No More Classical Allusions?
‘Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you?’ Tony Hancock asks his fellow jurors. ‘Did she die in vain?’
In ‘The Producers’, nervous accountant Gene Wilder attempts to do the books of sleazy theatrical agent Zero Mostel, who terrifies him, inducing a hysterical fit in Wilder. ‘You’re going to jump on me!’ Wilder screams, ‘just like Nero jumped on Poppea!’
‘Socrates, himself, is particularly missed, a lovely little thinker but a bugger when he’s pissed,’ sang Monty Python.
Classical allusions have always been involved at the heart of British comedy. From Hoffnung to ‘Blackadder’ there were always jokes and puns to be made at the expense of historical figures. In books too, from ‘1066 And All That’ to ‘No Bed For Bacon’ (the novel which acted as the unacknowledged basis for ‘Shakespeare In Love’). But lately all classical, literary and artistic allusions have vanished from comedy, which has turned inwards and away from the tide of history.
I think it’s to do with shared knowledge. Once it was taken for granted that most people would know that Hannibal crossed the Alps with his elephants and wasn’t a serial killing cannibal, that King Canute failed to command the tide and that King Alfred burned the cakes. Now, after decades of revisionism and altered focus onto more recent historical world events, you wouldn’t make jokes about Cavaliers and Roundheads, and god forbid you try one about Beethoven’s deafness.
It’s a shame, because the past is a great resource for writers. There are many very funny books about the Victorians, for example. So, without history to draw upon are there any new trends in comedy? What makes us laugh now?