There’s an old man, 95, lying in his bed, dying. His family surround him, all of them hushed, respectful and tearful.
Suddenly, the old man opens his eyes, sniffs the air and says, in a dry, croaking voice, “Is that a baked ham I can smell?“
His wife, who is sat by the bed holding his hand, says, “Yes, darling. I put it in the oven a little while ago.”
He gently squeezes her hand, looks into her moistened eyes and says “I’m not long for this world, but that ham smells so delicious that my last wish is to enjoy a slice of it between two pieces of warm, crusty bread.”
His wife replies, “I’m sorry, ‘cariad’, that’s just not possible. It’s for the funeral!”
That’s an amusing story. But perhaps some of you think it’s in bad taste.
Which raises the question: Should D.E.A.T.H. be a taboo subject in comedy?
It would seem not, because hundreds of sitcoms, plays, farces and comedy films have been written about D.E.A.T.H.
Their plots may involve bodies that inconveniently appear and disappear (remember that Fawlty Towers episode?); funerals; greedy people planning to bump off their partners or elderly relatives for their fortunes . . . and so on.
They amuse and no one takes offence. Not that it gives carte blanche to everyone in the comedy business to make crass, badly-judged jokes about the Holocaust, famine, airplane crashes and natural disasters that claim thousands of lives.
But some comedians Tweet, write and perform jokes, about these appalling things while they’re still part of ‘The Zeitgeist’, knowing that Twitter readers and audiences will laugh.
This is, of course, known in the business as their ‘Get out of jail’ card.
I’m not making any judgement here – just observing.
Comedian are said to have ‘died’ when their jokes fall flat. Perhaps the audience didn’t take to them or that night they weren’t on the top of their game. Whatever the cause, to spend even five minutes on a stage, desperately trying to wring laughter out of a stony-faced audience can be soul-destroying.
You do ‘die’ a little inside for the rest of the evening.
But the next night could be entirely different and you’ll have the entire room rocking with laughter.
That’s comedy for you.
When a well-known comedy actor or comedian passes away, it seems to affect us more than when a ‘straight’ actor passes on, because we hold funny men and women in real affection and recall the times we’ve laughed at their performances.
I’m talking about the greats like Eric and Ernie, Benny Hill, Ronnie Barker, Eric Sykes, Tony Hancock, Spike Milligan, Les Dawson, Bob Monkhouse, Tommy Cooper and Richard Briers.
And just a few days ago came the shocking news that comedy genius Robin Williams had died, apparently by his own hand, as a result of severe depression. It is something I still find difficult to comprehend.
Today, stand-up comedy can be far stronger and crueller than the silly, often whimsical material of previous decades, which the public at the time had found endearing. When the big comedy names of today pass on, will they be mourned in the same way as previous generations of comedians who possessed warmth and geniality?
Well, we had an insight into this when Rik Mayall, the first of the ‘alternatives’ who changed the face of comedy in the ‘80s, suddenly died in June.
I wasn’t a huge fan, but when anyone dies before their time, it’s always sad, especially for his family. Many of his friends said he was a smashing, loyal fellow.
However, it was noticeable that several ‘irreverent’ tributes paid to him by his comedy contemporaries contained four-letter words.
That didn’t happen when Eric Morecambe died. Tributes were heartfelt and eloquent.
There is an upside to D.E.A.T.H. – and you don’t have to be an undertaker or florist to appreciate it.
We humans are quite robust. We may take an emotional battering and be inconsolable in our grief for a parent, grandparent, partner, relative or good friend who’s passed. But gradually, our minds and bodies somehow manage to recover so that we can carry on. It’s quite astounding how that happens.
We’ve been through the mill, survived one of life’s great traumas and it’s strengthened our character so we’re ready to take on the next big problem that bunch of bullies ‘The Fates’ have in store for us.
Having a sense of humour and being able to enjoy a joke and a laugh can be therapeutic in times of grief. There’s scientific evidence to prove it – not that many scientists are a barrel of laughs.
So remember the words of that great Irish philosopher Jimmy Cricket: –
“Live every day as if it’s your last – and one day you’ll be right!”