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From John Le Carre's Smiley's People:

“The best I ever met,” old Mendel, the Superintendent’s onetime superior, had told him over a friendly pint not long ago. Mendel was retired now, like Smiley. But Mendel knew what he was talking about and didn’t like Funnies any better than the Superintendent did—interfering la-di-da amateurs most of them, and devious with it.

What does "Funnies" here refer to? Does that mean "the series of drawings in a newspaper that tell a humorous story" (from Cambridge dictionary) I doubt that. Or does it mean some TV program or a specific group of people?

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From context, where a policeman is thinking about an intelligence agent, it seems that in le Carré's manufactured argot, "funnies" means "spies." Some confirmation can be found in an article by one Jack Forster:

there was another fictional super-spy — if you can call him that — who is part of stories which, to a prematurely cynical adolescent, acted as confirmation that, indeed, the world is at best a shabby place in which heroes with feet of clay tilt pointlessly at each other in a shadow-realm of ethical uncertainty and moral decay. I speak, of course, of none other than Mr. George Smiley, OBE, one of the "funnies" as honest policeman call them, onetime head of the organization known informally as MI6, officially as the Secret Intelligence Service.

Forster, Jack. "Just Because: What Watch would be Worn by George Smiley, the Anti-James Bond? Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Timex?" 20 October 2020. Accessed at hodinkee.com, 1 April 2024.

The passage quoted in the question contains the only occurrence of the word "funnies" in Smiley's People. Further, this usage is idiolectal. The term "funnies" for "spies" is not in circulation outside of le Carré's novels. I'm not aware of its being used with this meaning in any of his other novels either. So this particular instance of "funnies" meaning "intelligence agents" might be unique in the English language corpus.

Le Carré was known to make up plausible slang, because using the real slang used by spies would have put him afoul of his employers. An entry at Merriam-Webster's Wordplay blog explains:

Because John le Carré was working as a low-level British spy in Germany when he submitted his first novels in the early 1960s, his books had to be approved by government censors (and he had to use a pseudonym) in order to demonstrate that he was not revealing details about the British secret service, its operations, or its personnel.

Because of this, he invented many of the colorful specifics of his fiction. He never anticipated the level of success that his books attained, and his vocabulary for spying was widely believed to be the real thing; he later said that, while he invented or popularized this terminology, it seemed real not because it was authentic, but because it was credible.

Considering that sales for The Spy Who Came in From the Cold were astonishingly high—twelve to fifteen million copies sold before the celebrated film was released—it seems that the terms he used for the world that he described so well would catch on and be used by others. At the very least, they would become recognized by those who read his books and saw their adaptations on TV and in movies.

These terms are not yet entered in our dictionaries. Some are probably too specialized and idiosyncratic to his works to become part of the general vocabulary, but some of them are widely used.

Words from the Clandestine World of John le Carré: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Dictionary. Accessed at Merriam-Webster, 1 April 2024.

It appears, then, that "funnies" is being used here as made-up slang to mean "spies."

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    I presume the context here is that, in the view of a normal policeman, that members of the intelligence services are somehow 'irregular' - they operate differently to the normal methods of policing. 'Funnies' is another way of saying 'those who are irregular' ('funny' in the sense of 'strange or odd'). While le Carré may have invented that term, there was presumably some alternative slang the police did indeed use to refer to the intelligence services. (I have heard locals refer to GCHQ as the 'funny farm' but don't know the etymology) Commented Apr 1 at 20:32
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    Thanks @user1908704, that's useful context to know that GHCQ is called the "funny farm." It's actually worth an answer in itself; were you planning to write one? I hope you are, but if not, would you mind if I edited mine to include it?
    – verbose
    Commented Apr 1 at 21:27
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    Also, while not specifically about spies, "funny" is also commonly used in the context of "suspicious" (by extension from "strange" / "odd"), which certainly fits here. Commented Apr 1 at 22:04
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Adding to @verbose's answer, I presume the context here is that, in the view of a normal policeman, that members of the intelligence services are somehow 'irregular' - they operate differently to the normal methods of policing. 'Funnies' is another way of saying 'those who are irregular' ('funny' in the sense of 'strange or odd'). While le Carré may have invented that term, there was presumably some alternative slang the police did indeed use to refer to the intelligence services.

I have heard someone from near Cheltenham refer to GCHQ as the 'funny farm' (~15 years ago) but don't know the etymology - it is quite possible that is something derived from le Carré's choice of the term rather than something pre-existing.

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    Funny farm is slang for a psychiatric hospital, so its use by locals for GCHQ is probably simple transference
    – AakashM
    Commented Apr 2 at 12:29

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