Where does a joke come from? Is it the finely crafted synthesis of opposing ideas, set in motion by a divine spark of insight? Is it the outlandish juxtaposition of the unfamiliar with the commonplace; the absurd with the everyday? Or is it just some crap about bouncing sheep? Well, according to Professor Jez Moonbeam, comedy is something that occurs spontaneously all around us at a sub-atomic level.
Professor Moonbeam is a curious character. Whilst he is well known within his immediate neighbourhood for being 'a bit of a crank', in wider scientific circles he has made no impression at all. The lack of evidence in support of his claims of academic honours have led unkind critics to conclude that his qualifications are purely the result of his own highly active imagination, rather than a distinguished career on the frontiers of science. During the sixties his pioneering pharmaceutical research briefly brought him to the attention of the general public. Unfortunately, it also brought him to the attention of the police, who confiscated many of his 'experiments' and persuaded him to pursue more acceptable avenues of study. Since that time he has worked alone on a number of increasingly bizarre and disappointingly unsuccessful projects. Nevertheless, when he wrote and invited us to a demonstration of his new machine for measuring 'Spontaneous Joke Formation' we were too intrigued to turn him down.
Our first surprise came when we realised that the address Professor Moonbeam had given us was not some high-tech lab or busy workshop, but a small semi-detached house on the outskirts of Walsall. And it wasn't easy to find. Once we had reached the 'Maple Leaf Estate' we were quickly swallowed up amongst a confusion of apparently identical streets, cul-de-sacs and 'crescents', in which every broken streetlight, vandalised phone box and burnt-out litter bin looked much the same as the next. With a crudely drawn map - hastily copied from the Yellow Pages onto the back of an envelope - we did our best to zero in on our destination, but after passing the same dog turd for the fourth time (we knew it was the same one because of the distinctive flourish at the trailing end) we finally swallowed our pride and stopped to ask for directions.
It was getting dark by the time we parked up under the big oak tree at the end of 'Yew Tree Drive' and the natives were beginning to look at us with a ravenous gleam in their eyes. Professor Moonbeam's residence managed to appear even more distressed than the other houses in the row, and when he answered the door we were amused to find him wearing slippers and a lab coat flecked with three months' worth of TV dinners. He glanced distractedly up and down the street, as if concerned that he was being observed, then bid us enter and asked us to be as quiet as possible, because his mother was asleep in the front room and she didn't approve of visitors. Being cautious to avoid the creaking boards on the staircase, we followed the Professor up to his bedroom, which apparently also doubled as his laboratory.
"Comedy!" he exclaimed, eyes sparkling with excitement as he gently closed his bedroom door behind us. He motioned us to take a seat. The room was small, fusty and every available space appeared to be cluttered up with books, magazines, records and strange items of scientific and electronic paraphernalia. The only chair present was piled high with copies of New Scientist, so we cleared a space on the bed and tried to ignore the clamminess of the sheets.
"What is comedy?" the Professor asked us, eyes wide and bubbling with barely concealed excitement. He nudged aside a stack of Hawkwind LPs and perched himself precariously on top of a small table. "It's indefinable," he answered, making grand, theatrical sweeping gestures with his arms. "Transient, intangible, and yet somehow it binds us all in one great big cosmic joke." At this point he leaned forward slightly and studied us with a wry, knowing twinkle in his eye. "Hey, you guys know just where I'm coming from, don't you?"
We nodded. We knew exactly where he came from. He came from Walsall and we felt that this explained an awful lot.
He smiled, and at this point he somehow felt it was necessary to wink. "Beautiful," he said and, having leaned forward just a little too far, he slipped from the table and hit the floorboards with a heavy thump. Unfazed, he stood up and continued as if nothing had happened. "But just think," he said in hushed, conspiratorial tones, "what if we could really understand comedy? What if we could define it, quantify it, harness it?" He stabbed dramatically at the air and his pointed finger dislodged the bookshelf above him. He waited sombrely for the waterfall of Terry Pratchet novels to stop splashing down, and then continued. "Well," he said, doing his best to imbue his voice with some measure of gravitas, "I have done just that."
He suddenly sank to his knees. We thought he had fallen again, but then he dived under the bed and started to rummage around. He emerged even more dishevelled than before and he was holding the most remarkable contraption. To our untrained eyes it looked like an explosion of pipes and cables covered in fluff. "This, gentlemen," he announced, "is how I did it - behold, the Moonbeam Virtual Joke Engine."
A gasp travelled around the room, like an audio version of a Mexican wave. Not, I'm afraid, occasioned by the sight of his extraordinary device, but by the fact that this was the first time we had ever heard anyone use the word 'behold' without being ironic.
