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Podcast Transcript – Jon O’Donnell

Jon O’Donnell

Jon O’Donnell Marketing Mirth Makes More Money

– The handshake was supposedly developed to demonstrate that you weren’t concealing a weapon. And so it basically allowed people to be, to feel a lot more comfortable. I think humour is a similar thing. If you’re going to somebody and you make them feel at ease and you make them smile and you make them laugh, it makes them immediately think, “Well, this person isn’t a threat. “This person actually is someone that, you know, “I feel comfortable with.” And so I view it very much like that.

– Welcome to the Humorology Podcast with me, Paul Boross and my glittering lineup of guests from the worlds of business, sport and entertainment who are going to share their wisdom and their use of humour. Humorology is the study of how humour can dramatically improve your business success and your life. Humorology puts the fun into business fundamentals, increases the value of your laughing stock and puts a punchline back into your bottom line. Please remember to like, subscribe and leave a review wherever you get your podcasts. Our guest on this edition of the Humorology Podcast is an inspirational and charismatic leader with a reputation for building strong award-winning cultures. He has spent over 25 years in news brands holding a number of key roles at the likes of The Guardian, The Mail on Sunday and The Independent. As managing director of ESI Media he was key in building the free distribution model and digital expansion. This included the launch of the Eye Newspaper as well as being responsible for creating and delivering the commercial strategy for taking the Evening Standard free and then subsequently making it the largest circulation quality daily in the UK. He recently founded Viral Tribe, a partnerships hub that connects brands to talent, working with stars across the sports and entertainment sector such as Chris Evans, Rob Brydon, and Rita Ora. According to those who work with him his leadership is littered with laughter and his quotient for comedy comes a close second to his countless commercial accomplishments. Jon O’Donnell, welcome to the Humorology Podcast.

– And thank you very much for having me, Paul.

– Well, it’s great to have you here. I’ve been reading your background and for a successful business person you’ve got quite a different and colourful early background. Studying drama at university, becoming a rave MC and dabbling in stand-up comedy. Did those things help or hinder your progress in business?

– I mean, it’s a good question. I mean, you call it background, I call it tissue of lies, but yeah, I mean, I think almost unreservedly, yes, it did help, it all helped. I mean, I think ever since I was a kid, I was a bit of a gob-shite, and I was always sort of fairly keen to be the funny one in the room or to have, you know, the loudest voice and, you know, that became pretty sort of prevalent in the choices that I made. And so, as you said, I went to drama school and that was almost by accident, because if it wasn’t that, I wasn’t really going to do anything when I left my A levels. And I think that gave me a real understanding for performance, which is kind of, I think made my presenting skills probably much better than they would be. I’m not quite sure what the rave MC element did apart from perhaps shouting at rooms full of 5,000 people and waving one’s hands in the air and punching the sky and all that kind of stuff. But yeah, I mean, I think all of it really, really makes a difference, but I’m a firm believer anyway, that, you know, every single element of life experience adds to the kind of the end product, if you like. And so I think all of it makes you a better more rounded person. Whether it makes you better at your job is a very different thing, but I think it makes you a better person.

– It is all business performance, do you think, to a certain extent?

– Oh, that’s a good question. I think to a certain extent it is, because, you know, I think everything is certainly sales, that’s for sure. You know, I spoke to some friends of mine many years ago when, you know, they were working for big sort of management consultancy firms and they were kind of partners, I think, in these management consultancy firms. I was talking about the difference between what I did and what they did. And I was convinced that their job really was all about technology and everything else. And the guy, you know, he’s a good friend of mine. He was like, “That’s absolute bollocks, “no, because I’m selling. “I have to sell to my clients, you sell too, “it’s all about selling. “You know, you do not get to the top of any business “or any particular, unless you can sell it to somebody.” And so I think there is an element of performance involved in all of that, because there is a craft to how you speak to people, how you engage people, how you kind of, I suppose, interpret the filter that they see the world through and the filter that you see the world through. And I think, you know, all of that and you know, you can look at the science of it, but I think the reality is, you know, it’s about getting a better result than you might have gotten if you didn’t view it in that way. So yeah, I think it is a performance, definitely.

– Yeah, well, I’m intrigued by the fact that you think that everything’s about sales because I completely agree. I used to train doctors at Guy’s King’s and St. Thomas’s many, many years ago. And I used to say, “We are all in sales.” And doctors would go, “No, I’m a surgeon.”

– You’re going to tell me now you went in for a broken finger and he sold you up to hernia or something?

– Yeah, not quite, no. I was training them actually in communication models and, but we are all, I mean, because they’re thinking, “I’m a surgeon.” And it was like, I said, “You’re selling health.” And everybody in business is selling something. So I’m intrigued that you actually at the coal face also agree that that’s everybody from, is there any part of business that you can think of that isn’t sales?

– Not really actually. I mean, listen, I’m sure there probably is, but I mean off the top of my head, I don’t think so, because I think whether you’re in, you know, finance or whether you’re in marketing or, you know, any of the areas or whether you’re the Chief Executive, the guy that runs the car park, you’re still responsible for the reputation of that business. And that means that whenever you’re talking to anybody whether they be a visitor driving into the car park or they be, you know, your top spending client coming in to see the CEO, there has to be an element of, you know, representing that business in the best way possible. And I think, engendering pride in people so that they’re not just representing the reputation, they’re proud of the reputation, you know, that’s sales, that’s sales. I think trying to convince someone in, you know, to some degree that what you’re doing is great and that they could potentially drink in it, I think is part and parcel of everyday life. So I can’t think of any area that isn’t. I think there are clearly some degrees to others and I think there’s probably more complexity in some areas than others, but I think, you know, it’s… in any successful company, anybody that wears the badge with pride is selling that company to some degree.

