The Melancholy of Laughter
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 7 Feb 1935, p. 246-259
Moore, H. Napier, Speaker
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The melancholy aspects toward laughter. Relating laughter to an attribute of the lower animals, with examples. An analysis of what it is that makes people laugh, with example. The Scot's amazing self assurance and complacency that gives the greatest laughter to other people, with demonstration. This humorous analysis and examination of laughter and the melancholy behind it continues with many anecdotes and examples, while at the same time looks at some issues relevant to Canadians.
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7 Feb 1935
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Full Text
Thursday, February 7, 1935

MR. DANA PORTER: It was a Chancellor of the Exchequer of the British Government in the nineteenth century, one who doubtlessly carried out his duties competently and efficiently, but who has now fallen into obscurity, who said that life would be tolerable if it were not for its amusements.

That, perhaps, would be strange coming from a Chancellor of the Exchequer, but it is the sort of thing you might expect to hear from our guest of honour today, Mr. Napier Moore, because Mr. Napier Moore, as far as we can gather, edits the writings of various people who think they are supplying amusement and in the curse of that experience, Mr. Moore has developed a sort of mellow cynicism toward these things. We heard him, not very long ago, address us on the subject: Does Life Exist After Marriage? It is only a magazine editor, who reads love stories from morning until night who would ever have thought of a subject of that kind for an address before The Empire Club, and I also suggest that it is only an editor of a magazine, and as far as we know, it is only Mr. Napier Moore who has thought of the subject, "The Melancholy of Laughter," because in his position he has found, possibly, that there is a certain melancholy in many of the attempts that he has been forced to read, to make people laugh. I have great pleasure in calling upon Mr. Moore. (Applause)

MR. NAPIER MOORE: Mr. President and Gentlemen of The Empire Club: I have been trying very hard to avoid feeling like a certain Mr. Higgins, the junior officer on board a British tramp which was steadily progressing on its course in the South Seas. One very fine morning the Captain of the craft came to Mr. Higgins and said, "Mr. Higgins, I want you to take the ship's position this noon. I want you to get out your instruments and record the sun, after which, let me have your findings and I will check up on the ship's chart."

Mr. Higgins said, "Well, Sir, I feel rather nervous about doing that. I have never done it before. The Captain said, "Well, there is no time like the present for starting-you do it."

So, somewhat nervously, Mr. Higgins got out his sextant and took the position of the ship as he found it, put it down on a piece of paper and sent it in to the skipper. A few moments later the Captain came out of the charter house, looking very grave and said, "Mr. Higgins, we shall take our hats off; we are in Westminster Abbey."

I feel today, as though I were standing in Westminster Abbey. (Laughter).

The last time I spoke here I had five or seven minutes notice and I came galloping down, full of zest and vigour, not knowing exactly what was going to happen, but on this occasion, I have had one week's notice and I felt at the beginning that with one week's notice, a speaker should attempt to put over the idea that he is a great constructive force. Now, it is very tiring being a great constructive force, particularly immediately after luncheon, and so I thought that with your permission, I might begin at any rate, by dealing with a lighter subject-take laughter, for instance--and then go back to the established practice of becoming drearier and drearier as time goes on.

There are a great many melancholy aspects toward laughter. May I point out to you, or remind you of the fact that in every day language, when we speak of laughing we relate it to an attribute of the lower animals. For instance, you never refer to anyone laughing unless you say that they bellowed or they roared, or they cackled, or they laugh like a hyena, or they have a horse laugh, or they grin like a Cheshire cat or like an ape. You see at once, there is hardly anything in the way of a reference to laughter that isn't somewhat depressing.

A very distinguished Englishman by the name of Lord Chesterfield, who is supposed to be the standard of manners, said that no gentlemen could afford to laugh, first of all, because of the ugly noise and secondly, because of the amazing distortion of the human face. In fact, he said, "It is only low buffoonery or silly actors that always provoke laughter and that is what people of sense and breeding show themselves above."

So now you see yourselves in your colours.

The Orientals, for instance, very rarely laugh. Chinese think laughter is only fit for women and fitter for children and not at all fit for a beard.

