Lord Danny Finkelstein on The Humourology Podcast
– Most people are, kind of wryly amusing. And if they’re willing to kind of be vulnerable enough to show their humour, which is part of being vulnerable enough to be, to show their authenticity, then they can be funny.
– Welcome to “The Humourology Podcast” with me, Paul Boross, and my glittering lineup of guests from the worlds of business, politics, sport, and entertainment who are going to share their wisdom and their use of humour with you. Humourology is the study of how humour can dramatically improve your business and your life. Humourology puts the fun in business fundamentals, increases the value of your laughing stock, and puts up punchline back into your bottom line. Please remember to like, subscribe and leave a review wherever you get your podcasts. My guest on this edition of the Humourology Podcast has built a career on being a compassionate, creative, and comedic conservative. As a powerful political point man for prime minister, John Major and party leader, William Hague, he progressed his party using his penchant for punchlines. In 2013, he was made a member of the House of Lords, where he sits as a Conservative. He has served as the former executive editor of “The Times,” and still writes quick-witted, award-winning commentary columns on everything from politics to football. As a prolific journalist, he has been named Political Commentator of the Year on four separate occasions. More recently, he has served as a political pundit and prominent presenter with a reputation as the Lord of Leaving Audiences, Learning and Laughing. Danny Finkelstein, welcome to “The Humourology Podcast.”
– Paul, thank you so much for that introduction. I sound absolutely brilliant, I can’t wait to hear myself.
– Well, you are absolutely brilliant, Danny, and I can’t wait to get on with hearing more about what you’ve got to tell us, because you’ve had such an extraordinary life. I know you’re passionate about trying to help people change their minds and be more flexible, and if you like, see other people’s positions. I heard you once say that you’ve got to make the psychological cost to people of changing their position, easier to pay. Does humour help loosen people’s entrenched positions?
– Yes, it does. ‘Cause liking is actually a large part of agreeing with people, as is a feeling of sort of being, having something in common with other people. But actually to be quite honest, I don’t really think that is the reason why I use humour. You make it sound a very conscious process. I think it’s just sort of genetic a little bit. My mother in particular, was always responding to everything with a joke. And I guess I just inherited that from her.
– It’s very interesting because when I was doing research about you, your mother and your father were refugees, and had very, very difficult lives.
– your mother was in Belsen, your father was an exile in Siberia. Did they talk about how they coped with those situations and was humour part of that coping strategy?
– It really was, I do remember going down to, once Ronald Reagan went to Bitburg, which was a cemetery in Germany as part of a state visit. And it was discovered there was some SS officers buried there and it became a massive political problem for Reagan in the states. And so he decided he was also going to go and visit Belsen. And I remember hearing this on the radio, and I went down the stairs to my mum. She had her back to me. She was washing up and I said, oh mom, I’ve just told him the radio, Ronald Reagan’s going to go to Belsen. And without turning around, she said, “so what, I’ve been.” And that was very typical of her. Her favourite joke was apart from that, Mrs Lincoln, how did you enjoy the theatre? She believed that a sense of proportion was very important. And my father, yeah, my father too. And I’m just researching a book on their lives. And I remembered when I was a child that my father explained about the journey they took to be reunited with his father, he’d been in the gulag, joined the Polish Free Army, it’s a very perilous journey that linked those people, but they had a soldier with them who bribed their way onto the train. And I remember as a kid, he told me that it was a perfume called the Breath of Stalin that they used. And I actually took him seriously, I thought that was true. And it was only when I was, I even may have told this story, as an adult, I think – to great laughs at a big reception once. And it was only when I was researching it that I thought it was obviously vodka, right. And he was just joking. So yes, they did deal with their experiences with humour to some extent, yeah.
– Well, it’s interesting ’cause my father was a Hungarian refugee and at 17 years old, he was in the Second World War, originally, you know your history, but in ’44, the Hungarians changed and supported Hitler and all the Hungarians hated Hitler. So they threw down their weapons and joined the allies. And my father has been in refugee camps, concentration camps, and in ’56, had to upsticks and leave. And he was always of that same mind, that humour was all they couldn’t take away from you, because they took everything else. And so it became a valuable commodity. Do you think, you talked about it being genetic, do you think that everybody who has people who understand the value of it, uses it in their lives?
– You talked about the role that political jokes has played in my life, and it’s a slight embarrassment to me because you like to be thought of as a very sage individual, when you’re called up by the Chancellor of the Exchequer or the Prime Minister’s Office. And they want to know whether you’ve got a joke, it’s slightly deflating, , but seriously, I do. So I think it’s something that you kind of either, that it’s just a way of thinking or it isn’t, but I do think it’s a sort of quite humanising way. Particularly, if you accept that you yourself are a bit ridiculous, it does prevent you I think, from the worst monstrosities of ego, if you kind of understand the human condition as been intrinsically funny.
