Paul Boross (00:00):
This is part two of the Humourology podcast, and my guest is once again, the wonderful comedian, communicator, curmudgeon Simon Evans. We’re gonna pick up where we left off earlier on in the show. I, said you were an only child brought up in St. Albans, but I met you originally through your brother David. That’s right. And, <laugh>. So that’ll confuse the audience. Yeah, what, could you just tell us a little bit about this extraordinary story, cuz I’m interested in and how you coped with all the information you got from this, but if you just give us a thumb nail of it.
Simon Evans (00:51):
Yeah, sure. I took a DNA test in 2018 – to this day I struggled to explain exactly why, but just idle curiosity really about various things. But no suspicion that I would find anything really extraordinary. But I did, I discovered that I was donor conceived, artificial insemination. My father, who is still alive, it turns out, was unable to father children. And after seven or eight years of trying, my parents decided to go to a clinic where my mother was, was given a sperm donation. And she was assured at the time, they were assured it would be like a close ethnic match. Uh, they were sort of led to be probably a medical student, something like that. Uh, a man of good quality, good genetics but utterly anonymous. It turns out it was actually a sperm donation from the husband of the woman who ran the clinic.
Her name was Mary Barton. His name was Bertok Vizner. And Vizner had been supplying the vast majority of these sperm necessary for their clients over the course of about 23 years in that clinic. He’s thought to a father somewhere between 600 and a thousand children, but we really have no idea. But that’s extrapolating from data that we do have. And so I got these results back and was immediately introduced to all these people. I was half brothers and sisters, and there’s about 60 of us who know each other now. And there’s a WhatsApp group, an email group. There are regular meetups and so on. Um, most of them are a bit older than me. I was born towards the end of the lifespan at that clinic as indeed was your friend David – we’re about the same age, born in 65.
There are, some of them go back all the way to the mid-forties. Um, so they feel a bit more like aunts and uncles in the same, uh, some of them to me. And of course, I’m in denial about how old I am, myself, <laugh>. But, uh, but yes, I suddenly have this huge sort of second family really, which has been almost, almost, um, unadulterated joy. They’re a lovely bunch of people. It was initially a little bit overwhelming, obviously, and confusing, but I went home and, and told my parents that I’d learned the truth and they were relieved to find that I wasn’t, you know, didn’t feel like I’d been deceived or somehow you know, kept out of the picture. It was, I understood they were told very sternly by the clinic, not to mention anything.
And I think most people who had conceived through that clinic decided it was best if nobody knew, you know, because once the word gets out at all, it’s bound to come back. So even my brother… my mother’s an only child as well as it happens. And my father has only one half-sister, and she didn’t know until about, uh, uh, well, about three weeks after I told them. So, you know, it had been an absolutely, tightly sealed little secret, which they’ve been carrying with them, bless them for the whole sort of half-century.
Paul Boross (03:39):
Well, it’s an extraordinary story. And, some people would crumble under that, the weight of that story and go my whole life’s a lie. How did humour actually help you to cope with it, if you like, or see it from a different perspective?
Simon Evans (03:59):
Well, I certainly found it was a fabulous thing to talk about on stage. I was anxious about it at first. I did a show about it in 2019. So about six months after I’d learned the truth. I was, you know, this show was written and ready to go, but what it was, it wasn’t entirely about that. It was kind of a reexamination of my sense of humour, uh, sense of humour and my comedy over 25 years or so, seen through the light of discovering that I was half Jewish and, and that my father wasn’t my father and so on. And some of that is quite superficial, I had a terrible experience watching Chelsea play. Well, it turns out I’m a Spurs fan, aren’t I? You know, so just silly jokes like that, <laugh>.
but other things were, what I found for a long time as a standup, I had been starting to feel that it was a bit relentless just going from one joke to the next. It was a bit flat, bit monotone in a sense. It was a good tone. It would lift people up over a 20 minute set. Of course, it’s ideal. But if you’re doing an hour and a half on stage in front of people, I wanted a little bit something of the bittersweet, a little bit more light and shade, you know. And, as I mentioned in that same article that you, that you referenced, and there’s a,
There’s always like a, there’s a danger that you try and contrive something in order to get that, you know, oh, I’m gonna talk about, you know, caring for my mother. She slid into dementia or something. Well, you know, you, there are things, of course, in everyone’s life, but you don’t just wanna retreat to the obvious tropes. So this really gave me an opportunity to talk about something that was a lot deeper, a talk about, you know, I’d done so much material over the years, which was essentially complaining that my life was needlessly complicated. And when I look back to my father’s life as a dad, his life had been very simple. It turns out his life wasn’t nearly as simple as I thought it had been. You know, he’d had to take a huge decision to even have me, you know?