It is a curious thing that, to my knowledge at any rate, there never has been in the history of literature, a novelist who has gained immortality by provoking laughter alone. There never has been a great book that has continued to live through the centuries because its main object was to make people laugh. Today, with the exception, perhaps, of P. G. Wodehouse, there isn't an author of note, the author of a single best seller that I can recall, a seller that will last for years, that is based on laughter.

So, we come to an analysis of what it is that makes people laugh. We laugh principally because of things that defy laws. Every time we cackle or giggle it is because of lawlessness within us, the upsetting of natural laws„ for instance, the law of gravity. We never laugh at a cock crowing but we go into hysterics when we hear a man imitate a cock crowing. It is a reversal of the natural plan.

I find nothing to laugh at in walking down University Avenue and seeing a man with a hat on his head, but I laugh if the wind blows the hat off. Similarly, such exaggerations as large red noses, that many so-called comedians effect; create laughter because they are unnatural.

In other words, the pattern of life has been broken and we become seized with mirth at the very idea. As I say, it is born of a certain element of lawlessness that dwells within every one of us. Now, the fact that you should laugh at the outset at the unhappy position of Mr. Higgins, gives you a clue to the second reason for laughter; that is that practically no joke is on any other basis than that of somebody's discomfort. There is hardly an anecdote you can think of that isn't based on what is a tragedy to some one else.

Now, there is a classic proof of that in the story of the South African farmer who came back to his farm after a somewhat lengthy absence and was met on the railway station platform by his carrier boy. He said to the boy, "What is the matter, Joe? You look down in the mouth. Bad news?"

The boy said, "Yes, Boss. The baboon is dead.

"O, what did he die of?" asked the master. "Too much horse flesh, Boss."

The master said, "Where did he get the horse flesh?" The boy said, "He got it the night the two horses died." "Horses died. When did they die?" demanded the master. "In the fire, Boss", said the boy.

"What fire?" "Your house, Bass", replied the lad. "What night was that?" "The night of the funeral, Boss", was the answer.

"Whose funeral?" asked the master. "Your mother's funeral, Boss. She died of a broken heart after your father committed suicide„" said the boy.

And the Boss said, "Is Father dead, too?" The boy said, "Yes, the shock of losing the farm and all the business killed him.

The farmer said, "Good Heavens!" And the boy said, "That is not all, Boss. The baboon is dead, too."

You see, it is a story, every line of which is simply steeped in melancholy and yet it provides amusement. About the only exceptions to that rule are Scotch stories and the reason for the exception is that the Scot is very rarely discomfited. It is his amazing self assurance and complacency that gives the greatest laughter to other people. For instance, I can demonstrate that by the story of the head of the clan, MacGregor, who was giving a lecture on family tradition to his family and he said, "This history of the MacGregors is contained in five large volumes and in the middle of the second part of the third volume there is a wee marginal note which says, "It was about this time that the world began." (Laughter)

Now, it is very difficult to write funny stuff because of the fact that most of the laugh provoking devices that are used in books or in articles or anecdotes are very, very old. They seldom change and it becomes increasingly difficult to get a laugh out of what have been referred to as the seven original jokes. My estimate is that there were only three original jokes.

So the novelist of repute, the one who gains lasting fame, takes something different. He takes a solemn subject because it is much easier for him to keep pace with the time. Any novel that is interesting, generally speaking, has as its theme some phase of contemporary life and the necessary conditions as to plot and characterization by changes in the social and economic. phenomena of the life it represents, and plots as well as characters change. Things that were possible centuries ago are no longer possible. It is very difficult, for instance, to answer people who say, "Why don't you give us fiction like we used to read in the days of Queen Victoria?" It is largely because, with the stories presented today, the vast majority of people won't read them. If they did, they would not find them convincing.

For instance, in the old days, if it was necessary to remove a character from a story there was always the duel and the author by having the duel turn out one way or another could remove a character that was beginning to clutter up the landscape. Today, the only way it can be done is by having a change of government. (Laughter).

Now, two or three centuries ago, and even more recently than that, the likeable people in fiction were the aristocrats. They were the lords and dukes and the squires and so forth. And the comic relief was provided by merchants, business men and people of that kind. They were the butts of smart society. Then came the industrial revolution in England and the merchant and the trader and the shopkeeper were elevated in the social scale and so it has progressed, as we have recognized our life until today we find most of the heroes, most of the central characters in all our stories are business men and shop keepers and merchants and that the height of comedy relief is provided by the same people who years ago were the heroes; in other words, the aristocrats and so forth. All the jokes are levelled at the lily in the field today.