– But what part do you think humour is in that sales process?

– I think, you know, humour for me is really, it’s a device and whether it’s a natural device or a device that’s learned we can discuss, but humour is a device to try and get people to trust you as quickly as possible, during the conversation. So you can move on to the areas that, you know, you probably want to discuss. And that makes it sound a little bit blunt, but, you know, I mean, there used to be a thing years ago when I was, when I first started out in The Guardian in classified advertising there was… there was a process to the whole sort of sales process, if you like. And there was a whole kind of map of things that you did. And there was this brilliant thing that was actually called The Chat Gap and in The Chat Gap, that was the bit where the clients had arrived in their car and they were walking from the car to the meeting room and it was all the stuff that you talked about. And I always thought it was hilarious that it actually had a name. It was like, “Insert small talk here.” That’s where humour is really important, because you’re trying to put people at ease. You’re trying to make them feel that they’re, you know, comfortable. You know, I’m a firm believer that one of the biggest elements for people to have an enjoyable role or basically one of the biggest elements in business is around safety. You know, people need to feel safe, both in your company and clients who are visiting your company. They need to feel that they’re in safe company and humour is a brilliant way of diffusing that and making everybody feel comfortable from the outset.

– That’s interesting, the idea of safety being a thing. ‘Cause I always thought of it more as a bonding tool, but you’ve taken it to another level that it’s actually about that when people feel safe they can laugh, they can express themselves.

– Humour in a way is often a manifestation of vulnerability. And so you’re showing someone that you are able to have a laugh, sometimes at your own expense. I mean, certainly you wouldn’t bring a client into a meeting and saying, “Jesus, where did you get that tie from? “It looks like a child has just been sick on it “and then licked it up.” I mean, you wouldn’t, you know, it’s more about self-deprecating stuff or sort of just creating a much more even tone. I think essentially the reason why I believe safety is, you know, the really key thing here. It’s a bit like, you know, the handshake. The handshake was supposedly developed to demonstrate that you weren’t concealing a weapon. And so it basically allowed people to be, to feel a lot more comfortable. I think humour is a similar thing. If you go into somebody and you make them feel at ease and you make them smile and you make them laugh. It makes them immediately think, “Well, this person isn’t a threat. “This person actually is someone that, you know, “I feel comfortable with.” And so I view it very much like that.

– People have always been taught, you know, the classic Tony Blair, you know, was holding the hands out like that. And that comes from the Wild West where you show, “I have no weapons.” But do you think that somebody could teach somebody? Because I obviously work with CEO’s a lot and especially getting people ready for big presentations and big speeches, that somebody could teach somebody to be funnier?

– I think you can teach people the processes and the tricks within, I’ll say comedy, but I’m referring to being funny. And I also think you can probably teach people to be funnier as a result of it. But I think it depends on where you’re setting that initial bar. I mean, I think, you know, if you’re to ask the question, “Can anybody be funny?” I think 100% you will always get people to answer that, “Yes.” But I think that’s bullshit. I don’t think anyone can be funny at all. I think some people are naturally very funny. Some people have a grasp of it and some people just don’t, it just isn’t in their locker. And that doesn’t mean that they’re a bad person. It just means they’re probably good at… very good at something else. You know, I run, you know, I run most mornings, but I’m not Mo Farah. And there’s no way that I’m ever going to be Mo Farah, you know? And so I think comedy and humour is a similar thing. I think just because you understand it doesn’t mean that it’s there for everybody to have.

– Then why does everybody put in their dating profile, “Good sense of humour.”

– Well, I mean, this is it, isn’t it? It’s an interesting one. And they do, and you know, for me, I would literally be all over descriptions if someone turned up and they were absolutely fucking dull as dish water. You know, you’d be literally saying, “Hang on a second, I’m going to say like, “you wrote here and that’s not, that’s not even saying this, “that you told me you were bloody a blonde, “but no, look here, it says funny.” You know, all of that, I think. Yeah, I mean it’s, nobody wants to be seen as not funny. No one wants to be outed as being not funny, you know, but I think the truth is that not everybody is.

– So do you think that it is a funny bone? Because obviously both of us have worked with a lot of comedians, a lot of funny people over the years in business and out of business, but do you think there is some kind of essential DNA that is there to do that?

– I mean, I think that probably is the case. And I think if, I think, you know, the force is stronger in some than others, you know? And the way that I kind of look at the scale, I think at one end of the scale you’ve got people who aren’t funny at all. You’ve got sort of a little bit further down the road you’ve got people who aren’t necessarily funny, but they can drop a gag or a good line but you’ll know who they are because they always sort of look around the room and smile or it could be when they say it, because they don’t know whether they, like a child they don’t know whether they should be pleased with themselves for doing it or embarrassed about doing it. And then you go a little bit further along the scale and you’ve got the people who are probably very funny in the workplace and in the pub. And you know, these are the people who you like to spend time with, and we’ve all got mates like that. And then you’ve got the people who are professionally funny. And the people that are professionally funny aren’t always the ones, funnily enough, that are funny in the pub, but they’ve got literally in their DNA, they know how to construct, you know, a series of jokes or stories to such a way that people will find them hilarious. And as I’ve learned over the years the way that they’ve done that is nothing short of a load of bloody hard work.

