Is This Supposed To Be Funny? by Hugleikur Dagsson

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Is This Supposed To Be Funny? by Hugleikur Dagsson

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Category: Humour
Rating: 2/5
Reviewer: Paul Harrop
Reviewed by Paul Harrop
Summary: Taboo-breaking Icelandic humour that either travels poorly or which, more likely, has little new to say.
Buy? No Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 192 Date: October 2007
Publisher: Michael Joseph Ltd
ISBN: 978-0718153434

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Someone once said that anyone who has to say they have a sense of humour, doesn't. I've always thought that was true, but I'm very tempted to start this review with just such a declaration, because what follows could make look very po-faced. And I'm not - honest.

For a man of my age, my sense of humour is pitifully childish. I buy Viz comic. I laugh at the more emetic excesses of Little Britain. I've bought books by the 'no-taboos' cartoonist John Callahan. So, on the face of it, Is this Supposed to be Funny? should be right up my street.

It contains nearly 200 cartoons. Their content is mostly sexual, scatalogical, or in other ways 'sick'. The subject matter ranges across incest, AIDS, paedophilia, drug-use, murder and blasphemy. Race is possibly the only taboo not breached within its pages.

They're the work of Icelandic cartoonist and playwright Hugleikur Dagsson. The book is the follow-up to his first volume, Should You Be Laughing at This?. The drawing style is crude in the extreme: black and white stick figures with very little in the way of background.

All of which, in my view, is forgivable if they make you laugh. But, sadly, they didn't. However, in the enquiring spirit of the book's title, it did get me thinking about the nature of humour. What makes us laugh?

It is often the unexpected; laughter is one response to a surprise. So, with all its unorthodox subjects, Dagsson's work should work on that level alone. I think the problem here is context. A single one of these drawings on, say, the august pages of the Daily Telegraph would probably provoke a snigger out its sheer impertinence. In a book alongside 200 other similar cartoons, that effect is lost.

Another uniting theme of humour is incongruity, or an element of the absurd. Again Dagsson should score well on this. A man in one cartoon is in a dinghy plunging over a waterfall. You guys up for a threesome? he asks his two female companions. Like a lot of the jokes, the question is appropriately incongruous.

So why didn't I laugh? I'm prepared to admit that it's just me. Humour is notoriously subjective. I often chortle at things that leave others stony-faced. So some readers will quite possibly roll about at this material. Or it might be cultural. In the dark chilly wastes of Iceland where, as Dagsson claims in his cover blurb 'The only things to do are drink and kill whales,' this bleakly jolly humour could fit the national temperament.

Dagsson also claims that each of his jokes contains a grain of truth. The revelation of a sudden unforseen insight certainly unites a lot of humour. Most of his cartoons make a point about human folly, weakness or venality. But, and here is the real problem, a lot of his truths are clichés - however extreme or 'shocking' the context. And that is why most of them don't work.

One of the milder pages in this book shows the occupant of a huge limousine shouting through a megaphone: 'Hear ye! Hear ye! I'm better than you!' As with a lot of the work, there is a valid observation here. But I suspect most of us know it only too well. It's just not saying anything new about the motivations of those who gain wealth.

Just to show I'm not totally humourless, I'll recount my favourite cartoon in this book. (The more sensitive may wish to scroll down at this point.) A man has crawled to the telephone from the lavatory. Hello I need an ambulance, he groans. I just shat out my innards and now my dog is chewing on them... after a pause for a reply, he says 20 minutes? Thanks while his terrier gnaws happily away behind him.

That joke has an extra dimension. The politeness with which the man accepts the 20-minute delay is what makes it funny, and lifts it above much of the other content. There is surprise and incongruity and a subtle truth about how we accept the demands of authority, even in extremis. If this book had contained just a quarter of the number of cartoons, but all with observation that subtle and acute, I'd probably buy it. As it is, I don't think I'd even borrow it.

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