Mark Billingham – Crime Pays Comedy Stays
– If you’re happier and more relaxed and in a good head space then you’re going to do a better job I think that would apply to almost any job I can think of.
– Welcome to the Humourlogy Podcast with me Paul Boross and my glittering lineup of guests from the worlds of business, sport and entertainment who 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 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 podcast. My guest on this edition of the Humourology Podcast is a multi-award winning author, television screen writer, and performer. He is in the pantheon of hugely successful crime writers and his output is not only prodigious but prolific, having produced around 30 publications in just over 20 years. He’s also the world’s only best-selling author to have had a successful career as a stand-up comedian, actor and musician. He draws a fascinating parallel between performing comedy and writing crime fiction. And has said, “crime novels are full of punch lines. They’re just very dark punchlines” Mark Bilingham, welcome to the Humourology podcast.
– It’s very nice to be here thank you for having me.
– Well its a great pleasure. How much of a help was a background in comedy to writing the “dark punchlines” of crime fiction?
– Oh it was hugely helpful. I don’t think I realised that it would be it took me a few years to realise quite how helpful it had been. I mean firstly from a very basic standpoint as you know you’ve got to engage that audience very quickly. You can’t walk on stage at the Comedy Store and go “stick with me I’ll get funny in about 10 minutes”, you’ve got to be funny straight away or they’ll throw bottles at you. And similarly with a book, I will give a book 20 pages and if something hasn’t engaged me in that 20 pages, a voice, a hook or something I’m going to put it down and pick up something else, that writer hasn’t done their job. So firstly I learned that about hitting very hard and keeping it going and keeping the pages turning in the way you have to keep the laughs coming. But just in terms of the way crime fiction is structured it’s all about timing, it’s all about the reveal. You know it’s all about that moment similar to a joke where the audience think the punchline is coming from one direction then it hits them from somewhere else and that happens in crime fiction all the time. You know, the revelation of a killer, a clue, a red herring, a body, whatever it might be. So yeah all sorts of punchlines in crime fiction, but like I said as you reference in your intro very dark ones most of the time.
– For our listeners we worked on the same circuit for a goodly amount of time. We were actually–funny enough somebody described it to me I said I was having you on and a friend of mine when I told him I was interviewing you he said weren’t The Calypso Twins and the Tracy Brothers like the Blur and Oasis of the comedy circuit in the eighties and nineties?
– We certainly never got booked on the same bill together. There was only usually rooms. I think it was a big benefit or something, but most of the time there was only room for one musical comedy double act. I think I might have worked with you later when I was a solo act if I was compering or something.
– Yes you compared us a few times, you are a great compere at the store and Jongleurs as well. I’m just wondering if we were Blur and Oasis, does that make the Rubber Bishops… PULP?!?
– It was a bit of a heyday. It was a bit of golden time for the musical comedy double wasn’t it? But in the way of all things they ended up splitting up, they always do.
– Well it’s bands isn’t basically?
– Musical differences. No we didn’t have any Ainsley and I are still best mates so that’s a good. Are you still in touch with Mike?
– I don’t really see Mike very much, again we never had a falling out he just went in a different direction he’s a teacher now and I haven’t seen him for a long time. I have the occasional exchange on social media but that’s about it
– I mean because you’re so successful as a crime writer now. Do you have a sort of a real want to get back on stage regularly?
– Well, I do do that. I get my performance jollies all the time at book festivals. I mean I’m always drawn to the more comedic side of things even though the books are largely very dark. I do a two man show with a writer called Chris Brookmyre. Who’s the writer of kind of–who’s a hugely funny man. I got him into doing some standup at the Store once and will you do a show together that is purely for laughs I mean it’s pure scatological nonsense for laughs, and I’m a member of a band with a bunch of other crime writers and I absolutely need that stage time I still really need that. What I miss is the 20 minutes on stage or the 40 minutes on stage, what I don’t miss is sitting in a grotty dressing room at two in the morning, I don’t miss any of that.
– Yeah that’s where we know that there is no glamour in that bit and having spent years in those grotty dressing rooms and which are sometimes not even dressing rooms. You remember the old dressing room at the the Leicester Square Comedy Store, which was literally…
– Absolutely I do, absolutely I do, where the toilet was the sink. I remember walking in there one day and seeing a very famous female comedian who I shall not name pissing in the sink thinking “oh, that’s showbiz.”
– Yes, welcome to show business, it was great. So what makes you laugh Mark?
– I was thinking about this, I mean right now the thing that makes me laugh or the person that makes me laugh and it’s a joy, is my son, my son Jack who is 23 and we laugh all the time and there’s something very special about it. I mean it’s not just a laugh isn’t it? You can laugh at a joke, you can laugh at a joke you read in a book or it’s somebody who’s on TV, but there’s something about the company you’re in there’s about the context that makes the laugh that much more precious. And when he makes me laugh, he makes me laugh and I laugh but I’m also enormously proud of him, I’m kind of enormously proud that he has such a great sense of humour. I mean I think if there’s one thing you can pass on to your kids if it’s that you’ve done your job and he makes me laugh all the time. I mean that thing about context is funny I don’t know if you’ve seen this I’m sure you have, there’s a video I saw once where it’s comedy– the camera is on the audience at a comedy club It may well even have been the Comedy Store, and the joke is told and then they show the reaction in slow motion of like 600 people laughing. And what you see is people checking out the people next to them. It’s a fraction of a second. It’s just the eyeballs move, it’s kind of can we all laugh? It’s that communal experience of laughter which is very different from when you read something– when you laugh out loud at something on the tele when it’s just you that’s a very odd moment but yeah my son makes me laugh alot.
– Yeah it’s funny because we’re recording this in lockdown and when we go back you can’t really get an atmosphere for comedy unless people are tightly packed in.
– Well there are a lot of comics I know now who were doing their gigs on zoom and it’s just the weirdest experience. Not only is there no direct interaction, sometimes they can’t even hear even if people are on a screen laughing they can’t hear it. And it’s just telling jokes into the ether it’s just the most bizarre experience.
– So is there any chance of your son Jack going into comedy?
– I think It’s just the way he is. I’m not sure he knows what he’s going to go into, but he will always look for the gag, he will always look for the gag and it’s a great instinct.