– Oh, it’s absolutely, yeah. It’s a chore and it’s taking one word and working that, reworking and reworking that word where it sits in the sentence.

– Yeah.

– Actually, if you’ve ever seen the Jerry Seinfeld documentary about when he finishes Seinfeld and he goes back to work on a new set, it takes him six months to get a new set and every night he’s going back and trying it in front of a live audience

– It’s horrendous. I mean, so I mean, I did, I think we’ve mentioned before. I mean, I did a very little bit of standup comedy just because I wanted to see if it was possible to make that leap down that kind of road from being, you know, relatively okay and funny in the pub to being actually sort of, you know, professionally funny and I did actually consider it for, you know, “Maybe this is my calling.” And I went to a sort of, a stand up comedy course and I met some very interesting people there because I thought, “Well, let me at least learn the basics “and learn the framework and learn the craft first of all.” And I worked out that it took approximately a week or so to come up with a minute’s material that was any good. And bearing in mind at that time it was all about creating a five minute set. And I had no idea that five minutes was as long as it actually is. And when you realise that the minute that you’ve crafted at least, and at least 30 seconds of that is going to be shit, and that you’re going to have to rewrite. You end up with this tiny, tiny thing that sometimes can be one joke, it can sometimes be no jokes, you know? And you then have to take that away and then put it in something else. And I think the thing for me is that it killed comedy for me. It really killed humour. It killed everything, because I think I love comedy to be spontaneous. And I love comedy to just come out of the moment. And I think for me, I’m probably at my most humorous when it is of the moment and when it feels spontaneous. I think when I have to write down everything and then had to go on stage and kind of deliver it to these audiences, I felt like a fraud actually, because I felt like I had done this a thousand times before. You know, “You’re laughing but this isn’t new to me. “So I feel like I’m conning you.” And the whole process just was quite, it just didn’t sit with me, didn’t sit with me at all. And so, you know, I can see now where the expertise and the craft sits with those people and I don’t necessarily have what it takes to do that.

– No, well, it’s a discipline, is actually what it is. It’s like anything and everything. So was the young Jon O’Donnell funny? I mean, did you hear funny? Did you, were you the class clown as the classic thing goes?

– You’re using the wrong adjective there. The fat Jon O’Donnell was very funny, very, very funny. In my sort of teenage to early 30 years when I was an enormous person, for those, obviously, that can’t see my face and body at this point. I was probably around the same height as I am now. Obviously it was about, well in my head it’s 6’3, but in body it’s probably about 5’7, 5’8. But the truth was, I was probably about 5’7, 5’8 lying down as well. So I was basically about nearly 17 stone in my pop to the point that only Marks and Spencer’s could supply me with clothes at that particular point in time, but I was fucking funny. Right, I was very funny. I had all of the visual gags. I had all of the other bits and pieces. And actually, I think as I got more seriously into fitness and I got more serious into that side of things I think I progressively became less funny. So I don’t know necessarily it’s to do with age, but for me it’s certainly been to do with body shape, bizarrely.

– So what makes you laugh, Jon?

– I mean a number of things really. I think there’s, I think people that I know make me laugh, because I surround myself with people who make me laugh. I think things that are a little bit naughty and a little bit kind of off piste, shall we say. I mean, I think sometimes things that, like I think the old phrase would… be tickle me. Things that just sent me into a giggling frenzy that I then can’t get rid of. And I literally, the shoulders go and the eyes start going and the lips and all of that. I love that. I think, you know, the traditional sense, I think clever people… People who are very, very, very good with words and who could manipulate words, you know? The likes of Stephen Fry I think are absolutely fantastic. You know, Steve Coogan is absolutely fantastic and Armando Iannucci and those kind of guys I think the clever crew, the clever Cambridge type crew make me laugh. But then, you know, people like Bill Burr I find absolutely incredible. And I think the thing that ties all these guys together is just the incredible intellect and, you know, cleverness of them all. Things that are of the moment, things that are, you know, the old Simpsons, he’s saying what we’re all thinking kind of thing. I love all that, I love all that.

– So tell me a true story about something that’s happened to you that’s made you laugh.

