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Venus Envy

By , February 28, 2013 9:57 am


“The vagina,” writes Carlton, “both looks and acts like a purse.”

It’s an odd opening for an academic treatise, isn’t it?   I’m not even sure that it’s true.  Does the vagina act like a purse?  I suppose it could be argued that “the love muscle,” as he calls it, is so sought after by men that they do seem happy to throw money at it, yet it is a strange way to open a scholarly study of human love;  but then this author is always unusual and it will come as no surprise to his many fans to find that the writer is not a human at all but a thinking machine, a 4.5 Bowie.  I never use the term robot,  for the word implies something mechanical or pre-controlled, which in the case of Carlton would be very misleading because he is, despite his non-humanity, a highly original thinker.  We are fortunate indeed to have him here on Campus as Regius Professor of Humorology.  Humorology, the study of the causes and nature of comedy, is today a well- established science but when Carlton joined our University over a hundred years ago, it was a brand new discipline, a tiny backwater in the Department of Metachemistry.  It’s hard for us humans to remember that when he came along Metachemistry itself was less than a hundred and fifty years old; this now venerable science which began with The Uncertainty Theory, where you can’t say where anything is, and ended with The Anxiety Theory, where you can’t say where you left it.

Incidentally, I use the masculine personal pronoun with Carlton purely for convenience.  “It” seems so cold, and the modern “heshe” is ugly, but it is important to remember that Carlton is essentially genderless.   A perfect viewpoint you might say, for undertaking a study of human sexuality, which is what this fine book is, yet Carlton was ridiculed for tackling the subject of sex at all.  “Professor Joins Cliterati” was the headline of one particularly nasty review in a Tablot, and there has been no shortage of critics denying the right of non-humans to examine human behavior, particularly sexuality.  But even this doesn’t quite explain the furor which has greeted the announcement of the forthcoming publication of Venus Envy.

Perhaps Carlton should be accustomed to abuse, for he has never been far from controversy.  Indeed, since his earliest days he has courted conflict, as you may see from his autobiographical memoir, I Carlton, if you are ever lucky enough to get hold of a copy.   I need hardly expound his manifold academic achievements.  He was the first thinking machine to submit a thesis for a Nobel Prize, De Rerum Comoedia, (Concerning Comedy) on the nature of irony in humans, although, ironically, he was disqualified for not being human.    He was compensated for this disappointment when his startlingly original thesis recognizing the force of Levity in the Universe earned him tenure here at The University of South Titan.

There were many at the time who remonstrated against accepting an android into academia, but he soon rose above this early prejudice. Indeed in the last few decades, I am happy to say, mechanistic racism has been almost entirely removed from our Universities.  Teaching machines are now totally accepted on Campus.  We have much to gain from non-human thought, not least a little humility when considering ourselves.   Professor Carlton has been in the vanguard of helping us comprehend the way we are.   His new book is invaluable to an understanding of the way we mate.  More than a bed-time companion, it challenges our way of thinking about ourselves.

When I first joined the Metachemistry Department,  Gratuitism was all the rage.  Gratuitism, or Free Won’t  to give it its proper academic title, is essentially a rag-tag philosophy which argues that chaos reigns in the Universe, that everything is happenstance, that life is a mistake and that accident is God.  Gertrude Stein was the unwitting Godmother of this philosophy with her observation “there’s no there there,”  but she was referring disparagingly to Oakland and not denying the causal reality of all things and she would be distinctly surprised to learn she had become the basis of a philosophy, just as Mozart would be shocked to learn he had starred in a movie.  That’s the thing about the future: it’s all utterly startling.

When I was a young undergraduate Carlton demolished Gratuitism in a brilliant series of lectures called Byte Me in which he charted the evolution of the electron.  He invented the concept of “ironic” numbers, figures that could be understood to have different values to different observers, and was able to prove mathematically that the future is both inevitable and unpredictable.  Nothing could be known for sure and yet this very unpredictability was a certainty.  So how to resolve this paradox?   In the Electron Age, he argued, existence is indistinguishable from information.  Indeed the information and the evidence that it exists are the same thing. Existence is essence.  He had rediscovered a form of Electronic Existentialism.   This led to his great work on Bionic Evolution in which he charted the evolution of the electron.

What he labeled The Wood Age, our Biological Era in which information traveled at the speed of life, and was largely carbon based (tree, paper, ink, coal, steam and oil) had been replaced by the Bionic Era, The Age of the Electron.