– By the way my son Sam is the same, it’s a joy, but then we get into is humour nature or nurture and is growing up in an environment where you’ve got a funny dad or is it something that you hear– I mean the Jesuits say “Give me a child of seven and I will give you the man.” Was the young Mark Billingham funny?
– Probably not I mean I certainly didn’t grow up in a house where neither my dad or later my stepdad were comedically inclined. We’d watch all the classic sitcoms on tele once I got to school yeah I’d love to say I was the class clown it wasn’t quite that I mean that’s such a cliche, but when it came to anything written, that thing when you had to write a story in class, the golden moment for me, I mean the absolute golden moment was if a teacher said “Mark come and read your story out to the rest of the class.” That was the best thing that could ever happen. I mean I can still remember just how exciting that was and I was trying to be funny. I remember writing– trying to write in inverted commas a funny story for my 11+ English exam which was I remember my teacher Mr. Tumble apparently took my mother aside and said, “Well I think what mark has done is funny” fingers crossed the examiner does. Yeah I think that was always my first instinct was to try and make people laugh.
– So you would go that it’s more nature than nurture would you? that you have to hear funny ’cause that’s the way I think about it because neither of my parents were particularly funny but you start to hear it don’t you? and you just know where the gag is.
– My brother doesn’t have that kind of instinct either. He likes a good laugh but he’s not always looking for the joke. You know exactly what I mean, I mean the odd thing is in terms of the books I write now I have to resist that quite often because I write about a detective, he’s not smart, he’s not full of jokes, he’ll think of a joke three days later. There are some other characters who bring humour into it, but it’s not necessarily him. So sometimes I go, “oh that would be great thing to say, that’d be very funny thing to say” but it’s not him, it’s just not him so I have to quite often fight that urge to put gags in right, left and centre.
– Are there any serial killers in books who have great senses of humour?
– Yes I mean I’ve probably most notably Dexter, which then became a huge successful TV series. Those books are very funny. I mean I think later on we’ll probably talk about is there anything that isn’t funny and I mean arguably death is right up there as a kind of– but you have to be funny about it, you kind of have to. I mean there are whole books– I’ve got a lot of funny books about death. But if you want to hear jokes flying thick and fast, you got to a murder scene, which I have attended and cops have to have very black senses of humour. It’s a coping mechanism, it’s the only way, you can’t take all that death and grief and pain and loss and darkness home with you at the end of the day. It’s a really interesting thing and I’ve spent a whole nights on night shift drive alongs with cops and the stuff they come out with is just unbelievable because they know that two minutes later they’re going to be attending a fatal road traffic accident or a murder whatever it is. It’s a very strange thing to experience.
– Well it’s gallows humour isn’t it?
– Funny we had people on the podcast, we had John Sweeney for instance on the podcast who has been to 60 wars and insurrections and everything and he talked about that everybody in war was funny to cope and as a coping mechanism.
– Yeah, I’ve interviewed a lot of people who worked with a number of pathologists, sort of fairly high profile pathologists who worked on some just horrendous, horrendous cases and there some of the funniest and most entertaining creative people that you’d ever wish to meet. It’s really bizarre which is why I made the only ostensibly funny character in my books is a pathologist just ’cause those people just tend to have very very dark senses of humour.
– Tell me a funny story about something that has happened to you.
– I was doing a book event a few years ago in Ireland, and I had a book that was about to come out it wasn’t ready, they weren’t finished copies of it but what I had were little samplers, the publisher had created a whole bunch of samplers, thousands of these little about this thick, three or four chapters and I was giving them away during the tour. And so every night I would do these events and I would say okay there’ll be a Q and A at the end and any great questions you win a copy of the sampler, I’ll give you a copy of sampler. So we got to the Q and A at the end and a guy put his hand up on the front row and said I want to talk to you about audible, your audio books, I really like your audio books I listen to them all the time and you narrate them, what’s it like writing your own audio books? So I talked about that for a bit, I thought that was a great question and I said “Oh, well done that’s a great question here you go you win a sampler.” And I picked it up and I threw it at him and as it left my hand, I mean in that split second as it left my hand, I went, “he’s blind.”
– Of course that’s why he loves the audio books so much but it was too late I was like you know that awful slow motion thing and of course the thing just hit him and it was just horrendous. I mean you kind of turn it into a funny story and then you tell it– I mean that’s happened with a lot of awful things that have happened at book events. You save those stories up and then turn them into a routine. But that was about the worst.
– Yeah and it’s no one to comedians call it dying when they fail on stage.
– Well talking about being on stage and dying, what’s the worst heckle you’ve ever had or best heckle?
– About the worst death I can remember, well the worst death I can remember was very late closing the late show at Jongleurs Camden two o’clock in the morning or something. And you know that thing when you walk out they just look at you and go “We’ve had enough” and you know instant, you just know you doomed. So I did about five minutes to virtual silence and total apathy thinking “this is going to be a nightmare.” And then there was a person right at the front who turned out to be–I think he was Polish. You know where are you from? Desperately trying to anything and he turned out he was Polish. So I just started asking him what was the Polish for different things, for rude words, I mean it was just rubbish, it was pathetic but I started to get a hint of a reaction from the audience and I thought you know you have that little moment of optimism and you think I can turn this round. So I started going “What’s Polish for penis, what’s Polish for this?” And then a bloke at the back goes “What’s Polish for you’re shit?”
– That’s the one I have nightmares about. You know sometimes it’s just– to be honest that wasn’t a gig or a death that was my fault. Sometimes it is, sometimes you’re just– when you’re doing four gigs a night and you mess up and you really shouldn’t have taken on that much work. But when you just walk on in they’re tired and there’s nothing you can do. That’s the kind of work– in a way you’d almost rather get somebody shouting at you than hearing nothing. And you get those genius comedians and you know the ones I mean people like Bill Bailey or Sean Lock, or you know I don’t know about you but I would get a heckle and something in you freezes, you don’t want it. You say I’ve got this 20 minutes of material, I know it works I don’t want this heckle, and something in your freezes. When they get heckled something in them is liberated. It’s like you watch them come to life and you watch them go, “oh let’s have some fun, let’s play.” They’re a rare breed.