– I do remember one evening, and I’m going to sound like a terrible name dropper here but you’ll understand the point of the story. But I was very lucky when I was heading up the commercial team of The Evening Standard. We were very often invited to a lot of film premiers and we were invited to the Bond premiere at the Albert Hall, which I’d never been to a Bond premiere before. This was an incredibly exciting time. And so me and my wife basically went down to the Albert Hall. We had a few drinks before and then we were then going off to meet all our… my colleagues and what have you and their guests in the loggia, as I was told it’s called, I was told off for calling it a box… in the ‘loggia’. And anyway, I wandered into the loggia and there was just a guy in there, an older guy stood in there and he introduced himself. He said, “Oh, I’m John.” I said, “I’m Jon as well.” And they’re, “Oh, great, fantastic.” And we started chatting about stuff and he said, “So what do you do?” And I said, “Well, I’m a, you know, “I head up The Evening Standard and this.” He said, “This is fantastic, I love The Evening Standard. “I love what you’ve done at The Evening Standard. “That’s amazing, amazing.” And he goes, “I believe you just … ” Well, because at the time we’d just won the licence for London Live. He said, “I hear you just want these local TV.” I said, “Yes, we have.” He said, “Oh, I’m in television, I do a bit in television.” “Oh, right, okay, what are you doing?” He goes, “Well, you might remember. “I wrote a thing called, well, “you probably remember, called Black Adder.” And it was like, “God, it’s John Lloyd, it’s John Lloyd, “comedy god, John Lloyd.” I’m like, “Fantastic.” God, I had no idea. And anyway, so I’m chatting away to John Lloyd, we have a glass of champagne, two seconds later in walks Michael Parkinson. It’s like, “Parky, fantastic!” He’s like, “Ah, Parky, this is Jon, Jon runs London Live.” “Hello there, how are you doing? “Fantastic.” Rowan Atkinson comes in. Stephen Fry comes in, they all come in. And then as we take our seats ready to watch the premiere I suddenly realised there are 10 seats and 12 people in the loggia. And I suddenly realise, I’m in the wrong fucking box. I literally looked over and I could just see my wife tentatively pouring her champagne back in the bottle as I was doing the slightly reverse thing outside the box. “I’m sorry, terribly sorry, terribly sorry.” But of course I couldn’t resist doing the, “John, call me, call me, call me when you’ve got a moment.” And yeah, we left, we walked out and as you can imagine we literally could not wait to tell that story to to anyone and everyone. And even to this day, I still love it. It was absolutely ludicrous.

– It’s a hilarious story. But is the valuable learning in that actually from anything comedy is born, basically?

– Every time, every time. You know, you should be able to find comedy in everything. I mean, clearly there are probably some things that aren’t, in fact, there are definitely some things that aren’t funny, but I think a lot of things can be diffused by comedy. And I think trying to find hilarity in any situation will help you get back to a point of being positive. You know, I mean, there’s a lot of negativity around at the moment and understandably so, because clearly everybody’s in lockdown. You know, human connection has kind of been sort of kicked by the wayside. And I think, you know, a lot of people are feeling a lot, you know, quite negative a lot of the time. And I think comedy is a big diffuser of that. And I think we’ve seen some great examples of that through the time that we’ve been in lockdown. I think the one thing that I’d have to say about the lockdown experience though, has been that I think comedy has been deferred quite a bit. And I think whereas friends would share their own gags and jokes and things in pubs. I think now it’s been a lot of it has been down to the sharing of memes which I think is no bad thing and some of them are brilliant. Some of them are terrible, but I just think whereas people would have made their own humour people have got quite lazy in it now. And you know, if I think of some of the WhatsApp groups, I mean, some of them are literally just collections of a thousand memes with no real, you know, gags of our own in the middle. So I think some of that has been a little bit, as I say, deferred.

– Well, I couldn’t agree more. And obviously the whole point of Humorology is to try and actually elevate the level of, so people in businesses and successful business people like yourself, you know, are there to show everyone how important it is to sort of, you know, to go from gravity to levity if you like, in terms of business as well. So what would the world be like without humour, Jon?

– Dark, very dark. I think it will be very angry. I would go so far as to say I’m not sure it will be here anymore. I don’t think we would’ve been able to have diffused a lot of the situations we’ve had over time were it not for elements of, you know, I think comedy might be rich, but elements of light and elements of, you know, diffusion. I think it would be a very, very dark place. I can’t think of any situation where, you know, where humour hasn’t helped to smooth the waters to a brighter place. So, I mean, I wouldn’t like to live in it, put it like that.

– So what happens when, because we’ve all been in businesses whereby, you know, that the person at the top of the business hasn’t had a sense of humour or hasn’t had a great, or hasn’t displayed that, what happens to those businesses, do you think?

– Well, I mean, I believe, it depends what type of business it is. I think you’ve either got to lead by example and then be absolutely amazing at your job. And therefore, you know, like, I don’t know how Steve Jobs was at gags, but the fact is he was a visionary in terms of what he did and people followed him because of that. They didn’t need him to be funny. And that’s an example. He may have been absolutely hilarious, I don’t know. But I think in businesses where it’s about people and people first, I think it’s absolutely essential for the leader to have that level of connection with the team. I think when you don’t have that, you don’t have the team, and when you don’t have the team you don’t have their commitments. And if you don’t have the commitment, then to be honest, you don’t have their results. And I think we all know what happens when a business fails to get the results. In my time as being a leader I think one thing that I’ve learned is it’s all about balance, it’s all about balance. You know, you cannot be a comedian and a business leader. You have to be a business leader who has the ability to use comedy and humour in order to get the end result and then get the right outcome that you’re looking for. It can’t be the other way around. And I’ve seen a lot of businesses fail because you’re not taken seriously. So I think it’s a balance. You have to have both of those abilities because, you know, one day you’re going to have to deliver bad news. And at the moment, an awful lot of people are delivering an awful lot of bad news. And so if you’re just constantly known for being the joker, A, you might not have the stomach for this, but you also might not really have the ability to deliver it.

– So if you were training the leaders of the future or even the leaders of today, ’cause we have a lot of, you know, business leaders listen to the podcast. What would you say that they need to do in order to actually encapsulate that feeling of leading with laughter, if you like?

