Last night we went to the theatre to see I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue. Radio 4’s long-running antidote to panel games is on tour. In between rounds, the host tells humorous anecdotes about local people and places, only the local place names changing from night to night.
Last night we were treated to the tall tale of a well-known local landowner and employer, whose gardener lost most of his limbs in the First World War, but was enabled to keep his job after the War. The nobleman paid for his servant to be fitted with prosthetic limbs — mahogany legs, and arms of oak and leather straps for joints. Years later, asked why her father should go to such expense for the gardener, his daughter simply said that he’d been with the family so long he was part of the family.
The host screws up a piece of paper, and throws it away, muttering, it wasn’t funny anyway
The first time we laugh is like Pavlov’s dogs. We know where this joke is going, and when, and how it will end. We prepare to laugh, feeling clever that we have got there ahead of the teller. And then, even as the laugh erupts, it changes into laughter because he has got the punchline wrong. That wasn’t what we were expecting.
The second laugh is also layered. We laugh because the joke is funny, even if it was messed-up. But this also morphs, as about two-thirds of the audience realise that the ‘mistake’ was intentional, part of the joke ... a knowing laugh with undertones of superiority, for, we are sure, two-thirds of the people in the theatre haven’t got the joke.
The third laugh contains a sympathy for the joke-teller — even professionals screw up sometimes, we’ve all been there — and admiration that a joke can be mined, or saved, by sheer bravado and deflection.
Perhaps most funnily, the members of the panel, who have heard this joke told night after night, still laugh, at every point. For they are watching a consummate pro, who has just pick-pocketed an entire theatre, despite the fact that many in the audience had arrived on their guard, expecting just such an attempt to be made.
The Old Testament reading for today, Isaiah 49:1-7, is similarly layered. It speaks of the Lord’s servant, who is the people of Israel/tribes of Jacob, and the prophet known as Isaiah, and, in the understanding of many people, a passage that speaks of or points to Jesus.
There are layers of knowing. And these layers comfort us by their familiarity ... and unsettle us with their twists. They bring to light our sense of superiority, of being more in-the-know than others ... only to expose our foolish pride. They transform our failures into a work of genius, scripted by a pen that never fails to deliver ... and send us out with glad hearts. They catch up Sunderland, and every other place, in a shared story of being both special and a sorry state, loved in spite of it all.
And, no matter how many times you hear these words, they keep on giving, they never get old.