It is the same with violence. You no longer have your Uriah Heap type of violence, or the type of violence invented by Dickens. Not so. As a result of our profound studies of John and Fred we now discover the violence is a violence caused by some peculiar childhood complex he inherited because of some mental defect in his great, great grandfather or great, great grandmother. So it is impossible to write a story in which you have an out and out Uriah Heap type of violence.

It is the same with plots. The plot of the story is necessarily affected by modern science. It is no longer possible to create suspense because of a cargo of bullion bound from the Colonies to England with the suspense depending on whether or not that cargo is going to get there, whether pirates are going to' intercept it, whether mutiny will result in the treasure being stolen and the ship scuttled; it is very, very rare that a thing of that kind happens now. You can even mail a letter with some assurance that it will be delivered within two weeks on the other side of the Atlantic and if delivery were beyond the fortnight it would be some matter of talk. We can no longer rely upon this means to establish suspense in a plot.

The same is true with style. "The rather ponderous and pompous style of the Victorian age no longer has any attraction at this time, of simplification. Right here, I want to go on record with an assertion that from an editorial point of view and a personal point of view, I think simplification has been carried too far. I hold in my hand the college yell of the Christian College of California, and it goes like this:

Oompah, oompah, oompah, oompah Oompah, oompah, oompah, oompah. Killie, killie, killie, killie

Wash. Wash. Wash. Wash. Hy-ho, hi-yo, ki-yah.

That is the College yell of the California Christian College!

I have another one. Now, this is the Yale imbecility. It goes like this

Well, aboolaboo, well aboolaboo Well, aboola, boola boolaboo Boola, boola, boola, boola Boola, boola, boola, boola. (Laughter).

There is a great deal of melancholy in that laughter because our own Canadian universities and our Canadian colleges, taking leaf out of the book of these institutes of profound learning on the other side of the line, have yells even more lunatic than those I have just read out.

It is a sad commentary, on our educational system when we spend thousands of dollars a year and make all kinds of sacrifices as parents to have our friends come home and recite lines such as those I have just delivered. Away back in 1912, when I lived in Victoria, B.C., I bought two lots. One of them was situated in Kelowna, on Okanagan Lake. The other, according to the prospectus, was situated in the City of Calgary. I hadn't seen the property. I went down the Okanagan Valley three years later to see my Kelowna lot and discovered that the C.P.R. steamships were running over it regularly, and when I went to see my Calgary lot I finally found it up in Red Deer, where it really was located. (Laughter).

Now, there is a great deal of melancholy behind that laughter, not only because of my personal misfortuneas a matter of fact, I discovered in the case of the Kelowna lot that I wasn't so badly off; while I paid for it, the man who paid for it hadn't got the title to it; in fact the man who sold it to him had not got the title to it; it had passed through three or four hands without anyone having the right to dispose of it--I say there is melancholy in that laughter because it indicates the spirit of the time. It indicates that in that spirit lies the explanation for a great many of the disasters that have befallen us as a nation in the past few years. I have made the assertion repeatedly, amidst tremendous laughter, that we haven't had a depression at all in this country, that really we have been getting over a very bad boom.

Now, the boom created a great deal of melancholy laughter in the days of Dickens. Perhaps you read his "American Notes," and of his Eden City, and so forth, and my laughter is tempered by a little sadness because we did exactly the same thing in this country, away back in 1912, and then more recently.

I look in the dictionary for the derivation and meaning of both the words, "depression" and "boom," and I find that a depression means, among other things, a humbling, and an abasement; and that boom means, among other things, sound, as in an empty barrel.

We have been carried away in the past by the romantic aspect of development to the exclusion of the practical. We have overlooked the fact that the greatness of a country does not depend upon the number of square miles in it but that it depends upon the number of square people in it. (Applause). I do not need to recall to any man present some of the amazing things that have been done in this country in the name of mining, in the name of real estate. Nothing less than fraud. People deprived of their hard earned cash by swindlers-propositions that never should have seen the light of day have been allowed to flourish and only now, at long last, are we taking measures that are going to correct that situation.

