Unsolicited but witty spur-of-the-moment examples of humour have often continued to draw laughs years – even decades – later.

Some years ago a member of the Federal Parliament described an opponent as having “the brains of a sheep”

Uproar! Ordered to withdraw, the errant member said: “Mr Speaker, I apologise, the Member for xxxx does not have the brains of a sheep!”

The witticisms of the legendary Yabba in the crowd at the Sydney Cricket Ground will live forever; such as: “Send ‘im down a piano, see if ‘e can play that!”

Laughter is a distinctly human characteristic (although there are those who will say that their dogs laugh and a couple of American researchers claim to have discovered that rats laugh when tickled) but we all understand that laughter can be generated by different situations.

Human misfortune, especially comical misfortune, has always been a generator of laughter.

The fat man slipping on a banana skin, the husband with a camera urging his wife (or vice versa) to take another step back at the Grand Canyon, or someone lighting a match to see if there’s fuel in the tank.

We find things to laugh about in every nook and cranny of human existence.

Sex, of course, features highly but we also find humour in gender differences, family circumstances (‘friends are God’s apology for relations’: Hugh Kingsmill), racial or ethnic stereotyping, religion, hardship and grim times, political and economic conditions, the workplace, and on the sporting field.

If one is so inclined, it is possible to study what has made people laugh through the course of history.

There are some surprises.

In some periods throughout history laughter was a mannerism expected only of unruly lower classes.

In fact, in certain stiff-necked Roman families, and in Medieval times, and in later centuries people of a certain status and station regarded laughing as a social ‘no-no’.

The father of modern physics, Sir Isaac Newton, (1642-1726/27) was said to have never laughed.

In fact, he is reputed to have only even smiled once, when someone asked him ‘what is the use of geometry, anyway?’

In the 18th century Lord Chesterfield wrote to his son advising him that “there is nothing so illiberal and so ill-bred, as audible laughter.”

John Ray (1627-1705) viewed laughter as “the hiccup of a fool”.

Laughter was “mind sneezing” said Percy Wyndham Lewis, in the first half of the 20th century.

The British philosopher and elitist conservative Anthony Ludovici, who died in 1971, was down on laughter because, in his view, it was the ‘principal cause of the decadence
of the times’.

However, most of us who have inhabited the 20th and beginning of the 21st century enjoy laughing.

The rise of mass popular entertainment in the 19th century, the advent of radio and television, the amazing diversity of comedic diversions, from clever satire to sophisticated children’s cartoons, and the avalanche of comic writing in books, magazines and newspapers has meant that there is plenty to amuse and delight all tastes.

A good laugh often is the best medicine.

On the horizon, though, there is a small black cloud.

Some call it ‘political correctness’ but whatever it is, there appear to be emerging limits and strictures on what constitutes an attempt at humour.

Some of these limits now have been defined in law.

Self censorship is now very much in evidence, lest someone, somewhere is offended.

An unguarded, off-hand comment recently on an open microphone had the Federal Immigration Minister Peter Dutton required to issue an apology.

Some would believe that it is increasingly so that jocular or offhand remarks about race, ethnicity, age, sexual preferences and religion can only safely be made these days by people of the subject matter race or religion or persuasion.

We should be mindful, of course, when we make a casual remark or observation that offence may be seen in the joke but it would be a great shame if good hearted, good natured laughter becomes threatened as the decade rolls on by fear of thin-lipped ‘laughter police’.

The boundaries of our freedom to enjoy a good laugh should be lightly constrained.

If we were to fear that our enjoyment of humour is dependent of the approval of watchdogs then that will not be funny.

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