– Yeah, oh they are a rare breed, the ones who really ready because I mean actually with experience, you do learn that actually it’s not what you say it’s how you say it. And we all had a few stock heckle put downs in our back pocket. You know “When I want any more shit from you I’ll squeeze your head,” “What do you use for birth control, is it your personality?”
– Of course the thing to remember is not only do you do it for a living, you’ve got a microphone, there are big bouncers at the back of the room, they’re drunk, I mean nine times out of 10 you will beat the heckler. But I mean some heckles– you remember the genius heckles, you know, “Good evening I’m a schizophrenia well the pair of you can fuck off.” You just got to give in at that point and go, “you win.”
– Do you remember the one of– I can’t remember which comic that went on with the microphone and said, “can you hear me?” And the heckler said, “Yes I can but I’m willing to change places with someone who can’t.”
– And there was a comedian who came on stage at the Comedy Store sort of open spot who spent five minutes miming, just miming, all this he’s walking against the wind and then a heckler went, “oh you speak up on blind” and then waited, waited a couple of minutes and went “Has he gone yet?”
– Oh the kicker.
– Yeah that was brilliant.
– That was really awesome. I mean did you play the Tunnel Palladium as well?
– Which it was legendary for our listeners in the sense that Malcolm Hardee used to wind up the audience deliberately. Well I mean we had to stop playing it when we went onto racist chanting at one stage.
– We stopped playing it when a comedian got hit with a glass, trying to remember who it was, might’ve been Kit Hollabach, anyway I know somebody got hit with a glass and there was a bit of a movement that people we should just boycott this place for a while ’cause yeah Malcolm would wind them right up and they you know “Malcolm, Malcolm” and they would–it’s like they would rehearse heckles. I quite convinced that the audience got together an hour before the show.
– It was a bit of–it was gladiatorial.
– It was a zoo basically, It really was. Is everyone capable of being funny, Mark? Because everybody in their profile when they’re looking for dates will put ‘good sense of humour’.
– No I don’t think they are in the same way that if you can carry a tune you find it quite astonishing when somebody is tone deaf. You’ve just sort of go how can you not– how can you think you’re in tune? Or if you can dance and you see somebody who can’t dance who basically just has no sense of rhythm and you just go, “but that’s sort of surely everybody understands rhythm I mean it’s in us, it’s innate. but then you see somebody dancing and you go, “nope you’re just not getting this at all.” And I think therefore there are people who just can’t tell a joke. Couldn’t tell the best joke in the world and get a laugh out of it because their timing’s all over the place, they don’t embroider it in the right way, whatever it might be. You know this is an interesting thing, this is right up your alley I would imagine in terms of the book. When I first started writing because of the background, I thought I should maybe write some comedy crime or maybe you know–and there are awesome comics and back then there were a couple of moderately successful comedy crime rights, Carl Hiaasen in America notably, but very few. And I remember at one of the first conventions I went to there was a seminar called “Does Humour Hurt Your Sales Figures?” I’ve never forgotten that. And the reason for it is this, why there are so few humour– I mean genuinely well-known humorous writers, which is really sad being the country that produced P.G. Woodhouse and Evelyn Waugh whatever it might be. But there are so few, and the reason for it is this, an editor gets sent something that is–this is a funny book and either they go, “Well I think it’s funny but will anybody else?” or “this might be the funniest thing in the world but I don’t get it.” So the easiest thing in the world is to pass. They’re very scared of funny books and that’s the same thing I think applies too basically you know what it’s like telling 10 people the same joke, eight of them will laugh their socks off and two of them will stare at you. It’s–so I think no– that’s a very long-winded way of saying no I don’t think everybody can be funny.
– So for our listeners because we’re trying to give them tips and techniques, is there a way to become funnier?
– Again I kind of don’t think so. I mean there are plenty of people taking comedy workshops and running comedy been going for donkey’s years and produced a whole load of great comedians, but I believe those great comedians would always have been great comedians. I think what they’re taught is microphone technique and the way to build a routine or–you know what I mean, plumb into themselves a bit more and use their own experience for their material. But I don’t think you can teach somebody, it’s like teaching somebody who’s got no sense of rhythm to have a sense of rhythm, you can’t teach it. You either hear it or you don’t. So I don’t think you can be taught to be funny. In the same way that I don’t think you can be taught to be a good writer. You can become a better writer, you can weed out bad habits and you can learn discipline and all that kind of stuff, but you can’t teach somebody how to write, it’s a craft, you can get better at it, but I don’t think you can– I don’t think if it’s not in you, it’s got to be something that’s in you to begin with. Yeah you can get better you can get to a certain level. You can get to a sort of acceptable level but I think if you want to go beyond that there’s got to be something fairly special there to begin with.
– If somebody’s got to make a speech whether that’s a wedding speech or a business speech. What’s the advice because actually I get brought in sometimes to help with CEOs making speeches and most of the time I’m telling them not to do the funny and they’re going, “I need to start with a joke” and I’m going “Well unless you can really nail it, It could, the worst thing is it dies on its arse and then you go. ‘but seriously’.”
– Yeah, my close friend is a comedian called Mike Gunn and I was the best man at his wedding in front of a room full of comedians, like a hundred comedians and you will know all of them. And I was absolutely wetting myself back there waiting to go on and they were like animals. They would just–“here comes the best man speech.” They were rubbing their hands with glee and as soon as I sort of took to the stage they all crowded round like jackals and so I just went sincere. I put a couple of cheap putdowns in and then just went sincere and you could see them all sort of, “oh” I’m not going to do that. I think you’re right, I mean you go online and you see these “How to Write Best Man Speeches” and there are all these hackneyed old jokes, you know, “Well this is the second time today I’ve got up from a warm seat with a piece of paper in my hand which, God bless him, my late father-in-law said at our wedding. I kind of bless him for that.
– Post ironically of course.
– No, absolutely.
– Absolutely not.
– I think that–I mean that’s great piece of advice I think is go sincere. At my wedding, I had a load of comics there as well so making my speech, I was heckled in my own speech.
– I know.
– Which was like–I actually was thinking, “Yeah okay I deserve this.”
