Thursday, 12 November 2015

World's funniest sentence

Not aphorisms, or witticisms, and certainly not jokes and smart-arse one liners. What I'm after are sentences (and sometimes a series of sentences) that are funny in themselves, but which rely on a context for their effect.

This was prompted by my off-the-cuff remark recently that the author Anthony Buckeridge - creator of the immortal schoolboy Jennings and his pal Darbishire - would be hard to beat, on the strength of Darby's flailing attempts to say, following a bicycle crash: "My black back brake block's broken!" (from Jennings's Diary). At the age of eight or nine I could think of nothing funnier, apart from his regular cry of "Fossilised fishhooks!"

I haven't given much thought to what follows but here, in no particular order, are some favourites:

1. 'Perhaps this will refresh your memory'. It's the caption to a cartoon by James Thurber. You'll need to look up the image of course, if you don't know it already.  Brace yourself.

2. 'I shall sit here,' the Footman remarked, 'till tomorrow - ' At this moment the door of the house opened, ... 'I shall sit here,' he said, 'on and off, for days and days. 

The great Peter Cook found these lines from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland  particularly hilarious. He 'did' the voice of the frog Footman as a dimwit yokel. 

3. From Flaubert's Bouvard and Pecuchet. I can' find a copy but I recall the end of a lengthy episode in which the titular heroes decide to become farmers and after a scrupulous study of all the literature and heavy investment in infrastructure and feed, attempt to raise pigs, This culminates in the simple and deadpan line:

                             The pigs escaped and bit people. 

4. When Lauren Bacall first met Humphrey Bogart on the set of To Have and Have Not she reportedly told him: 'Without my glasses you're a good-looking guy.'

5. P. G. Wodehouse of course - but where to begin? I'd plump for 'Some girls are the sand in civilisation's spinach'. That will have to do for now. Or Jeeves, in his 'stately procession of one'.

6. "Advanced, forthright, signifficant".  It's Nigel Molesworth, nailing the modish young philosopher Colin Wilson. That double f makes me happy. Geoffrey Willans!

7. George and Weedon Grossmith's Diary of a Nobody. Too many bone-dry lines to savour. But I'll go of the moment when Mr Pooter lowers himself into a very hot bathtub (which he has recently decorated in Pinkford's red enamel paint). Here's the passage, and I'll reveal the particular sentence that melts my butter afterwards:

    On moving my hand above the surface of the water, I experienced the greatest fright I ever received in the 
whole course of my life; for imagine my horror on discovering my hand, as I thought, full of blood. My first thought was that I had ruptured an artery, and was bleeding to death, and should be discovered, later on, looking like a second Marat, as I remember seeing him in Madame Tussaud’s. My second thought was to ring the bell, but remembered there was no bell to ring. My third was, that there was nothing but the enamel paint, which had dissolved with boiling water. I stepped out of the bath, perfectly red all over, resembling the Red Indians I have seen depicted at an East–End theatre. I determined not to say a word to Carrie, but to tell Farmerson to come on Monday and paint the bath white.

What reliably makes me shake with laughter is "My second thought was to ring the bell, but remembered there was no bell to ring." We all have moments like that. Or days.

8. "The fleet's lit up" Lieutenant-Commander Thomas 'Tommy' Woodroffe (1899–1978) was a British naval officer, broadcaster and writer. After his retirement he became a commentator for BBC Radio. 

From the fairly-reliable Wikipedia entry on the great man:

   In 1937 he was to describe the Spithead Review from his old ship the battleship HMS Nelson. Apparently he met some of his former colleagues before the broadcast and drank to the extent that his broadcast, still known today by his repeated use of the phrase "the fleet's lit up", was so incoherent he was taken off air after a few minutes and suspended for a week by the BBC Director-General John Reith.

9. 'I'm picky'  Isabelle Huppert. when asked how she can be both a nymphomaniac and a virgin, in Hal Hartley's wonderful indie movie Amateur.

10. 'Nobody's perfect' Over-exposed perhaps, but still a hell of a line, from Billy Wilder's Some Like it Hot. And it's also true, which is a bonus.

11. 'He's not the Messiah. He's a very naughty boy'. 

12. 'Hard boiled eggs and nuts' says Ollie straight to the camera, understandably disgusted by Stan's 'gift' in County Hospital.

13.  'Swipe me how glittering' (or any number of glum ejaculations from the lad himself, Tony Hancock).

14.  Hardly a joke, more an expression of a world view, and therefore admissible: an opening line from Ken Dodd, at the start of an epic one-man show exploring the limits of language and human endurance: "What a beautiful day! What a beautiful day for sticking a cucumber through the vicar's letterbox and shouting "THE MARTIANS HAVE LANDED!"

15. O could hardly overlook this one: Collapse of stout party It's not so much the mildly salacious sentence that triggers the moment, but the inexorable descent into inarticulate sobs and gurgles that's so compelling. A worthy conclusion - and companion piece to number 8 (above).

More to follow, perhaps.

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