Unnatural History, as this subject was then called, is now better known as The Inhumanities, but Carlton was the first to study the history and development of the information-bearing electron in his groundbreaking book The Ascent of Magnet.  Even then he attracted detractors.   His book was ridiculed, parodied as Fission Chips, and he was dismissed as MacDarwin, but I am happy to say that this great work has remained a best seller, as well as one of my personal favorites (along with Metal Fatigue, his slender book of poems which earned him a Pulitzer and a Tony Award.)

During his later years, when asked what he was working on he would reply that “he was working on nothing.”  He meant it literally of course.  The concept of nothing had always obsessed him.  The idea of the absence of thingness intrigued him.  Since nothing cannot come from something, then nothing cannot possibly exist, since something is the nature of the Universe.  Conceptually even a vacuum is filled with itself.  To examine these ideas he invented his famous Negative Dice.  He created a pair of dice numbered in the usual way except each digit was given a negative value: minus one through minus six.  When the sum of the two dice is obtained by multiplication and not by simple addition, it is impossible to roll a negative number.    With normal dice, it is impossible to roll a zero, but if you mix Negative and Positive Dice it is now possible to roll zero. (Actually six times:  six plus minus six, through one plus minus one.)

For this he was banned from all Casinos.

Carlton has been unjustly accused of creating controversy merely for the sake of it and there are even some who refer to him as Charlatan and call his teaching The I Thing.   He has, they say, invented The Nouvelle Vague with his famous Butterfly Mind Theorem,  a theorem which becomes so easily distracted it is unable to prove itself.   But this is nonsense.  He is an utterly sympathetic entity.  He was the first to argue for the extension of animal legal rights to intelligent aquatic life, and his paper Habeas Porpoise denounced man’s inhumanity to manatee and led directly to legislation which permitted dolphins for the first time to have lawyers.  Although his Complete History of the Future, is still sadly incomplete, his Venus Envy, stands as a shining example of popular academic writing.  I am sure it will find many fans.  I know that his current lectures, Enquiries into the Nature of Human Religion, have caused anger, but I find his controversial Paradox of the Atheist God,  in which he posits a God who does not believe in himself, a tremendously stimulating idea and I can only deplore the decision of the University to withdraw the course and ban him from all further religious enquiry.  His enemies wanted to burn him.  Or at least melt him down.  In this age!  It is monstrous how much influence powerful religious bodies still wield over the academic world through their funding programs, and we would do well to remember that religions, while posing as harmless philosophies, are outside the realms of normal logic, behave contrary to the rules of science and are the primary cause of human warfare.  As well as leading to strange costumes and bad sex.

This sharp lesson in the limitations of freedom of speech left Carlton with only one major field for study:  the subject of Sex.  Venus Envy is the fruit of this labor.  Ever since man first ejaculated in space – see Confessions of an Astronaut or Hand Jobs in Tight Places (Oxford Scientific Books 2001) sex in space has been the subject of thousands of books, from the helpful best-seller The Joy of Zero Gravity Sex to the erotic classic 2069.   So this book of Carlton’s is not exactly virgin territory, if I may be forgiven a pun.  (Carlton loves puns almost as much as paradoxes, indeed one of his early books is called Paradox Lost and features a blind poet who cannot find his manuscript.)  This is the first book by a non-human to attempt to understand human sexuality and for that reason alone it is worthy of attention.  His understanding of human comedy is unique in my experience amongst academic androids and it has permitted him to observe that the mating process in humans is essentially hilarious.    This makes Venus Envy a classic of its kind.

I thoroughly recommend this book.

Carl Sartre

The University of Southern Saturn


The author of this foreword, Professor Carl Sartre, was found dead shortly after writing this introduction.  At 11 a.m. on the morning of February 45th 2238 (Universal Relative Time) he was found by his Housebot, lying on his back, bleeding heavily on to a  Persian rug behind the desk in his study at the University of South Titan.   He had been bludgeoned to death by a heavy object.   The murder weapon was found beside the body.  It attracted considerable attention due to its unusual nature.   It was a large heavy metal dildo.

 This silver metal dildo, an antique from the 21st century, on loan from The Hustler Museum, was until recently in the possession of Professor Carlton, a humanoid co-faculty worker, and the subject of the deceased’s last known writing.  When questioned, the android claimed the dildo was a research tool for his new book Venus Envy, a study of human sexuality.  He had no idea how it had left his possession or how it had come to be found at the murder scene.   He described himself as a colleague in the Department of Inhumanities, a chess partner of the deceased and the author of several notable academic books.