– I mean I did it I’ve been lucky enough to be a best man a few times and most recently it was a fellow crime writer. So the room was full of crime writers who were not–some of them are absolutely hilarious but most of them aren’t, cause it’s just not what they do. So I put a lot of work into this speech and if I say so myself it was pretty funny. But people talk about it, “I never seen about that, that was the best best man speech I’ve ever seen,” because actually they’re not used to seeing somebody who has done this professionally, know kind of how to work a room. And it’s what am working the room, which is a very different thing from telling a joke, it’s not they’re not the same skill necessarily but…
– Yeah so how does somebody get better at working the room? That you can’t unless you do a lot of it presumably.
– Well again it’s things like–well it’s stage time. You just need stage time. But of course again in terms of some comedians, it’s in their nature and it’s in their stage persona that they don’t move for example and they’re just one-liner merchants who stand at the microphone and don’t– whereas I was always a prowler, just prowling around the stage especially when you compere, that really is your job, working the room literally means making contact with as many people in that room as you can even if that’s a hack thing of going… right, “All the women in the room where are you? the men in the room, all the married couples, all the single people”, all that stuff, none of it is rocket science really.
– Well, you say that but that’s an art as well. I mean to be a good compere is really difficult I think and there’s only–and in our time I think there were perhaps seven good comperes. So I mean it was a real art to be able to do it and we would name all the same people because as an act, when it kicked off or somebody died on their arse you relied on the compere to bring them back. Was your drama background – cause I know that you obviously acted but you also had a drama degree. Was that helpful in that stage presence and understanding?
– Yeah I mean it certainly meant that I wasn’t shy. I mean it is so much about confidence or rather making the audience think that you’re confident. I mean there’s that crucial 10 seconds, literally from when the compere goes, “so please welcome…” and they clap and there’s that moment when you take the stage and take the microphone out of the mic stand, and that is absolutely crucial. And it’s about saying to the audience, “Relax I know what I’m doing, you’re in safe hands.” And there are some comics that just seem to have a natural way of making the audience go, “Oh I so want to laugh at you you’re going to make me laugh.” And there are some comics who rub people up the wrong way and they walk on and the audience go, “Right make me laugh you know I am going to resist the urge to laugh as long as I possibly can.” But it is about that confidence thing. And I think so I had that from trolling around doing bloody Shakespeare all over the country or touring theatre company for a couple of years. Having said that the very first time I was booked to the Comedy Store, I remember seeing a fine comic called Dave Cohen, it had been going for years before I was, vomiting in the dressing room. And I thought “oh my God, he’s been doing this years” and he’s listening to the late show crowd baying outside the door and he’s chucking up and I’m going “oh my God.” So yeah I mean it’s not the same thing as walking on the Theatre Royal Windsor it’s a very different experience.
– It’s funny because I always say that if you’ve worked the late show at the Comedy Store, nothing is ever scary again. Are you of the same mind?
– Yeah pretty much it is. It is the scariest, it is absolutely the scariest thing. When as you say “I mean there only a few feet away,” you can–literally the other side of this door and yeah you can hear them baying. Sometimes you’d hear them baying for blood. It’s such a weird industry isn’t it? Because your best friend can be on before you and there’s a little nasty part of you going, “I want you to die” because if you absolutely rip the arse out of this for 20 minutes, I can’t follow you. It’s very awful, isn’t it? We’ve all been in that dressing room when someone has died and when they come through that door and we all look at the floor.
– Everybody’s head goes down because you can’t look at them. You don’t want to be infected by that.
– It’s was very weird moving from that to publishing because I remember going to the first– my first kind of publishing award ceremony about a year after I’d started, and somebody had just won the award for I don’t know whatever it was best new writer and walked up to the stage and I looked around and there was genuine warmth and congratulations and I remember thinking if this was comedy, if this was a comedian getting up there, the bitching would have started before he’d got to the stage. “He’s got that much talent.”
– “Never been funny.”
– It’s competitive by nature because of that way evenings are structured, you know it’s not like– you know what it’s like, four acts and a compere, they don’t all get together in the dressing room beforehand and go “Let’s have a great show everybody.” It’s not like a team. It’s great if everybody does well, but it’s also quite good if somebody doesn’t quite often in terms of the audience having a good evening, you know three storming acts and one hideous death, what a great night.
– So most writers don’t subscribe to the belief that in order for them to do well somebody else has to do badly. It’s tides–all boats will rise on a tide kind of thing and so it’s a nice–they’re a nice crowd, nice gang to be a member of.
– You know as a psychologist now I go and speak at conferences and everything and very rarely does anybody say “you’re shit.”
– That’s right. I mean people might not like my book but they don’t throw it at me. I don’t get people at Hay Literally festival going “Taxi,” Its much better.
– Once this has gone out, you might encourage people.
– They were the worst heckles, the kind of knowing heckles, I mean the great heckles have already mentioned, the creative heckles, when somebody just goes “Next?” It’s like oh..
– Yeah, but do you remember in the Comedy Store days when Kim Kinnie, because the Comedy Store– Kim Kinnie for our listeners used to run the Comedy Store. He used to–I didn’t find this out till later, but when he felt the audience was too quiet and wasn’t involved, he used to walk along the back and start the heckling himself, the bastard, God rest his soul.
– Not a surprise, not a surprise.
– But just so our listeners can understand what kind of atmosphere we grew up in. What would the world be like without humour?
– Oh it’d be unbearable. I mean it would be absolutely unbearable. On a very simple personal prosaic level, I can’t read anything that doesn’t have some humour in it, I can’t write anything that doesn’t have any humour in it, because the world is like that. Even in the bleakest moments, there’s humour, because there has to be, because it’s the way we cope as human beings. I always have this image in my head. I don’t quite know where it came from, of somebody walking away from the worst thing that they could possibly be going through, I don’t know, identifying the body of their child, walking away from the mortuary and slipping on a banana skin, there has to be those moments. And you know in a way in order for the dark to be truly dark, there has to be light so you can compare the two. I can’t bear things where there isn’t some humour in there somewhere, there has to be, oh my God it’d be an awful world, It’d be an awful world.
– Do you think it’s a part of the human condition that we have to because we are one of only a few species that actually do involve humour, I know there’s rats, but is that the release valve that we actually need to be human you think?
