Monday, 15 December 2014

Narrative, Storytelling and the Art of Terrible Puns

Warning:  Mild to moderate amounts of writerly pretension below.  May contain nuts.  To avoid suffocation, keep away from small children.

One of my hobbies is fencing, scientifically proven to be the Best Sport.  Once a week I attend Milton Keynes Fencing Club, where I get to repeatedly stab other people with a sword and call it exercise.  As the saying goes, ‘it’s all fun and games once somebody loses an eye’.

However, I have, for reasons not wholly clear to myself, acquired a reputation within the club as a teller of incredibly bad jokes.  I’m not sure that these accusations can be sustained in the face of the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.  I mean, yes, alright, I have told them The Prawn Joke, The Butcher Dance Joke, The Assistant Zookeeper Joke, even The Landlord’s Dog joke.  And yes, I stretch them out, embellishing and extending them to squeeze every last iota of enjoyment out of them.  The Prawn Joke lasted a full fifteen minutes.

However, the fact remains that I do not launch into these tales unsolicited.  My victi- uh, audience have reached the point where they actually ask for them, and I am always happy to oblige, having delivered a cautionary disclaimer regarding the satisfactory nature of the end result.  An entire psychological thesis on humour-based Stockholm Syndrome is here for the taking! 

The thing is, I really enjoy telling these jokes.  Part of it is the sadistic joy of getting to the punchline, and seeing in their faces the slow realisation that you’ve just taken ten or fifteen minutes of their life, and they’re never getting it back.  However, there is also the pure enjoyment of a story well told, an unfolding narrative that holds the listeners’ attention until the final moment.  I’ve been asked how I remember every single detail, and the fact is that I don’t.  I haven’t memorised these things word for word.  I know the overall plot, and I know the punchline, but all of the details are made up as I go along, each time I tell the joke.  Obviously they are always very similar, but nonetheless, not identical.  People ask why I bother to elaborate and extend them the way I do, when it would be possible to tell the story and deliver the punchline in a far briefer and more utilitarian way.  I daresay I could tell The Prawn Joke in less than a minute, but the punchline wouldn’t have the weight and momentum of the longer narrative behind it; it would be little more than a tap.  Including the details, acting out the dialogue, making stuff up on the fly to enrich the plot all add to both my (and maybe even their) enjoyment of the story, and the height of the drop when the joke finally ends.

For my birthday this year, I received the Baron Munchausen Roleplay Game.  It’s not a true RPG in the usual sense.  Instead, players take on the roles of 18th century nobles, and take turns to tell extravagant tales in the style of the Baron himself, prompted by the other players.  I’ve only had the opportunity to play it once since I got it, but it allows for the same quick off-the-cuff storytelling as the long jokes, coming up with details on the fly.  In a way, it’s similar to running more conventional RPGs, and having to adapt your story and the actions and reactions of the non-player characters to those of the players, reacting in real time to what can potentially be sudden changes in direction.  It’s one of the things I love best about running games like this.

Not all art is beautiful, but not all art has to be.  Not all jokes are good, but it doesn’t have to mean that they have no merit of their own as exercises in storytelling.

By the way, if you are unfamiliar with any of the jokes mentioned above and want to learn more, when you have a spare hour or so, let me know and I’ll happily remedy this sad lack in your education.  Believe me, you will consider it time well spent!

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