– Well, I think unless you are a heart surgeon, it’s not heart surgery. And so ultimately I think knowing that the majority of the time your decisions are not going to be life and death. And I think ultimately the more pressure that you put on your people to succeed the less likely they will be to succeed. You know, it’s the old Aesop’s fable of the sun and the wind trying to get the guy to take his coat off. You know, the wind will never ever succeed. Force never really succeeds. Or if it does, you know, it doesn’t succeed over the long term. Whereas sun, humour, friendliness, lightness, all of that. And it’s not about being that all the time, as I’ve said, it’s about having that in your arsenal. It’s having that, knowing when it’s appropriate to use it, you know? Knowing that sometimes your people just need to know that everything’s okay. Knowing it’s all right to have a bit of a laugh about something, you know? “We didn’t win today, but you know what? “We’ll win tomorrow. “And I can tell you that, “because we’re going to have a laugh about X, Y, and Z. “I’ll tell you what, why don’t we all, let’s go to the pub, “let’s sit down, let’s chat, let’s laugh together, “let’s break bread together “and tomorrow we’ll come back fighting.” And I think if you don’t have that ability, you know, if you’re trying to rule by fear or if you’re ruling by confusion or complexity I think you lose the floor and you lose the floor instantly and you very, very, very rarely get it back.

– I interviewed Dr. Richard Bandler the other day who developed the whole field of neuro-linguistic programming. And he has a great saying which is, “The meaning of your communication is the response you get.” And I think what you’re saying about leaders is you have to be listening and making sure that it’s the response you want. And I was interested that you thought that, you know, sometimes it’s not the environment for you, but isn’t it incumbent on a leader to be the right person for that relationship, whatever that relationship is?

– Yeah, 100%, 100%, but not everyone can do that. Not everybody wants to do that. And not everybody that wants to do that gets it right. You know, but it is absolutely incumbent on the leader to try and get the best out of every single person in that business. And, you know, I’m a firm believer actually that I don’t think I always felt this way but I definitely do now. But actually if someone isn’t succeeding in my business that’s as much a failure on my part as it is on theirs. And you know, there’s a wonderful thing. I don’t know if you’ve ever come across the Netflix Culture Deck, but there is a kind of strand that runs through it that basically, if you don’t work out after having a job at Netflix, they will pay you. And this is in their kind of manifesto. They will basically pay you whatever the most amount of money available in the market is for you to leave. You will leave with the best references and everything else and you will leave on the best terms and everything else, because Netflix sees it as their fault for not being able to get the best out of that person. And I think that’s, I think that’s really smart, because you know, you can go through rigorous interview processes and these days they’re probably more rigorous than they’ve ever been. But I think, you know, you don’t know how, what a relationship is going to be like until someone’s in situ. I think, however, it is incumbent upon those businesses to try and create a nurturing environment where they understand what drives someone, understands what their motor is and tries to basically get the best out of them. I think so often, and particularly in media as well it’s such a fast paced business. It’s very much sink or swim and, you know, you get in and if you can’t literally swim within the first few weeks, then you’re, you know, you’re not gotten rid of, but you’re kind of, you’re moved down the pecking order a little bit. You go from being, you know, the great hope to being suddenly, “Well maybe we need to bring someone else in.” And then you’re yesterday’s news. And you know, I’ve seen circumstances where, you know, even in my business, we’ve had people that went, I suppose that fell into that bracket that I’ve then since gone on to see do amazing things elsewhere, amazing things. And I always just think to myself, “Fucking hell, what did I miss? “Or what did my people miss? “Or what could I have done in order to make sure that, “you know, their potential was fulfilled where we were?” And that kind of thing, you know, it really does sort of keep me awake at night, you know? Not really kind of helping people fulfil their natural potential. I think it’s a major crime for business leaders.

– Yeah, and I think it does come back to that phrase, “The meaning of your communication is the response you get.” Because then you have to take responsibility and what you just demonstrated there was taking the responsibility. “What could I have done differently to get the most “out of that person?” And I think that’s true in every business. Do people laugh enough in the workplace do you think?

– I definitely think that they don’t now. And I think certainly from my time, I think things have got a lot more serious. I mean, you know, when I used to work at the Mail on Sunday, we had one of the greatest cultures I think I’ve ever worked in. It was crazy to the point of being slightly anarchic, but it was fabulous. And there was a lot of fun, a lot of laughter and it was kind of recognised that having fun that was kind of almost beyond the day-to-day work was actually a really key part of the success. And I remember we used to, we had a sales conference every year, back in the day when there were sales conferences, and we used to go to crazy places like Marrakesh and Nice. And I think we went to Barbados on one occasion. I mean, it was obscene, but it was brilliant fun. But I was given the job along with a colleague of mine to effectively create the roll in, which was the video roll in, basically, to the whole conference and also a review show. And so I would find myself and my colleague, we would find ourselves literally sometimes dressed up as Britney Spears in the main boardroom of a lunch time creating our kind of review show and everything else. And then equally going off and sort of making puppets of ourselves to do the roll in of everybody in the department. So that the, the irony was, that was sanctioned. It wasn’t us just wagging it off for a laugh. It was sanctioned, because they knew what we were doing was fun. The environment was upbeat and everybody kind of, you know, who was part of it just went home thinking, “Jesus, we had a fucking good day today. “In fact, does anyone want to go to the pub? “I know it’s a Monday, but I think we need to, “I don’t want to leave you guys. “I really want to spend time with you guys.” And I think that kind of culture, I think has disappeared. I’m not, I mean, take the drinking side of it out a bit, but I think that there, it’s almost as if you were to look at it on a chart. I think when businesses are doing well, it’s very easy for humour to be high, when businesses are doing less well, humour is very low, and the irony is you need humour far more on that end of the scale than you do at the other end of the scale. But you know, that’s the way that it’s split.

