‘That’s not a joke!’ shouted Oliver, toppling his chair as he rose to his feet. This act was not as dramatic as it sounds, as the chair was two and a half feet high at its highest point, and moulded from thin plastic, and so bounced unharmed on the wooden floor with much less startling immediacy than more solid, more adult chairs might. Even so, his outburst caused our shared laughter to dribble to a halt, and the table switched to looking down at him expectantly.
‘It’s not a real joke!’ he elaborated angrily. Thomas, the regaler, gestured with his fork at Oliver in an unconcerned fashion, but said nothing.
Uncle Maurice took put down his glass, still somewhat red-faced from his recent wheezing. ‘I understand what you’re saying Oliver. I understand what you’re saying. But humour has a fluid quality. It fills many vessels.’ Oliver scowled on. ‘If we take your brother’s last joke there,’ gesturing at Thomas, who sat relaxed on his own plastic yellow chair, weaving a spoon of mushy peas in aeronautic arcs above his plate, ‘we can see that it doesn’t fit the classic joke format. “Why did the bear go to the shop?” he asked. His answer was “An apple!” While the setup and the punchline are not entirely unrelated (we can assume the bear went to the shop to buy an apple, to eat it), the story lacks the unexpected twist characteristic of most jokes. That’s your central gripe, am I right?’
‘What did the donkey do?’ asked Thomas around a mouthful of peas.
Oliver rapped his spoon smartly on his plastic mat. ‘Why is everyone laughing at Tommy?’ He looked accusingly at each of us, slowly and in turn.
‘I thought it was a very funny joke,’ offered Granny from the other side of table. ‘Bears don’t eat apples!’
‘He went to the beach!’
‘But consider this, Oliver. What if the unexpected twist is that the answer to the question neither explains the question nor subverts our expectations about the question? What if the twist is that there is no twist? That may be what your brother has tapped into here. We all laughed, didn’t we?’
‘You did laugh,’ said Oliver, absent-mindedly chewing on a stick of carrot.
‘There’s also your age to consider. At three years old, almost four?’ Maurice looked towards our mother.
‘Almost four!’ said Mam in her excited baby voice. She reached down and adjusted Oliver’s collar, much to his apparent distress.
‘How did Blackie eat his dinner?’
‘For your twin brother to be inventing any sort of joke at this age is lovely to see, whether his stumbling into post-modernist territory is accidental or not.’
‘In a plate… on the floor!’
‘And for your young self to be questioning the validity of that humour is equally impressive, if I might say so.’ Maurice raised his glass.
‘It came out of a can! …we opened the can. Very carefully.’
Maurice nodded. ‘We can see that Thomas is…’ He paused. ‘That is Thomas, right?’ Mam nodded, and a giggle rippled around the table. ‘We can see that your brother Thomas is reverting back into more realistic set-ups as the evening goes on. This is actually a very intuitive move. Any stand-up comedian knows that you cannot hammer the audience with too much “out there” humour. It’s smart to go back to more traditional narratives occasionally, to allow them to relax.’
‘It’s not a joke,’ reiterated Oliver, slumping down onto the chair that Mam had retrieved. ‘Don’t laugh.’
‘You’re a traditionalist,’ said Maurice. ‘I understand that.’
‘What did the man say to the postman?’