Humor in Fencing?
By Nick Evangelista
There isn’t a great deal of humor to be found in fencing. I suppose in an activity originally dedicated to pain, mutilation, and death, one should not be expecting many elements of high comedy.
For instance, the first response to this fencing illustration from Ridolfo Capo Ferro’s 17th century fencing manual would not normally be hysterical guffaws. Hopefully. Maybe if we gave it a caption like: “Renaissance science experiment to create Q-Tips goes bad!" Maybe?
Jumping ahead a handful of centuries, we do find some excellent moments of sword fighting humor in movies. Excellent examples are:
· The Court Jester (1956). Mistaken identities, swordplay, and hypnotism. How to turn someone into a wonderful swordsman? Here’s the magic words: “Tails of lizards, ears of swine, chicken gizzards soaked in brine, on your feet, be not afraid, you’re the greatest with a blade!” Not exactly Shakespeare, but certainly quicker and cheaper than twenty years of fencing lessons.
· Start the Revolution without Me (1970). Two sets of mismatched twins: one, effete and cruel; the other stupid and cowardly. A take-off on everything Alexandre Dumas ever wrote, or thought of writing, or worried he might accidentally write.
· Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975). Irreverent send-up of the King Arthur legends. The sword fights are silly, as is most of the film. But Monty Python carried it off with ease. A classic. Best known line: “It’s only a flesh wound.” The first time I saw the movie in the theatre, I had no idea what was going on.
· The Princess Bride (1987). A dread pirate, assassins, a six-fingered man, a princess bride, and true love. A memorable sword fight, plus the observation, “I’m not really left-handed.”
If this paragraph makes no sense, just watch the movies, and laugh.
By and large, though, modern fencing humor is relatively lame, and generally revolves around the words, “point,” “touching,” and “thrust,” the phrase, “foiled again,” the idea that the pen or sword is mightier than the other thing, and spaghetti strainers being employed as fencing masks. There is also a prevalent misconception in the fencing world that confusing constructed fences with the sport of fencing is funny.
Actually, this latter example of wordplay, for all its lack of wit, has been known to bleed over into real life—at least into my life. When I was living in the rural Ozark Mountains, an older woman, by the sound of her voice, once called me on the phone, and asked me what kind of fences I built. She needed a fence up fairly quickly, as she had just purchased a dozen goats. My ad in the Yellow Pages said, “Evangelista School of Fencing.” I suppose she was confused because my listing was located right between “Fence Posts” and “Fertilizers.” I explained politely that I didn’t build fences, nor did I teach people to build them. She seemed irritated at this, as though I was purposefully withholding much needed skills from her. I pushed on. “I teach fencing, you know, sword fighting, like the Three Musketeers and Errol Flynn.” There was a very, very, very long moment of silence. “Earl who?” she finally asked. Earl who, a good question. After she hung up, I was pretty sure she still harbored the suspicion that I was a lazy good-for-nothing whose main goal in life was depriving honest country folk of much needed chain link, barbed wire, and picket enclosures. If I had built her a fence, I’d have been stealing her money.
I still occasionally get calls like that today in the city. Generally the fences that need to be fixed are wrought iron.
Drawn from the Scabbard
I must also confess to brief spates of cartooning in which I sometimes evoke swordsy concepts. This one was used in a French book, De l‘Epee a la Scene (2005), by Robert Heddle-Roboth and Daniel Marciano. Study it carefully. It is conceptual humor. I think it is funny. Apparently, the French did, too. And it has nothing to do with the words, “point,” “touching,” or “thrust.” I am very proud of my self-control. I would hate to be accused of taking advantage of the French.
Aside from the above, one of my very favorite moments of fencing humor comes from the following cartoon. Written and drawn by an actual fencing person in Texas, Phillip Johnson (who I have never met or talked to or anything), I find much amusement in the fact that the “thrust” of the cartoon revolves around me!!!!!!
Well, I think it's funny!