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In the Xenophobe's guide to the English, page 54, under the heading Sense of Humour, the authors, Antony Miall and David Milsted, state that:

English humour is as much about recognition as it is about their ability to laugh at themselves, for example: 'I thought my mother was a rotten cook, but at least her gravy used to move about a bit.'

I am not certain I get the joke. Does 'move about' have two 'opposite' meanings on which the joke plays?

Googling the joke, I got a reference to another book, Smoking in Bed: Conversations with Bruce Robinson, which reads:

Growing up through the radio age you had Ray Galton and Alan Simpson's brilliant dialogues for Tony Hancock. Lines like 'I thought my mother was a rotten cook, but at least her gravy used to move about' are indelible in my mind.

  • As a British native I'm not certain I get the joke either. "move about" would mean that it is alive, as it is able to move; this would clearly be a bad thing. But I can't see any alternative meaning that would make it a pun. – AndyT May 2 '17 at 13:11
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    The style of joke is formulaic relying on comparison; you thought some other thing was bad , but at least it isn't [bad the way this thing is]. By comparison other bad things seem less bad. The quoted joke has been removed from context, but the formula tells us that the speaker's mother is being contrasted with some other, previously referred to person, probably also mother, whose cooking is execrable. So there isn't any particular joke about the gravy, other than speakers, mother makes bad gravy, but at least it's runny. 'Moves about' just meaning 'is not completely solid. – Spagirl May 2 '17 at 13:14
  • @Spagirl: you are perfectly right, a careless mistake on my part! Sorry! I will edit the post right away. – user58319 May 2 '17 at 15:17
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The style of joke is formulaic, relying on comparison; you thought some other thing was bad , but at least it isn't [bad in the way this thing is]. By comparison, other bad things seem less bad.

The quoted joke has been removed from context, but the formula tells us that the speaker's mother is being contrasted with some other, previously referred to person, whose cooking is execrable.

The quote in question, although no reference has carried forward into your snippet, comes from a Radio, and later TV, sit-com called 'Hancock's Half Hour', in this instance Series 5, Episode 14.

The surrounding lines are

TONY: Your dinner wasn't worth getting up for, I'll tell you that for a start.

HATTIE: I don't know, I ate all mine.

TONY:That's neither here nor there, you also ate Bill's, Sid's and mine. I thought my mother was a bad cook, but at least her gravy used to move about. Yours just sort of lies there and sets.

Part of the joke here also relies on the audience's foreknowledge of the characters and actors who play them. Hattie is played by Hattie Jacques, a a comedy actress, large by standards of the day.

So there isn't any particular joke about the gravy, other than speaker's mother makes bad gravy, but at least it's runny. 'Moves about' just meaning 'is not completely solid, as Hattie's becomes on the plate.

I might take issue with the idea that this is 'about their ability to laugh at themselves,' Tony is clearly laughing both at his mother and the unfortunate Hattie.

  • What I had in mind was – I must admit – extremely far-fetched: I assumed there was a pun based on 'move about' meaning either 'go places, like a jet-setter, like a famous person' or 'move in your stomach, cause flatulence'! So the joke would be something like: 'My mother was a bad cook, but at least her gravy was famous for making you fart powerfully.' – user58319 May 2 '17 at 14:45
  • What does 'set' mean here? Did Tony's mother make gravy which, contrary to Hattie's, 'did not set', which 'gave you a runny stomach', which would go along the same line as what I assumed in the comment above! – user58319 May 2 '17 at 14:53
  • 'Set' here means 'congeal'. I really don't think there is any deeper level of meaning to be excavated, Tony was just being habitually withering about Hattie's abilities. Food was rationed to various extents in the UK from 1940 to 1954, only 4 years before this script was recorded. So the whole has to be read against a background of 14 years of people having to joke about food because it was so poor and scarce. It didn't matter if food was horrible, or burnt, or the gravy didn't run. You couldn't afford to waste it. – Spagirl May 2 '17 at 15:01
  • I do think picking half a joke out of the 5th series of a sit-com is a bit of a poor way for the authors of Xenophobe's guide to the English to illustrate 'laughing at ourselves', if they don't set the scene to explain how people would have received the joke. – Spagirl May 2 '17 at 15:04
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The quote relies on:

about their ability to laugh at themselves

so that the statement:

I thought my mother was a rotten cook, but at least her gravy used to move about a bit.

is the speaker poking fun at him/her-self, probably referring to the fact that when (s)he makes gravy, it is solid.

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