– Yes I think it is and I think it’s probably part of the evolutionary process in terms of us becoming iin inverted comma ‘civilised’. I’m sure the first time a caveman hit himself on the thumb with his club, and his mate laughed, that was a massive step forward in human evolution. You know up to that point it’s probably we’ve got to go and kill that mammoth, or we’re not going to eat tonight or we’ve got to avoid getting killed by the saber-toothed tiger. But as soon as there was some sitting around a fire and having a laugh, then I think that’s a giant evolutionary step.
– Yeah I agree. So can people be good communicators without a level of humour?
– No I don’t think so. Although having said that there’s nothing worse than the kind of communicator who tries and fails to put humour in, or crowbars it in when it’s not appropriate. I mean I don’t know how many of the people watching this or listening to this would have had to sit through the horror of a road or web traffic awareness speed course. Those courses you’re offered instead of having points on your licence, well I’ve done them twice. In a way I just want this person to go to show me all the powerpoints and go 30 miles an hour, where are the hazards on this? But when they go, “And it reminds me of when I was driving alone one day” and they try to tell you some joke and it just falls horrendously flat and you just go, “You’re making this worse, you might just get it over with.” But when it’s done well, I mean it is a way to make things that might not be palatable, palatable. To make your audience a bit more receptive, to relax them, to make them feel that they’re in a safe environment, and that it’s not going to be horrible.
– It’s fine when it’s done well. But I mean it’s like aircrew who now think that they’ve got–“This is my crowd”
– Yeah, yeah.
– and you go, “Why?” There will be occasional ones who you go “oh yeah I’ve not heard that, that’s fine, that’s lightening it up.” But there’s people who are going, “I’m on.”
– Yeah, well I flew on an airline once in Canada, a small Canadian airline, well that was their thing. It was sort of the gimmick of the airline. So the whole point, from the minute you got on the plane, they wouldn’t stop. Even the–not just the crew, not just the “I can’t get my life jacket on”, but the pilot, “We’ll be flying into height of 30,000 feet well hopefully” and you’re going… just stop. Just stop it now .
– Did you ever get invited to that because both my previous band Morris Minors & The Majors and the Calypso Twins, we used to work with Virgin Atlantic.
– We never did it. We talked about it once but we never– it sounded horrendous to me.
– Well by the way just the noise because you weren’t allowed amplification and then you were stuck literally right in front of the person who wanted to sleep you know and you’re going Do you want to Boogaloo very very loudly in their ear.
– Who came up with that idea? Who thought that was a good idea?
– Well actually it was Branson because we did some of the inaugural flights to like Miami and places like that and it was about making it fun. And I mean some people loved it and then some people– but you imagine if you’re forced to be in there, it’s a tough one, but it was an interesting experience and I got to go to America a lot as a result of it. You described yourself in another interview as a shameless show off, welcome to the club, but is that a gene? You think that we have, that you need that feedback loop?
– Yes, I think it is. And it’s interesting when I was talking about my son and you were talking about your son, the thing about it is it genetic? What my son has always– the thing I hated being told as child, hated, was stopped showing off. It was a thing that would cut me. It would cut me to the quick, you’d know if you’d done something wrong, if you’d broken something or stolen something, but “Stop showing off” just felt such– it was crushing. And I remember vowing to myself that even when I had children I would never ever say that to them ever. Well largely because showing off is been my career pretty much in one form or another. Who the hell would I be to say that? But I think it’s a terrible thing to say to somebody but it is–in a way comedy, stand-up comedy, is sort of the– it’s something kind of desperate about love me, love me, love me, not just laugh at me, but love me, love me, It was kind of a weird thing. But I’m still performing now when I write the books, the books are a performance. You’re still trying to give the best performance you can. And yeah shameless show off, drop of a hat, fridge opening, I mean I’m absolutely have always been like that. And it’s what it always said on my school report. “Mark would do a lot better if he stopped showing off.”
– No but in a sense I mean for our listeners to take away, we had Dr. Richard Bandler on the podcast who developed the field of NLP. And he said the problem is–and you just said it, you said you swore that you would never tell your son not to–or daughter not to show it off, not to be a show off but it gets knocked out of people because actually most of us in life whatever you’re doing need to interact with people, need to make a speech, need to inspire people, so a bit of showing off is a good thing if you know how much it needs in the mix.
– One of the things when I’m swept to power to a popular opinion and I get to organise the education policy in this country, one of the things I would make compulsory at school is public speaking. I don’t mean you have to become part of the debating society but everybody at some point in their life will be at whether it’s a wedding speech, whether it’s at a business conference, will have to stand up in front of 10 people or 20 people or a thousand people and make a speech. I’m not saying you need to be turned into a master at that but you need to have the fear of that taken away from you So it’s not the most dreadful and frightening thing you’ve ever done
– My theory on this is having spent a lot time and lived in America is that Americans are much easier with this for that very reason because they’re all taught to do show and tell from a very young age.
– And it’s a very simple thing, you have to bring in something and go
– A frog or whatever it is.
– And then you get over that. And as we know fear of public speaking is the number one fear in the world. And as Jerry Seinfeld pointed out that death is only number six. Is it important to be able to laugh at yourself?
– Oh a hundred percent. I mean the people I have always respected the most in whatever field I’ve worked in, so television comedy, but largely in writing and publishing are the people who take what they do enormously seriously, but don’t take themselves remotely seriously. I think that’s the only way to be. I mean, it’s very simple you can sum it up quite easily by just saying, “Don’t be a dick.” Don’t take yourself too seriously.
– People who can laugh at themselves actually have a degree of understanding about the ridiculousness of wherever you are on that hierarchy. It is ridiculous.
– I think it also helps if you’re surrounded by a family who laugh at you. I mean like literally will laugh at you when you’re going, “oh look at this amazing review I’ve got in The Times” will then just go, “Yeah but it’s not as good as he got,” or and just make you go, yeah, yeah I’m being an arse.
– Yeah kids are great aren’t they?
– Oh yeah, shut up where’s my tea.
– Exactly, it just reminded me of a story. My mother’s family are from the East End of Glasgow So sort of–and when Morris Minor & Majors had their first hit, I went up to Glasgow and I was doing a gig up and I went to the Cranhill Estate where my family lived. And my little cousins all gathered around me and I was preening myself slightly, and one of them came up to me and went, “oh uncle Paul we saw you on that they’re Top of the Pops” and they just allowed me to puff my chest out enough and went “We thought you were shit”
– Yeah, that’s important
– Thank you. that little smirk on their faces, they knew what they were doing and it was beautiful.
