A slow comfortable screw

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Reflecting on the mystery of humour

By Everard Cunion, April 2011

What is it about humour that causes us (well, some of us, anyway) to be unable to recall our favourite jokes? And when we do remember the funniest ones, we are incapacitated with laughter and so cannot get the punch line out. (I guess that’s one for V.S. Ramachandran to work on, if he hasn’t cracked it already.)

Which reminds me of a group trip I was on in the mid 1980s to Fatty Arbuckle’s, an American restaurant in Bournemouth… The drinks list had all the legendary U.S. alcoholic beverages, including of course the screwdriver. The one that caught my eye, however, was the slow comfortable screw. (It might even have been a long slow comfortable screw. It was a while ago.) We had a good laugh about it and no doubt we dared each other to ask for one. There were some attractive waitresses in the place, as well as the inevitable dragon in charge, so the possibilities for amusement were open-ended.

After the meal it came time to order drinks. Naturally, the dragon took the orders. There were about 20 of us there and I was roughly in the middle. Bear in mind that I have the proverbial memory of a goldfish. By then I had long forgotten the drinks list and, anyway, I do not drink alcohol. People were nudging me and it became very quiet. “She wants to know if you’re ordering a drink.”

I sat with facing away from where the waitresses entered the space we occupied. (That is one detail I remember clearly. Why?) I turned in my seat to face the dragon, incongruous in her frilly waitress uniform, and I said, amid the silence, “Oh, I’ll have a coffee please.”

After two beats there was uproar. It was as though I had said the funniest thing any of them had ever heard! I started to look down and around me to see if somebody had stuck a funny label on my clothing or chair. It made no sense. Just when it seemed they had laughed enough so as to be able to get on with the remaining drinks orders, one fellow, with tears streaming down his face, slapped the table and gasped, “I’ll have a c-c-c-haaaaaaa!” and he slapped the table again before rocking back in his chair, eyes closed, mouth wide open, and the uproar went on.

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2 Responses to A slow comfortable screw

  1. Davecat says:

    Defining humour has always been ephemeral for me, and determining how I personally manage to make people laugh is nigh-impossible to understand. I was speaking with someone recently: she was asking how I write comedy (which I personally wasn’t aware I did; I write things with a humourous slant, but I don’t flat-out write ‘comedy’), and I told her that it just kinda falls out of me, really — I just try to highlight the absurd in the normal. Neither she nor you can see me from where you are, but I’m shrugging.

    A good lot of comedy, I believe, is the timing and the delivery, which I think were two of the things that caused your mates to explode. With laughter. You had your set-up — the dares to ask for the slow comfortable screw, as well as the grim-faced matron you had to order said drink from, coinciding with the expectation that everyone had of you fulfilling the dare, finally ending with your (I expect) nonchalant and guileless delivery of something that no-one had forseen at all. It wasn’t so much what you’d said, but I think it was how you’d said it. Perhaps, sir, you are a Comedy Neutron Bomb, and whatever you’d said in place of the expected bevvy name would’ve had your crowd holding their sides from laughing so much.
    Also, you kill people and leave buildings standing. See, there’s an example right there.

    One of my favourite quotes comes from some book by W. Somerset Maugham — no idea which book, as I’ve not yet been arsed to look into it further — which would be

    ‘Do you like card tricks?’ he asked.
    ‘No,’ I answered.
    He did five.

    Let that be a lesson to you. *dusts off hands, walks away*

    • Ah, the timing and delivery.

      At the last comedians’ convention I attended, one old timer called out “Five hundred and thirty-four,” and everybody laughed (except the new guys like me). And so it went on. (They all know these jokes by catalog number, of course.) I quickly riffled thrugh the catalog and picked out one of my favorites and I called out its number. I started laughing, but stopped when I noticed everyone just looking at me, po-faced.

      A guy sitting nearby leaned over towards me and said in a low voice, “It’s not just the content of the joke, it’s the way you tell it.”

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