History of a Joke

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Cliché, Episode 2
(TX: 23rd March 1981, Radio 4)

Out of tune bleeps and bloops, like Wendy Carlos on an off-day.

PRESENTER: The final cadences of the last symphony of the Spanish composer Don Dimitri, who died early this morning at the age of 86. Cliché now pays its own special tribute to Don Dimitri – one of the true musical innovators of this century. Don Dimitri’s life was characterised by his refusal to accept the conventions and mores of the society in which he lived. In 1926, he went to the Sorbonne to study music. Rapidly, it became apparent he could not reconcile his own ideas with those of the establishment, and after three hours at the university, he left to set up his own school of musical thought. Professor Blakehust takes up the story.

BLAKEHURST: Don Dimitri’s biggest contribution to musical theory was the decative. Instead of the conventional eight note scale the octave, he initiated the ten note scale – the decative. He invented two new notes: H and J. Instead of ‘doh, ray, me, fah, soh, lah, ti, doh’, the decative would run ‘doh, ray, me, fah, soh, woh, boh, lah, ti, doh’. And in reverse: ‘doh, ti, lah, boh, woh, soh, fah, me, ray, doh’.

PRESENTER: And he wrote all his symphonies using this scale?

BLAKEHURST: Indeed. And the instruments in his orchestra had to be adapted accordingly. Pianos were fitted with extra black keys; flutes now came in four sections instead of three; and accordions were scrapped, as the decative made them far too long for human beings to play. Trombones ceased to be a musical instrument, and now became a lethal weapon. And the lengthening of bassoons and saxophones extended the mouthpiece into the region of the lower intestine. Incidentally, in Don Dimitri’s orchestra, women were banned from playing the cello.

PRESENTER: What other significant changes were inspired by the decative?

BLAKEHURST: Time signatures were changed. Instead of 3/4 time it was now 0.75 time. 7/8 time became 0.875 time, and common time – or 4/4 time – was now simply… 1. Don Dimitri’s quartets comprised of five players, and his triangles had two sides – neither of them connected.

PRESENTER: And now, the last note of the last chord of the last cadence is written. At the grand old age of 86, Don Dimitri passed away this morning. Never one to do things in a conventional way, he died in a manner he would probably have appreciated – trying to suck a kazoo instead of blowing it. He inhaled the kazoo, it became lodged in his throat, and he died to the tune of Yankee Doodle Dandy. We leave you now with the strains of what is universally acknowledged as his masterwork: quintet for seven instruments in H minor. The only work he ever wrote in 0.333 recurring time, a time signature which never actually allows you to reach the end of the first bar. Hence it’s popular title: Dom Dimitri’s Unfinished Symph. Goodnight.

A warped version of I Do Like To be Beside the Seaside plays, with the expected accompanying bleeps and bloops.

Son of Cliché, Series 2, Episode 7
(TX: 15th December 1984, Radio 4)

PRESENTER: Hello. Tonight on Profile, we’ll be looking at the story of Sir Kevin Kevin Sir: conductor, musician and avant-garde composer. As early as anyone can remember, Sir Kevin Kevin was an anarchist. His first work was written for flugelhorn and man blowing nose. He followed this up with his famous sphincter concerto in E flat minor, which entailed the entire wind section dining exclusively on chilli beans for four days before the performance. It was not well received. But in 1962, he revolutionised music theory when he developed the decative. Instead of the octave, the normal eight note scale, the decative had ten. He invented two new notes: H and J. Instead of going ‘doh, ray, me, fah, soh, lah, ti, doh’, the decative would run ‘doh, ray, me, fah, soh, woh, boh, lah, ti, doh’. Curt Snapper was in charge of making Sir Kevin’s instruments.

CURT SNAPPER: He was bloody barmy. I mean, he was out of his tree. Because of these extra two notes he’d invented, H and J, you couldn’t play it on a normal piano. You had to put in all these extra notes between all the other ones. Then eventually, the piano was so long, the pianist could only play it by driving up and down the keyboard in a golf cart. Flutes came in five sections instead of three, and you had to play it in tandem. One was blowing and one was sucking, because you couldn’t get the breath to the end. And cellos, right, cellos, well, in his orchestra, women were banned from playing the cello. Well, unless they played it sidesaddle.

PRESENTER: But now sadly, Sir Kevin Kevin is no longer with us. Innovator that he was, he died in a way that he would probably have appreciated – trying to suck a kazoo, instead of blowing it. He inhaled the kazoo, it lodged in his throat, he choked to death and played Yankee Doodle Dandy simultaneously. Ta-ra.

Red Dwarf, “Kryten”
(TX: 6th September 1988, BBC2)

RIMMER: It’s because you’re bored, isn’t it? That’s why you’re both annoying me.
HOLLY: I’m not bored. I’ve had a really busy morning. I’ve devised a system to totally revolutionise music.
LISTER: Get out of town!
HOLLY: Yeah, I’ve decimalised it. Instead of the octave, it’s the decative. And I’ve invented two new notes: H and J.
LISTER: Hang on a minute. You can’t just invent new notes.
HOLLY: Well I have. Now it goes: Doh, ray, me, fah, soh, lah, woh, boh, ti, doh. Doh, ti, boh, woh, lah, soh, fah, me, ray, doh.
RIMMER: What are you drivelling about?
HOLLY: Hol Rock. It’ll be a whole new sound. All the instruments will be extra big to incorporate my two new notes. Triangles will have four sides. Piano keyboards the length of zebra crossings. Course, women will have to be banned from playing the cello.
LISTER: Holly: shut up.