 The shocking nature of the crime, and the nature of the murder weapon created a stir amongst the Tellytabs.   Who would want to kill such a harmless old academic? Why the dildo?  Was it a sex crime?   Speculation was rife.  The Tablots were full of stories.   There were no apparent witnesses, all doors were locked, the usual scanning devices were in place.  There was no forcible entry.  No alarms.  No warnings.  Only one person had access to the Professor’s quarters.: the humanoid Carlton.  It seems he was entrusted with the entry codes and was in the habit of visiting the Professor in the evenings, to enjoy a quiet game of three-dimensional chess or watch a ball game.    Suspicion naturally fell on him. He had the means, and the opportunity but there was a total lack of motive.   On the whole authors do not go around bludgeoning the writers of their forewords; certainly not at their desks and certainly not while they are writing such flattering recommendations.  It seemed unthinkable that the perpetrator could be Carlton.  Why should this venerable thinking machine resort to violence?  And yet who else could it be?

From The Tablots Report, the evening of the 46th of February (URT time).

Carlton, an Assistant Professor at the University of South Titan has been detained and is assisting Police in their enquiries.






About The Footlights

By , February 26, 2013 5:22 pm

Footlights!       A Hundred Years Of Cambridge Comedy       By Robert Hewison

Foreword by Eric Idle

Comedy is a very odd activity.  To stand on a stage in front of hundreds of other people and make them laugh is a very strange thing to do.  For some bizarre anthropological reason, since earliest time a few people have found it necessary to be amusing.  Why should this be so?  Clearly when someone goes to such lengths to attract the admiration of strangers we can observe that they must feel desperately unloved, but this does not explain why we, the audience, should tolerate and actively encourage them in their weird behavior.  Nor why comedy should prove to be so popular or so universal.

It seems no coincidence that England, a land rich in absurdities, should be so rich in comedians.  Writing about comedy is difficult, but it is not half so difficult as writing comedy.  For example, I am writing in this room to which I have come every morning for the past few weeks, but today is different.  Today I have only to write about comedy, I don’t actually have to write the bloody stuff itself.  If I’m wrong when I’m writing about comedy then some minor critic in Penge will abuse me over his saltimbocca, but if I’m wrong when I’m writing comedy then – horror of horrors – nobody laughs: there is nothing but the sound of one hand clapping.  It is this potential result that gives comedy its edge.  It is a bit like tightrope walking.  You really have to do it to know it, and indeed that is also the only way to learn how to do it.

If it were nothing more than gilded youths dressing up as women then you could hardly be blamed for thinking of the Cambridge Footlights as an effete collection of privileged wankers.  It has from time to time been just that, but collectively it is far more than that, for it has proved to be a durable training ground for people who have gone on to become excellent in their own right.  This is Footlights’ triumph and its justification.  It is also preeminently a self-inventing form.  No University Official stepped forward and said ‘Let there be Footlights.’  In fact they have flourished so healthily without direct encouragement that this might be seen as yet another triumph for Cambridge subversion.

Comedy is a shared experience.  Without an audience it is nothing.  Far more so than tragedy, comedy is intimately connected with the audience’s response.  We weep alone, but we all laugh together.  It is this shared communality that makes it so powerful and so popular.  It is constantly reminding us of our own absurdity in this vast universe.  It is frequently to do with scale, cutting us down to size, laughing at our human weaknesses.  For a few moments it removes us from the prison of our own personalities, the trap of our own self-created selves, and unites us in a warm shared response by making us laugh at the trivia in which we continually enmesh ourselves.  It is an uplifting experience.  We are taken out of ourselves, and made to laugh at ourselves.  This is both slightly painful (laughing does hurt) and healthy (because it is done communally).  It is instant group therapy.

It achieves this effect by demonstration rather than persuasion.  We do not decide to laugh, we find ourselves laughing.  In the dark amidst hundreds of strangers we suddenly find ourselves united in a tribal explosion of noise, which begins in a shout of recognition and ends in the sound of a gurgling drain or a goose being strangled.  For a few seconds we are all barking mad together.

To be on the other side of a laugh, causing it, triggering it and feeling the great wave of human noise come back at you, is one of the most powerful and addictive sensations that there is.  It is a great welcoming sound that wraps round the performer, enmeshing him in approval.  He can learn to play with it, to toy with the audience’s expectations, to tickle the laugh, to surf along it, hold it back and then finally release it, but he can learn this only by doing it.  To be sure, such ability is partly instinctive – some people are just funny – but it can also be learned, or at least honed and improved by experience.  This is why a structure like the Footlights is so useful.  It is both a training ground, and a safety net, which prevents hundreds of people who are drawn to it but are otherwise unsuitable, from pursuing it too far.