– So was the young Danny naturally funny? I mean, was he mischievous? What was he like?
– I don’t know whether I’m funny now, and certainly no, actually that’s a very interesting thing, I don’t think so. So I think that the confidence to be humorous, it’s interesting, it’s very person dependent, right? You have to have a degree of confidence to be funny in front of somebody. And when you don’t have that, when someone makes you feel a little bit uncomfortable, you might not so easily make a joke ’cause it could go wrong. And I’m definitely at my funniest when the person doesn’t do that, does put you at your ease, and you feel that you can make a joke, either other people’s expense or even at theirs. And you have to have confidence that they can take that. And not all people can take that equally, but as I’ve grown older, of course you grow in confidence, and so you’re able to be, well, I say funny, I hesitate to ascribe that to myself, but you’re able to attempt to humour with other people.
– Well, and it’s interesting, you talk about that, this symbiotic process of humour and feeling comfortable. But first of all, you have to be the person who, I don’t know, offers the humour olive leaf or something, don’t you, in order to start that process. Do you do any of that consciously or is everything now just unconscious competence?
– No, it’s pretty much unconscious, it’s just the way I am. And I know that I’m sitting in a meeting or at leader conferences at times, I can never resist making some stupid joke about whatever we’re talking about. Sometimes not 100% appropriate. And I’m absolutely certain, you know how people get cancelled for some terrible thing that they do or say, in my case, it will certainly not be some sort of crass opinion, it will be a joke, definitely. Although, I don’t tend to like either crude humour, or it’s very unlikely to be a joke which has like a racial overtone, that would never happen sexist joke or a homophobic joke, that wouldn’t be the case. It’ll just be some sort of stupidly inappropriate thing that I say.
– Well, yeah, but isn’t humour all about finding that, pushing things to the limit a little bit anyway?
– You do have to, you do, yes, it is, yeah, you have to have a sort of, a little bit of an idea for where the edge is, definitely. I just always remember my, it was very typical of my mother’s great sense of humour, her sense of humour, apart from that, Mrs. Lincoln, had you enjoy the theatre? But she also had this kind of idea, that joke I said to you about Belsen, and that was typical. And when my father died, my mother and my father had a great relationship, and my mother was devastated when my father died, but I do remember going, I’d been to see Chelsea versus Norwich. And my father died while I was there. He had been very very ill, it wasn’t that surprising that he died. I came, my mother was at that hospice with my father’s body in the room. I went in and she said one or two words about dad dying. And then she said, what was the score? And the timing of it, and just the situation of her mind at that moment was just exquisite. It was like, just about all right. And also she was the biggest, she was the great mourner of my father’s demise. So it was all right, and that was very typical of her. So she just felt how far you could go with something at that moment, she knew it intuitively.
– It’s a dangerous world to do that. My father died six years ago while I was doing a conference in the south of France. And it was a horrible shock, it was a heart attack. And I was in a little bit of shock. And I went out the next evening just to eat because I was waiting to see how I was going to get back and do that. And a friend of mine did one of the most extraordinary jokes I’d ever had. A woman at the table, very sympathetically said, where were you when it happened? And I said, actually, I found out that I was actually speaking on stage when he died. And my friend, without missing a beat said, that makes two of you.
– That’s a brilliant joke.
– It is a brilliant joke, but the danger in that was extraordinary-
– I could’ve done that, I definitely could have done that. And that’s all about, your friend probably knew you quite well, he knew that you-
– Very well.
– Yeah, he knew that you would think that was funny, judged his moment right. If he did get that wrong, that’s a disaster, that joke, but it’s not a disaster, it’s a brilliant, memorable joke. Oh, I’m very jealous of that, I’d love to have made that joke.
– Well, it was perfect actually. And guess what? I remember it like it was yesterday and it was, strangely, when you have a good relationship and when you get it, it’s strangely appropriate to do something to break that state.
– Of course, of course it is, yeah.
– You were talking about politicians and humour, and you’ve been around so many politicians and humour. I know that you’ve been a member of the Labour Party, you’ve been in the SDP for like nine years, and Conservatives – you know where the jokes going – is there a party that is naturally funnier?
– Oh come on.
– I mean first of all. No, ’cause first of all, although you say I was in the Labour Party, I was 16 years old, and it was sort of short period before I joined the SDP, so I couldn’t really claim a great familiarity with it. No, I don’t think so. I think humour, I mean, look, there are some politicians who are naturally brilliant at telling a joke, using humour. They use humour in meetings and and when you’re with them, it’s funny. And there are some people that kind of aren’t, and I don’t think that’s a party political thing. And I’ve never got this thing, one of the things that used to drive me crazy at university was the Tories used to say, the problem with the people on the left is they don’t have a sense of humour. And that is obviously utterly ridiculous, right? What it meant was that they weren’t willing to put up with crass comments that were sexist or racist, it wasn’t they didn’t have a sense of humour. So I’ve never agreed with that.
