Gags and Novelties


Our Daily Correspondent


Illustration: Max Ronnersjö

“Do we need tea?” she echoed. “But Miss Lathbury … ” She sounded puzzled and distressed and I began to realise that my question had struck at something deep and fundamental. It was the kind of question that starts a landslide in the mind. ―Barbara Pym, Excellent Women

We have all experienced such “landslides of the mind”: moments that upend everything we thought we knew or believed, everything that made us feel secure. These are the moments when we grow up—or resolutely refuse to. They are the moments that define us. In my case, it was the moment, in middle school, when I saw someone actually slip on a banana peel.

If you’d asked me in the minutes—days—years before it happened, I would have scoffed at the very notion. I knew certain things as facts: The sky was blue. Everyone died. People slipping on banana peels were not funny. My certainty was so obvious as not to require conscious thought; and yet, in a sense, it underlay so many of my assumptions about comedy, sophistication, and human nature itself. 

As a child I was in the habit of listening to the 1918 Prokofiev opera Love for Three Oranges (dramatized for kids by the peerless Ann Rachlin), in which a prince has fallen into a melancholy from too much tragic poetry; the only cure is laughter. Yet all the most amusing clowns and jesters in the land fail to coax forth so much as a smile. It is only when the evil witch Fata Morgana falls over and exposes her underpants that the melancholy prince is roused to helpless mirth, and his life is saved.

Even in my earliest memories, I found this quite implausible and utterly unfunny. (The princesses trapped in enormous oranges was less of a stretch, apparently.) I was someone who “did not like” slapstick. This is who I was.

And then came that moment in the cafeteria. Someone had left a banana peel—outer side up—on the floor. A boy carrying a laden tray stepped on the banana peel and—yes!—skidded several feet, tray and food flying, arms flailing, legs thrown cartoonishly into the air. And like the melancholy prince, like a small child, like a Bruegel peasant, I guffawed. 

Was it “funny?” I don’t know. It was pure. It was pure human enjoyment of someone else’s misery and absurdity. And in the shocked minutes afterward, as people applauded and jeered and helped that boy clean up, I realized: I don’t know anything. Maybe it’s hilarious when someone gets pie’d. Maybe clowns have their place, and whoopee cushions, too. Maybe I like The Three Stooges. And then reality reasserted itself and I hid from that which challenged me. Maybe I drank tea; I was probably too young.