Mark Twain Was Right

“The human race has one really effective weapon, and that is laughter.” ~ Mark Twain

They say that radio is the theatre of the mind, and Jack Jackson, our zany grandfather, was probably the first to prove it. Among his many gigs, he was compere for the BBC Light Programme—the forerunner to BBC Radio 1 and Radio 2. His show was frequently interrupted by sports results, which he cunningly used to his advantage, cutting in clips of horses, cheering crowds, and other soundbites for comic effect. There were appearances of Tiddles the cat and imaginary phone calls from the BBC’s top brass—not all of whom were amused by being the butt of the joke. Taking this in stride, he coined the nickname “Auntie BBC” (because auntie always knows best), an endearing moniker even today. Millions of listeners tuned in every week to be entertained and to enjoy music from America, which was novel at the time.

Jack Jackson

On the variety show circuit, Jackson shared the bill with the likes of Spike Milligan, one of the greatest comedians of the 20th century. I heartily recommend his book Adolf Hitler: My Part in His Downfall—an uproarious memoir of life in the army, complete with sketches of tank-carrying zeppelins, troops on rocket-propelled skates, and more.

NB: we were advised not to post a silly sketch from Milligan’s book on the grounds that it might invite legal action. Since the odds of defeating Bezos in court are only slightly better than the odds of Putin restoring the pre-1917 Russian empire, we reluctantly fell into line.   

Milligan never believed the British army was even capable of going to war, let alone winning it, concluding that “laughter was, I’m sure, the key to victory.” And it’s true: studies have found that self-deprecating, mock-heroic humour was a defining component of British troop culture during World War II. In his book The Anatomy of Courage, Lord Moran wrote: “Only humour helped. Humour that made a mock of life and scoffed at our own frailty. Humour that touched everything with ridicule and had taken the bite out of the last thing, death. It was a working philosophy that carried us through the day, a kind of detachment from the ‘insubstantial pageant of the world.’”

My interest lies at the intersection of humour and activism, which seems well timed for a couple of reasons. First, according to climate risk expert Deborah Brosnan, 2023 will see an increase in activism, driven by the realisation that we cannot leave it to institutions to solve climate change and other crises. Second, as things worsen, and the stakes get higher—as now seems inevitable—the ability to speak Milliganese will be critical to maintaining one’s sanity. As Peter Aspden said: “Life is too absurdly capricious to be confronted with high seriousness.”

Brosnan usefully breaks down activism into five categories: direct action, consumer activism, shareholder activism, scientific activism, and career choice activism—to which I would add a sixth category: cultural activism. As Simon Schama says, emotionally charged words, images, music, sculpture, dance and so forth can, by connecting with human habits, needs, and intuitions, exert a force that other ways cannot.

Putting it all together, here’s a new and improved formula for changing the world. 

Just don’t try and do it all at once. 

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