"Beautiful, isn't it?" Professor Moonbeam said and, had we paused at that moment to dim the lights, I felt sure we should have seen him literally glowing with pride. As it was, the dirty brown illumination of the room's grimy sixty watt light bulb was sufficient to reveal that the Professor's 'Joke Engine' fell somewhat short of 'beautiful'. On arrival we had been open to the possibility that the fundamental laws of physics might indeed be shattered in the back bedroom of a rundown semi in the Midlands. But when we saw that machine, cobbled together from what appeared to be cardboard, parcel tape and various other items of domestic refuse, these hopes began to wane.
"Hey, I know what you're thinking," the Professor said, still beaming, and we couldn't help but notice that he appeared to have jam in his hair. "You're wondering how it works."
Close. We were wondering if it worked. We were also wondering if we could still get home in time for the football.
"Well, it's very simple," Professor Moonbeam said. He carefully set his machine down on the table, then sat on it. "It all came about as a result of my research into the mechanics of humour," he explained. He stood up again to brush bits of his Joke Engine off his backside. He didn't seem too perturbed but then, by the look of it, we guessed that the machine had been sat on rather a lot. "The first thing I did," he continued as he endeavoured to reassemble the crumpled device, "was to break down a joke into its component parts - premise, tag line, etcetera. Then I took these individual joke sections and split them up into smaller pieces. And I continued to separate the segments until I arrived at the smallest, indivisible unit - the joke particle, the very building blocks of all humour."
It was at this point that we became truly fascinated. The Professor's notion of a 'joke particle' was wonderfully beguiling, but we were considerably more intrigued by his attempts to incorporate a peanut butter sandwich into his reassembled machine. The sandwich had not originally been one of its components and had been sitting on the table all along, but we simply didn't have the heart to tell him.
"And this particle," the Professor maintained, "the 'jokon particle', as I call it, is present in every single joke in the world. Even some of Bob Hope's gags have been known to contain it. Amazing, huh?"
We were amazed to the point of incredulity. We were also quite disappointed when Professor Moonbeam gave up with the sandwich and started to eat it. "Quite, but it's not as amazing as my second discovery," the Professor continued excitedly, spitting breadcrumbs at us. "I found out that these jokon particles are constantly being created all around us, but they exist for only a fraction of a nanosecond before they disappear. They are, if you like, just little bubbles of possibility in the fabric of space-time. Virtual one-liners that writhe and seethe in a sea of quantum probability. The universe is like a giant comedy Jacuzzi, just waiting to be tapped."
Professor Moonbeam finished his sandwich and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. Then he wiped his sleeve on his trouser leg. "And that is exactly what the Joke Engine does." He proudly flung out his arm to gesture to his machine and simultaneously swept a vase off the top of the adjacent chest of drawers, straight into the waste paper bin. "It captures these virtual jokons at the moment they are created and funnels them into the joke reservoir. The more jokons you collect, the funnier the joke. Gather round and I shall demonstrate."
We jumped off the bed and moved forward. Professor Moonbeam walked around to the other side of the machine, got his feet entwined in the rug and fell, his chin ricocheting off the edge of the table as he went down. After a brief pause he climbed shakily to his feet, one hand massaging his bruised jaw, the other probing the livid gash that had appeared above his left eye. He searched around for something to mop up the blood, and found a newspaper from which he tore a fragment and pressed it to his forehead.
"Now, I must warn you," he said, in quiet, slightly stunned tones, "this machine produces raw, untreated, primordial comedy. It may not be quite what you're used to."
Professor Moonbeam removed the newspaper from his cut, leaving tattered shreds still clinging to the congealed blood, and we couldn't help but notice the unmistakable impression of the word 'shocker' written backwards across his forehead in newsprint. He moved to perform one last check of his machine and inadvertently caught the pocket of his lab coat on the corner of the table. It tore open and an assortment of paperclips, drawing pins and individually wrapped sherbet lemons rained down onto the floor. Unconcerned, Professor Moonbeam satisfied himself that everything was in order, then reached down and flicked a switch - which came away in his hand.
There followed a colossal gurgling noise. This, it turned out, came from the central heating system, which had coincidentally chosen this moment to turn itself on. As for the Joke Engine, it just sort of fizzled faintly and there was the suggestion of a weak glow from somewhere within. Nevertheless, Professor Moonbeam seemed quite pleased with it.
"What the machine does is to create powerful electromagnetic forces within the vacuum chamber here," the Professor explained. He took a pen from his top pocket and used it to point out the relevant component, which looked remarkably like an old marmalade jar. "And if you look over here," he moved, slipped on some of the sherbet lemons underfoot and down he went again. This time he took a little longer to resurface and when he did he was sporting another cut. This one was above his right eye and together with the original injury it gave him the impression of having two devilishly arched blood-red eyebrows. He groaned to himself as he rubbed his throbbing skull and, when he removed his hand, the smudged newsprint now appeared to read the word 'snooker'. It had also acquired an exclamation mark, formed by the fortuitous arrangement of a series of drawing pins embedded in his forehead.