And, so it was an opportunity to express a bit of gratitude, to express a little bit of humility, really having confronted a truth that I hadn’t previously suspected. I made a fairly conscious decision not to allow myself to think I’ve been deceived. I’ve been let down. I’ve been, you know, people who had, should have had my best interests at heart, have instead kept important details from me cuz they were told that was for the best. You know? And that’s as much as you could say about it. And the truth is, it probably was a good idea. I think it, it, you know, before DNA test came out, before we could say, oh my God, there’s loads of us, you know, that wouldn’t have been a thing that they would’ve anticipated. It would’ve just been some random piece of a jigsaw puzzle, and the rest of it would’ve been lost.
So, that was all good. But yeah, the ability to find humour in it, I think, is lovely. Partly because everyone is slightly shocked when I tell them the story on stage. You know, they are, they sense the sort of emotional gravity of it. And so of course, they’re hugely relieved when you crack a joke about it. You know, you break that tension. That’s what, look, as everyone knows, a lot of comedy is about creating a certain amount of tension in the room and then, and then relieving it, you know? And to be able to make that kind of, I am dealing with this, and this is quite, this is quite, whoa, you know, suddenly, like the Earth, you know, opens up the floor disappears and everyone goes, yeah, my God, that must be weird. And you, and then you, then you throw them a lifeline and go, and here’s a joke about it. You know, it gets a huge reaction, as much as I say, of gratitude on their part, that you are not going to force them to live with this tension, you know, for long periods of time.
Paul Boross (07:19):
Well, and of course the truth goes down a lot easier when it, a joke is attached, doesn’t it? So it’s a very powerful medium to see that. But I also think therapeutically, it’s actually very valuable because what happens in humour is you have to take a different perspective on something. Don’t you have to look at it from a different angle. And so rather than being right in it, you it… I’m wondering if the comedian’s brain is always going and looking at it from another angle, and therefore all trauma becomes slightly easier to cope with. Do do you think that’s true?
Simon Evans (08:01):
It’s a very interesting proposition. I do think that talking about your trauma is almost always good, but have for, because you are trying to make it funny and people are paying to come and see a comedy show and not to hear somebody sort of complain for an hour and a half <laugh>, you are forced to frame it that way. Even if you might be feeling 50 50, you might be feeling, well, this is funny and full of ironies, and, and kind of hilarious. And also, this is upsetting, and oh my God, I’ll never meet my father. I’ve never, you know, my father was dead when I was five years of age, and I’d never even, I’ve never heard of him till I’m in my fifties. That’s could be, you know, you could find some cause for upset in that, but because you are, because you have to make it funny in order to justify putting it on stage and people coming to watch you and listen to you, that becomes a self-reinforcing notion to yourself that this is the appropriate way to think about it, you know?
And that there is almost nothing, nothing that I have encountered in my life anyway, that is off limits, you know, that you shouldn’t joke about. As long as you acknowledge that it has a number of facets and however terrible it is, however painful it was, however tragic it is, however evil the perpetrator was, blah, blah, blah. Still, we cannot ignore the fact that, you know, I mean, there are hugely funny aspects to the Nazis, you know, they, there just are, and Freddie Starr…
<laugh>. Yeah, exactly. You know, it’s brilliant. But, you know, we’ve become very precious about that. Again, at the moment. I dunno, we may be in a sort of strange, like an uncanny value almost the amount of distance between us and the second World War at the moment that like, we seem to be a lot less capable of laughing about it than people were in the fifties, sixties and seventies. I think it’s, it’s strange, but, we’ve become a lot more kind of uber sensitive about, uh, anyone who might have actually sort of, uh, you know, had that family killed or whatever. Of course that is, you know, that’s part of it. But humour can be a great mechanism for just getting on with life, you know, and, and not making yourself into a victim. That’s one of the worst things I think about the modern era, is that victimhood has become a high-status position. And that’s something that, that comedy does dissolve quite quickly. You know, it takes the piss. And that’s, that’s, that’s a really, you know, that’s a good robust response to that notion.