– Do people laugh enough, do you think in the workplace generally?
– I think people probably laugh less than they did because I think people are possibly afraid to laugh that maybe it’s unseemly or it’s not business-like or you know– and you certainly can’t laugh at people in the sort of what you’re talking about. I mean a gentle you know what I mean. You know somebody trips over a stapler and crashes into a door you laugh at them and the next thing you’re being halled up in front of HR for bullying. So I do think there’s room for more of it definitely and I’m not sure there’s as much as there was.
– But how do you encourage it more? Because that’s the whole Humourology project is built around. How do we actually get more laughter back into life and work?
– Well it clearly from people who are running departments it’s got to come from the top down I think. And again in my experience of this is limited because I’m largely I am my own boss and I worked from home but whenever I’m in the publishing environment and I’m in their offices and stuff, it’s a very happy and open it’s all, you know all desking and open plan and all that sorts of stuff and everybody’s encouraged to contribute to ideas and whatever. But when it comes to I’m not in there largely– well I am if the meetings about me and there are meetings with big slides and all sitting in a long table and so on and there’s always plenty of jokes actually. There are jokes flying thick and fast But what I notice is it’s almost like it needs me to be the one that goes, “It’s all right everybody, you can laugh.” Somebody needs to say that, if this is a meeting about me or the marketing for my next book that has to come from me ’cause if I sit there and I go, “Right let’s see the facts and figures what’s the buy-in from Tesco or what are Waterstones doing this year” then it all gets very serious. Jokes and laughter flying around the table but somebody needs to flick that switch and go, “this is okay.”
– So that’s leadership, isn’t it? Leadership through laughter. It’s like somebody has to lead and go, “this is okay.”
– Yeah I think there is still a perception that it is not a natural thing to do in a business environment. You know that we have to be serious. I think there’s still a perception that seriousness equates to efficiency, which is clearly not the case, but I think that’s still a widely held belief.
– If I asked you to make a business case for humour, what, what would you include in it?
– We all know that laughing in terms of what it does to release endorphins and sense of well-being and happiness and stuff that has to equate to doing your job better. I mean surely– I mean again that doesn’t seem like rocket science to me. If you’re happier and more relaxed and in a good headspace, then you’re going to do a better job. I think that would apply to almost any job I can think of.
– But the trouble is that I think now that businesses are more and more getting run by accountants and so there has to be a spreadsheet that says, here’s what we get for this. I can’t see any uplift through laughter so what’s my return on investment. How would you define return on investment on that?
– No I think it’s almost impossible. You have a whole bunch of people– you know I always imagined sort of like a Kafka-esq scene where hundreds of people all sitting at a desk doing that, but once every five minutes a joke is broadcast over a PA system and then the next day there were no jokes and you basically see well what was productivity like on each of these days. You know that’s probably not a fair way to do it. You actually need Billy Connolly standing up and doing five minutes of material once an hour or something. And there were other ways to do that doesn’t have to be humour, but humour is certainly one of the things that would do that.
– We say humour but it’s really lightness, isn’t it? You’re in a creative environment surely you have to reach that state of mind whereby you’re allowed to play and humour is a part of that playing process, isn’t it?.
– Yeah and I mean I know there’s a lot of that goes on at my publisher. They encourage kind of evenings out and quiz nights and comedy clubs, and whatever it might be and yeah that’s about bonding I suppose.
– So have you ever taken a joke too far?
– Oh, almost certainly. I can’t think of a particular example, but probably, not probably, definitely. And there are times when you wake up the next day and go, “I wish I hadn’t said that” where you just think there’s one more laugh here. You know it’s that thing of just trying to ring every single laugh out of thing and you not happy with one laugh, two laughs, you think I can get three, four out of this and you realise you said the wrong thing and you should have shut it.
– But isn’t that the whole learning process of comedy isn’t that you have to be pushing the boundaries cause otherwise you won’t know where they are.
– But you are pushing– yeah I mean you have to push boundaries it’s good thing largely, but I suppose if it once becomes personal, I’d be thinking of instances which were not professional. I’d be thinking of instances with a group sitting around with a group of friends in the pub and then somebody starts going, “I was quite upset when you said that thing” and you go, “Oh sorry I was just trying to get out it was just a stupid joke.” And I don’t mind upsetting people in a comedy audience. I mean I remember once when the Iraq war was on when I was still in a double act and we did a huge medley about the Iraq war which used to storm it most nights to the themes of American musical. The American army is coming on over the plane I can remember what it was, it was all really nonsense, but it used to go down really well. And then one night at the club there was a knock on the door and a woman was in tears, hugely upset because her son was out there. You know I don’t want to come out for night at the comedy club and have that thrown at me and I was really sorry the woman was upset, but I was also thinking “You really think the best way to avoid the biggest story in the world right now is to go and listen to a bunch of comedians who are going to talk about it cause that’s what they do.” I mean I was sad she was upset, but it wasn’t like we didn’t do it again the next night.
– I think it was James O’Brien’s point where everybody finds everything funny until it’s about them. And suddenly everything’s go, “hold on, hold on.”
– I mean the Morris Mannor & The Major story was Stutter Rap was a joke about a rapper who had to stutter. It’s a very simple gag, the ridiculousness of that juxtaposition. But we only ever had about three complaints, but one of them was my mates stutters and I feel really angry for him. And he came backstage and we’re going you know, it’s a gag,
– Did you know that the BBC, when it first came out, the BBC band, My Generation by The Who. Not because you know why don’t you all f-f-f-f-f, not because they thought, “Oh he’s going to say fuck” and he didn’t , they did it because they banned it because they were afraid it would offend stutterers
– No that’s a great story.
– Well fantastic, that’s brilliant. Have you ever gotten yourself out of trouble by using humour? Now I suspect on stage that’s given that you do that, but in other aspects of your life.
