Anthony Gambrill | What is the chicken in for?
Surfing cable television channels on a recent Saturday morning looking for a non-existent football game, I came across a documentary on Warren Buffett, the legendary founder of the exceedingly successful company, Berkshire Hathaway. Talking to a group of young people, he warned them, "Don't sleepwalk through life." This got me to thinking whether I had sleepwalked through my life.
After assessing his advice from every perspective, I came to the conclusion that, materially, I had, unlike Warren Buffett, underachieved. However, I was reasonably satisfied with my existence to date. Yet, it did lead me to wondering what had sustained me all those years - what had stimulated me, kept my mojo working?
Eventually, I decided that it was humour, being able to see the funny side of things, things that tickled my funny bone that others missed, lifted my spirits when I felt down. I tried to figure out how this originated. Nature or nurture, as they say? Perhaps it all began when I heard the first joke that has stuck with me. My mother ran a small menswear shop in England when my father had to go off to war. On one occasion, in the presence of this eight-year-old boy, a shirt salesman told my mother a joke:
"An air raid warden checking if anyone needed assistance after a Nazi German bomb attack pokes his head into a bomb shelter and shouts, "Any pregnant woman down here?" To which comes a man's reply, "Give us a chance, we've only been down here 10 minutes!"
There was no looking back. Although I didn't get the joke for several years, after hearing the adults laughing uproariously, it was enough for me. I was hooked.
In wartime Britain, the population kept up its morale, thanks to Winston Churchill's determination, drinking tea, smoking cigarettes and getting regular doses of comedy on the radio. I'll always remember Jimmy Edwards with his signature moustache warning a restaurant guest who was perusing a menu:
"The fish, sir? I wouldn't recommend the fish. Long time no sea."
In 1949, my family moved to Vancouver Island in Canada in search of a more promising future. Five months later, I entered a talent contest in the capital city, winning third prize by reciting 'Albert and the Lion', a comic poem, in a Lancashire accent. It was part of the repertoire of Stanley Holloway, an actor who was to play Eliza Doolittle's father in My Fair Lady. Which reminds me of an hilarious put -down attributed to him:
"Stanley Holloway and Rex Harrison were leaving the London theatre where they were taking part in My Fair Lady. Waiting in the rain at the stage door was a lady hoping to get Mr Harrison's autograph. When he brusquely brushed her aside, she lost her temper and began whacking him with her autograph book. Looking on, Holloway announced, "At last, the fan hits the sh**."
My school days brought on more stage performances, as well as my baptism in journalism as editor of the school annual. I repeated some of the cheeky observations I had made when I delivered the graduation valedictory oration.
It was during these high-school years that I got my first taste of humour in its literary form. My first summer job was picking cherries, and during my lunch break, I met Damon Runyon's offbeat Broadway characters like the ones who appeared in the musical Guys and Dolls.
One author led to another. The most memorable of these was the prolific American humorist S.J. Perelman, who scripted the Marx Brothers classic films. A gem of his insightful humour includes:
A sage once said: "There are two things that money can't buy: nostalgia and friendship. He died in the poorhouse."
The journey exploring literary humour continued when I went to the University of British Columbia. P.G. Wodehouse's series of Jeeves books about the discrete man's man to bumbling Bertie Wooster, his employer, engaged me for a while. The American wit Dorothy Parker was to get me worried with her couplet:
"Men don't make passes
At women who wear glasses."
This was particularly relevant to me, as I had just begun wearing glasses and I was concerned that vice versa was true if I had any hope of dating a girl. After Parker, I began looking out for humorous one- liners - trivia was always a weakness - and who else but Oscar Wilde - The Importance of Being Earnest - would be the writer who fascinated me.
"Be yourself because other people have been taken."
"Women are to be loved, but not understood"
"I can resist everything but temptation."
At the University of British Columbia, I inflicted my sophomoric wit on its students writing a weekly column for The Ubssey. It was about this time I learnt to play the ukulele and concocted a party piece titled 'Don't be Beastly to the British'. The song sympathised with the Brits who were facing problems with the Egyptians claiming the Suez Canal.
"Oh, don't be beastly to the British.
A stiff upper lip with see them through.
Billy Graham will excite them
And eventually invite them
To praise the Lord and the dollar, too."
Clearly not destined for a career as a lyricist, I settled down to complete my Bachelor of Arts degree in history, only to find out that employment opportunities for a graduate with this speciality were limited.
Fortunately, my writing stint at UBC helped me to land a job in public relations. Even here at the British Columbia Telephone Company, I was able to see a funny side.
Writing in a Vancouver newspaper, I revealed that both the municipal water supply and telephone system experienced a dramatic surge in use at halftime when a nationwide football game was being broadcast that was when everyone ducked out for a pee or to make a phone call.
One evening having a beer after work with my boss, an ex-newspaper editor, during a lull in the conversation, he commented that with my sense of humour, I should get through life okay. With this reassurance and having found my job rather boring, I decided to quit and set out to see the world.
Fortunately, I was sharing a house with a group of West Indian students who insisted I should start my odyssey in the Caribbean. So said, so done. Stay tuned. Oh, what about "What is the chicken in for?" Watch this space.
(To be continued)
- Anthony Gambrill is a playwright and historian. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.