Belfast Telegraph

To laugh or cry... the last taboo of bereavement

Frank Carson jokes are again doing the rounds following his death. Is laughter cathartic? Or are some things beyond humour, asks Malachi O'Doherty

The death, at 85, of Frank Carson and the sudden renewed enthusiasm for his humour tells us one of two things: either death is a matter for laughing or comedy is a serious business. Each idea is as grave as the other.

Frank made us all laugh. He even made himself laugh. So what are we to think of a tragic passing that inspires a rash of humour, his old jokes being recalled and circulated again?

Some of this is to do with Frank himself, a particular brand of chuckle merchant - unlike, say, Ronnie Barker, who kept a straight face at all times; more, perhaps, like Tommy Cooper, who acknowledged his own absurdity, like a slapstick clown.

What has Frank left us with but a legacy of punchlines and cheeky smirks, none of which would be appropriate for an ordinary funeral?

Normally, we should remember the deceased with reverence and gravity, of course, but these don't just seem to attach easily to the figure of Frank Carson.

Is that sad? Is something missing if we can't pine a little for the old joker without wondering if he might turn up at his own wake to offer an electric shock handshake and a cackle?

Or is it that humour always has a dark side and that it's as good a language for grieving as any?

I have often had a laugh at a wake. In fact, I have never walked in a funeral procession that didn't, within a half mile of the church, become as informal as a stroll with old mates.

That levity around death was also at the heart of a lot of the humour of the other great Irish comic, Dave Allen.

He often set his jokes at wakes and funerals and the jokes worked best for audiences that knew that Irish grieving was pretty much as he described it: full of laughter, mockery and irreverence.

In fact, the very point of these occasions seems to be to help people beyond the shock of loss towards levity and plain speaking.

Our comics are the most serious people among us. In Frank Carson, we saw a cheeky wee man who would be the journeyman joketeller, a working entertainer, a tradesman of sorts.

Behind the crafted joke there was a suggestion of the fuller personality that was not out front taking part in the act; a personality that was maybe thoughtful and busy, but had no more to contribute to the job of making people laugh than a rugby player's muscles might have to give to his working week job as a university lecturer, or optician.

Frank had hinterland that was a mystery. Involved in that humour - perhaps unconsciously - was a hint that the hinterland was life and that the humour was a diversion from it, but no actual release. I can't think of another entertainer whose manner seemed always to say, 'you have to laugh, or you'd cry'.

You get a strong sense from other comedians, too, of the very close relationship between laughter and pain.

When the producers of the BBC series Call the Midwife cast Miranda Hart as an upper class, bumbling big girl, delivering babies in East End hovels, they showed nerves of steel and deep faith in that same principle.

Miranda is a sort of female Frankie Howerd. In character, she is gauche and clumsy and hungry for love. That had worked on a comedy series in which she would knock things over and lose the man of her dreams by making a clown of herself.

That this could be imported into serious drama and not only work, but lift that drama to tele-classic status, showed an incredibly sensitive grasp of what comedy is for: helping us to manage the horror in life. Millions were watching enthralled as she stripped off her own clothes to swaddle the triplets she delivered in a dark slum by the light of her bicycle lamp.

Which raises the question: is there nowhere that humour cannot go? If we mourn with jokes, is there any sense left in the reverential notion that there are some areas of life in which jokes are always wrong?

Some say yes; some horrors are beyond a joke. There is a much parodied clip from the film Downfall, which shows Hitler ranting in his bunker. There are dozens of remakes on YouTube with subtitles that have him scowling about, for example, the Christmas tree in Downpatrick.

I nearly wet myself the first time I saw that, yet Labour MP Tom Harris had to resign as a social media tsar after making a similar spoof.

One of the most common forms of outrage that we find expressed in the popular media is against jokes that someone thinks have 'gone too far'.

Jeremy Clarkson has just been ruled not to have breached BBC guidelines by joking that strikers might be shot. Well and good; the only problem with that joke really is that it wasn't funny.

Where a joke is funny - whatever the joke is about - it is working on us on levels that we can scarcely articulate, and I think it is always healthy.

Certainly, laughing is such a deadly, serious business that those who dare to kill off a joke need to show good reason or shut up.

That's what I think. Or is it just the way I tell them?

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