I mentioned that to my friend Matt and his girlfriend Sarah not long ago, and they both looked at me like I had cottage cheese for brains. I've enjoyed comedy all my life, and in fact have written plenty of it in my days. I came to the realization that cheese was inherently funny back in my early 20's (that would have been in the late 1980's or early 1990's.) It's hard to pin down the exact moment that I realized cheese was so funny, but I will try…
Back in that era I watched an infomercial selling some sort of street-skates (rollerblades I think), at about 1 in the morning, that went on for about a half hour. They went through a number of different semi-humorous segments to sell their product, but the last segment is the one I still remember today. The premise of that segment was a bunch of executives sitting around trying to decide how to sell this great skate, intercut with examples of the proposed advertising ploys. First they talk about “fun” and then you see a guy having a blast with his skates. Then they talk about “cool” and then you see some trendy kids on the skates. Cut back to the board room and somebody mentions that nothing sells like sex. After that you are treated to images of a blue-eyed blonde hottie in a black bikini, curled around a single skate and looking coyly at the camera as it swings back and forth, zooms in and out, with peppy disco music playing. Then they tried violence, soldiers in skates under fire. Then sex and violence, back to the bikini-clad blonde wrapped around the boot, except this time she has an assault rifle (same disco music playing). Up to this moment it had been mildly amusing. Then one the executives points off camera and says “Bill suggested cheese. Everyone likes cheese.” Now we are treated to the boot sitting on wedges and wheels of cheese with shredded cheese sprinkling over it with the same disco music and wild camera gyrations. This is where I started chuckling… it *had* been funny before, but this bizarre turn was ridiculous. Cut back to the executives and they're in a quandary. They liked the cheese, but they *really* liked the sex. One looks off camera and says “What's that? Oh good idea Bill, why not sex AND cheese?” Cut back to the gorgeous blonde woman in the bikini, laying on wedges and wheels of cheese, curled around the skate and trying not to laugh as someone dumps shredded cheese all over her while the camera bounces around to the disco music. At this point I was laughing out loud. Cut back to the boardroom and all the executives are convinced they have a winner and someone turns off camera and says “What do you think, Bill?” Cut to Bill, revealing that he is a man dressed as a giant mouse. He gives a thumbs up. End of segment.
Sure it was silly, and perhaps even cheesy, but it was still funny. Being the analytical sort, after I shut off the TV I sat up for awhile and wondered exactly why it had become hilarious when the cheese showed up. That was probably my first inkling that cheese was funny.
Over the years since then I have paid special note to the use of cheese in comedy and observed its effect. 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.
What is inherent funniness? Before I explain that, I've got to point out inherent funniness is denied by people who like to imagine that they are purely logical beings, reasonable in every respect. Humans are irrational by nature, and even the most rational person has neuroses and occasionally does something irrational. It is part of the human condition. Perhaps one of my favorite quotes from Shakespeare is “Man is a giddy thing”, as it accurately sums up how humans are simultaneously reasonable and wacky. So, in order to recognize inherent funniness, you'll first need to drop your pretenses and admit (at least to yourself) that you are just as crazy as the rest of us. If you can't drop your pretenses, then ask yourself what a “stupid person” would say with respect to the points and questions raised in this article, and then you'll be able to follow along.
In the realm of humor, some things in and of themselves, are funnier than others. For example, which is funnier: knees or elbows? Elbows are funny. Sorry, but they just are. They're funnier than ankles, knees, shoulders, wrists, knuckles, fingers, or even whole arms and legs. Bellybuttons are funnier than elbows, and nipples are funnier than bellybuttons. Feet are funnier than hands. Toes are funnier than fingers. Lips are funnier than teeth.
Being bald is funnier than having long hair. Being fat is funnier than being thin. Being short is funnier than being tall. Danny DeVito is funnier than Arnold Schwarzenegger. Being old is funnier than being young (cute is cute, not funny). George Burns is funny. Being stupid is funnier than being smart. Jim Carey is funny (sometimes).
Amphibians are funnier than reptiles (except maybe turtles). Antelopes are funnier than tigers or lions. Rodents are funnier than bears. Pelagic birds (seabirds) are funnier than land birds. (Albatross! Albatross!) Puffins and boobies are funnier than turkies. Turkeys are funny. Penguins are probably the funniest birds of all. Pigeons are pretty funny. Ptarmigans, robins, sparrows and wrens are not funny. Nuthatches are funny. Chickens are funny. Herons are not. Woodpeckers are funny.
Socks are funnier than shoes (and shoes are basically not funny). Pants are funnier than shirts, and shorts are funnier than pants. Underwear is funnier than pretty much any other article of clothing, and underpants/panties are funnier than undershirts/bras (for the record bras are funnier than undershirts).
