Thursday, 20 September 2012

The Science of Laughter

While recently reading Wes Butters' fascinating biography of Charles Hawtrey -
- I was reminded of that classic Will Hay film 'Where's that Fire (1940).'  Hawtrey had a part in this film, and, according to Butters, was in awe of Hay and his intelligence.  He held a respect for Hay until his days were up - a respect that he didn't give out freely.  It's easy to forget just how clever Hay was; he always played the buffoon on screen with conviction.  But in life, he was a noted astronomer and linguist'. So we can therefore assume that he would have had a keen grasp of mathematics as this often goes hand in hand with astronomy.

However, in 'Where's that Fire', Hay leads a mockery at those with scientific or mathematical talents.  He plays a fireman, who, rather than listening out for the alarm bell, spends his time tinkering around in the cellar of the fire station.  He is searching for a fire extinguisher recipe that will make him pots of cash.  He accidentally finds a formula - not by hard work or equasions - but with a bottle of beer which falls into the ingredients.  Hawtrey meanwhile plays a precocious schoolboy, who buzzes around their achingly funny efforts to install a pole into the fire station.  He offers various mathematical answers to the problem of the wedged pole, and is met with annoyed incomprehension from Hay.

This would seem rather strange - a scientist and mathematician making fun of boffins - if you didn't get this very British humour.  Self depreciation is our thing; if Hay was building up his scientific learnings we would find him obnoxious.  And this film also shows that the tendancy for both boffin-baiting and self depriciation is by no means anything new.  I'm reminded of so many interviews given by comedians .  Whenever they are asked about the catalyst for their careers the answer is often the same.  It began in the classroom to deflect attention away from something else - a physical or learning attribute.  I wonder now, did Will Hay become such a successful comedy act in film, and before that in music hall, to deflect unwelcome comments about his other talents?  Was it only the comedy success that gave him the confidence to openly pursue his astronomy? Has there always been a tendency within us to poke fun at those whose knowledge far outstrips our own?

Hay was a true genius who excelled in both his entertainment and scientific careers. Unfortunately, Hawtrey died a bitter man, who felt completely unfilfilled and that his true talents had been ignored.  He did have talent but never took it to its potential.  The reason?  I think that it is because he was unable to laugh at himself - whereas Hay succeeded because he could see situations from other angles - not just the self.

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