So the Edinburgh Festival Fringe is over for another year and a couple of hundred manic-depressive stand-ups have packed away their joke books with their pill bottles. The quality of the gags seemed well up to standard and I liked this one: “Do you reckon the band Chic ever found any takers for that free cow they were always trying to get rid of?”
There was keen competition for the best bovine-themed one-liner from: “A cowboy asked me if I could help him round up 18 cows. I said, ‘Yes, of course. That’s 20 cows.’”
I also smirked at: “What’s driving Brexit? From here it looks like it’s probably the Duke of Edinburgh.” And this: “I’ve got an Eton-themed advent calendar, where all the doors are opened for me by my dad’s contacts.” Meanwhile the award for the best went to: “I keep randomly shouting out ‘Broccoli’ and ‘Cauliflower’ - I think I might have florets.”
The capital, then, remains a centre-for-excellence for comics from all over the globe - the top rib-tickler came from Sweden - and venue for a World Cup of wisecrackery. But does Scotland give anything else to comedy besides the set-up for telling funny stories - leaking church halls and hideously expensive airbnbs? Does it, for instance, have its own distinct, unique, instantly-recognisable sense of humour?
Are you having a laugh? Of course it does. Caledonian wit is renowned and in Billy Connolly we have one of the funniest men alive, an emeritus professor of hee-haw. By the way, that’s hee-haw in the original, chucklesome meaning of the phrase, rather than our patter for nothing or very little. And the fact we have patter - an entire lexicon of made-up words, converted words and perverted words - would seem to suggest we’re absolutely bloody hilarious.
Well, the Big Yin doesn’t agree. “I will get into trouble for this but I don’t think there is such a thing as Scottish humour,” he says. “I have bought books of Scottish jokes and then I go through them and there is nothing Scottish about them. There’s funny and there’s not funny, and that’s the beginning, the middle and the end of it.”
Connolly makes his remarks in the introduction to another book of Scottish jokes - his own. Maybe this one will confirm the existence of a tartan-trimmed sense of humour because I cannot imagine Connolly’s gag about the bloke who murders his wife emanating from anywhere else in the world.
You know it well so I don’t need to repeat it. If I did repeat it I might get into a whole lot of #MeToo - #MeTae? - trouble. If not his most famous or even his best gag, it’s certainly his breakout.
His very telling of the joke on Michael Parkinson’s chat show in 1974 - with Parky nervously tightening his tie when Connolly says: “I hope I can get away with this; it’s a beauty” - speaks of Scottish bravado laced with ach-what-the-hell? fatalism.
The central character in the joke - the bumper-off-er - is sardonic but more than that, he’s - good Scottish word - pawky. The joke is absurd. It is bleak and black. It is grim almost to the point of being macabre. Now, is the Big Yin of today really saying that these are traits with which the Scottish character is unfamiliar?
There is local colour: “A close is the entrance to a tenement,” Connolly advises. Finally, there is resourcefulness - thrift, even - in the corpse being buried bottom-up. Very Scottish, that.
The events sound far-fetched but the narrator with the Jesus haircut and the big-collared leather jaikit hints at veracity when he says he was told about them by a man in the street. If they’re fiction, however, and Connolly did hear the yarn second-hand, then it would seem that there’s at least one other guy out there with the same sense of humour - Scottish humour - as him.
Of course there are many. Connolly’s Glasgow in particular is full of comedians. They might drive taxis or run pubs or go to the football. Their humour is not affected or aimed at any more of an audience than those in the immediate vicinity. When something bugs them or amuses them they feel compelled to let rip with their point of view. Invariably this is funny.
Before the Fringe became overrun with stand-ups, the Olympic-standard test of a comedian was Glasgow’s Pavilion Theatre. There, would-be wits regularly stiffed. Maybe they didn’t end up being used as bike-racks but they never worked that town again - further proof that Scotland in particular does not have a casual relationship with comedy, knows what it likes, is often funnier than the advertised act (Despairing voice from the stalls when Mike Winters was joined on stage by the really unamusing one, brother Bernie: “Christ, there’s two of them!”).
In the years BC - Before Connolly - the funniest man in Scotland to my mind was Lex McLean. Stanley Baxter was a bigger star but “Sexy Lexy” - the only time his history that a bauchle in a bunnet has managed to acquire the epithet - seemed more subversive, the Rolling Stones next to the Beatles. Not that I knew what subversive meant, aged ten (or sexy for that matter).
Chic Murray’s droll observations, tinged with the surreal, continue to inspire, judging by the sample gags from this year’s Fringe. It was Connolly, though, who took the comedy of Scotland - and often the comedy implicit in being Scottish - onto the world stage. Being Scottish, maybe unfortunately, is funny. It was Frankie Boyle who quipped: “Glasgow was a great choice of venue for the Commonwealth Games - a place where they think Hepatitis B is a vitamin.”
But in Kevin Bridges’ genius joke about the traditions of the “empty” we refuse to become homogenised and certainly not Americanised. Wha’s like us? Nobody, and none funnier.