– No, but do you think now in the current state of politics, charisma and humour, if we put them together, are essential to win as it were?
– I think that’s always been the case to whichever audience you can appeal to. Until the modern broadcast era, it was who could be charismatic in the House of Commons. And before that, it was who could be charismatic to the King? And now it’s who can be charismatic to a wider audience? Maybe use social media in a creative way. So the medium always changes. And humor’s always had its place. Although obviously it does change, you can read sort of old copies of Punch, and they’re not funny at all. I remember that, “Private Eye” always used to have this joke where they said, if you sent them one of those signs of the times, they sent back to a friend of mine. They sent, dear Mr. X, I won’t name him, dear Mr. X, thank you very much for sending us your sign of the times, as you will probably have appreciated by now, this wasn’t remotely funny. May I suggest that you send it to Punch. But actually when you read, Punch, some of that humour is in fact very funny, but not if you read 100 years old, some of the jokes are just completely bewildering, How on earth anybody could have found them funny, they’re so leaden.
– Well, you say, we were interviewing your old colleague, William Hague, and William was saying that actually Margaret Thatcher wasn’t funny. And you know that it was quite hard to give her a gag, for her to understand even.
– Did he tell you about the Monty Python thing?
– And that is absolutely true. John Whittingdale, John Whittingdale used to, told that story about her and he was devoted to her. So I understand she really didn’t get it. So it’s said about Theresa May that she wasn’t funny. And actually, Theresa, wasn’t great at telling a joke. She once or twice did some really brilliant things when she thanked Jeremy Corbyn for mansplaining her, she delivered that brilliantly. But what she could do was get a joke. If you made the joke to Teresa, she would laugh, right? She wasn’t humourless at all, even though she wasn’t brilliant at telling jokes. So some people could get them, but they can’t tell them.
– Well, that’s very interesting. ‘Cause as part of The Humourology Project, I always say it’s actually being part of the process. And I think being a good audience is as important as being able to tell a joke. So being an easy laugher and being warm and receptive to it-
– Yes it’s true.
– Is also enticing and makes you part of the team. We have friends who aren’t all great gag tellers, but will laugh easily, and are very welcome because all of us who tell gags need an audience, don’t we?
– Yes, absolutely, that’s certainly true, that’s certainly true.
– Tell me a true funny story about something that’s happened to you, Danny.
– You know, that is the worst question that anybody can ask. Did you not find this, when you were asked, when you were asked to give a leaving speech for somebody, and there was one point in my life when I was director of the Conservative Research Group after the 2001 general election, after the 1997 general election. And it was the worst conservative result since 1832. And as you can imagine, I had to do quite a lot of leaving speeches. Some people who were leaving on purpose and some people who, as it were, we left. And you always have to think of something funny to say about this person, right? And what were you going to, even the person who had applied for a job as a researcher for the Labour Party giving me and Julian Shepherd, the conservative education secretary, his references, what were you supposed to say at his leaving dinner? So I always sort of found it, say the funniest thing that ever happened to you. And the worst thing is, funny thing is one thing, right? But when someone says, what’s the funniest thing that ever happened to you? And then you tell the story. And they think that, that is the funniest thing that’s ever happened to you? You’re 58. But at the beginning of speeches, I often thank the audience for inviting me. And I note the fact that I’ve got sort of a reasonable size audience and it’s quite convenient to get there. And I tell them, this is true, that I went once to give a speech in Norwich. And from where I live, it takes something in the region of five hours to get to Norwich University, you have to get to the train station, wait for the train, it takes several hours to get there. And I was giving a speech, right. So I thought, okay, I’ll go. A voluntary speech, I was not being paid or anything, get all the way there, five hours. Open the door and there are literally two people. And one of them is the person that had invited me. And the other person is… I thought what do I do? So I thought I better give him a talk, right. I sort of sit down and I do a kind of slightly embarrassed version of what I was supposed to say anyway. And at the end of it, I said, would you like to join –
– this is what I was there for – would you like to join the Young Social Democrats? And he said, well, I would, but it would interfere with the terms of my parole. That genuinely happened, Then I had to stack all the chairs and go home again, five hours.
– Oh my God, well, that’s wonderful. Is everyone potentially funny? Or, I mean, is it just, no, I can see you already going, no, no.
