It was around 1960, and I was an irreverent kid in high school. Part of the irreverence involved me and a friend in writing comedy sketches for our (very traditional) school pantomime. So I paid keen attention to what was happening in the world of jokes.
In America Mort Sahl was happening, and a great revolution was producing the very first “sick joke” . . . which you can see above. When I first heard it, I had the “watcher of the skies / when some new planet swims into his ken” feeling — as P.G.Wodehouse, a very different type of humourist, once put it, to describe a sense of discovery of something totally new. The Lincoln joke showed that suddenly nothing was out of bounds. There were no things that you “just couldn’t joke about.” Not anymore.
I rode the new wave enthusiastically. Even in my first university year at St. Andrews, I was involved in writing and performing comedy sketches with a group of friends. There was no money involved, but we got free tickets to the fancy, formal Balls for which we provided the half-time entertainment. By the second year I was the MC of an occasional student night-club in an empty church hall. For reasons hidden in the mists of time we called it GAP (too bad there was no copyright on the commercial use of the title we invented) and although we didn’t bother with a liquor licence, we drew packed crowds to dance and enjoy the music and the unforgettably witty sketches. (We even drew unruly crowds at the door, but that, and the fight with a head-butting sailor, is another story.)
These were the days when “That Was the Week That Was” ruled BBC TV on Saturday night, and satire was a big part of what we wrote and performed. Sick jokes made an occasional appearance: I remember one “bedtime story for little ones,” read by a leering uncle figure. It was a variant on the traditional story of Greyfriars Bobby, the little dog that charmed all of Edinburgh by his daily trips to sit sadly at his master’s grave. Our variant, I’m sorry to say, involved Bobby (a bone-loving little dog) in seeking daily sustenance at the grave. The howls of outrage as the implications dawned on the crowd were very pleasing to us.
Later in that second year I had a minor role in a real stage performance (Ionesco’s The Leader) which involved me in shouting, “The leader, the leader” very loudly and excitedly. The director was a student friend, Alan Strachan, who in later life went on to be the famous head of The Greenwich Theatre in London. Alan formed a group of us — four men and two women – to produce a comedy revue, a little like “Beyond the Fringe.” We took over the town theatre, The Byre, for a week of evening performances. We even ran matinees of “Six After Eight” on Wednesday and Saturday, when the show proved to be a hit.
I wrote and performed and even sang! One of the high points was when I appeared, front and centre, to produce a Malcolm-Muggeridge-style lecture on “Trends in Humour.” I told the audience that “Satire has come and gone. Now, many experts in the field are predicting that the new trend will be slapstick.” Before I could continue, a bare arm reached around the curtain and smashed a large cream pie into my face. Blackout and delighted laughter! I had to be led, blinded by banana cream, off-stage by a kind stage manager. Even in the dressing room as I gasped to clear my face to breathe again, I could hear the audience still laughing.
When people who see the current stage show Stories About Storytellers ask if I’ve done much stage work in the past, I tend to say, “Not really, but I did a little back in university.” Now all of the interest in the new movie about Lincoln has brought back memories of the impact of that original Mrs. Lincoln joke. Lincoln may have been involved in things like waging the American Civil War, and freeing the slaves. But, as you can see, he had a continuing role in what we might call my dramatic life.