– Probably not since I was a kid, I mean there were occasions just the classic– it’s almost a cliche you make the school bully laugh and then they they won’t steal your dinner money. There was a bit of that, so you know this guy who broke my flask and would always hit me in the queue for dinner, I would end up just doing an impression of the football teacher or the physics teacher and he’d laugh at that and he wouldn’t steal my dinner money. I mean that’s such a cliche, isn’t it?
– Well, no but it’s true because I think I used it all the time at school. I mean I think you went to the comprehensive as well.
– A state grammar school yeah.
– Yeah great grammar school. Yeah I went to the comprehensive, big comprehensive, we had 2000 boys. You have to have something that was in your armoury to diffuse that and you build on that throughout your life, don’t you? It’s just stuff you learned early on. Now in business is it survival of the fittest or survival of the funniest?
– It’s hard to think that we could ever get to a stage where it would literally be survival of the funniest. It’d be nice because I mean the point is there’s a sort of an implication with survival of the fittest. The fittest also means most ruthless and cruellest and most sociopathic and it’s no accident I think that studies have shown that an awful lot of people who are hugely successful at business in business also tick an awful lot of boxes in the psychopath test because lack of empathy helps when you’re firing somebody, or your stepping on somebody to get a little bit further up the corporate ladder. I suspect it probably still is survival of the fittest sadly.
– Within books, is that well different? I mean you said it was very sort of supportive.
– It’s no different to any other industry really Paul except it’s very polite, it’s extremely polite. And rather old fashioned. Let’s it’s think of a situation where an agent is trying to sell one of their client’s books. You know this is a very common thing, you have an agent and especially if you’re a new author. So a new author signs with an agent, that agent then contact lots of publishers to see if they want to buy the book. It would be the easiest thing in the world for an agent to say to Harper Collins, “Well Random House have offered 150,000” so that Harper Collins then say, “all right we’ll offer 160,000” when there is no such offer, right? But I’ve never come across one who would do that because they’d just go, that’s not done, we wouldn’t do that that’d be a terrible thing to do. It’s a very polite industry, but they’re fine and nice and supportive and lovely as long as you’re doing well and I’ve been with the same publisher for over 20 years, and they’ve always been lovely to me that’s because I’ve always sold books for them. You’re only as good as your last couple of books. I’d have plenty of friends who have been dropped ruthlessly and without mercy when you know the book stop selling it can be a ruthless business.
– Well I think it’s just any business can be ruthless can’t it really? It’s about success and you’ve been enormously successful within your business. What does success mean to you, Is it about the work now?
– Yeah it’s about the work now. I’m a strong believer in the harder I work the luckier I get. You have to pick and use that luck and run with it and then you suddenly have it. Once you have a fan base, once you have people who you know are going to buy your books. Do you know what I mean? I mean I’m not saying that I could turn out garbage now for the rest of my life and it would continue to sell but there are plenty of high profile authors selling lots of books who have been phoning in for a very long time. And you’re aware of that and so you just think I’m still trying to write the best book I can. There comes a point when you might go, “My best book was 10 years ago.” It’s like Usain Bolt. I always have a feeling that Usain Bolt at some point is going to go fast as fast as I can bloody run. That’s it, it happened three years ago, in Munich, and that’s it I’m never going to get any faster. He’s always going to try, but I think you have to have that ambition. So yeah success for me means thankfully I’ve got a platform where I now have a right to fail.
– It says so because I think all successful people are driven. You touched on that and as a psychologist I was like going is that imposter syndrome is still there for all of us.
– Oh of course it is. You’re constantly waiting for that little tap on the shoulder going, “there’s been a hideous administrative error.” We were supposed to give that book deal to Mike Bellingham and it was just a typo. No, no, absolutely. And I’ve seen that from writers a zillion times more successful than I am from your your Lee Childs and your John Grisham’s and they all have that, they all have that. And they also don’t take themselves that seriously which is it’s great to see that really. And they’re also very supportive of people coming up behind them, and again in a way I never really saw in comedy. They’re very few big comedians saying to the new act, “that was brilliant, fantastic mate.” There’s more a kind of “I’m watching, I’m watching you,” but the really successful authors tend to be very supportive.
– Well but there’s a model for comedy to start taking on really. They’ll never do that obviously. We come to the part of the show, which we like to call quickfire questions.
– Oh okay, great. ♪ Quick fire questions ♪
– Who is the funniest business person you’ve ever met?
– Oh Lord.
– Now given that your business was comedy for years I suppose you could veer over to somebody in comedy if you think but I am trying to push you.
– I know plenty of crime writers– Well I know plenty of crime writers who are just hilarious funny. He’s a wonderful Irish writer called John Connolly who writes credibly dark supernatural crime. Credibly dark and touching and whatever, but he’s just–you go out for a night with him you want to stop laughing, just hilariously funny, just naturally gifted sort of raconteur and you can’t teach that, that’s just who he is.
– What book makes you laugh?
– I knew this question was coming so I’ve got to show you. It’s this book, it’s a book called The Law of the Playground, right? Which I picked up and it’s good, it’s a good 10 years old. And I laughed so hard at this book. I would read it in bed every night that eventually it made my wife angry. “Stop that nothing’s that funny.” It’s incredible, it says on the front a purile and disturbing dictionary of playground, insults and games. And it’s basically just the stuff we did at school, the stupid rituals, the stupid nicknames. And the other thing that was very funny is I have a very funny memory but it’s hilarious. But a funny memory of buying it, as you can see from the jacket, It’s got that on the front. And when I went to buy the book I couldn’t find it in the shop and I asked a shop assistant if they could find it and they pulled it off the shelf there you go and they went, “Oh, I’m terribly sorry somebody’s drawn on this.” And I thought do I tell them that’s actually the jacket design? Or do I try and get a discount? But The Law of the Playground, I mean I just I laughed like a drain on every page.
– All that school boy humour is still there isn’t it?
– Well its because it also keys into nostalgia. It’s that thing about what–not just the laugh at the funny thing, but the memory that that evokes and everything comes together. I could not stop laughing and I was laughing like I was 11 in the playground. You know the fact that we called that teacher that name or we play it was just a joy.
– Regression, that’s regression therapy.
– You know bear in mind we’re going back to 1970s. some of the things we did did and said and whatever very much not be acceptable now, but you know we’re talking 40 years ago, 50 years ago.
– What film makes you laugh?