There is melancholy laughter in the fact that we have departed so far from the aims and the objects of the Fathers of Confederation that, instead of creating one nation, we have built up nine independent, jealous states.

Believe me, Gentlemen, if you had to edit a national magazine and try to cater to the people of each section, you would realize how far we are from being one unified nation. We have provided, as a result of our exuberance and optimism for a population little larger than that of greater London, not as large as the combined populations of New York and Philadelphia„ we have given them ten governments, ten kings, ten Prime Ministers, nine Ministers of Agriculture, ten Civil Services, ten Judiciaries, and in addition to that, we have got 4,181 municipal governments, all of which have the power to impose taxes and pass laws. We have got more people working for governments than work in all the 6,000 families of our twenty-two leading manufacturing industries.

The Canadian wage earner, on an average, directly and indirectly, gives one week's pay out of every four to support one government or another. And we have gone along, with the utmost ignorance and the utmost apathy.

I can't escape the parallel of the man who had always earned so small an income that he never paid any income tax and finally he got an increase in salary. This is fiction. (Laughter). Not knowing anything about the income tax, he didn't pay it, and one day in due season, there arrived the Federal Income Tax Inspector, who unto him did say: "Why have you not paid your income tax?" The man said, "Income tax? What is that?" So, very patiently, the Inspector explained: "Well, you see, if you are earning $2,000. a year, approximately, you give the Government $250."

The man said, "If I don't earn that, does the government give me $250?", and the Inspector said, "O, no, not at all." "O, well," said the man, "I don't think I will join." (Laughter).

Now, I don't for one moment want you to think I have overlooked some of the very fine things we have got. I think we are too prone to overlook things that are very close to us. I get fascinated every time I pass the Welland Canal. It doesn't thrill me much to be told that the Welland Canal is the largest series of locks in the world, but if somebody was to say to me, "I want you to come down town because they are going to raise a 15,000 ton ship to within fifty feet of the top of the Royal York and they are going to do it in less than an hour and six men are going to do it with no more effort than turning an electric light switch on and off six times", I would be fascinated and that is what we are doing every day, during our week of summer, in the Canal.

It is a stupendous feat. We conquered nature; the very lifting of that 362 feet is done with the power generated from the obstacle we set out to conquer, that of the Niagara Falls. We have done great things in conquering nature, but we have gone a little too far in that. We have conquered nature with such purpose that we are now moving thousands of families out of areas which can never grow wheat. We conquered nature by hacking down the forests in our water sheds with such great gusto that we can no longer hold water in the water shed and down go the lake levels which in some cases prevent our ships from carrying cargoes from Central Canada to the sea.

We have done a great many things in conquering nature and I see by the paper we are going to do a lot more. Well, it is very difficult to conquer nature.

There is another thing we used to laugh at. Remember how we used to laugh at England--funny old lady, stumbling along and muddling through. We thought that was very funny. It isn't so funny now. There is some melancholy in that laughter because of all countries, England seems to be farther along the road to recovery.

Herbert N. Casson, a Canadian who came from a small town in Ontario, who has spent twenty years of his life, here, twenty years in the United States and twenty years in England, wrote the other day: "There has been for nearly half a century abelief in Canada that the United States is the land of progress, and that Great Britain is the land of tradition. The United States is generally supposed to be up-to-date, while Britain, is old-fashioned.

"The people in the old homeland are regarded as slow and somewhat behind the times. If a young Canadian businessman wanted to learn the new ideas and methods in business, it is quite probable that he would go to New York, not to London.

"The belief is only partly true. If a man wants to know only what is new, certainly he should go to New York, but if he wants to know what is sound and profitable he should go to London. If he wants to study successes, not experiments, he should go to Britain and study its five-generation companies." (Applause).

I have got an idea, maybe somewhat far fetched, but I do think there is a grain of truth in it, that most of the economic ills from which we have been suffering, most of the abuses of business come from our departure, in one measure or another, from the British principles--fair play and justice. I think, if you reason that out, you will find there is some measure of truth in it. I am not saying that Britain has reached the millennium--far from it. I am not saying she hasn't had failures and setbacks, that she hasn't had crooks, that she hasn't had sweat-shops. I do say this: in remedying those things she is about a hundred years ahead of us on this side of the Atlantic.