– Shall I tell you how I found that out. When you work for politicians, not work for them, but kind of work with them and help them with jokes and stuff like that. Sometimes, they can absolutely, brilliantly tell a joke. And sometimes they really, really can’t tell a joke. And if you don’t realise that, you can have a disaster. I’m not going to name the people ’cause it’s not fair to them, I always try to respect their kind of confidences, but I’ve worked for one or two politicians where the jokes come out as a horrendous insult to the person they were engaged with in the Commons, which once or twice was John Prescott. And you just watch between your fingers. And actually one of the worst things that happened to me, during my time of writing, was when I was working for the Conservative Party. And one of the important things is, people have to be willing to laugh with you. And at that point they were laughing at the Conservative Party, not with it. This was before the ’97 general election. They were either laughing at the Conservative Party or they were furious with it, but what they weren’t doing was laughing with it. And we wrote a satire of the Labour manifesto. It was a satire of Labour’s kind of policy document. It was a very ill conceived idea. And I think now that I’m more politically sophisticated years later, I’d realise that that wouldn’t work. But at the time I thought it was amusing. But instead of just issuing it and letting people read it and think, actually this is quite a good satire of their proposals, Brian Mawhinney, the chairman of the Conservative Party, found it so funny, he decided that he and Michael were going to read it out, which involved Michael reading the straight bits and Brian reading the funny bits, right? Well, Brian, God bless him, he has just recently died, and I loved him a lot actually, but he was not the greatest verbal wit, let’s put it that way.. And I sat at the back of the room, and at the end of this conference, Michael White said, chairman, I’m wondering, do you think this is the worst press conference ever given but a political party? And I wished the ground could have swallowed me up. They were all my lines, nobody had laughed at all, obviously. And then I thought I’m going to get a story in tomorrow’s paper, “Britain’s Unfunniest Man,” with a big picture. That was so yeah, the answer to your question, that was a long way of saying absolutely, no way, is it the case that everybody is equally amusing.
– So then why are people so delusional, because I’ve never read anybody or seen anybody or heard anybody say, I don’t have a sense of humour. On their dating profiles, everybody says, good sense of humour, what is it?-
– Nobody would put bad sense of humour, nobody would put bad sense of humour on your dating profile. Well, first of all, people find different things funny, but we’re all delusional in different ways. The cognitive biases we live with are huge, and I know that myself, I was doing a piece last week, which was all about how people’s political motivations are fundamentally about self-interest and economic. We just often can’t work it out for ourselves. And while I was kind of thinking about it, I thought to myself, you know what, my politics, I’m a social liberal and a relative economic liberal. And I thought, basically as a Jew, living in UK with a master’s degree, working at a top rate tax paying job, I’m actually a cliche. And a lot of the time you don’t, but you don’t realise that about yourself, you think all of your political views have nothing to do with your demographic qualities. So we all fool ourselves a lot of the time, you’d never be able to live if you didn’t. So I can’t blame people for thinking they’re funny and not being.
– So that cognitive bias do you think is what drives everybody? Because we have to be delusional, otherwise we’ll be suicidal.
– By the way, the other thing occurs, which is some people, you know, I said to you, the most embarrassing thing is thinking that you’re funny, the most embarrassing thing is being asked to think of a funny story. So sometimes I’d appear, this is probably one of those occasions. People tuning in the expectation of humour that is not then an expectation that is realised, let’s put it that way. And I’d do The News Quiz occasionally. And when I do that, I always think, oh my God, I’m supposed to be funny on this. And the worst thing at the end, usually I’m quite fortunate that you get some people who say that was funny, some people, and I’m not sure whether this is an insult or not, when they say it was unexpectedly funny, but then there’s always those people who say, I didn’t expect him to be funny, and he wasn’t. And those are the ones that you think, yeah, I knew it all along, you kind of know. So if you didn’t engage in a degree of self-delusion, you’d never live, would you?
– Well, you’d never do anything either, would you? You’d really you’ve never come out of your comfort zone. It’s interesting, we had Rick Wilson from The Lincoln Project in America on the programme, and he was saying, and I think this is good advice for anybody who has to go and talk on something. Is when he went to do Bill Maher’s show, the producer came up to him and said, you didn’t write any jokes, did you? And he went, of course not, I’m not a comedian. He goes, great because some people come on here and think they have to write a joke. Really, the whole point of it is that you actually just relax and be yourself, and if you’re going to be funny, it will come out. And I think that’s the hardest thing is you can’t, you know when you have to, when people write a joke in a speech and you’ve done thousands of them, and you deliver the comedy line and then it dies on its arse. And then you have to say, “But seriously”.
– That’s completely correct. And sometimes you tell it, you write a comedy line and it works brilliantly, and sometimes the same principle will produce a joke and it won’t work at all, it’s context dependent a lot of the time.
