I find myself returning to ‘A man walked into a bar’
When I was a young man, the template for the British stand-up comic was the sort of act you saw on telly in The Comedians, a TV series which mixed clips from up to 10 different comics per show. Performers included Bernard Manning, Stan Boardman, Frank Carson, Russ Abbot, Lennie Bennett, Jim Bowen, Mick Miller, Mike Reid and Roy Walker. There may have been a woman or two, but I don’t recall any.
These comics were the stars of the numerous working-men’s clubs that existed then, but to me they seemed impossibly old-fashioned. I felt no affinity with these men in their glittery jackets and frilly shirts, slickly marching their jokes by us in single file.
Jokes to me then were for old blokes in the pub, ready-made narratives displaying no individuality, belonging to everyone, and so to no-one. Even discounting the routine sexism, racism and homophobia that ran through most of the routines, the stories detailed a world I did not know – of nagging wives, stupid Irishmen, seaside boarding houses and salesmen travelling in ladies’ underwear. Jokes may once have been the staple diet of my grandad’s era, but now they were the laborious weapon of pub drunks.
Those of us who reacted against this style of stand-up made sure that we dressed scruffily and wrote our own material, much of which was liable to be observational – actually it might come in many forms but never as a stream of conventional gags. No man ever walked into a pub in alternative comedy…
But that was all a long time ago and we became old-fashioned in our turn as suits started reappearing, accompanied by a new sort of sexism that was framed in a cool cage of irony. Fashions in comedy continue but the old school ‘joke’ has never really made a comeback – the great Barry Cryer is really its only convincing advocate. Barry, by the way, has never had that unpleasant UKIP-style political stance of yore.
But I find that recently I seem to have developed a love of these little stories and my current standard set contains four ‘A-man-goes- to-the-doctor’ jokes, which I deliver in rapid succession, adding, after the third, “it’s a miracle he can get this many appointments in one day given the state of the NHS”. They are guaranteed to get laughs, so I don’t resist doing them. I am not sure where I heard them but I definitely didn’t write them myself, and I don’t think anyone in my audiences thinks I did.
Why has this happened to me? I have decided not to try to answer this question but instead to present you with the first of my new/old quartet.
A man goes to the doctor. The doctor says: “I’m afraid you’re going to have to stop masturbating.” “Oh no,” says the man, “Why?” “Well,” says the doctor, “I’m trying to examine you.”
“And now ladies and gentlemen, it’s time for the bingo.”