When I was very young, the funniest thing on the radio was The Goon Show.
It was Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers, and Harry Secombe.
‘Anarchic’ is an over-used term in comedy, but this show made later programmes like Monty Python and The Young Ones possible.
In that half-hour was more humour than in an entire week of the BBC’s output, no one had heard comedy like it before.
I was too young to understand some of the jokes but I knew they must be hilarious because the grownups were in fits of laughter.
One line l remember, delivered dead-straight, was “What’s the matter, don’t you trust me?”
This brought the house down for several minutes.
I could hear the audience in stitches but I didn’t understand why.
Iit wasn’t until I got older I realised what it was about – it was army humour.
Before I was born, the country had been at war and everyone was either in the army or in the air-raid shelters.
Everyone was crowded together having to get on in tough circumstances and humour helped, of course it had to be humour everyone understood, so everyone could join in.
If it was, it caught on like a forest-fire, you’d only need to repeat the punchline to get a big laugh, which helped if it was a rude joke, you didn’t have to say the naughty part.
And that made it even funnier, because you were in on the joke.
It was viral before ‘viral’ even existed, it was ‘memes’ before the word memes was coined.
Years later, I found what the line was about that everyone laughed at on The Goon Show.
A man goes to see a doctor, and the doctor asks him what’s the problem?
The man says. “I’ve swallowed my glass eye.”
The doctor says, “Hmmm, okay drop your trousers, bend over, spread your cheeks and I’ll take a look.” The man drops his trousers, bends over and spreads his cheeks.
The doctor looks into the man’s back passage, then says to the man, “What’s the matter, don’t you trust me?”
There’s nothing very rude in that joke, it’s just a bit bawdy, a bit risqué.
But repeating the endline makes everyone feel included, feel in on the joke, that’s why it gets a bigger laugh than retelling the whole joke would get.
That’s what army humour was, because it spread amongst millions of men, the humour could be something you’d never get away with in genteel company.
It could be outrageous, unusual, daring, it didn’t have to follow the formal rules of the BBC.
Which is why some of the most original comedians came from an army background.
Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers. Tommy Cooper, Frankie Howerd, Tony Hancock, etc.
Also in America, the more daring, more original comedians learned about humour in the army: Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, George Carlin. Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, etc.
Because they had a crash course in being crammed together with people from different backgrounds, and the way to get along together was by having a laugh.
In the army, they met all sorts of people they’d never meet in ordinary life.
Middle-class people learned about the working class, and working-class people learned about the middle class.
My Uncle, who was in the 8th Army, told me he met men who introduced him to modern art and modern jazz, as well as classical music and great literature.
He’d never have met anyone who’d introduce him to things like that in Mile End.
David Bailey told me the same thing, the army was where he first heard of Picasso, he wouldn’t have found much modern art in East Ham.
The army forced everyone to get outside their comfort zone, to realise there’s a world beyond what they were brought up in.
The army, and air-raid shelters, forced millions of people to get along, to understand each other, and the easiest way of doing that was humour.
A good joke works for all classes, all cultures, all genders, all races – a laugh is like glue.
That’s what Bill Bernbach meant when he said:
“Our proper area of study is simple, timeless, human truths.”