Old Jokes are the Worst
By: Cornelius - On: 27/07/2009 14:46:55 - Comments: 14
I love our collection of vintage cartoons. Most of them are from the nineteenth century, many of them are brilliant pieces of artwork, and they are all amazing evocations of a lost world. However while some of them might be considered humorous I don't find any of them actually intentionally funny, and I would be surprised if any one has laughed at them in the way they were intended for nearly 100 years. In their time though they would have been hilarious, so what happened?
I raise this thought as I have been reading quite a lot of Victorian and Edwardian writing recently, and surprisingly, the humour in them does seem to have withstood the test of time, in a way that it doesn't in their visual humour counterparts. For example, Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome was written in 1889 remains in print, and while it doest necessarily appeal to everyone, it is hard to deny that it is actually funny. Maybe more easy to understand, PG Wodehouse who started writing in 1902 and was contributing to Punch in the Edwardian era is scientifically proven to be the funniest writer ever. I think it would be impossible to say that any of the late Victorian cartoons we hold in our collection would illicit similar thoughts.
We do license use of a lot of our copies of Victorian cartoons. They are used for gifts and merchandise, texts books, newspapers, magazines, TV and film but never for their initial purpose of making anyone laugh. My own theory as to why this has happened is two fold. Firstly many of the jokes are dependent on specific cultural or social references that have changed too much that we can't identify with the situation. For example few people have servants any more, and even if they did, they would be less likely to represent the same class divide that they did then. Secondly and more importantly, I think that our ability to process visual information has changed. Our visual understanding is more sophisticated now. We are used to processing pictures from film, tv, adverts, and photos and assessing meaning quickly. Victorian cartoons often required long captions, that were almost mini plays, and appear so laboured that any nugget of humour they contain disappears as they take too long to digest. Modern cartoons have short captions (unless there is a comedic reason to have an absurdly long one) and the reader can digest all that is required quickly enough that they haven't lost interest, and one of the main elements of all humour, surprise, is maintained. This is only my theory, but if anyone has a better one I would be interested in hearing it.