Red Dwarf aka Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers, Chapter 15, Page 168
(Released: 2nd November 1989)

     So, until he spotted a star or a planet he recognized, Holly amused himself by devising a system totally to revolutionize music.
     He decided to decimalize it.
     Instead of the octave, it became the decative. He invented two new notes: ‘H’ and ‘J’.
     Holly practised his new scale: ‘Doh, ray, me, fah, soh, lah, woh, boh, ti, doh.’ It sounded good. He tried it in reverse.
     ‘Doh, ti, boh, woh, lah, soh, fah, me, ray, doh.’
     It would be a whole new sound: Hol Rock.
     All the instruments would have to be extra large to incorporate the two new notes. Triangles, with four sides. Piano keyboards the length of zebra crossings. The only drawback, as far as Holly could see, was that women would have to be banned from playing the cello unless they had birthing stirrups, or elected to play it side-saddle.
     This exercise in restructuring the eight-note musical scale helped keep his mind off a number of major perturbations. One of these was that they were running worryingly low of a number of major supplies which had been consumed by Catkind during Lister’s stay in stasis.
     Checking the supply list was a bit like opening a bank statement. Sometimes, when you’re feeling good and things are going well, you can take the news, even though you know it’s going to be hideous. Other times, most of the time, that bank statement can stay unopened for weeks. The ranks of figures lurk inside the missive like warped hobgoblins; evil, deranged, waiting to leap out and suck out your life force. Pandora’s box in an envelope.
     That’s pretty much how Holly felt about the ship’s inventory. The last time he’d mustered enough courage to take a peek, he’d discovered some goose-pimpling shortages. Although they had enough food to last fifty thousand years, they’d completely run out of Shake’n’Vac. They had little fruit, few green vegetables, very little yeast, and only one After Eight mint, which he was sure no one would eat because they’d all be too polite to take it.
     So, to take his mind off the problem, Holly began singing his first decative composition, Quartet for nine players in H sharp minor. He’d just reached the solo for the trombone player with three lungs when the incoming message reached the ship’s scanning system.

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20 Responses to History of a Joke

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  1. I was about to say that in pretty much the same words.

    Partially because Lister saying “you can’t invent new notes” is nonsense as the whole thing only refers to the Western system anyway. There are plenty of cultures that use notes we don’t.

  2. Always seemed a pretty sensible idea to me. Everything in science uses SI units now (well, everything except for date formats) – why shouldn’t it make sense to do the same for art?

  3. Shouldn’t it be H and I.

    I don’t mean like Withnail and a I. Changed it to J cus I isn’t a laugh sounding word and I comes at the end where the punchline of that part should be.

  4. Unfinished Symph

    Lovely.

  5. One important question, one that needs to be answered…where did you get that photo?

  6. G&T Admin

    One important question, one that needs to be answered…where did you get that photo?

    A stock image. Which I actually paid for the rights to use.

    Never say I don’t do anything for you all.

  7. Thinking about it, adapting a joke for a different show is one thing, but rerunning a slightly rewritten sketch a few years later is a bit cheap really, isn’t it? Should we really be surprised at all those reused gags in later Dwarf? We should have seen it coming from the start.

  8. G&T Admin

    The weird thing is that – apart from “Sir Kevin Kevin Sir”, which is one of the best names ever – the Cliche version is vastly superior to the Son of Cliche version I think. In both script and performances.

  9. I’ve always liked the joke – the cello line gets a good reaction from me mainly because of the way it’s delivered by Norm.

  10. G&T Admin

    Three things to, erm, note about this joke:

    1) The word “decimalised” only shows up in the Red Dwarf version – it’s never used in the Cliche/SoC sketches.

    2) The extra two notes come in at a different place in the scale in the Cliche/SoC versions compared to the Red Dwarf versions.

    3) I dislike the “side-saddle” bit in IWCD, as it feels like it’s over-explaining the joke. But that bit actually *first* pops up in the Son of Cliche version, is then dropped for the Dwarf TV series – only to reappear for the novel. Which I find interesting, not least because it indicates they weren’t just going by the Dwarf scripts when writing the novel, but were referring back to other earlier work too…

  11. I just assumed that the difference in the placing of the new notes was, perhaps, just Norman putting them in the wrong place, and the joke in the novels being altered to reflect that.

  12. G&T Admin

    I doubt it, as he’s clearly reading them!

  13. Meh, whatever.

  14. Are there about 5 or 6 more examples of jokes that Grant Naylor have somehow recycled?
    Perhaps none appear as often as this one, though.
    Was there an episode of Wrinklies where they become dogs in a parallel universe?

  15. Thanks clem. That’s a very comprehensive list.
    I assume.

  16. Cliche tends to get overlooked next to Son Of Cliche. I’ve been listening to them both recently, and although Son Of Cliche has the edge, Cliche is exemplary in many ways. I know you guys have done articles about these and Wrinkles, but Cliche really deserves a bit of in-depth analysis. Incidentally, the above joke in it’s original Cliche form is definitely my favourite form of the joke.

  17. G&T Admin

    Cliche tends to get overlooked next to Son Of Cliche. I’ve been listening to them both recently, and although Son Of Cliche has the edge, Cliche is exemplary in many ways. I know you guys have done articles about these and Wrinkles, but Cliche really deserves a bit of in-depth analysis. Incidentally, the above joke in it’s original Cliche form is definitely my favourite form of the joke.

    I agree with every single word of this. And yeah, I only heard the Cliche version for the first time when writing this article, but it’s definitely my favourite too.

    Fairly certain Cliche will be getting some coverage on here soon…

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