Russia may not have as many aircraft carriers as the United States, but Russian people have one priceless advantage over Americans, namely a sense of humour. Time magazine has posted a piece today which makes this point for me. It is entitled: “Is this the funniest YouTube video of all time?”
Click on the link and you will see a weakly slapstick film of a man banging his head on a ceiling fan while trying to get hold of a tomato. The narrative beneath this begins:
“As if Google didn’t have enough to work on — that business of being the world’s most recognizable search engine would be plenty to keep them busy — it turns out the company also has a comedy algorithm. And they’ve just used it to let us in one* of the great, unanswered questions of our age: what’s the funniest video on YouTube?”
A comedy algorithm? Yep, that’s right: jokes by formula. Only in America. They will be challenging the Germans soon, which could be very worrying. Spike Milligan, the writer of the immortal Goon Shows (which you can still hear on the BBC Radio Comedy channel via the internet), once said: “The German sense of humour is no laughing matter.”
Half the charm of Russians is that they do have a sense of humour, unlike the people who Time magazine is writing about today. The flip-side of this is that half the strength of America is that it is prepared to admit its failings in this and most other respects without having a fit of “patriotic” censorship—which is the Russian vice.
The timeless truth (no pun intended) which lies behind this apparent paradox is that so much humour is connected with hinting at matters which we do not wish to discuss openly, or admit freely. The grievous British tradition of lavatorial humour is an embarrassing case in point. Here are two examples which would be censored in both Russia and America, and quite rightly so.
A fart, a fart is good for the heart.
It sets the mind at ease.
It warms the bed on a frosty night
And drives away the fleas.
Beans, beans musical fruit,
The more you eat, the more you toot.
The more you toot, the better you feel:
Beans, beans for every meal.
Russians are inclined to write in a formal way, for fear of being thought деревенский (rustic), hence the “patriotic” censorship. In my view, that is a mistake. Laughs may be for the pub, but a smile in an email is, like a picture in a news story, worth a thousand words. The problem is, that humour is the hardest thing to get right in a language which is not your own. So keep reading this blog!
*Yes, that is copied correctly. A proof-reading error from Time! That sentence should read: “…let us in on one of the great unanswered questions…”