No, this isn’t about those movies about the kids in New England who foil the bad guys on their bicycles, though they were cute.
The reference is to The Goon Show, a British radio comedy from the early Fifties starring Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers and Harry Secombe. This madcap show is widely regarded as a huge influence of the anarchic humor found in Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Firesign Theater, Airplane! and even Rocky and Bullwinkle. This style survives these days mostly in the podcast world, because audio being less defining than video is a natural direction toward the anarchical ideal of knowing no bounds. Audio and print are defining as well, but there are degrees. To communicate is to compromise.
Let’s set the Wayback Machine to 1937, when a lexicographer named H.W. Fowler came up with a set of basic comic models. For good reason, the first on the list is “gentle” humor, where the topic is human nature, the tool is observation, and the audience is the sympathetic. This is mainstream, feel good stuff. Will Ferrell. Shrek.
Many works are a mix of types. Sienfeld was largely sardonic–full of pessimism and self-service, but gentle enough to thrive on network TV. All in the Family thrived as well, but in a highly sarcastic style–painful and faulted while speaking to both victim and bystander.
The style of anarchic humor is wit. The goal of wit is illumination, according to the Fowler typology. The method is surprise and the audience is intelligent. In Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Arthur’s simple question to a couple of serfs by the road turns into a roadside symposium on politics:
Serf 1: I didn’t know we had a king. I thought we were an autonomous collective.
Serf 2: You’re fooling yourself. we’re living in a dictatorship–a self-perpetuating autocracy in which the working classes…
Serf 1: Oh there you go, bringing class into it, again!
Arthur: I order you to be quiet!
This is wit. This is the stuff that makes me laugh.
I mentioned Firesign Theater. These were LPs from around 1970. Very well done and very frenetic–you had to listen with headphones to have half a chance of keeping up with all the references going on. They were surrealistic, anarchic and undeniably intended for a stoned audience, but the brilliance of anarchy is what you find once the stones are turned over.
Their third album (so many third albums are the best) is about a hacker messing around in a futuristic theme park, near as I can tell. Fairly prescient for 1971, but that’s another subject. About five minutes in, somebody boards a bus full of very jolly folk:
Rider 1: Say, uh, I’m a Bozo (several background honks)
Rider 2: Oh, yeah? I thought you had kind of a big nose.
Rider 1: Ya recognized it, huh? Ya like to give it a squeeze?
Rider 2: Oh, no.
Rider 1: Oh, c’mon, squeeze the wheeze. Many people like to, here.
Rider 2: Well… (honk) (more background honks)
Rider 1: Yeah, see? It doesn’t hurt me. You know, I think we’re all Bozos on this bus. (many background honks)
They knew they had a winner with that line, making it the LP’s title. What a thing to remember in life! We’re all Bozos on this bus. It doesn’t matter how rich or poor you are, or educated, ignorant, talented or inept. It doesn’t matter how just is your cause. As long as I remember this line, everyone starts in the same place with me.
So, if “It doesn’t matter why” is Don’s First Absolute, then we have our Second.
We’re all Bozos on this bus.
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