'The most wasted day of all is that on which we have not laughed.’
Nicolas Chamfort, French C18th Writer
At the end of Oxford’s Trinity term we would adjourn to the river to drink Pimms and watch rowing in the warm Spring sunshine. Rowing may not be the most thrilling spectator sport, but back then there seemed to be something inherently sophisticated and carefree about just being there.
A mate took along her Northern Boyfriend who was in town for the weekend, and we determined to position ourselves at the start of the race.
The competing eights were aligned along the bank in tense concentration. Young muscular men sat expectantly in their boats, wearing college colours and fixed grimaces. A senior gentleman with a military moustache and brightly tailored blazer stood over a small starting cannon at the river’s edge.
All was seriousness and silence. All was anticipation.
Suddenly the Northern Boyfriend shouted at the top of his voice:
‘Come on then. Mek us laugh!’
The mood was punctured, the concentration shattered. Some fell about chuckling, others were unimpressed. We adjourned to another vantage point.
Sometimes we imagine ourselves to be engaged in something really rather important; we take ourselves a little too seriously; we adopt airs and graces. Sometimes we deserve to be taken down a peg or two.
'A good laugh is the best pesticide.'
The workplace in particular can become a breeding ground for pomposity and pretension, affectation and arrogance; a realm for desktop despots and new age Napoleons. A well-timed anecdote or cutting quip can act as a corrective. Humour punctures pretence, puts things in perspective. Humour speaks truth to power.
'Jesters do oft prove prophets.'
Regan, ‘King Lear’
Over the years I found that wit and wisecracks were not just a valuable antidote to office arrogance. They were also essential ingredients in a thriving company culture. I would often sustain myself through a boring meeting by noting down the absurdities of business-speak. My erstwhile colleague Ben would amuse participants in lengthy management awaydays by compiling a Top 10 list of bons mots and malapropisms. Sarah would turn the air blue with imaginative profanity. Gwyn would draw on his armory of pitch-perfect impersonations. Nick would relate shaggy dog stories of domestic disaster.
Comedy binds teams together, expresses shared values and helps us recover from disappointment.
'There's a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that that's all some people have? It isn't much, but it's better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan.’
John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea), ‘Sullivan’s Travels’ (1941)
Of course we need to beware of the ‘banter’ that excludes or marginalizes; that forces conformity and suppresses authenticity. We must recognize that some people aren’t natural storytellers.
'You have a wonderful sense of humor. I wish I had a sense of humor, but I can never think of the right thing to say until everybody's gone home.’
Irene (Carole Lombard), 'My Man Godfrey' (1936)
That qualification aside, I’d still maintain that a well articulated joke can express a company’s character and values better than any po-faced promise or purpose. Comedy can be a cohesive force, a statement of fellow feeling. Comedy creates culture.
Indeed I’m inclined to concur with WH Auden:
'Among those whom I like or admire, I can find no common denominator, but among those whom I love, I can; all of them make me laugh.'
'Oh, I hear laughter in the rain,
Walking hand in hand with the one I love.
Oh, how I love the rainy days and the happy way I feel inside.’
Neil Sedaka, ‘Laughter in the Rain’ (Neil Sedaka/ Phil Cody)