Gresham Professors – Stand-up or Stand-down?

A talk given to one of my favourite communities:

 “Stand Up Or Stand Down”

Gresham Society AGM & Dinner

14 February 2019, National Liberal Club

The Gresham Society is a very serious organisation.  A Gresham lecture is supposed to be a serious intellectual occasion.  A Gresham Society address therefore should be an especially heavy and ponderous event.  I hope to disappoint.  Tonight I want to explore the role of humour in Gresham lectures.

On the way here Bob McDowall and Ian Harris asked what I would be speaking about.  When I told them, they said that was what they really like best about Gresham lectures, people getting up and speaking on new subjects about which they know nothing.

To start my exploration I asked the greatest living Gresham College lecture listener, Barbara Anderson, for some observations.  She had a few:

First, humour crops up where you least expect it.  Geometry.  Roger Penrose talking string theory while fumbling with his wet overhead acetates that he then overturned, smearing the projector, while the image turned out to be upside down as well.  Our universe is in safe hands.  But the Geometry humour prize must go to Robin Wilson who repeatedly proved in each lecture that the shortest distance between two puns is a straight line.

Second, humour gets us over awkward spots.  I remember Will Ayliffe talking about third world cataracts while showing a video of a piece of wood penetrating an eyeball for crude surgery.  He got us through all the squirmy, squeamish bits by diverting us with jokes and waving around his EpiPen.  I remember asking Will why he always waved around an EpiPen adrenaline injector at his lectures.  He explained that he treasured it.  “My best friend gave it to me when he was dying; it seemed very important to him that I had it.”

Third, humour can be a cheap shot for regaining audience attention.  Keith Kendrick, Gwen Griffith-Dickson, Raj Persaud, and Glenn Wilson, are a bit like the Father Ted character Father Jack Hackett, tossing the word “Sex” into their talks at regular intervals.   I myself particularly remember a Gresham Society talk a decade ago on “Sex” research, with the rueful throw-away line, “… and then there was my Canadian graduate student so earnest in researching S&M that he built a dungeon in his basement.  A shame that after the murder trial and the jail term he failed to complete his PhD…”

And then there’s Tim Connell, but we don’t have the time to analyse that.

Barbara concludes that it’s less about humour per se, more about having a way with words that makes difficult subjects amusing and therefore understandable.  I agree with Barbara, but want to dig a bit deeper.

Comedy is a fundamental literary genre juxtaposed with tragedy.  Comedy sets up tension by having more than one outcome.  Tragedy ends up only one way.  In a comedic tale an unstable situation is resolved for the most laughs.  In a tragic tale, everyone dies.  Of course, the real tragedy for me is having to live through it time and time again at the opera.

Of the six basic human emotions, comedy gets happiness, surprise and disgust, leaving sadness, fear, and anger for tragedy.

Humour serves many roles, for example as a literary device to help remember definitions.  What’s the difference between erotic and kinky?  “Erotic is when you use a feather.  Kinky is when you use the whole chicken”.  Or classifying animals.  How do you tell the difference between a brown bear and a grizzly bear?  Climb a tree.  The brown bear will come up after you.  The grizzly can’t climb.  He’ll tear the tree out by the roots.  Ambrose Bierce took this to the limit with his Devil’s Dictionary.  One snippet – “War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography.”

Humour can embed concepts. A Gresham professor droned on about linguistics, “In English,” he said, “a double negative forms a positive. However, in some languages, such as Russian, a double negative remains a negative. But there isn’t a single language, not one, in which a double positive can express a negative.”  A voice from the back of the room piped up, “Yeah, right.”

According to Gresham College’s biggest competitor, Wikipedia, there are three dominant theories of humour – tension relief, superiority, and incongruity resolution.  A lecture has a lot of tension.  Will they turn up?  Will they listen?  Will they understand?  Will I have to buy drinks for everyone afterwards?  The biggest tension though between the lecturer and the audience is understanding how each other think.  Here’s one from a Commerce lecture:

One day a teacher asks her student Johnny, ‘Johnny, if there are two birds on a wire and I fire two barrels from a shotgun, how many birds will I hit?’.  ‘One, Miss’.  ‘Johnny, please listen, if there are two birds on a wire and I fire two barrels from a shotgun, how many birds will I hit?’.  ‘One, Miss’.  ‘Why Johnny?’.  ‘Well Miss, after you fire the first barrel the second bird will fly away.’  ‘Johnny, that’s the wrong answer, but I like the way you think.’

The next day Johnny comes into the classroom.  ‘Miss, my Dad says that I must save my allowance.  One bank offers me an educational booklet.  The other bank has a very pretty teller.  Which bank should get my account?’  The teacher blushes, and says, ‘Well, perhaps the one with the very pretty teller?’  Johnny replies, ‘No Miss, the one with the biggest government guarantee, but I like the way you think!’.

Keith, Gwen, Raj, and Glenn would probably have used the funnier, original, “Sex”ier joke about three women licking, sucking, and biting Italian ice cream, but the point is that tension release helps us see that other people may have different points of view.