– Yeah, and it’s a shame, and that’s what the whole Humorology project is about, if you like, is that, actually, and the only way people are going to recognise it is if they actually see that funny equals money. Well, if you had to formalise it and make a business case for having humour in the workplace, what would you include in it?

– Wow, that’s a bloody good question. I mean, I would take a pay rise, naturally, first of all, I think everybody could see, everybody could see the humour in that. Literally everybody. I mean, to be honest, there’s a number of levers but I mean, I think from my perspective, I would probably be able to demonstrate that when we’ve deployed certain approaches that would always involve humour it has incrementally increased our business outcome by anywhere between five to 10%. And I think there are definite instances that for a very small financial outlay in terms of prizes and in terms of the stupid collateral that we buy off eBay and everything else that, you know, we would see a better outcome. Now, that outcome might not be the outcome the business necessarily wanted, but that will be market driven, but the outcome will definitely, definitely be better than the outcome it would have been had you not done that. And I think I would, you know, it’s not, I suppose the reason why I’m struggling to answer it at first is because it’s not really a hypothetical question. You know, it’s actually a real question. And, you know, I used to constantly go into conversations with my CFO and CEO about kind of trying to unlock a bit of money in order to make this happen. We would do this on a very regular basis. And so for me, you know, it was a real tangible benefit to deploying humour and motivational skills to do that.

– But what about things like retention, you know, keeping the best staff, but you know, aren’t those things tangible?

– Yeah, so, well, I mean, I know, very, very good point, yes. I think some of the key aspects have got to be around people who are staff retention. I think lack of sick days. I think just generally having a much more upbeat environment. That means you’re probably more likely to see future leaders shine through. I think, you know, you’ll just end up with, potentially you can end up with awards which make everybody else happy. I mean, there are immeasurable benefits I think to having humour in there which aren’t just necessarily financially related. But I think to be honest, I think the idea of having a happy business that understands its values, understands its principles, you know, and humour is at the heart of it, I think will thrive. A coach of mine used to have this amazing phrase, which I thoroughly believe in, which is, you know, the lack of virtue makes people ill. And I think it’s absolutely right. And I think, you know, you have to have, whether it’s people, whether it’s businesses, I think businesses have to have a really strong set of virtues and principles. And I think for me, humour and having a really authentic sense of enjoyment in what you do every day I think is really, really important. And that sits right at the heart of not just my DNA, but the cultures and the businesses that I create. And I think if you deviate from that, I think people do get ill, sometimes physically ill. You know, I mean, I speak from experience, you know, I’ve worked for a couple of people. Obviously they will remain nameless, in the past where I have, and they genuinely will remain nameless. I can see you’re looking at me there to see if you’re going to eek anything out. But no, I’ve worked for a couple of people in the past who will remain nameless. You know, I used to feel literally physically sick every single day for coming into work because of just the environment that was being created. And it wasn’t a fun place to be. It was a very, very, very bullying environment. It was pretty, pretty awful. And so I’ve seen the opposite. I’ve seen the opposite and it didn’t make me very well. And so I think I always saw that anywhere that I ran, any business that was under my sort of, you know, remit, if you like, would be based on, you know, fun, enjoyment, happiness and health.

– I think that’s so valid. And I think that’s such a takeaway for our listeners is to actually hear somebody who’s been on the other end of it and said, “I never want that to happen in any business I’m running.” Because you know, it affects our stress. It’s like one of the number one things that can come out in all kinds of different ways. So I completely agree. Jon, have you, and I think I know the answer to this, taken a joke too far or crossed the line?

– I have, yes. Yes, I have, I have, I have. You know, in, as I say, in my older days before I was slightly older and wiser I definitely took many jokes too far. Yeah, I mean, I’m sort of, I’m very nervously tentatively sort of trying to give an example here without sort of retrospectively going to prison or being fired by myself. But there was an instance where we were doing a, it was a bit of an end of year roundup and I always used to do this thing where when we, basically, I just came up with a load of stupid comedy awards, basically. And the idea was I was just picking a load of big personalities that I knew were very much, you know, in my sort of, that I knew would be able to take a joke. And it was things like, you know, best dressed and certain, all that kind of stuff. And in the same thing. So I had the best dressed person in the department was person X, and then the next award was worst dressed person. And it was also the same person X, and all of that kind of stuff, ’cause they were quite flamboyant. But the one gag that I threw in, and it came from a very, very noble place was, and do you know what, I’m shuddering as I’m saying it now, but basically I gave, I was referring to the fact that there was a bit of a party house that basically whenever anyone had been to the pub, you know, they would all end up back at this particular girl’s house. And so I said, “And the winner of hotel of the year goes to.” And then I named this person. And of course, as people pointed out to me afterwards, it made it sound like she just shagged everybody in the entire department. And I’m like, “Oh my God, oh my God, “no, no, that’s not what I meant, it’s not what I meant, “it’s not what I meant.” And of course it definitely wasn’t what I meant, but you immediately see how like, “Okay, no, no, no, no, you need to be very careful.” And actually, you genuinely need to be very careful about that sort of thing anyway. But because just because it came from noble intentions from you, it’s got fuck all to do with how it was meant to be and everything to do with how it lands. And so I think, you know, regardless of, new environments and everything else I think it’s really important, because the outcome of that was actually one of hilarity. She thought it was hilarious, but it might not have gone that way. I know I would have been absolutely deathly mortified had it not gone that way. And she would have been absolutely within her rights to take it. But I think, you know, it’s as I said before, I think you have a responsibility as a leader, you know, even though you want to see the joke in absolutely everything you or I do, you have a responsibility to not only take that slight back seat, but also to pull others up and to make sure that others realise that there are lines and that, you know, you can’t cross it.