This is the history of a comedy club.  A loose association of extraordinary people with almost nothing in common except that they all belonged to it.  Nothing dates faster than comedy.  Today’s topical witticism is tomorrow’s puzzled yawn.  From the many extracts in this book it is easy to chuckle at the sketches near our own time, but at the distant end of the century the humour is elusive and we can only stare blankly at the lines and wonder ‘Did they really laugh at this?’ I think the reason for this is quite simple.  Comedy consists of two elements:  the content and the manner.  The content is the contemporary trivia of day-to-day shared experience from which the comedian draws his material.  The manner is the secret that belongs to the performer.  An odd mixture of ‘timing’ and a strange persuasive power which reassures the audience and lulls them into a state of confidence in which they can accept that that virtually anything he says is funny.  Looking at old scripts we are left only with what they said, not how they said it, and that is to miss perhaps sixty percent of the comedy.  A good comedian can make you laugh at almost anything.

The value of Footlights for me was that, while learning about content, how to write, rewrite and cut sketch material, I still had to  go out and learn performing in front of quite difficult audiences.  In my short time there I experienced almost every kind of audience.  We performed cabaret professionally at least twice a week.  We played in theatres, we played at Edinburgh Festivals, before factory audiences, before dinner-jacketed hoorays and ball-gowned debs, in Butlin’s holiday camps, before drunks, before dinner, before Round Table businessmen, and ultimately in radio and television studios.  Had one sat down to plan a crash course in show business one could hardly have bettered this as a learning experience.  A University which permits such activity is clearly doing its job, by doing absolutely nothing.

Despite repeated complaints about the Footlights – that it is somehow too professional (but then who wants amateur comedy?); that it is elitist (though nobody laughs because they are impressed by the social rank of those on stage); that it is privileged (nobody laughs out of kindness either); and that it is undergraduate (they are after all, undergraduates) – it has nevertheless self-created its own tradition.  A tradition which seeks after excellence, and then seeks to hide that excellence.  (Ars est celare artem.)  The measure of the Footlights is that it is continually reinventing itself.  It is impressive that with no encouragement from the University, no financial support, no grants nor University premises, and with hardly any real continuity except for a few dedicated officers (take a bow Harry Porter), it should survive for a hundred years.

We should be grateful to Robert Hewison, a man who has suffered the advantages of an Oxford education, for so excellently researching and writing the history of Cambridge humour.

Eric Idle

Sydney 1982

Fifty years ago today….

By , February 23, 2013 7:20 pm

Fifty years ago today I met John Cleese.  That’s odd isn’t it?   I suppose most of you can’t even imagine what fifty years looks like.  It’s hard for us to imagine time.  Only the mirror tells its relentless tale.  But yes, half a century ago, in February 1963,  John Cleese walked into my life and, although I didn’t know it at the time, my life changed.  Not immediately, but  irrevocably.

Even odder was that I was performing his material when he first saw me. I had no idea who he was, or that, at 23, he was a senior member of The Footlights, for I was just a 19 year old freshman at Cambridge University and I had been chosen at the start of my second term to be in the Pembroke “Smoker.”  A Smoking Concert is a College revue,  in this case held annually in the Old Hall, and the only reason that John wasn’t on stage was that though he wined and dined in Pembroke nightly and everyone assumed he was at Pembroke, he wasn’t actually a member of the College.  Pembroke had a great comedy tradition and it was not long since the great Peter Cook had reduced everyone to giggling heaps.

So, February 1963.  This is even pre- Beatles!  They are still getting hammered in Hamburg and we have never heard of them.  Indeed we are only into “cool” jazz, Miles Davis, John Coltrane that sort of groove.  Imagine, then, a not particularly large room, an ex-19th Century Library, with gabled windows and leaded glass, packed with tables and candles, undergraduates and their dates dressed to the nines, a lot of wine and a great deal of smoke.   A small raised platform in one corner was the stage and on it performed the cast, led by Tim Brooke-Taylor and Bill Oddie (later to become The Goodies).  There was one very funny girl (Carol), Jonathan Lynn, a pianist and one fresh faced young newcomer:  me.   One of the sketches was an Old Testament Newsreader played by Bill, called BBC BC.

 “Good even.  Here beginneth the first verse of the News.  It has come to pass that the seven elders of the seven tribes have now been abiding in Sodom for seven days and seven nights. There seems little hope of an early settlement.   A spokesman for the Tribes said only a miracle can save us now. The news in brief :Lamentations Four 18-22 and 2 Kings 14  2- 8

And now a look at the weather…

 I played the Biblical Weather Forecaster.

