Hill, Richard, Sharks and Custard: The things that make Europeans Laugh

Reviewed by Dr. George Simons at diversophy.com    Amazon Review

Shark infested custard?

When first I met Richard Hill, it was at an intercultural conference. Over coffee he told me he was writing a book on humor. I intimated that he was either foolish or brave, told him a couple of the better jokes I had recently heard, and left it at that. This week's mail brought a copy of Sharks and Custard with a dedicatory note. I devoured the custard (read the book) immediately, while keeping my eyes out for sharks--will this go down badly with interculturalists, diversity specialists and the pc police?

The first thing I discovered was that Richard was neither foolish nor brave. He was having a good time. Sharks and Custard blends his search for humor and its significance with the author's rich background as an interculturalist, and, produces delight. Certainly the sharks are out there. They can be a useful part of the ecology, gobbling up jokes that perpetuate pain or leave a bad taste. Sometimes they are just nasty critters. With a bit of caution about not smacking into each other and apologizing if we do, political correctness should not keep us from bobbing in the waves with other laughing animals (as Aristotle defined our essence) nor surfing the web for a good chuckle. (The book shares some very good URLs.)

The second thing that I (re)learned was that there are no new jokes, just an infinity of new uses for them and right or wrong moments to tell them. Years ago, I had read that there were perhaps only a dozen basic plot lines for jokes, and that most had already been found in graffiti on the walls of Pompeii. This need not discourage the humorist, Hill insists. The all important word that Sharks and Custard frequently uses is "context." Jokes, even ethnic and gender jokes are not per se good or bad. As with most human communication, it depends on who is telling them, when, to whom, and for what purpose. They are a human patrimony that we wed to our culture, our personality and to the occasion. We march them out to entertain, to assuage our fears of unknown others, to encourage and motivate each other, and to celebrate our well being. We hone them to hack away at bureaucracy, political idiocy, and that most oppressive of conditions, humorlessness itself.

The third learning was that, indeed, humor, like most cultural forms of expression, is a moving target. It changes as we change. My hard drive contains over a gigabyte of jokes, cartoons and humorous anecdotes right now, and grows daily. With the odd exception, I had previously heard or read almost all the jokes cited in Sharks and Custard. True to Richard's assertion about the "melting pot" quality of humor, the versions I knew were inevitably about another group or situation than those he cited. Yes, as Sharks and Custard points out, there are distinct cultural differences between European groups in how and when they use and appreciate humor. At the same time, the borders are blurring and I suspect that humor, the "affectionate communication of insight," as Leo Rosten is quoted in to say, has a critical role in the shaping and growth of the European Union.

Sharks and Custard is like a pleasant evening with friends, planned but not overly organized, not too long and not too short, serendipitous, a place to share feelings and opinions and nonsense. Scholarly discourse drops in, but doesn't stay long. We go away a bit more connected as human beings. Many years ago, another European philosopher, Henri Bergson observed how humor allowed us to rest from our diligent following of moral rules. Richard Hill reminds us once again that, despite sharks, death by dogma is not the fate of homo ridens.

And the title? Well, it’s from that granddaddy of incongruous Q&A jokes:
Q. What is yellow and dangerous?
A. Shark infested custard.


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