– Well, how do you know where the line is unless you can find it?

– Well, I don’t know, who knows, hey? Who knows exactly? Sue me, sue me, you know what I mean?

– You’ve just started the new business, Viral Tribe. How have you brought humour into the ethos of the new business?

– Well, I mean, I think calling a business viral anything a month before a global pandemic is pretty fucking funny, quite frankly. Anyway, you know, such is fate. And I thought I’d stick with it. It’s interesting because I’m now working on my own. I’ve got another sort of colleague who works with me on some of the projects, but you know, it’s been pretty much me for the last year. And so it’s quite difficult to make yourself laugh with your own jokes and I have, I’ve done it, but you know, it’s very difficult. But I also think it’s been important to have humour, to have comedy. And so for me, I think, you know, just making sure that I’m connecting with as many people as possible and telling people about, you know, the interesting things about starting a business that have been absolutely bloody hilarious ’cause I’ve had no idea about how to do it. Running your own business, starting your own business, I think in any time is very, very difficult. I think doing it in a global pandemic is bloody tough. And so I think you need to have a strong sense of purpose and a strong sense of humour in order to do it.

– Have you ever gotten yourself out of trouble by using humour?

– At school I remember that I never, I think I never had a fight once. And bearing in mind that I have a very, very punchable face. And I was even then known as being a cheeky cocky little shit. I think it would be almost alien to think that someone wouldn’t have wanted to start a fight with me at some point. And so I think I would have used humour to get out of that. And I can almost remember some instance where I was brought out into the school field to have a fight with somebody. And I think I started to dance and this guy was doing the old Queensbury rules and everything else. And I was doing the ’70s disco dance and all the rest of it and taking the Mickey and everyone was laughing. And I think, you know, I can’t remember that. That’s the only bit I can remember. I can’t remember the outcome. I do remember I didn’t get punched and I never went home with a black eye or anything else. And I think that’s, you know, I think it must be down to humour. I think humour is brilliant at diffusing situations like that. I think used wisely, very difficult to diffuse out-and-out anger, but I think if you do it long enough and I think if you’re bloody minded enough you can kind of get out of anything.

– In business, Jon, is it survival of the fittest or is it survival of the funniest?

– Well, great, great question. And you’re probably asking the right person, given that I’ve moved from being this massive overweight person to being a much fitter person. Now, I wouldn’t say fit person, because as I say, lockdown and the arrival of Tyrells salt and vinegar crisps has been unkind to me. Other crisps are available, although not in this house. But anyway, the, I think it’s a mixture of the two. And I think the reason for that is that, on a serious note, have been, so, as I mentioned before, I do sort of iron man triathlons and all that kind of stuff. It’s the old joke, isn’t it? How do you know someone’s done an iron man? They’ll fucking tell you. And there you go. So I do, I’m a triathlete, which basically means I spent a lot of my time training and a lot of my time training multiple disciplines. And each of those disciplines gives me a different kind of work weapon if you like. So whether it be just getting clarity on subjects or whether it be creating presentations or just trying to work through problems, and I get all of that. And if I didn’t do that, if I wasn’t fit, then I’m not sure where I’d get the time and the bandwidth to kind of solve those problems. And I think equally, I think in the workplace just being fitter, I think people look at you in, not in different ways, but I think if you are sort of a sweaty, massive overweight mess I think a lot of people probably don’t take you as seriously as someone who is, you know, is fit and healthy, because I think it shows that you, you know, you take your body seriously, you take your life seriously, you know, you take longevity seriously. And I think that’s really important. However, I also think that having the humility to see the ridiculousness in that, you know, and as I say, I’m someone who likes extremes. which is why I couldn’t just say, “Oh no, I do a little bit of “running every now and then like a normal person.” I see the ludicrousness in that. And is it ludicrousness or ludicrousity or ludicrationness? I don’t know, anyway.

– [Paul] Ludicrousness.

– Ludicrousness, okay, we’ll go with that. But I think, you know, it’s the real kind of craziness of that that makes it funny. And I think, I think you should be able to have the two. So I don’t think it’s one of the other, I think in truth if you are completely not funny, but you’re really fit it will only get you so far. I think if you are very funny and unfit you’ll probably still do okay. But my view would be it’s better to try and have both.

– Nice. We’re getting to the end part of the show now where we go to quick fire questions.

– Jesus, no! ♪ Quick fire questions ♪

– I’m sorry.

– You should have given me the scripts before I got on.

– I’m sorry, it’s a contractual obligation. Quick fire questions. Who’s the funniest person in business that you’ve met?

– Well, I mentioned him earlier on, Scott Deutrom has a ridiculous turn of phrase, I mean, his timing is absolutely impeccable and it would be very, very remiss of me to, having told him privately that I think he’s the funniest person I’ve worked with. It would be, I think, deeply upsetting for him to then hear a whole barrage of other names. And there are other names as well, but I think in recent history, Scott Deutrom is the only man that’s reduced me to tears in the setting of a kitchen guide, cooking ceremony, whatever you want to call it. So I would have to say, yeah, Scott Deutrom.

– What book makes you laugh, Jon?