“Good even.  Well it’s been a pretty rough week in the Holy Land hasn’t it? Anyway let’s just take a quick look at the scroll. We’ve got a plague of locusts moving in here from the NW they’re going to be in the Tyre and Sidon area by about lunchtime tomorrow. Scattered outbreaks of fire and brimstone up here in Tarsus and down here in Hebron oh and possibly some mild thunderbolts force two to three in Gath.  Down in the south, well Egypt has had a pretty nasty spell of it recently 17 or 18 days ago it was frogs followed by lice, flies: a murrain on the beasts, and last Tuesday locusts and now moving in from the SSE –  boils. Further outlook for Egypt well two or three days of thick darkness lying over the face of the land – And then death of all the first born.            Sorry about that Egypt.”

I didn’t know it at the time but that part was written by John Cleese for himself and afterwards in the euphoria a very tall man in a thick tweed suit with dark hair and piercing dark eyes was introduced to me by Humphrey Barclay.  He was very kind and complimentary, and indeed encouraging, for both of them urged me to come along and audition for The Footlights at their next Smoker.  I had never heard of The Footlights, A University Revue Club founded in 1883, but it seemed like a fun thing to do and a month later Jonathan Lynn and I were voted in by the Committee, after having faced the ordeal of performing live to a packed crowd of comedy buffs on the slightly more glamorous Footlights stage, in the private Footlights Club, above fishy smelling MacFisheries.   I remember the sketch played surprisingly well, and one strange detail: in the front row, lounging on a sofa laughing rather drunkenly with some Senior Fellows was Kingsley Amis.

I soon adapted to Footlights Club life.  We had our own private bar which opened at ten at night and stayed open as long as we wanted.   (Pubs closed at 10.30)   Lunches were provided inexpensively on the premises and twice a term there were Smoking Concerts where one could try out new material.  I soon learned a very valuable lesson in performing, for one day I picked up a headmaster sketch by John and read it and didn’t find it very amusing.  That night he performed it and killed.  Brought the place to a standstill.  So much is confidence, and how you do it.  That was the most valuable thing about The Footlights: learning the art of writer/performing by watching and doing.  That year’s Annual Revue, which ran for two weeks during May Week at The Arts Theatre, was the funniest thing I had seen since Beyond The Fringe.  It was called A Clump of Plinths, a very Cleese kind of title, and John stood out head and shoulders amongst a great cast.  The thing was that, unlike the others, he never ever let on that he was being funny.  He was always deadly serious, the deadest of deadpans.  I watched in amazement and sheer joy.   The show toured the UK and then was picked up by Michael White and put into the West End under the title Cambridge Circus.   (How could I possibly imagine Spamalot would open at the same theater 44 years later?)  By then the gangly pipe-smoking Graham Chapman had joined the cast and they would take the same show to Broadway, and then run off Broadway for several months.

This gave me my big break, for they were supposed to go to the Edinburgh Festival in mid-August and urgently needed a replacement cast. Humphrey Barclay sent me a telegram which, amazingly, found me hitch-hiking around Germany.  I was requested to report immediately to Cambridge for rehearsals.  We took that same material to Edinburgh under the title Footlights ’63 and were a smash hit, attracting rave reviews from the top London critics.  “They attract admiration as effortlessly as the sun attracts the flowers” (Harold Hobson, Sunday Times.)  Amazing how you never forget those first reviews!  By then we were living in a cold-water walk-up flat six stories up and girls were beginning to play songs by something called The Beatles…..

At that same Festival we checked out the Oxford Revue (our rivals) and there I first met the lovely, funny, Terry Jones.   A year later at the same venue I met the unforgettable Michael Palin.  Albeit unknowingly by September 1964 all the future Pythons (save for the wild card American animator) had met and admired each other.

A couple of years later we were all writing professionally for The Frost Report, a very funny live TV show in which John starred.   And the rest is history.  Well social history.   Well comedy history.  Which may very well not actually be history at all but which changed the face of my life.

And now we’re still here, and it’s amazing to look back and think about it all.   So thank you John, for all the laughs, all the funny material, all the support and great lessons in comedy which you generously gave to all of us who had the pleasure of performing with you.

You were always the funniest, and always the most serious.  I am eternally grateful for the trip.

Happy Anniversary.




February 2013




By , February 18, 2013 11:11 am

There was a young man in his prime

Rich and fair

Rich and fair with golden hair

The fairest Prince in all the land

And all the ladies sought his hand

For they all saw

That no one wore his clothes so well

And all could tell

That he danced well

And rode his horse

And he was very rich of course

And handsome as the day is long

And Ta ra la he sang his song

And played his lyre

While girls conspire to be his bride


For he was very rich and fair

With golden hair

And one fine day

In the month of May

This rich young man in all his pride

With his best friend by his side

Fell off his horse

And died.