Doesn't it seem to you to be a preposterous state of affairs that in a country, four thousand miles wide, in a new country not a hundred years old as a confederated state, we should have in prairie towns and country districts, houses packed together on twenty-five foot lots, with the prairies stretching like an ocean on all sides? Doesn't it seem to be ridiculous that in cities that can only boast of a hundred years of existence, new cities in a new country, we should have such squalour and such appalling conditions of living as exist not only in Toronto but in the other large cities of this Dominion?

I think we could take quite a few clues from the Old Country. I see by the paper again this morning, that the Prime Minister bemoans the fact that we haven't enough trained minds in the country to take over large jobs. That is a rather sad reflection upon our education al system. I think we might be well advised to take another leaf out of the British book. In our parliaments--if we could ever get one parliament it would be so much better than as things are--where we have Cabinet Ministers placed in positions of responsibility and trust to look after our business interests, we force them, because of our system, to spend the best hours of their working day, sitting in the House in order to be ready to answer some stupid question. In England, you have a system of parliamentary secretaries, trained to the job, whose business it is to take on the answering of questions on minor subjects in the House, to leave the Minister free time in which to administer his Department and look after the interests of the country as a whole. I think we might try that without any trouble in this country but it seems there are some little party hitches in the way.

One thing more and I am through. I was looking at the Year Book of the Empire Club and I see, inscribed on the front page of the Constitution, "The object of this Club is the advancement of the interests of Canada and of a United Empire." And I was thinking coming down, that that is a very worthy object and I asked myself,

"How far is that object being practiced? Can it achieve the advancement of Canada and the unity of the British Empire? Can it be achieved by just meeting once a week and sitting down and listening to a man speak?"

Out of that, there grew this thought: If you agree with me up to now, perhaps something can be gained by following the tradition laid down in the Mother Country. What better institution than The Empire Club could there be to further those objects throughout this country? Would it not be worth considering at all events, to signalize the jubilee of King George this coming May, by this Club in some way setting forth to advance the ideals presented in its Constitution? How to do it, I don't know. I think we could leave that to the Executive, for what are executives for, if not to deal with things like that?

At a quarter to twelve today, I opened a manuscript, the concluding chapter of a book of reminiscences written by another journalist who stood at this table and behind this microphone not so very long ago--Beverley Baxter. I am an Englishman, I suppose turned completely Canadian. Beverley Baxter, born a Canadian has, I might say„ turned completely English. The concluding words of his book seem to me to be most fitting for the concluding words of this oration. He said: I have seen this England which has become my home, enduring the arrows of war in her breast without cry or boast, and I have seen her outraged by the selfishness and the sensuality of the post-war years, and I have seen her rise in her simplicity and dignity to be finer in spirit than ever before in her past. (Prolonged applause).

MR. DANA PORTER: It is a practice that is frequently followed when a minority shareholder of a company becomes objectionable and critical of the management, to elect him to the Board of Directors. In this case, however, Mr. Napier Moore has been a member of the Executive of this Club up until last year. I think at one time he was a Vice-President of the Club and he only retired because the pressure of the orations which he was called upon to give didn't leave him enough time to de= vote to the affairs of The Empire Club. Today, Mr. Moore has revealed himself in a role which I always thought he despised. He has revealed himself as an economist. I have heard him joke about economists, but today he has shown that he can hold his own among the best of them.

But there is one thing he has not yet explained in his business of laughter, and perhaps on some future occasion he will accept another invitation to come to this Westminster Abbey and explain to us why people read the comic strips.

I wish, on behalf of the Club, to thank you, Mr. Moore for your most--I won't say, melancholy address--I will say melancholy and entertaining address. Thank you very much.

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The Melancholy of Laughter

The melancholy aspects toward laughter. Relating laughter to an attribute of the lower animals, with examples. An analysis of what it is that makes people laugh, with example. The Scot's amazing self assurance and complacency that gives the greatest laughter to other people, with demonstration. This humorous analysis and examination of laughter and the melancholy behind it continues with many anecdotes and examples, while at the same time looks at some issues relevant to Canadians.