– And so, I mean, really for our listeners, it’s about listening to the audience and being in the moment, isn’t it? I mean, because The News Quiz-
– I thin a lot of jokes that are delivered by other people, and then you’ve got to do that, you’ve got to kind of think about the context they’re in, and the audience they’ve got. One of the things that work, party conference jokes are particularly perilous, there are a number of reasons for this. First of all, the audience is very hard to judge, you can’t judge whether it’s going to be full or empty, an empty audience won’t laugh at the joke at all, but a full audience will very much laugh at it. Secondly, if you’ve got an empty audience, but a group full of journalists who are listening to the minister make a speech, they’re bound to find it particularly unfunny, right? Because partly, it’s because the jokes are kind of often partisan, and at the expense of another political party, and quite rightly, while that’s funny to a Conservative audience, it’s not funny to anybody else. And so it can be a total disaster. And sometimes it’s better not to try to make them, I think. But it’s hard in advance to work out that that’s the case.
– Well, have you had the situation, because doing what I do as a psychologist, I get brought in to help with people’s speeches. But you’re more on the writing side, I’m more on the performance side, and the psychological side of getting them ready. And have you had the situation where you’ve had to talk people out of doing a joke because you know they can’t deliver it?
– I have, yeah, I have a few times, I’ve said don’t, if you have to reach for that joke, just don’t use it. And actually, that was particularly the case with Theresa May, who could, she didn’t have to be talked out of it, she wasn’t of gagging to tell it, but it was sometimes, she’d say, look, use this if it comes, if the ball comes very close to you, you can hit it, but don’t reach for this. Because in Prime Minister’s Questions, you can do a funny joke, which only really works if the other person’s saying something or behaving in a certain way, then you can engage with it. And if it doesn’t come close to you, you can’t, and you mustn’t ’cause then the joke really creeks then, you’ve got to be very, very careful.
– Yeah, I agree. We had Alistair Campbell on the show, and he was saying that, and you were probably partly responsible for this, the one thing that really scared them, was William Hague at Prime Minister’s Questions, because he could destroy them with humour, and they had to get a hold.
– I’ll tell you what, I was deeply involved in that, quite a lot of those gags were, I mean, they team things things, myself, George Osborne and William Hague, but they will things that I was involved in producing. And I remember that in The Sunday Times one week, a comedian, I won’t name who that is, ’cause it’s not fair, but a completely external comedian was credited with all of my jokes. It was like a long list of them that clearly have been funny enough to make the newspaper, but they were credited, it was the only time, ’cause you do them so that William Hague will be credited with them, you don’t want to be credited with them yourself, that’s not the point. And in any case, they were a collegiate effort, they never were just one person. And they wouldn’t work, as I discovered sometimes, with other people, wouldn’t have worked without William. So it was incredibly annoying to discover other people being credited with writing them. So you become a bit proprietorial about them. But they depend a lot on the context. William was brilliant at the jokes, he knew the timing of them, he knew the tone, he had the confidence not to use them. One of his rules were, we only use them if they’re absolutely, certainly, definitely funny. We wouldn’t use one that was maybe only 75% likely to get a laugh, it had to be 100% funny. And one of the ways that we used to judge that is do people laugh when you tell it to them? And this is my test normally, right? The joke is not, did you think that was funny theoretically? When I tell you that story, do you laugh? And I remember we had a joke once where we had a place line in the speech, which was, Don’t book it, Robin Cook it!, we knew that it was not funny, theoretically, and you didn’t laugh, right, correctly, but somehow, in the context of that moment, when he’d been going around the world annoying people, every time we said that line to people, they fell about laughing. No one could tell you what it meant. And if I told you that it was supposed to be funny, they wouldn’t think it was funny, but when you used it in the speech, it brought the house down. And that’s the only test, but you can sometimes do a joke, that’s theoretically funny, but there’s no point for somebody sitting there and going well, that was actually very witty, that works in writing, but It doesn’t work when you’re delivering it out loud.
– Well that’s the thing, and that’s where the instinct for comedy comes in. We were talking to Jo Brand, who I’ve known for many years, ’cause we used to work at the Comedy Store together. And we were talking about the fact that actually, when you do a heckle put down, it actually doesn’t have to be the funniest thing ever, it just has to be timed right. And that’s what that sounds like, Don’t just book it, Robin Cook it!, is just, it has a rhythm. And if you deliver it in the right moment, people will react.
– Right, absolutely, absolutely.
– So that’s again, the tip for humour, is being able to be in the moment and listen.
– And also if you’re preparing a joke, test it. And the only test that matters is when you read it out to somebody, did they actually laugh? Not whether they looked at it, smiled, and then said, yeah, that’s funny, use it. Or they laughed and said, no, that’s not funny, don’t use it, if they laugh, they laugh. And in the moment when you’re telling the speech, when you’re telling the joke, in the speech, all that matters is does the audience laugh?
