I eat babies!

You’d think that I’d be able to take a joke by now. One of the reasons I chose history as my profession was – frankly – that it’s funny. Bleak, yes, depressing, yes, but hilarious all the same, provided that you have a sense of humor that can countenance the truly awful. Unfortunately, try as I might, my sense of humor doesn’t extend quite so far as I’d like. I still can’t abide glaring, easily avoided, senseless errors on film or TV. Or poorly worded history. That’s why, for a good long while, I stopped watching The History Channel (and this was long before it became populated with pawn-shop owners and antique pickers). I remember a little factoid inserted with commercial breaks on THC years ago, that boldly proclaimed an interesting little historical tidbit: “Did you know…that Queen Elizabeth I relied on sixteenth-century astrologers when making important decisions?” Or something very much like that. What I clearly remember was the emphasis on “sixteenth-century,” as if it was the age of said astrologers that made this fact interesting, rather than that a European sovereign would take astrology into account when making decisions. I observed to my wife at the time that I didn’t find anything especially interesting about that. If, on the other hand, Elizabeth I had relied on thirteenth-century astrologers, or twentieth-century astrologers…well, then that would have been interesting. Maybe even a little disturbing. My wife didn’t find my observation very funny. After a while, neither did I. I should have been able to laugh at the ten-second spot on The History Channel, but I couldn’t. It just annoyed me.

I’m sure a great many of us can point to several – maybe dozens, maybe hundreds – of errors in period films – matters of material culture, perhaps, or chronology, or both. And I suspect that many of us, sometimes, get so annoyed by these errors that we find it hard to enjoy period films. I managed to make it through Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth (1998, starring Cate Blanchett), despite everything that was wrong with it…though I couldn’t get past the fact that Cecil (played by Richard Attenborough) appeared as an old man, and that Elizabeth inexplicably fired him at the film’s end (in 1572???). But I couldn’t make myself watch more than a few minutes of Kapur’s 2007 sequel, Elizabeth: The Golden Age. Once Swedish ambassadors appeared in Elizabeth’s court – purportedly in 1585 – to seek the queen’s hand in marriage for their master, Erik XIV, I just couldn’t bring myself to warch any more. You see, Erik XIV was deposed in 1568 – seventeen years before the scene in question – and died in 1577.

Again, I should have just laughed this off and moved on, the way one laughs off bad acting, incongruous writing, and horrible special effects in a movie like Plan Nine from Outer Space. But I couldn’t. It’s history, after all.

I have the same problem with jokes. Not all jokes. Just the kind that are based on history—the kind that give the uninformed listener the impression that this is sophisticated humor, because it’s based in erudition. Jokes that have the appearance of cultivation and learning because they are not coarse and because they make reference to some shared assumptions about history that, presumably, all educated people have. Like these ones…

I just got this from a member of my family. The source? Some forwarded email. Doesn’t really matter where it came from. It purports to be something written by John Cleese (of Monty Python fame, to all you young’uns). I have no idea if Mr. Cleese actually wrote it or not, but the alleged authorship helps to set the tone. No matter how silly Monty Python humor got, it never devolved to the purely sophomoric potty humor of Benny Hill, always ending with somebody chasing somebody else in fast motion to the tune of “Yakety Sax.” But with Monty Python it was different. You always had the impression, when you watched Monty Python, that these were jokes and skits written by truly learned people. At least I did, when I was thirteen and watching the Flying Circus for the first time.

In this case, it’s a series of jokes about how various European nations have responded to security concerns raised by heightened tensions in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East. It’s “national stereotype” humor – possibly one of the least sophisticated varieties of humor – and most of them are predictable. The English are stuffy and tend to understate things. The Scots are prone to anger and belligerence. Germans can be arrogant and militaristic. Et cetera, et cetera. Nothing new to see here, folks.

But national stereotypes (and all stereotypes, for that matter) – though I would argue that they’re really not all that funny – only work in humor if there’s some measure of truth in them, if those stereotypes indeed involve an exaggeration of truth.

So here we get to the French again. Here’s what it says: “The French government announced yesterday that it has raised its terror alert level from ‘Run’ to ‘Hide.’ The only two higher levels in France are ‘Collaborate’ and ‘Surrender.’ The rise was precipitated by a recent fire that destroyed France ‘s white flag factory, effectively paralysing the country’s military capability.”

OK, quasi funny at best. Very very clever. But it’s not based on anything in reality that would make the stereotype work. [See my earlier posts on misguided popular notions of alleged French maladroitness in warfare here and here.] The French surrendered once, and some French citizens collaborated once…only in World War II. Only in World War II. No other European state – no other state in the Western world, not even the United States – can claim the kind of record of military success that France has. It wasn’t all that long ago that the US military in fact sought to emulate the French, and there were many reasons for doing so.

I’ve probably harped on this point enough, though I doubt that it will ever change anything. To most Americans the French will always be those snobs who look down their noses at us though we saved them – so the story goes – in both world wars, but who are themselves incapable of fighting a war. I’ve run into more than a few American soldiers who saw the French in action in Somalia in the early ’90s, and they knew what the French were capable of. Most important, the French have history on their side, so to speak.

There’s another one. This one, inexplicably, is about Spain. Not usually the butt of European stereotype jokes. Here it is: “The Spanish are all excited to see their new submarines ready to deploy. These beautifully designed subs have glass bottoms so the new Spanish navy can get a really good look at the old Spanish navy.”

Again, clever clever, ha ha ha. Glass-bottomed submarines…really good look at the old Spanish navy. But what in the hell is this referring to? Is there any particular reason that the Spanish navy is worthy of ridicule? Does it stand out, historically, as being any better or worse than most European navies? Is this an English reference to the 1588 Armada? Maybe someone could fill me in here. It sounds suspiciously like an old-school Polish joke sans any reference to the old Polish fleet using screen doors on their submarines. Yes, I know, it’s just a joke…but it’s a joke that’s supposed to be rooted in some historical episode/truth – and the Spanish navy has no particularly negative historical reputation. But it sounds so erudite…it must relate to something.

Years ago (I’m pretty sure it was 1997), Saturday Night Live did a skit about a (fictional, obviously) vaudeville duo (one of them was Nathan Lane) whose specialty was crude ethnic humor. Eventually they got to the French, and the song was just, well, brilliant. “I eat babies! I drink pee! We must be French, French, French!” Immediately afterward, another actor offered commentary on the piece: “They really didn’t know much about the French.”

When I read that forwarded email, that old SNL skit was the first thing that popped into my mind.

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