– Probably have to be This is Spinal Tap. Which I can watch any– one of those films at any time it’s on you find it and you go, “I’ll watch it” and there’s always… I’ll laugh at it again however many times I’ve heard the jokes.
– Well you see it is my favourite film as well and it’s no surprise that we both have a music background as well. There’s always a new line and there’s an always an appropriate line for any situation. It’s a very fine line between clever and stupid.
– And whenever it would disband the crime writers, I mean now whenever we walk from the dressing room to the stage, somebody will go, “Just a little jog to the left,” somebody will say that you know the Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers and puppet show. I never tire of watching it. This is out new direction! Mark Billingham, he wrote this one
– Whenever we have a band meeting about something somebody will also go, “If I could just raise a practical point, are we going to play Stonehenge?” “No we’re not going to fucking play Stonehenge!” Somebody will do that, Every band meeting
– It’s funny I had Mark Bedford on from Madness and you must join us for a lunch one day and you’ll have nothing but Spinal Tap for the whole lunch.
– What word makes you laugh Mark?
– I couldn’t think of a particular word Paul. I mean it would be something juvenile, I mean it would be a swear word quite probably what would make me laugh is the way to upset people. I never get tired of the complaints and emails I get about bad language in my books and a writer I’ve already mentioned Chris Brookmyre he and I do as part of the show we do. We just sit and read these things out. People they’ll pick up a book and go, “What’s in this? oh, murder, rape, child abuse, all my favourites, oh swearing, heaven’s no” And you just know that how messed up are you? And I thought I find that funny, yeah. so I’d probably just laugh at the word fuck ’cause I’m a child.
– No but it’s got a hard “K” and always funny, always funny. Taking a shift right over to the other side.
– What’s not funny?
– I don’t think anything’s not funny. I was thinking about this a lot. When you take something out of– racism is not funny until you hear Richard Pryor talking about it. It as a thing is not funny but that doesn’t mean you can’t be funny about it. And I think that applies and it all depends who’s telling the jokes, It all depends if somebody’s punching up or punching down, who the target of the joke, all that stuff of course. So I don’t think there is anything that you can’t– you know murder isn’t funny, but plenty of people write comedy, crime novels about it and plenty of people will read them and laugh about it. You’re still talking about murder at the end of the day. The Holocaust isn’t funny until you hear a brilliant Jewish comedian talking about it.
– So context.
– In a way you have to laugh. You know it’s that thing of tragedy plus time we all know that, but I don’t think there’s anything. I don’t think there’s anything that’s off limits, if the joke is funny enough and the targets of that joke is the right target of the joke.
– It’s funny because we all have our own personal things that we don’t like though, don’t we? Where we go no that makes me feel uncomfortable.
– Yes but I mean to give you an analogy I remember when I had very young kids. I didn’t want to write about violence against children but I was well aware of that and it was a very personal thing. I don’t want to read about it, I don’t want to write about it, but I also knew that there were other people who should be and weren’t doing that very well because it is a subject that should be written about. Just for me at that moment in my life because I was surrounded by young children, well I had a couple of them, I didn’t want to do it. But I think there’s always room for somebody to do the thing you find distasteful.
– Would you rather be considered clever or funny?
– Funny, all day, all day long, all day. Both on a magic island, but yeah funny, funny, funny, funny.
– But do you not think that in order to be funny you have to be clever?
– I don’t know ’cause there are so many different types of funny. There’s people who are linguistically funny which I always appreciate, I’ve never been a massive fan of slapstick for example, but somebody who is clever with words will always make me laugh, I’ll always appreciate a good funny column in a newspaper.
– Would you consider Laurel Hardy slapstick?
– I suppose, I suppose and there’s no question whatsoever that Stan Laurel was a comedy genius. I mean absolutely no question at all that he was hugely clever and he couldn’t have been that funny without it. I know I think maybe you can’t be funny without being clever, so there you go. I’d like to be funny, which means I’m also clever.
– It’s a double whammy, perfect. And finally Desert Island, Gags? You can only take one gag with you to a desert island what would it be?
– It’s such a toss up. I’ve always had a fondness for Jewish humour because I had some strange quirk of schooling in Birmingham growing up. I had an Orthodox Jewish education. I was at an orthodox Jewish junior school. So I grew up surrounded by that. I would go see my friends on a Friday night and I’d be at the Sabbath meal with all my friends I mean, I wore a yarmulke. I mean I’m not Jewish, right? But I had–it’s a very strange story but so I was always drawn to Jewish humour and the two very simple Jewish jokes you’re going to make me choose. Okay, so it’s the old guy that goes into a restaurant every single day at the same time and he has been doing it for 30 years and he always orders the same thing he has a bowl of chicken soup, every day he has chicken soup he prays and leaves always the same everyday, regular as clockwork and he comes in one day and then go, “oh chicken soup” and the waiter always comes over and goes, “How’s the soup?” “Yeah it’s lovely.” And he comes over on this one day and goes, “How is it?” And the old man goes, “Taste the soup.” And the waiter is horrified. I mean absolutely horrified. He goes, “Oh my God is there something Is there something wrong? Is it not warm enough?” And he goes, “Tastes the soup.” And he goes, “It’s the new chef Oh my God we’ve got a new chef and he’s put too much salt in, I warned him about the salt, is it too much?” “Tastes the soup.” “Is there not enough chicken, Has he not put enough chicken?” “Tastes the soup.” And so the waiter leans down and sees oh you haven’t got a spoon, and the guy goes “ah-ha!” I just think that’s hilarious. Very similarly, there’s a guy who goes into a sort of Jewish grocers and he’s trying to buy– I don’t know what he’s trying to buy, a bottle of olive oil, and all the way up the aisles all it could see a huge sacks of salt. There’s salt down there, there’s salt up there, he goes into the next aisle and it’s just salt, salt, salt. and he goes up to the guy behind the counter and he goes, “Why is there so much salt?” And the guy goes, “ah well you see me I can’t sell salt, but the guy who sells me salt, Oy! Can he sell salt!”
– I love that joke so much. So it would be a toss up between those two.
– Oh both brilliant as you are. Mark Billingham thank you so much for being on the Humourology podcast.
– It’s been a pleasure.
– [Announcer] The Humourolgy 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.