– Well, because humour has this strange thing whereby it’s an involuntary action, isn’t it? And so that’s why comedians are more valued than anyone else is because they make you do an involuntary action, which just changes your state, so it’s good. What would the world be like without humour?
– Hmm, it’s hard to imagine, isn’t it? I do think some of humour is not taking yourself or all the situations too seriously. And I think that therefore the world would take itself and all the situations that were involved in it, more seriously than they deserve, it would be a sort of form of arrogance in some ways, that everything that we were engaged in was of such importance that we couldn’t undermine it in any way by laughing at it. So I think humour has an important role in, certainly for me anyway, in establishing that we’re all a bit ridiculous, and so were all the situations that we’re in. And also that we only live for a short period and we might as well enjoy it while we’re here. And I think if we didn’t have humour, we’d forget all those things and that we’d lose a lot.
– So you have a very self-deprecating way of… I mean that in a-
– You have to, there’s quite a lot to deprecate.
– I mean that in the most-
– What are you supposed to do if you’re sort of a fat jew living in Pinner, you got to laugh at it.
– No, but I think that that’s because I know that having talked to a lot of people in politics and in broadcasting, that you are pretty much universally liked. And I think that’s because you don’t take yourself too seriously. And what we’re trying to do for our listeners is give them tools that they can actually take away and go, and do you think that that ability to self-deprecate, to not take yourself too seriously is actually a valuable tool in business?
– I do think being, well, actually going one step back, I do think being liked is an underrated thing. I mean, it’s kind of you to say that I’m liked, and it’s very gratifying to hear that, if you say it, I’m not going to call you a liar, but I wouldn’t necessarily claim that for myself, but I’m really happy about that. ‘Cause I think it’s a very, very important thing. I think that it’s important as part of the persuasion, I think it’s important intrinsically ‘ cause it suggests that you bear yourself in a kind of appropriate way and realise you’re not the only person around and try and fit in with other people in some ways. It can be a weakness because sometimes in politics, you have to be tough and make the tough decisions and choices. And sometimes U see people doing acts of leadership and I wonder whether I’d have that sort of courage, which does sometimes lead you to not be liked. But I think you can always do even quite hard things and be likeable, and just like, I’ll tell you an example of that is Rishi Sunak, actually, he is a very likeable person, I think it’s part of his political strength and his strength as a leader. So I think that, yes, it’s important to be liked, and humour definitely falls from that. It’s hard to find somebody funny that you find intrinsically completely unsympathetic. Even the comedians who kind of play off… let’s take Larry David, for example, he plays off, this kind of misanthropy, you sort of, there’s an, you’ve got to kind of like him enough to find the things that he finds absurd and kicks against funny. And you’ve got to empathise with them to that degree. So I think underneath it is empathy and being liked is an incredibly important part of business. It mustn’t detract you from making tough choices and tough decisions and you can’t expect that everybody will agree with you. And in politics I’ve obviously made choices, and as a result of it, I’m aware people dislike those choices very passionately and find them incomprehensible sometimes, and you have to still have the courage of your convictions. But I think you do those in likeable or dislikable ways.
– No, I completely agree. I think if you start from a point where you have rapport with people, if you have something that you have to deliver that is upsetting, it starts from that point whereby you’re a decent bloke and you’re only doing this because you believe in it rather than you’re disagreeable bloke. And I always knew you were going to do something awful, you bastard.
– I just remember, I remember a Conservative Party Conference, where John Redwood was making a speech, and he has many admirable intellectual qualities, but he’s not going to be a comedian as his second career. And he gave a speech about the arts and one of it was step forward Ian McCartney and walk tall among the men. Now, Ian McCartney was the Labour Party chairman. And I think the spokesman on the other side from John Redwood on arts or sports or something, and he was very short, Ian McCartney. And it was a very, very empty hall, and I can remember one person moving a chair, uncomfortably, and somebody else coughed, and there was dead silence, but John waited for the laugh to come. And this was a number of things that all come together, one, empty hall, no one was ever going to do it. And secondly, not intrinsically very funny. Thirdly, no one knew who Ian McCartney was, in that audience, right. And I just had to explain to you, kind of ruins the joke, So therefore no one knew that he was short. And finally, if you were there and you did know that he was short and you knew who Ian McCartney was, it was just horrible, right? So you kind of combined all of the things that you try and avoid in a joke. I just remember it as being quite an uncomfortable moment, but in its own grizzly way, actually, pretty funny. If you write just nothing… I just remember David Hunt who I really, really like, and admire a lot, as this sort of humane guy and very intelligent guy, but he told this joke and it involved Labour not having any principles. And he brought out a bag, a plastic bag from the shop, Principles. And he said, Labour haven’t got any principles. And he got this shopping bag out, looked in it and threw it over his… said it’s empty, and threw it over his shoulder, right. And for me, ’cause it was so bad, it was absolutely hilarious, nothing was funnier than that. So nothing is funnier than a joke that flops absolutely terribly at a political conference if you write political gags. I recommend this as a sub genre of humour.