"What?" the Professor said faintly and he twisted around, searching the empty space behind him, a bewildered look upon his face. When we asked if he was okay to proceed, he seemed to notice us for the first time. "Oh yes!" he replied, and then with increasing excitement. "Oh yes, yes, of course! Yes, no problem! Oh blimey, I should say so, yes, yes!" There was a brief pause. Professor Moonbeam looked as though he was about to fall and we decided that we would let him, since the floor was so obviously the best place for him. But then he suddenly shivered, like a wet dog shaking itself dry, and he seemed to return to his senses. "Yes, yes," he said. "Now where were we? Where am I? What's going on here?"
We pointed to the machine, and he seemed to need no further prompting.
"Oh good grief, yes, and no mistake!" He searched around for his pen, which he had lost during the fall, and finally found it embedded deep in the soft tissue of his inner arm. He pulled it out with a horrible sucking noise and used the bloodied tip to point to the central core of his machine. "Now this, you see is the main power unit of the machine. It needs to generate terrifically powerful magnetic fields, and so it requires a very high voltage. It's very important, for your own safety, that you keep clear of it."
We were all surprised when the metal cap suddenly flew off the top of Professor Moonbeam's pen and lodged itself within the machine. The Professor carefully reached in to retrieve it... and he had almost got it as well, when the trailing sleeve of his coat brushed against a bare connection. There was a bang and a flash, and once the smoke had cleared we saw that the Professor was wearing an extremely rueful expression on his face. The entire left side of his body was blackened with soot.
"Yes, well," he said, "maybe I'll get it later." He blinked a couple of times and shook his head. "Can anybody else hear a ringing noise?" he asked. We couldn't. The Professor, however, seemed to be totally distracted. His eyes flickered briefly, like butterfly wings, and a soft, barely perceptible mutter came from his lips. After a few moments we realised that he was gently singing the chorus from 'Silver Machine' to himself. We nudged him and he came back to us with a sudden start.
He suddenly looked distinctly puzzled. "I'm sorry about that," he said. "I seem to have just said the word 'hindquarters' for no good reason. Anyway, it's very, very, very, very, very important that you make sure you keep clear. I don't believe I can stress that strongly enough." He gestured to the machine again, although this time he did it from a distance of about three feet. "Now," he said, raising his voice to a shout. "These powerful electromagnetic lemons grab hold of the particles and splodge them apart. Whoosh!"
Lemons? We queried his usage of the word, but the Professor brushed our questions aside.
"Oh, yes, yes, yes, yes, without a...well, probably," he continued. "Just as these virtual particles form, it all goes whoosh, bang, splatsky! It's like a... like a... like a... It's like tempting a little mousey with a piece of cheese. Here little mousey! Here little mousey! Look at this lovely piece of cheese."
Much to our concern, the Professor then squatted down on all fours and proceeded to make plaintive squeaking noises. We were even more concerned when we noticed that his sleeve was smouldering, but he was oblivious to all our efforts to warn him.
"Squeak, squeak, squeaky squeak squeak," said the Professor, quite matter-of-factly. The he stood up suddenly. "Of course, this only ever happens on Wednesdays. Now, if we take the next turn on the left we soon find we come to a swampy region of North Wales that was inhabited by Mrs Edna Womble as recently as the late Triassic period." By now, thick black smoke was pouring from Professor Moonbeam's sleeve. The first flickers of flame started to lick at the grimy material as we watched on with dread. Then a fierce hammering on the bedroom door made us almost jump out of our skin.
"Jeremy!" came a harsh woman's voice from outside. "Jeremy! Have you got people in there?"
Professor Moonbeam seemed oblivious to the voice. Indeed, Professor Moonbeam seemed oblivious to everything, not least of which being the fact that he was now on fire. "Some of them don't make it, of course," he babbled on, regardless. "Best thing to do with them is put 'em on sticks and use them to prop open the fire exits. I've never been to Kenya myself. Funny that." He suddenly stopped and sniffed the air curiously. "Can anyone smell burning?"
Suddenly the door burst inwards and the harsh woman appeared in person. "Well, I never!" she cried, looking horrified. "How many times have I told? If you want to set fire to yourself, go out in the garden and do it. It ruins the curtains and the smoke lingers for weeks." She turned her attention on us, and there was a look of pure malice in her eyes. "And I suppose you put him up to it, yes?"
This, we thought, was our cue to leave. We made our apologies, squeezed past her and almost ran to the car. As we drove past the house we caught our last glimpse of the Professor, standing in the front garden, looking extremely glum as the flames licked around his ears. All in all, we were really quite glad to be on our way.
Professor Moonbeam has written to us since. He was quite apologetic and hoped that we didn't feel our visit had been a complete waste of time. Furthermore, he explained that he had made a number of important adjustments to his machine and that it was now performing better than ever. He very kindly extended the invitation of a return visit to witness his new improved Joke Engine in its full glory, possibly on a Thursday evening when his mother would be out playing bingo.
We have yet to reply.
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