us from all that is solemn and serious.  Paradoxically, fantasy helps us face and understand and appreciate realities better.  Similarly by a paradox, humour with all its outrageous nonsense helps us accept and accommodate to the vast variety of the world, from calamities and hardships to mistakes and messes.  Comedy relieves us from unending seriousness, much as the passing of time prevents everything happening at once.  Fantasy is one way to launder reality, and similarly hilarity refreshes us to do battle with the sad and the regrettable.  A lot of humour arises from contemplating the possibility of being worse off.  We often find amusement in the misfortunes of others.

It scarcely needs to be pointed out that humour is a special kind of playing with possibilities, and just how it is special, is out of reach of words.  It shares ineffability with all the best things of life that we enjoy and can hint at but can never fully articulate.  Novelists, science fiction writers and fantasy writers and so on all play with possibilities and their work may entertain us but not necessarily make us laugh.  If the essence of humour could be stated, we could make jokes mechanically.  It is one of the most appealing aspects of humour that it defies mechanisation.  There would be a lot of lemons come from an assembly line purporting to produce jokes.  Cracking a joke is a little like making a cake: all the right ingredients can be there but it still won’t rise.

It could be because humans are moral creatures that so much of our humour has a point or lesson in it.  Many of the lessons are about failures and ways of going wrong.  For instance, the possibilities of ignorance and stupidity are the source of many jokes (including ones about the Irish).

  • The slow country chawbacon told the visitors in the car from the city that he hadn’t heard of the people they were looking for.  When the car had gone a few hundred yards down the drive the occupants heard him calling out to them to come back so they turned around and went back and he told them ‘I asked my brother, and he dunno either’.
  • A chap was to meet his boss at Mascot Airport and wanted to be sure he made a good impression in the hope of a promotion.  He saw Reg Ansett there and recognised him from his photo in the newspapers.  He went over to him, introduced himself, and asked if, as a special favour, when his boss appeared, he could come over and say, ‘Hello’, so the boss would be impressed by his important friend. Ansett agreed to do this.  When the boss arrived, Ansett duly went over and greeted the chap warmly who wanted to make the big impression.  The boss then simply turned and said ‘Buzz off will you please Reg, I can’t talk to you now, I’ve got to talk to someone important.’
  • A fellow got on the night train and told the conductor to wake him up and put him off the train at Singleton.  He warned the conductor, however, that on waking he had a very bad temper and the conductor should take no notice of this when he put him off at Singleton.  Eventually at Maitland, some stops after Singleton, the fellow woke naturally, and finding he had not been put off where he had asked, proceeded to abuse the conductor roundly for his forgetfulness.  The conductor let him finish and said,  ‘You can swear all you like, but you’ve got nothing on that man I put off the train at Singleton.  After I woke him up and put him off at Singleton, I had to fight him to get him from getting back on again’.

Humour masks and sublimates a lot of unsavoury, unappealing and socially unacceptable feelings and motives, such as, animosity, antagonism, hostility, resentment, bitterness, dislike, rancour, despondency, despair, disillusion, alienation, annoyance, vexation, irritation, botheration, anger, scorn, contempt, insolence, impudence, contumely, impertinence, disrespect, and so on.  A little anger makes us witty and amusing; too much makes us wordless with rage.