On the other hand; you have different fingers [Steve Wright].  Turn to superiority.  Aristotle and Plato believed we used humour to feel superior to the ugly, the inferior, and the unfortunate.  We flaunt superiority in sarcasm or with jokes such as “There are 10 types of people in the world.  Those who understand binary and those who don’t.”  Of course Plato was in turn a victim of Diogenes the Kynic – Plato had defined Man as a featherless bipedal animal, and was applauded.  Diogenes brought a plucked chicken into the lecture-room with the words, “Behold Plato’s man”.

Yet I am most intrigued by the third theory of humour, incongruity resolution.  Here we also set up a tension, and then resolve it.

Steve Wright – “If you had a million Shakespeares, could they write like a monkey?” or given that alcohol is a solution, “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the precipitate”.

From tension springs creativity.  Arthur Koestler proposed three domains of creativity – art, science, and comedy.  Creativity is the “shaking together of [already existing but] previously separate areas of knowledge, frames of perception or universes of discourse”.  Koestler wryly expresses the continuum from artistic inspiration, to scientific discovery, to comic inventiveness by the reaction induced, respectively the AH reaction (art), the AHA reaction (science) and HAHA reaction (comic).

Incongruity resolution exposes ‘scale changes’.  Scale changes are Zen-like moments of enlightenment.  You delight in changing scale when you move from believing that some carnival magician is just sleight of hand to the idea that perhaps, just perhaps, he or she is deploying genuine magic.  You delight in changing scale when you move from the wind-in-the-face exhilaration of a roller coaster at a fairground to staring at the loose rattling bolt inside the carriage with the terrifying realisation that some overworked carnival employee bolted it all together last night.  Scale changes inspire enlightenment, whether through the art in fractals, the power laws in science, or the sudden jolt in a double entendre.

My favourite jokes rely on scale change.  A couple book a flight on a four engine aircraft.  The husband looks to starboard to see one of the engines on fire, only to hear the Captain on the loudspeaker, “Ladies and Gentlemen, we are dousing a fire in a starboard engine, but don’t worry, this aircraft is designed to fly safely on just three engines.  However, we will be one hour late to our destination.”  A little later, the husband turns to port to see one of the engines on fire, only to hear the Captain on the loudspeaker, “Ladies and Gentlemen, we are dousing a fire in a port engine, but don’t worry, this aircraft is designed to fly safely on just two engines.  However, we will be three hours late to our destination.”  Still later, the husband turns to starboard again to see the second of the starboard engines on fire, only to hear the Captain tremulously on the loudspeaker, “Ladies and Gentlemen, we are dousing a fire in a third engine and, while this is my first such experience in over two decades of flying, don’t worry, this aircraft is designed to fly safely on just one engine.  However, we will be six hours late to our destination.”  Hearing this, in frustration the husband turns to his wife – “If that fourth engine goes, we’ll be up here all night!”

I suspect you, like me, believe that humour provides a deep look into the soul of our fellow Man.  We like to think we have a profound connection to the personalities of Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Clemens, Winston Churchill, or even Marie Antoinette from one of their quips.  Funnily enough, we have Albert Einstein to thank for a deep look into Margot Asquith’s soul.  “By way of pleasantry I must relate to you one of our mutual friend Lady Oxford’s latest. Having met Jean Harlow (the original platinum blonde) at a party the latter exuberantly began to call Margot Margott stressing the final t.  Margot (severely) — ‘The final “t” in my christian name is silent, unlike your family name’.”

As we start to move back to our drinks, I remember James Thurber, “One martini is all right. Two are too many, and three are not enough.”  Enough jokes, does humour help us gain an insight into Sir Thomas Gresham?  Having read John Guy’s wonderful biography, humour is in short supply.  Still, requiring lectures in English, as well as Latin, gun-running, stitching up his fellow merchants and the City, Thomas must have had some sense of humour.  I think that, comparatively, he was a tolerant man.  Religious tolerance, cultural tolerance, and intellectual tolerance.  And, if you look at your gift tonight, a commemorative coin Ian and I have had struck, you’ll see he remains tolerant about Gresham’s Law on the obverse and reverse.

For me, one of the greatest characteristics of the English people’s is their tolerance.  Allowing people to make fun and share humour in fair play.  Normally for the Gresham Society the “B” word is Bourse.  But tonight I just might point out that the current B word down the road seems to be leaching tolerance from our society.  It is not alone.  Political correctness taken too far, ‘woke’ snowflakes, and many other trends threaten tolerance.  And when humour is increasingly removed from social discourse, you know that tolerance is under threat.

So, “Sex”, any Gresham lecture that includes humour to get attention, get over awkward spots, aid definitions, or induce scale change enlightenment is a blow for tolerance and fair play.  So long as there is a genuine public space for humour, everything will be fine in the end.  And if it’s not fine, then it’s not the end.

Mark Twain described a dying man who couldn’t make up his mind which place to go — both have their advantages, “heaven for climate, hell for company!”  So may I ask you to raise a glass to the hellish company of the “Gresham Society and Sir Thomas Gresham”, with the refrain, “MAY GOOD LECTURES DRIVE OUT BAD.”