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What’s so funny?


As multi-sensory creatures, I’ve asked students to map their neighborhood, the place where they grew up, but map it in terms other than visual. What sounds do you recall? What did it smell like and how did those smells vary throughout the year? Writing about a design by Liverpool artist Margaret Lloyd (which was crafted into a stained glass window by artist-craftsman David Fode), a fell down a rabbit hole that suggested there may, in fact, be more than five senses. What about the sense of humor or, since we’re speaking of the British, of humour.

What’s so funny?

Sight, smell and sound may enable us to place ourselves in physical space. But the sense of humor performs the same valuable though unrecognized function to understand our position in time. As with any element of the social construct, change occurs with greater and greater speed; what seems funny today may not have been a month ago. Perhaps even yesterday. The question of Margaret Lloyd’s design in 1905 has already challenged our notion of what’s so funny.

One of her designs, the one which served as inspiration for a stained glass window, was based on a staple of late 19th and early 20th century popular culture: the Punch & Judy Show. However politically incorrect it may be today, the very idea of exposing children to physical domestic violence and then to find amusement in Judy being thwacked by her partner Punch was perfectly acceptable entertainment at the pier or country fair on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon. Some sleuthing produced two ore examples of Margaret Lloyd’s design ability, part of a series called “The Village Fair”. One of her circular designs was titled “Cakes and Ale” but the other — the one which took me farther down that rabbit hole and resulted in this blog entry — was titled “Richardson’s Show” (left in the pair shown here). I held out little hope for identifying her source but, typically, the internet satisfied my insatiable curiosity: John Richardson was an early 19th century comedian, though that’s probably not the right word for his time and place. Sources suggest “showman” as far more apt.

John Richardson [1766-1836] is fairly well documented, which helps to explain why someone active in the early 20th century would know a British public figure who died the year before Victoria ascended to the throne. According to one on-line source, “Charles Dickens described a performance of Richardson’s show at Greenwich Fair as a melodrama with three murders and a ghost, a pantomime, a comic song, an overture, and some incidental music, all done in five-and-twenty minutes.”¹ Thanks to his first novel The Pickwick Papers — which was serialized between March 1836 and November 1837 — any British schoolchild during the reigns of Victoria and Edward VII would have know the eccentric showman Richardson (shown above during his own lifetime). It was the content of his “Show” that brings up today’s topic: how has humor changed through time?

¹ For Richardson in a larger context, visit: http://www.classic.circushistory.org/History/Clown2.htm#BIB.

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