Trinidad and Tobago


No scent of humour

Apr 04, 2001

NEVER was there so blasé a response to All Fools’ Day as the one that slipped by last weekend.

Here was an unbeatable bargain: Free laughter for a day, a period dedicated to easing the tension and by the least expensive route, yet nearly no one took advantage of the facility.

Even at an entertainment event, where I spent the first 90 minutes of All Fools’ Day, neither the MCs nor artistes made any attempt at the form of humour for which April 1 is set aside. Later, I went to the parlour on the corner, confidently expecting someone along the way or at the point of sale to try a prank. Nothing unusual happened. Not a whiff, no scent of humour.

The experience was the same at the supermarket, newspaper vendor, gas station and hosay’s Flag Night; a social sample of enough variety to tell me that something was wrong with this picture. Apparently, we no longer wished to laugh, even at Sunday’s rates. Telephone callers, perennially the most dependable group in this regard, came straight to the point this year and the media took itself much too seriously. "Whoa!" I said, "these people should get themselves checked."

An abundance of caution, I suppose, but my mother often spoke of this woman who, after achieving a state of perpetual sourness, consequently developed "medulla oblongata deficiency syndrome", a disease that attacked her central nervous system, rendering the poor thing unable to ever laugh again.

That the story of Miss Grumpy was told only on those occasions when one of mother’s jokes failed to ignite, led me to consider it nothing but a highly creative piece of fiction, harmless in its grab for that special joy radiated by the laughter of children.

But as a good mother, Geraldine was not to be rattled by mere logic. She told the parable sternly and effected convincing closure by adding evangelical spin. "God helps those who help themselves," she would say, unduly embellishing dogma with sarcasm.

Given the context, a biblical reference was particularly awesome.

Evidently, Miss Grumpy’s continuing sourness attracted the attention of God Himself, who finally disabled her laugh mechanism as a form of punishment. Looking back, I remembered what He did to Lot’s wife and even without the recommended pinch of salt, began to regard mother’s story quite differently.

I took suitable precaution, on the odd chance that this thoroughly suspect tale was constructed from even a sliver of truth. Long before calypsonian Chalkdust set the concept to music, I knew instinctively: "You Have To Learn To Laugh".

In my youth it was easy. Even before television, radio bombarded us with opportunities for developing or enhancing one’s sense of humour. Standard programming included a heavy daily dose of comedy from both the BBC and local sources. Newspapers boasted Notebook by Macaw and Around the Town by Holden Caulfield.

At street level, liming brought together young men in daily unstructured seminars, providing a crucible for arguments on any topic. Even so, picong punctuated even the most heated of those exchanges and paralleling the levity, humorous heckling became a national pastime.

But between then and now, intervening events gave us to believe we were not serious enough about anything. Calypsonians excised humour from their lyrics, preachers made fire and brimstone seem forever imminent, radio got exactly the talent it paid for, politicians told us to tighten our belts and influential speakers warned us of the deleterious effects of a carnival mentality.

And in the local tradition of over-compensating for perceived error, we became far too serious about everything. In the cleansing process, we threw out the baby, bath-water and more importantly, that bubble by which we were once identifiable as a people.

Lest smiling be misconstrued as a sign of weakness, we developed fierce looks and gladiatorial approaches to every situation, from highway-driving to interpersonal relationships. Local comedians turned from the British style of language manipulation to the American preference for personal insult and unsubtle sexual references.

The political correctness of the nineties added a fresh dimension, rendering obsolete the slew of jokes about women, minorities, domestic violence, gays and the environment. Clause 7 of the Equal Opportunities Bill scuttle several of the remaining themes.

Now, with a former Cabinet Minister on trial for murder, the Parliamentary tenure of two current Ministers still uncertain, runaway murder and mayhem, a breakout from the mental asylum, the judiciary under fire, a new Archbishop facing mutiny, no one running national security and the state of West Indies cricket; laughter simply gave way to lament.

But a revival of that intrinsic ability to find fun in all things, a retrieval of the bubble, might be precisely what we require at this time, lest we become a people adept at large-scale group merriment but devoid of individual humour; a people who perhaps need a full month of sympathy.

And come to think of it, April, with its first day already dedicated to fools, is as good a month as any.

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