I’m sure there’s a lot more thinking to do here, but what do you think Cheese People? What is it that makes cheese so productive for comedy?
There are two Monty Python sketches that anyone over the age of 20 can likely quote at least two lines from. One is the Dead Parrot routine — “the plumage don’t enter into it. It’s stone dead!” The other, of course, is the infamous Cheese Shop sketch. Recall the scene – John Cleese enters Ye Olde Cheese Emporium after a morning spent reading in the library only to gradually discover, after asking the cheese monger for almost every cheese under the sun, that the Cheese Shop has no cheese. This drives him mad and in the way that so many zany Monty Python skits end, he shoots the shopkeeper in the head.
Now, a question. Would the sketch have been as funny if it were built around a wine shop? A patisserie? Probably not (though I’m not convinced of that). Can you imagine Cleese running through a list of wines .. “do you have a 1975 Domaine de la Vougeraie Corton Le Clos du Roi? A ’72 Castello Cent’are Nero d’Avola”… Well, maybe, but it’s not quite the same as “how about a little Red Leicester?”… or “how are you on Tilsit?” More than any other food or drink, cheese seems to be steeped in a tradition of humor. It seems important to ask why.
Credit where it’s due. Maureen Argon of Monforte Dairy lit the spark under this post when she wrote this morning. “have you ever found that tehre’s something inherently funny about cheese. Perhaps it’s just the word.” I hadn’t really. But I think she’s right…in part. There is something about the word that lends itlsef to humor. The way you can stretch out the double vowel infinitely …cheeeeeeeeeeeeeese, like Cleese does in the sketch. Wiiiiiiiine, doesn’t carry the same comedic potential. And breeeeaaaaad doesn’t even come close. Funnier people than me (and their are tons of those) have written on the subject (or at least one – Chuck Seggelin – has). He’s with Maureen on this – “Cheese, so mundane and yet available in so many unusual varities (something on the order of 700 different kinds), when introduced into a idea where it doesn’t belong, makes the idea funny. Why? This I cannot answer except to say that cheese has inherent funniness.”
But I’m not buying it. If cheese invokes humor it’s not a quality of cheese but how we think of cheese, the humor comes from something the object imparts in the context of that meaning. It might be a quality of the object that exposes a contradiction that makes us laugh. Think about calling someone a cheesehead (except if you’re from Wisconsin) – some cheese is soft and full of holes, not the best qualities of a healthy brain. Think about the potty humor of cheese – as in ‘who cut the cheese’. I’m not sure where the statement originates but it gets at the heart of at least one quality of cheese that makes us laugh – smell, and the unacceptability of certain kinds of smells in a sanitized world. Picture if you can that cartoon mouse, little round nose in the air, sniffing-in the scent of ripe cheese and, eyes closed, walking mummy-like straight into the mousetrap.
Part of what makes cheese funny, then, is the contradiction beween sensory categories: a ‘negative’ olfactory quality – some of it stinks – counterposed with a very positive taste. From a Eurocentric cultural perspective, ‘bad’ smelling things and good tasting things are not supposed to go together. That contradiction – the bad and the good – wrapped up in an object that is supposed to be good is part of what makes those “a priest, a rabbi and a hooker” jokes funny (at least to some people) – they expose the contradictions wrapped up in a person who’s supposed to have singular qualities of goodness (plus they let us imagine authority in morally compromising positions – take ’em down a peg or two, as it were).
So, I suppose that makes Stinking Bishop doubly hilarious. Still, being funny can be good for business. Supposedly sales of Stinking Bishop increased 500% after it was used to rouse Wallace from the dead in the 2005 hit Wallace and Gromit: the Curse of the Were-Rabbit.
Maureen also turned me on to Sean Cullen’s (formerly of Corky and the Juice Pigs) funny little sendup of overly earnest singer/songwriters “Wood, Cheese and Children”. Here it is for your listening pleasure…