Oranges are not funny, but grapefruits are. Beets are not funny, but turnips are. Kumquats are funny. Artichoke is sort of funny. Pineapples are funny. Coconuts are funnier than kumquats and pineapples. “I've Got A Lovely Bunch of Coconuts” wouldn't be nearly as amusing if it were “I've Got a Lovely Bunch of Oranges”. Bananas are funny. Peppers aren't. Most nuts are funny. Cake and ice cream are funny. Pies are funnier. Bread is not funny. Crackers are a little funny. Cheese is funny.
Don't Take My Word For It…
The great comedian Mel Brooks in an interview with Carl Reiner once noted “Words with K are funny. Cheese is funny. Cottage cheese is not funny.” Here are some other people that think cheese is funny:
- The Truth About Cheese
- The Russia Journal — The Cheese Experience
- Cheese and American Society
- Howie's Halfpipe — YESTERDAY ON THE TRAIN ON
- Comedy/Novelty Artists A-Z: Richard Cheese
- The Cheese Brothers — Comedy Juggling Duo
- Cheese Becoming Pretty Popular (View Askew Discussion Forum)
- The Swedish Cheese (RaiRai's Site)
- Here's a CD called “Cheeses of Nazareth“.
Here's a guy listing among his pet peeves “people who still think cheese is funny”. This implies that it must be a widespread enough belief that it's become annoying to him.
Now for a little comparative analysis. Try searching google for “feet are funny” and “hands are funny”. The feet search returns twice as many hits as the hands search, about 140 to 70. See? Feet are funnier than hands.
I rest my case. You may personally deny that cheese is inherently funny, but you're outnumbered by about 1300 to 50 (that's 26 to 1 or a 3.8% minority.)
From Cultured Cheese to a Cheesed Culture…
Dictionary.com defines cheese as “A solid food prepared from the pressed curd of milk, often seasoned and aged.” Cheesemaking is thought to have begun in approximately 8000 BC in the Middle East when humanity began domesticating animals that produced milk. There's a good article on CheeseNet.info (The Cheese Library — History of Cheese) which recalls an interesting legend about the birth of cheese:
A legendary story has it that cheese was 'discovered' by an unknown Arab nomad. He is said to have filled a saddlebag with milk to sustain him on a journey across the desert by horse. After several hours riding he stopped to quench his thirst, only to find that the milk had separated into a pale watery liquid and solid white lumps. Because the saddlebag, which was made from the stomach of a young animal, contained a coagulating enzyme known as rennin, the milk had been effectively separated into curds and whey by the combination of the rennin, the hot sun and the galloping motions of the horse. The nomad, unconcerned with technical details, found the whey drinkable and the curds edible…
The bible mentions cheese, and in fact (with all due respect to Monty Python) there really was a place in ancient Israel referred to as “the valley of the cheesemakers”. From The History of Cheese by lgol27:
From Biblical sources we learn that when David escaped across the River Jordan he was fed with 'cheese of kine' (cows) (2 Samuel 17:29), and it is said that he presented ten cheeses to the captain of the army drawn up to do battle with Saul (1 Samuel 17:18). Indeed, records show that there was at one time a location near Jerusalem called 'The Valley of the Cheesemakers'.
Just in case you doubt such a valley ever existed here's a separate source:
…In ancient times a deep valley, the Tyropean Valley, or Valley of the Cheesemakers, separated Mt. Zion from Mt. Moriah…
In ancient Rome milk curd was placed in molds with holes in them to drain out the whey. In Latin these containers were called “forma” which is thought to be the root of “fromage” the French word for cheese. Homer wrote of Polyphemous, a cheesemaker and shepherd, who matured pieces of cheese in a cave.
Today there are hundreds of varieties of cheese (British, French, and Other Varieties). In short, cheese has been with us for 10,000 years, and in that time our culture has been suffused with it. Probably the oldest modern idiom involving cheese is “cheesy” meaning “shabby or shoddy” which dates back to at least 1896. “Cut the cheese” originates in the 1950's according to Cassell's Dictionary of Slang. Presumably the origin of that comes from the strong odor released when one cuts a fresh slice from a piece of stinky cheese, such as Limburger. Don't forget “the big cheese” (the person in charge), “cheese it” (meaning “stop it”), “cheesecake” (meaning “naked skin”), and one of my favorites “cheesed off” (meaning “upset”). Anything full of holes is invariably compared to swiss cheese.
Cheese figures highly in the culture of Wisconsin, USA which is famous for American cheese, and for raving Greenbay Packer fans, who sometimes refer to themselves as “cheeseheads“.
In modern entertainment cheese appears in a humorous context with startling regularity:
- The Simpsons — where the french are decried as “cheese-eating surrender monkeys”
- Mouse Hunt — predictably, this movie is full of cheese references and great cheese one-liners. One of my faves is “Get me my Gouda.”
