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One of my grandsons, when he was about seven, liked to tell a story about two cows in a field. One cow said "Moo," to which the other irritably replied: "Oh, I was just about to say that." That is an example of the kind of innocent joke that one hardly ever hears nowadays. It is not "cutting edge". It does not "push at the boundaries". It is just pleasantly funny in a completely unchallenging kind of way.

Jokes of this kind were popular with my parents' generation but are now rarely told by anyone except children. My father used to like one about two pigeons that had arranged to meet in Trafalgar Square. One of them was late and, when asked what had happened, said: "It was such a lovely day that I thought I would walk." And then there was his one about the frog saying when God created him: "Oh Lord, how you made me jump!"

My mother's jokes were a little sharper, but still a great distance from the boundaries at which people nowadays are so keen to push. She had one about a man who had gone for an audition with a singing teacher. Given the thumbs-down, he turned sadly to the teacher and said: "Could I just ask you one thing? Am I a bass or a baritone?" "No," was the teacher's simple reply. My mother would also tell how an unsuitable man put up by her father for membership of the Athenaeum Club had been blackballed. "Were there many blackballs?" he asked. "Have you ever seen caviar?" came the answer.

Humour of the absurd, of which Lewis Carroll was a master, deserves to have a comeback. Parody and satire, as practised by Craig Brown and Private Eye, still contribute greatly to the gaiety of the nation, but too much of what passes for comedy on radio and television today is just vulgar and cruel. And such "cutting-edge humour" is especially lowering in grim economic times. What we now need to cheer us are kindly jokes with no targets or victims.

Here's another one of my father's (though perhaps not his funniest): two residents of a lunatic asylum are sitting in deckchairs by the sea when a passing seagull releases a dropping on to the bald head of one of them. An attentive warder says he will run and get some lavatory paper. "He must be as crazy as we are," says the other lunatic. "By the time he gets back, the seagull will be miles away."

Susan Hill
January 7th, 2009
5:01 PM
My favourite has long been, 'What did the ear wig say as it fell off the wall ?' 'ear-wig go' It still makes me laugh after sixty odd years since my Great Aunt told it to me.

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