– Well, yeah.
– Bad party conference jokes, I promise you you won’t run out of supply quickly.
– Well, it’s your next book. Your book, “Everything in Moderation.” You believe that bringing more civility and nuance and compromise into political life, and life generally, does humour aid this process?
– I mean, obviously you can be humorous and extreme, and one of the things, it’s not a party specific thing, having a sense of humour. So no, I would say not, I mean, it’s part of, I do think, as I’ve said before, that having a certain sense of your own ridiculousness is important. And I think that is part of being a moderate person, because it’s harder then to become an extremist who’s confident about their ability to remake the world. So definitely the sensibility of my humour and the sensibility of my politics have something in common, but everybody’s different. And to put it mildly, my sense of humour is not the only sense of humour, and there’s absolute comic genius that’s attached to all, to any amount of extremism of all kinds. So, no, I wouldn’t say. I think that it’s interesting ’cause one of the things I’ve reflected on this question of right-wing or left-wing humour. I think, you got to be careful not to make fun of people out of their powerlessness effectively. And I do think punching yourself or punching up is funnier than punching down, let’s put it that way.
– Yeah, no, I completely agree. I think it can seem very cruel and nasty when you punch down and I think that’s what you have to avoid. And I think that’s when politicians get into trouble and I think people in business get into trouble, is when they hit the defenceless person. So I completely agree. If I asked you to write a business case for humour, Danny, what would you include?
– Okay, well I think the first thing that I would include in any description, any discussion I have with a politician about a speech, the first thing I say is you got to be authentic and you’ve got to try to say what you really think as the starting point, and then work from there. Begin to think what you can say to the audience, why you can’t say certain things. And that is the starting place for any case in business or any case that you might make to somebody else, and therefore, your humour plays a role in that. You should not try to be something you’re not. Your jokes, if you use jokes, they’ve got to be ones that you find funny, with a degree of consideration as to whether other people will share that sensibility. But they’re part of authenticity, I think. The second is that I think in any walk of life, it makes sense to, for things to be, for you to show a sense of self-deprecation, that you understand your own vulnerabilities. Because people reciprocate concessions. If they realise you’re willing to say things about your own weaknesses, they’ll be willing to accept theirs and criticisms you might have of theirs more readily. And I think that’s important. And then don’t forget also entertainment, right, when you’re making a case of any kind for a business to sell something, or you’re making a political point, telling a compelling story is very important, because people understand arguments through stories and it relates to them. And humour has a very important part in storytelling as well. And so unquestionably, if you’re giving a hard message, you do want to try to keep the audience with you and divert people and taking some trouble to make your story, make your pieces amusing, your speeches amusing, is part of that. And the audience finds it flattering, they realise you’ve taken trouble, they like you more, all those things are very helpful. But, you do have to understand your own limitations in joke telling. It’s very important that you test those to make sure that they are actually funny to other people and not just yourself, and that you don’t say things that you then later regret, just because you thought they were funny at the time.
– I think they’re brilliant points. Going back to the authenticity, how do people find that authenticity? Which is, I suppose it’s our job is to help them find that, but isn’t that one of the hardest things, is people can’t find who they are, or at least can’t project who they are in normal life onto a business stage or a politics stage.
– I think they start off in the wrong place, right? They start with who other people are and wanting to sound like other people. And I think starting with yourself, I mean, it’s hard. One of the things that my editor sometimes says to me, he’s like, well, Danny, you like everybody, right? And that is a little true, I tend to like people. And so very, very few people are completely unwilling, if they were truly themselves. And sometimes I see people get into trouble by trying to be something they aren’t or more than they are, or kind of sometimes they end up being less than they are. I do think not everybody’s equally funny, you don’t have to, don’t reach for it too much because then it just doesn’t work. But most people are, kind of wryly, amusing, and if they’re willing to kind of be vulnerable enough to show their humour, which is part of being vulnerable enough to show their authenticity, then they can be funny.
– I love the fact that you say that your editor says to you, Danny, you like everybody, because I have a theory and from a psychological standpoint, ’cause I walk into every room, assuming that everyone is lovely, because what’s the alternative? The alternative is what causes mayhem, is that you go, I’ve heard he’s a bit of a bastard. And so therefore I start to react, and as soon as you pull a face, which may be an innocent face, I go there, that’s my proof. Whereas if you go in presuming everybody’s got good intentions, and it’s lovely, that works.
