Friday, December 24, 2010

Lots of sex please, we're British. But perhaps we should just disguise it a little.

Annotated discussion and quiz related to various types of (mostly slightly naughty) humour.

I would like to do a post in the next couple of days about pantomime, commonly called panto, a quintessentially British theatrical tradition which takes place at Christmas time. Panto is often described as including risqué double entendre and innuendo, which are specific types of humour. Before we look at pantomime itself, I thought it would be a good idea to look at some of the different types of humour we might expect to meet in traditional pantomime.

During Queen Victoria’s reign, sex became somewhat of a taboo subject among ‘polite’ society. This attitude lasted well into the twentieth century, summed up in the title of the 1971 London musical, ‘No sex please, we’re British’. This prudishness didn’t however, stop ‘impolite society’ having a good laugh at sex, mainly in Music Hall, a type of popular variety theatre which mixed comedy, song and dance, and acts such as magicians and acrobats.

Perhaps for this reason, there has been a long tradition in British comedy of alluding to sex in indirect ways, such as double entendre and innuendo. So now let’s look at some of the terms involved:

First of all try this quiz on certain types of humour

Note how the words for types of humour are used in context, then match them with their definitions below (based on Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary)

Click and Drop - Click on a word on the left of the upper table (in grey), then scroll down and click on the box appropriate box in the lower table. If you change your mind, just click on another option and repeat. Or you can just type in the word manually.

a. wordplayA French aristocrat, recently escaped from the French Revolution, is walking along the clifftops with his English host, when a gust of wind blows his hat off. ‘I’ve lost my hat’, he cries. ‘Just think’, said the Englishman, ‘it could have been your head.’ (Ridicule - Patrice Leconte’s 1996 film)
b. pun'When is a door not a door?' 'When it's ajar' (very old joke)
c. innuendoMan in pub to a stranger he has just met: 'Is your wife a "goer"?', 'is she a sport?', 'is she interested in photographs?' …'Nudge nudge, wink wink, say no more'. (Monty Python - Candid Photography sketch)
d. double entendreSitcom character Mrs. Slocombe frequently referred to her pet cat as her 'pussy', apparently totally unaware that pussy is also slang for what in Monty Python they called a woman’s ‘naughty bits’. (Are you being served?)
e. camp humourOh hello, my name's Sandy and this is my friend Julian ... Never listen to gossip, ducky ... Oh, isn't he bold, Jules? (Round the Horne old radio show)
f. slapstickTwo painters are decorating a house. One slips and knocks over a ladder, sending paint flying over the other one, who also slips, pulling down the wallpaper he has just stuck up on the wall.
g. farceA middle-aged man, whose wife has gone away for the weekend, entertains his attractive young lover in his home. His wife returns unexpectedly, so he introduces the girl to her as his long lost daughter from a previous relationship ... (French farce)

1. an indirect remark about somebody/something, usually suggesting something bad or rude; the use of remarks like this
2. when a male actor or comedian behaves in a way which is effeminate and stereotypically homosexual. (Although few homosexuals actually behave like that.)
3. the clever or humorous use of a word that has more than one meaning, or of words that have different meanings but sound the same
4. a type of fast-moving comedy involving exaggerated violence, near accidents and activities which exceed the boundaries of common sense.
5. a word or phrase that can be understood in two different ways, one of which usually refers to sex
6. a kind of comedy which involves improbable and absurd situations, verbal humour which may include sexual innuendo and word play, and a fast-paced plot often with physical humour.
7. making jokes by using words in a clever or amusing way, especially by using a word that has two meanings, or different words that sound the same.

My comments

Wordplay and pun

Wordplay refers to the general use of words in a funny way, while a pun is a specific example of wordplay: in a joke, a newspaper headline etc. Neither are necessarily connected with sex.

Double entendre and innuendo

Both refer indirectly to sex. Double entendre uses words with an obvious double meaning, very often because they are connected with slang expressions for parts of the body (such as pussy in the example above) or have other sexual connotations.
Innuendo is more general, and doesn’t necessarily use double meaning. ‘Is your wife a sport?’, doesn’t of itself have any sexual connotation. It’s the way that it’s said and the general context that gives it its sexual overtones.


For me, much of the edginess of classic camp humour came from the fact that the character's or actor's homosexuality was never openly stated. Especially as for much of that time, practising homosexuality was in fact illegal. And many straight comedians also did camp humour (or at least I think they were)

You might also come across the following adjectives:

risqué a little shocking, usually because dealing with sex - often collocates with double entendre and innuendo
bawdy loud, and dealing with sex in an amusing way - Henry Fielding’s 18th century novel Tom Jones has some very bawdy scenes
saucy rude or referring to sex in a way that is amusing but not offensive - saucy seaside postcards - see below
naughty slightly rude; connected with sex - naughty underwear
rude connected with sex or the body in a way that people find offensive or embarrassing - a rude joke
dirty connected with sex in an offensive and often juvenile way (usually used disapprovingly) - dirty schoolboy jokes
smutty dealing with sex in a way that some people find offensive (usually used disapprovingly) - smutty jokes
blue directly sexual, as in blue movie, blue humour, blue joke

Saucy seaside postcards

Although not directly connected with pantomime, these also involved pretty obvious double entendre and innuendo. They were very popular between the 1930s and 1950s, and often featured impossibly busty women and henpecked men in seaside settings. The acknowledged master of the saucy postcard was graphic artist Donald McGill:

He has been called 'the king of the saucy postcard', and his work is still collected and appreciated for his artistic skill, its power of social observation and earthy sense of humour. Even at the height of his fame he only earned three guineas a design, but today his original artwork can fetch thousands of pounds. (Wikipedia)

The Daily Mail has a short article and a good selection of his postcards.

Video links

InnuendoMonty PythonNudge, nudge, say no more
Double entendreAre you being servedMrs Slocombe's pussy (bad picture quality)
BawdyTom JonesThe famous eating scene
Camp humourMonty PythonSwanning about
SlapstickLaurel and Hardy
FarceNo sex please, we're BritishWith comedian Ronnie Corbett

Video links - Saucy postcards - incidentally all of them feature the same music: 'I do like to be beside the seaside' (words and article at Wikipedia). Note that these are later and ruder than McGill, and a lot of them are not so much innuendo as 'in your face'. They also rely heavily on slang.

Cheeky postcards from Blackpool A good introduction
ABC documentaryFrom Australian public television
And some more Probably the rudest selection

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