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Humour in Rehearsals: Analysing the Prequel

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I’m Liz, and my tragic flaw is that I can’t walk past a cheap joke.

This is how I introduced myself at the start of my session on ‘Humour in Rehearsals: A How-to Guide’ for the Barbershop Harmony Society’s Virtual Harmony University on Saturday. In fact, I had – only minutes before – transcended my tragic flaw to walk past a cheap joke, and it occurred to me afterwards that the one that got away would be quite a good case study for discussing one of the questions that came up in the session.

(Before we go any further, just to manage your expectations about how much this post might make you laugh: probably not much. Jokes are like frogs: once you cut them open on the dissecting table they tend to die.)

So, the joke I walked past was this: in the few minutes before the session, the room monitor and I were chatting as we got set up. He mentioned that it was the first session he had acted as room monitor for, and I replied that it was the first session I had taught for VHU. At this point, I didn’t add, ‘So we can lose our virginity together’. The words echoed round the inside of my head but I clamped my mouth shut and they didn’t get out.

Now to analyse this quip using the ideas of Dan O’Shannon my session drew on. It is based on the shared cultural knowledge that in our world, one’s first experience of penetrative sex is an event that is freighted with considerable personal and social significance, and the nub of the joke is the incongruity of positing that other, rather more everyday, first-time events are in some way equivalent. Just as the vocal folds vibrate to turn air into sound, a joke’s nub uses incongruity to turn shared context into laughter.

And just as the sound from your vocal folds is shaped by the resonating cavities of your head, the basic incongruity of a joke may either enhanced or inhibited by a variety of modifiers. This was the concept a participant wanted clarifying, and I find it easiest to grasp by walking through an example rather than talking about in the abstract.

In the case of the ‘first time of x as loss of virginity’ quip, the primary modifier is taboo: the fact that sex as both a subject and an activity is highly regularted by a complex web of social mores. Exactly what these mores entail varies quite a bit in different social groups, which of course just heightens the complexity of it all, as you may find yourself constantly negotiating between slightly – or very – different versions, all of which are highly emotionally charged. It’s a touchy subject, so to speak.

Taboo is an interesting comedic modifier, because it can either significantly amplify or completely nullify a laugh, depending on the worldview of the laugher. In the context of LABBS, where the idiom ‘contest virgin’ for someone participating in their first barbershop competition is widely known, it acts as a mild amplifier, adding just enough extra frisson to keep the idiom alive as a quip in a world where people have become so accustomed to the basic incongruity that they’re no longer really alert to the comparison it makes.

I learned some years ago, when using the phrase ‘contest virgin’ in a role-play evaluation at a BHS judge-training event that the idiom is not in common currency in the US (or at least wasn’t back then). On that occasion it elicited one of those gasp-laughs you get when something is both surprising and out on the edge.

Hence, on Saturday, my brain made the split-second judgement that the quip, especially in the more personally-connected form the situation presented it in, would be too taboo for the situation and even if it didn’t actually offend my interlocutor, would most likely weird him out. Cracking that particular joke at that moment would be unlikely to create rapport, and would be quite likely to create alienation.

And of course navigating that particular area of risk is one of the key things that people worry about in using humour in rehearsals. Hence, one of the points of the session was to provide people with analytical tools to give them a better handle on things like this that they normally just do intuitively. The social structure of the joke is one key element to this (the ‘punch up’ principle you find in stand-up), but the effect of modifiers is probably the next most important factor.

Though of course, in real-time interpersonal interactions, you still need to rely on your intuition. Your analytical faculties don’t work fast enough to shut your mouth when something contextually inappropriate is in danger of popping out. Nonetheless, the analytical work you do outside of the heat of the moment sharpens up your intuition and allows you to operate more fluently and surely in real time. (That last sentence also applies to rehearsal technique in general, to musical performance and indeed to training for sports.)

Anyway, one of the things I learned about myself at the weekend is that I can, in fact, walk past a cheap joke when said cheap joke is unlikely to work. There is as yet no evidence as to whether I can walk past a cheap laugh.

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