– I had an interesting experience on social media, where I respond to people who were being horrible as if they hadn’t been horrible and are actually lovely. And at least half the time, I wouldn’t say it was more than that, about half the time, by the end of the conversation, they’re being quite lovely. And quite often, we have a sort of expectation that other people, that they won’t be. And actually, that’s one of the things that produces them not being. So it is a bit, probably, I am a bit probably, I fool myself a little bit about people’s qualities, and maybe it’s a tiny bit naive, but I’d rather be that way.
– Well, and I think actually it’s a very smart way to be, because I think that the reciprocity comes across, you’re nice to someone, they do tend to feel that they should be nice back. And the longer you keep that up… So, that’s something for our audience to take away. We come to the part of the show, Danny, called Quick-Fire Questions. ♪ Quick-Fire questions ♪ Who’s the funniest business or political person that you’ve met?
– Well, as a team, William Hague, and this will surprise a lot of people, George Osborne, who’s the most brilliant mimic, and very funny.
– Oh, really? I didn’t expect that answer. Oh, well, if he’s funny, we should have him on The Humourology…, I’ll give him a call and tell him you recommended him. What book makes you laugh?
– I should say, actually the answer to that is obviously, “Catch-22,” I thought “Catch-22” is absolutely brilliant. You know Joseph Heller’s comment, when someone said to him, you’ve never written a book as good as “Catch-22,” and he said, yeah, you’re quite right, but neither has anyone else.
– That’s brilliant, no, oh, I’ve never heard that quote, but it’s fantastic. What film makes you laugh, Danny?
– Oh, “Annie Hall.” And I love “When Harry Met Sally.” I can virtually dictate that film to you in a kind of boring way that that guy does in Sliding Doors, when he’s repeating all the Monty Python. Yeah, “Annie hall” and “When Harry Met Sally.”
– “Annie Hall” is just full of brilliant one-liners like, honey, there’s a spider in the bathroom the size of a Buick.
– Yeah, you’ve got a copy of “National Review” why don’t you get William F. Buckley to kill the spider?
– That’s right. And the scene in the VW, when she’s driving really erratically and he goes, it’s okay, we can walk to the curb from here.
– Yeah, absolutely, that’s brilliant. And then there’s, while your family was doing that, mine was being raped by Cossacks. I thought that it was very, very good that film.
– That’s right, that’s the most fun I’ve ever had without laughing, that is also a line from that. What is not funny, Danny?
– I don’t like toilet humour, I never, ever laugh at it.
– So even, what’s the seven year old, as the Jesuits would say, Danny was not laughing at farts.
– Never, not when I was seven, not now.
– Huh? I find it extraordinary.
– Very weird.
– It is, yeah. It completely bewilders me, I don’t find it funny. I don’t know why some other people find it funny at all, and I realise there’s just a missing chip, but there you go.
– What word makes you laugh, Danny?
– Oh, isn’t that thing with, I should say that thing about Neil Simon, in that fantastic film, “The Sunshine Boys,” which could have been named, which is that words with a K in it are funny.
– Which is why a spider the size of a Buick is funnier.
– Pickle is funny.
– Pickle is funny.
– Tomato isn’t funny.
– Yeah, no, I completely, I remember that Neil Simon said that.
– I recommend anyone who who’s interested in the craft of humour, that Neil Simon’s memoirs, particularly the first volume, that they’re amazing.
– Well there you go, a book recommendation as well. You’ve got a master’s degree, you’re a very prominent journalist. Would you rather be considered clever or funny?
– Oh, either would be really nice. I don’t have to pick. Even quite funny or quite clever would be nice. But the worst thing is unfunny. I think stupid would be, the way of choosing, I can’t choose clever or funny, but I can say that I would rather be called stupid than unfunny. ‘Cause unfunny is like the most embarrassing thing, that means you tried to make a joke and people didn’t laugh, horrendous, so unfunny, that’s my way of answering your question.
– Okay, that’s fine. And finally, Desert Island Gags, you can only take one joke with you to a desert island. What is it?
– Okay, Dear Roy Castle, I found a black disc with a hole in it at the bottom of my garden, is this a record?
– That’s one for the older members of our audience. Danny, thank you so much for being a wonderful, amusing, brilliant guest on “The Humourology Podcast.”
– Thank you, I really loved doing it. It was great, but the pressure of people listening to it, thinking, I hope this is going to be funny, was terrible.
– Good job you were. “The Humourology Podcast” was hosted by Paul Boross and produced by Simon Banks. Music by Steve Haworth. Creative direction by Les Hughes and additional research by Helen Sykes. Please remember to subscribe, like, and leave a review wherever you get your podcasts. This has been a Big Sky Production.