- Predator — the soldiers construct a net trap in an attempt to trap the alien, but one, Dillon, thinks the idea is silly. When the alien doesn't appear after hours of waiting, Dillon turns to the team leader, Dutch, and says “Whaddya gonna try next? Cheese?”
- Let It Ride — “I am really cheesed off about that jockey falling off that damn horse, Sid!”
- The Odd Couple — “You want… uh… brown sandwiches… or green sandwiches?”
“What's the green?”
“It's either very new cheese or very old meat.”
- The 1942 Production of “To Be or Not to Be” — “They named a brandy after Napoleon, they made a herring out of Bismarck, and the Fuhrer is going to end up as a piece of cheese!”
- Ed Roonie in “Ferris Bueller's Day Off” — “I did not achieve this position in life by having some snot-nosed punk leave my cheese out in the wind.”
- Wallace and Gromit — nuff said.
Then of course there is Monty Python with their infamous Cheese Shop Sketch, the immortal line “Blessed are the cheesemakers?” from the Life of Brian, and of course the somewhat lesser known “Mouse Problem” sketch:
(Sketch starts with a policeman leading a man in mouse costume into a police station. Photo of headline: Mouse Clubs On Increase. Cut to: photos of neon signs of clubs: Eek Eek Club; The Little White Rodent Room; Caerphilly A Go-Go. Cut to studio: ordinary grey-suited Linkman.)
Linkman (Michael Palin): Yes. The Mouse Problem. This week 'The World Around Us' looks at the growing social phenomenon of Mice and Men. What makes a man want to be a mouse.
(Interviewer, Harold Voice, sitting facing a confessor. The confessor is badly lit and is turned away from camera.)
Confessor (John Cleese): (very slowly and painfully) Well it's not a question of wanting to be a mouse… it just sort of happens to you. All of a sudden you realize… that's what you want to be.
Interviewer (Terry Jones): And when did you first notice these… shall we say… tendencies?
Confessor: Well… I was about seventeen and some mates and me went to a party, and, er… we had quite a lot to drink… and then some of the fellows there … started handing … cheese around … and well just out of curiosity I tried a bit … and well that was that.
Interviewer: And what else did these fellows do?
Confessor: Well some of them started dressing up as mice a bit … and then when they'd got the costumes on they started … squeaking.
Interviewer: Yes. And was that all?
Confessor: That was all.
Interviewer: And what was your reaction to this?
Confessor: Well I was shocked. But, er… gradually I came to feel that I was more at ease … with other mice…
Just Add Cheese…
In the mid 90's, for fun, I wrote a random insult-generator in a Macintosh programming environment called “HyperCard“. It recognized several basic insult structures and would then build insults randomly out of lists of carefully selected clauses. It had hundreds of such clauses and could literally generate millions of unique insults, such as “Sniff my pits you diseased glob of maggoty whale barf swimming in a sea of pus.” or “Your grandmother smells of day-old cheese”.
It was in studying the output of this program that I became assured that cheese was funny, because the funniest insults seemed to be the ones that mentioned cheese (such as “squeeze my cheese you festering ape turd”). The more cheese I sprinkled into the word lists, the funnier the insults got, until I reached the “cheese event horizon” and the program began spitting out expressions such as “Cheese you, you cheese-eating pile of cheesy cheeseballs.”
It was then that I realized adding cheese to just about anything made it funnier. Cheeselog is funnier than log. Cheeseball is funnier than ball. Cheesedick is funnier than dick. Just add cheese.
It was at that time that I began to incorporate cheese into humor that I would write from time to time. I had one particular character who would make rather peculiar exclamations when shocked or upset, of which one of my faves has always been “Sweet Jesus Cheesemonkey!” The assonant nature of the words in this expression probably accentuate its humor, and I'm not the only one who thinks assonant cheese expressions are funny.
Cheese Be With You…
I've written all I can on the subject at this point, cheese is fricking funny and that's all there is to it. The gods of humor have seen fit to bless cheese with hilarity. Matt, Sarah, question me no more on this subject. I give you cheese, my cheese I give to you. The mass is ended, go in cheese.
This concludes my cheeseblog. (Heh, cheeseblog… that's funny… hee hee hee)
Other sources used in this article:
- History of cheese — RichesMonts.com
- Cheese.com – Cheeses, Cheese Making and Cheese Supplies and Cheeses Accessories <– if these guys don't have it, it doesn't exist
- Cheesehead Trivia by Team Cheesehead
- Wayne Magnuson: English Idioms — Index C
- www.gourmed.gr: The history of cheese – Mediterranean diet
- www.godecookery.com — A Brief History of Cheese
- Fact-Index.com — Cheese
- Useless Movie Quotes
- The Cinema of Ernst Lubitsch: Movie Quotes
- kiss.si: Monty Python — The Mouse Problem