– Do you know what? I tend to read a lot of serious books or thrillers, all that kind of stuff. I don’t know why, just very few books make me laugh. I think the last book that I read that really made me laugh, and it’s quite old is probably ‘I, Partridge’, the Alan Partridge book, which is obviously co-written by the Gibbonses and Armando Iannucci and Steve Coogan. I just, I mean, I think Partridge is one of the greatest characters I think that has ever graced our airwaves, both on radio and TV. I love all of it. And the book is no different. The book is absolutely laugh out loud funny. I think when you’re on a train or a tube or whatever else and you literally just can’t control, you know, you’re just openly pissing yourself on the train because of some of the lines that are in there. I just find it absolutely hilarious.

– What film makes you laugh?

– Film is an interesting one, actually. I mean, again, it’s one of these things I can’t, trying to recall a film that makes you laugh, that you’ve seen recently is quite difficult. I have to say the film that I always go back to is Withnail and I. Because I think Withnail and I, it’s just still a film that gets quoted by me on a regular basis. I mean the whole uncle Monty thing. I mean even now it’s in the lexicon for me. I think beyond that, you know, obviously all the Monty Python films were, I think really influential for me. And then it was some of the weird American stuff. I mean there’s a film called Top Secret that I seem to recall which was a very, very slightly anarchic film that I don’t think probably would have stood the test of time to this day, but it was just stupid humour. It was the type of stuff where if you haven’t seen it, it was where there’s the guy with the magnifying glass looking at something and then he’d take the magnifying glass away and it was actually his eye that was that size and that kind of stuff basically. But yeah, it’s films that are either very clever or very stupid would generally get my vote.

– I have to tell you that I was an extra in Top Secret. It was shot over here, I think at Pinewood.

– No, no! Why didn’t you tell me that at the start? I would have worn pants and everything.

– What word makes you laugh, Jon?

– What word? Bamboozle.

– Bamboozle? Nice.

– Bamboozle, yeah.

– Okay, well, we’re going to shift it the other way now and ask a serious question, which is, what’s not funny?

– I think other people’s sadness and other people’s upset isn’t generally funny. I was going to say other people’s misfortune, but that’s almost always funny. I just, I think there’s certain things that you can make jokes of and certain things that you can’t. I think I’d actually err on the side of there’s not that much that you can’t. I think, you know, clearly, you know, time is a great factor in this. I think, you know, whenever something horrific happens, I think, you know after a given amount of time there’s always, you know, something that’s funny. However, saying that, I think there are some things that are so tragic that you don’t, that they never become funny and I think there are a lot of instances of that, that we don’t need to go into today. But I think, you know, we can be a little too sensitive at the moment. I think the whole kind of woke concepts and everything else that that’s clearly percolating now I think has made everybody far too fearful of making jokes about something. But you know, with me, I’m a firm believer that we, you know, when one door closes another one opens and as a result I think we can now all take the piss out of woke people. So from that perspective, I think it’s fine. I think we’re all right. We’re kind of odds even I reckon.

– Yeah, well, everything gets evened up. So would you rather be considered clever or funny?

– Ooh, ooh, damn you. Damn you with your trickery. I mean, I would probably, it’s funny isn’t it? In the workplace, I mean, if you were to ask, you know, for success, what would you rather be? I mean, it’s interesting, isn’t it? I suppose clever pays, funny stays, you know? And I think what I mean by that is you can get into a business and be incredibly clever and do very well, but the chances are someone smarter, more en Vogue, more on trend, more up-to-date is going to come and oust you and you’ll have to move off. I think if you’re funny it doesn’t matter if somebody else is funnier than you. You’re still funny. And so you still probably got a lot more longevity than the person who just uses clever.

– I absolutely love, “Clever pays, funny stays.” We’re using that, that will be in the book.

– You can have that, you can have that, you cam have that.

– And finally, Desert Island Gags. You can only take one gag with you to a desert island.

– Oh, look see, I am not, I’m not very good at actual gags at all and I can never remember them. And so the annoying thing is I can only remember one and it is marginally risque. So I’m going to have to try and sort of downgrade it slightly. But it was one I saw the other day, so apologies if you’ve heard it. But it was basically, it was a farmer that went out and he was having problems with his hens sort of laying eggs and all the rest of it. And so he went out to the market and he bought a really, really impressive looking cock. And the cock came in and he said, “Right.” And he set the cock to work. And the cock literally set himself about. There were about 150 hens within the thing. Before you know it they’re all absolutely rogered to bits, all sorted and the farmer was delighted. The next day, things started to go slightly awry as he noticed, he looked out of his window and he saw the cock going about the ducks. And before you knew it like 200-odd of these ducks had all been sort of seen to by this cock. So the farmer is thinking, “Right, this is an interesting situation. “I’m not sure how I’m going to resolve it.” Anyway, the next morning he looks out and he sees the cock flat on his back, dead. And so he’s like, “Fucking hell, “I’m not surprised actually, after all that.” So he goes over to look and he sees the vultures circling over the head and he goes over to look at the cock and sort of gives a little kick to make sure and the cock opens one eye and he goes, “Shut up, they’re coming in to land.” Which I liked, which I liked. It appealed to me, it appealed to me.

– Wow, you’ve appealed to our funny side so much. And well, thank you, A, for being a guest on the Humorology Podcast, Jon, and B for proving that funny equals money, and C for making me laugh. Thank you so much.

– Well, thank you very much for having me on. It’s been really enjoyable, genuinely enjoyable, and yeah, I hope everything goes well with your book.

– [Paul] The Humorology 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.

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