Why has my motley diary no jokes? Because it is a soliloquy and every man is grave alone - Emerson
A joke needs a listener.
Perhaps it is as true of other art forms though the practitioners like to assert they find completeness in creation itself. But surely a joke is quite simply gauged by the laughs it earns. I don't know who coined it - Jay Leno perhaps- the term 'cricket' refers to jokes that fell flat: the audience is so silent you can here the crickets chirping in the back of a set.
It may have been too clever for the audience, it may have had one reference too many, it may have toyed with the boundaries of laughablity. But the fact is, it fell flat. Those who've watched stand-up comedy live know how crickets are commoner at the start than later. Usually when the comic gets you laughing, you tend to be able to laugh for weak jokes too. So a cricket late in the show, for someone who's carried the audience with him all along, is an abysmal plunge. When you are watching live, you snap out of a 'this guy is awesome' trance to your normal cynical self harshly judging the mortal up there on stage. Unlike other artist's who can claim to condescend to do the audience, a comic has indeed made an effort to earn a laugh and has failed. And has thusly squarely responsible for his shame of not living up to his judges.
I was reading an account of Oscar Wilde's notorious libel suit (Book of Trials - Sir Travers Humphreys). The inflection point was such a 'cricket':
Oscar Wilde was 'closely associated' with Alfred Douglas, son of the Marquess of Queensberry (of the Queensberry boxing rules fame), much to the latter's consternation. After many confrontations, the Marquess left a note on a calling card that read: "For Oscar Wilde, posing sodomite"
In a prime example helping the proverbial garden lizard from the fence onto one's dhoti, the Irish genius launched libel proceeding against the Marquess.
On the first day, the proceedings were about his writings and Wilde was at his quipping best. When the counsel suggested that Dorian Gray may be considered by some to be a perverted book, he replied:
The views of illiterates on art are unaccountable. I am concerned only with my own view of art. I don't care twopence what other people think of it.He regaled the jury with his wit, making the opposition look silly with their flimsy arguments quoting his writings as evidence of his tendencies. All seemed to be going well. Then the counsels introduced as witness youths who had allegedly been 'procured' for the writer.
Of one such youth, said to have sold papers on the pier at Worthing, Wilde observed that this was the first time he had heard of his connection to literature,but the jury no longer laughed. So ended the first day of the trial.The proceedings went downhill from thereon, finally ending in the Marquess being released and Wilde himself being sentenced to the most severe sentence possible at that time for his 'crime'
I found the joke that fell flat, quite - pardon the pun - arresting. Did he intend it as a non sequitur? Or did he genuinely believe he could carry the audience he had already captivated, along with him into believing the trial was about literature? But, wasn't his debating success thus far based precisely on demolishing the opposition's literature based arguments? Then, wasn't it after all then a sorry and desparate swipe for a laugh. One can almost see his uneasy smile and cringe.
The man who declared he 'cared two pence' was down on one knee seeking the supportive hand of the public, their laughing admiration. And as if that isn't enough, he got two years hard labour.