Rather like history, comedy is written by the winners. Russians make jokes about Poles, Americans make jokes about Mexicans, Australians make jokes about Aborigines, the Chinese make jokes about the Tibetans, and the English make jokes about the Irish (they’re thick!), the Scottish (they’re mean!) and the Welsh (they shag sheep!). Until recently there were very few Irish, Scottish or Welsh jokes aimed at the English, for one simple reason: they were no laughing matter. I don’t suppose the Nazis provoked much mirth in Occupied France either.
The essence of comedy is the relationship between the powerful and the powerless, first revealed to us in the cruel school playground where ‘humour’ unrefined by social niceties is at its most brutal. What gets a nine year-old squealing is otherness itself, so fatty, four-eyes, ginger, poof, spastic and paki had better quickly learn to ‘take a joke’ – or else. But as individual people and collective societies mature there are diminishing returns in kicking the weak. You know you’ve truly reached the bottom of the pecking order when nobody even laughs at you anymore.
So it was with Wales. For many centuries after our conquest by England the very word ‘Welsh’ was used in England to signify anything poor, stupid or crooked, the guarantee of an easy laugh. A ‘Welsh comb’ was your thumb and four fingers, a ‘Welsh mortgage’ was a pledge never to be redeemed, a ‘Welsh mile’ was long and convoluted, a ‘Welsh cricket’ was a louse, a ‘Welsh diamond’ was rock crystal, and so on. But the fun went out of picking on Taffy – he was crushed anyway and new targets for scorn and ridicule were emerging all over the world as the British Empire spread. Wales was so unthreatening that by the 20th century we had fallen off the comic radar entirely, excluded even from the routine format beginning “an Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman…”
A specific Welsh comedy didn’t develop with the burgeoning entertainment industry; we were just an unimportant audience for ‘British’ comedy, presumed to be amused by its particular obsessions (mothers-in-law, foreigners, gays, erectile dysfunction, poo-poo and custard pies). The occasional Welsh act made it big to join the comic elite at the golf club and the charity dinner, but this was achieved either by dispensing with Welshness altogether or by playing stage Welshie to massage the English superiority complex. In the former category you could place Naunton Wayne (1901-1970), Tommy Cooper (1921-1984), Stan Stennett (1925-2013), Terry Jones and Griff Rhys Jones; in the latter, Gladys Morgan (1898-1983), Harry Secombe (1921-2001), Ryan (1937-1977) & Ronnie (1939-1997), Wyn Calvin, Windsor Davies and Ruth Madoc. A grotesque caricature – verbose, mawkish, dim, harmless and liable at any time to break into song – was, it appeared, the best we could do.
But then the tide turned; Welsh sense of identity and worth climbed a step or two out of the basement where it had languished for centuries and the ensuing creative ferment began to include comedy, that weathervane of cultural strength. Now we could begin to crack jokes about the English at last. And, as luck would have it, they made perfect comedy material thanks to the intrinsic hilarity of the chasm between their self-image (plucky, forthright bulldogs with lovable eccentricities) and how the rest of the world sees them (evil, effeminate poodles into getting their arses spanked).
Better than that, we could now start to tell jokes about ourselves, for ourselves, and thus develop an indigenous comedy far removed from the old indeed-to-goodness-there’s-posh travesty. It’s very early days but in the likes of Rhod Gilbert, Rob Brydon, Ruth Jones, John Sparkes, Chris Corcoran, Bennett Arron, Gareth Gwynn, Jeff Baker, Elis James, Mark Watson, Dewi Fflint, Gethin Thomas, Lloyd Woolf, Cariad Lloyd, Daniel Glyn and Steve Williams, to name just a few, one discerns the first waves of a Welsh comic flood.
I’m of the view that no comedy act can possibly come close to the side-splitting risibility of real life. But if you do want to catch some live comedy in the Cardiff area, the best option currently is the Junket Club, with their unexpected presentations in unexpected places (see www.thejunketclub.com). I cannot recommend the Glee Club in Mermaid Quay, Cardiff’s only dedicated comedy club – unless you don’t mind paying steep prices to hear middle class men vaguely familiar from TV and radio panel games relate what-a-crazy-world-we-live-in anecdotes in an uncomfortable, surprisingly humourless atmosphere. Laugh? The tears were running down my legs!
By the way, it’s not true that all Welshmen are sheep-shaggers – well, not unless she’s really attractive…