Irreverent comedy subverts, but it doesn't necessarily hurt. Its best laughter can be derisive, but not cruel.
Seamus Heaney, among many other things, embodied that central principle: his comic sense was gleefully sharp, but it was not mean. I think he disdained cruelty, as well as pomposity. Mischievous, more bite than bark in the sense that it was mordant with minimal rhetoric, Heaney was not genteel. He enjoyed the disrespectful roar of impropriety.
Examples? Here's a story he told me, about an Irish literary eminence who was invited to a dinner party attended by the young William Butler Yeats. In those days the youthful emerging poet Yeats was at his most affected: a cape-wearing aesthete, with a lock of hair falling over his pale brow, and a distracted, ethereal manner.
The eminence was asked, the next morning, “Well, you've met the young Yeats— what did you think of him?”
Seamus, already chortling, delivered the answer at Full Twinkle, and possibly amping the Irish accent a bit:
“Think of him? Think of him, is it? I think he should be put back in and fooked-for again!”
To be put back in and fucked-for again—surreal, and wonderfully clear. As I remember, he repeated the phrase, relishing it two or three times. But maybe the important element in the story, and Seamus's pleasure in it, is the implicit rejection of piety about the great poet ... maybe, as a further implication, about any great poet. From that perspective, the story is satirical not about Yeats so much as it is about Yeats-olatry.
Another memory takes the irreverence further and wider. It may not seem funny in writing (a prosy example of You Had To Be There). One evening, over drinks for five or six people in a living room, someone got the idea of portraying the deaths of great poets as represented by fingers. So, for John Keats the finger vibrates a bit with a series of coughs, then goes flat. For Hart Crane, the right finger rides the rising and falling ship of the left hand for a time, then jumps off, then after a moment it sinks out of view.
Seamus knew which Irish poet had been executed by firing squad, and his fingers portrayed that awful event. Someone did Shelley drowning in the storm. Poe and Dylan Thomas both wheeled and reeled until the index finger representing each of them collapsed. Someone did Lorca. Someone else mimed how Marlowe, portrayed as a right-hand finger, was stabbed, after a struggle, by his left-hand opponent. Yes, I confess that Plath putting her head into the oven, too, was portrayed. The variety of the deaths, and how many of them that group of inebriated people could remember. Berryman waved from his bridge.
I hope that our silly game was a form of tribute.
Other nights, it was the straight-ahead, classic joke, with the buildup and punch line: a folk-form that in my experience is mastered mainly by Jews, American Southerners, and the Irish. The test is not merely skill in the telling but the size of the teller's repertoire. A real joke teller can reach for hundreds, and disperse them over sociable hours, arranging them by associative categories and topics: the doctor's office, the farm, the hotel, and of course the bar.
I will not recount a joke here: the form, like lyric poetry—more so—is essentially vocal. And the kind of joke expertise I mean, as well as vocal, is also social. Beyond the texture of timing within the fabric of each joke there is structural timing: a social sense that governs the overall constellation, the movement from teller to teller and from joke to the next joke. (The next “story” as the novelist William Kennedy, another maestro, would say.) You need a sense of when to tell which joke when, in which version, in which company.
In other words, the good joke teller has a sense of occasion. And I have never known anyone with a finer sense of occasion than Seamus Heaney.
Not that he was a perfect joke teller. Dialect, for instance, was not his métier, so like a true devotee of the form he exploited his incompetence for laughs. A particular joke I like, set in hell, requires an Italian accent and a German one for two essential characters. When Seamus tried to tell the joke, both characters sounded kind of Japanese, as someone pointed out, much to Seamus's amusement. Among his blessed traits was an ability to laugh, with wholehearted pleasure, at himself.