Paul Boross (10:16):
I completely agree. And it’s, it’s interesting when you read, I don’t know if you’ve read Man’s Search For Meaning by Victor Frankl, and he talks about, you know, this is a concentration camp, and he talks about how important humour was to see that, to do that. My my father was 17 years old, stationed outside Dresden,
And spent three months going in and out of Dresden because he was Hungarian. And, you know, they, they won’t eventually enjoying the Allies, but originally they were conscripted into the Hungarian army. And so, but then he had to watch for 36 hours as Dresden was levelled. And he said to me, you know, he knew these people. They were old people, children and women in there, and that’s war. But he said most of the time they survived by going up to Germans and making them laugh because then they would feed them and humour was that bridge
Simon Evans (11:22):
Paul Boross (11:23):
You could and he said, I know there were horrible things, but there were, there were nice Germans there as well. Yeah. And that’s kind of really a difficult thing to say, you know, everything’s black and white now.
Simon Evans (11:37):
There are certain kinds of evil and certain kinds of atrocities that are regarded as being unexampled. There, there was a great story, I wish I could remember who it was, but I think it might have been Evelyn Waugh, who told a story about, um, men in a concentration camp in Burma. And they’re living in terrible crowded conditions. There’s half a dozen of them in a small cabin, you know, they’re not working at that particular time, but there’s, you know, there’s liquid mud under the floor. There’s, there’s, there’s terrible food. Half of them have got dysentery and all the rest of it, regardless. Nevertheless, one of them has managed to fall asleep and they look on him with a certain amount of envy for having, he’s escaped the horror of it briefly, you know, and he’s, he’s fallen in into a deep slumber.
And then he starts twitching and moaning, and then he starts calling out and he’s obviously in some distress into having a nightmare of some sort. And they think, oh God, we we’re gonna have to wake him up, aren’t we? Cuz he’s, he’s like, he’s, he’s more unhappy. But you know, it’s a terrible kind of dichotomy. Do you reintroduce him to the reality, which is horrible, or, or let him suffer in the nightmare, which is horrible. So they woke him up anyway, and he came to his senses and he said, oh, I’m so terribly sorry, chaps. I dreamt I was back in Tonbridge, his grammar school, you know, he had such a miserable time at Tonbridge at grammar school or public school, you know, beaten by the masters and cold showers and, uh, sleep.
It was actually worse than where they were now. <laugh> <laugh>, you know, and I mean, there’s a lot, I think there’s, there’s a, there’s a lot of reason to believe that, that, that, that was an intentional priming of course in the, school system for, for boys of a certain class were being prepared to go out into the empire and the colonial management and so on, and ensure horrors and hardship and it was toughening the up as much as it was teaching them dates and, and, uh, geography and so on. But yeah, we’ve, we’ve sort of started to believe that there are certain things that a sacrosanct and can’t be joked about. But as I say, it wasn’t the case at the time. I don’t think it was, I don’t think… again, first World War, the Somme and so on, always seen now as absolutely horrific beyond redemption.
But a lot of the men who came back said, actually, there was a lot of camaraderie in the trences, you know, if you survived. And, and people in the Blitz in London, there’s some very interesting studies of the sort of mindset that was adopted there, not sort of, consciously or a, top-down you know, attempt to allow people to survive it psychologically, but just as an emergent phenomena that people began to feel lucky if they survived a bombing. They didn’t just kind of go, uh, well that was close. They actually went, Hey, you didn’t get me. Haha. Sod you, Jerry. You know, and you went through a few weeks of that, and you start to feel like king of the world, you know, like you’re actively, you’re walking around the rubble and you’re thinking, I mean, Winston Churchill said nothing greater than… no greater thrill than to be shot at without consequence.
Paul Boross (14:31):
Well, my father used to go through his life with unfortunately being dead for six and a half years, but he used to say, I’m lucky. And if you listen to the litany of things that happened to my father, 17 years old in Dresden, yeah, the no 18 years old going in with the allies to Berlin, on the front line, you know, then all being put in a, a camp while they worked out, who was friend or foe, then travelling to get back to Hungary, then starting again, then the uprising in Hungary in 56, and having to escape walking four days through the snow, put in a refugee, come coming to a new country, leaving his family behind. They, they ended up having to stay there because of the Russians, and, you know, yeah. And he would go, I’m lucky. And, I have this thing now whereby I’m constantly, I constantly going, I’m the luckiest person in the world.
Simon Evans (15:28):
Great. Isn’t it? Isn’t it a great feeling to feel lucky and to feel gratitude? I think those are the two things, you know, in a way I could probably place gratitude a little bit higher, because it’s a thing you definitely have control over, I suppose luckiness, it’s a sort of way of framing events. But you, you know, you could argue it one way or the other, and it can potentially, you can end up seeming, you know, there are certain kind of characters in fiction and so on aren’t that, I suppose Candide and so on, who just like, relentlessly optimistic despite everything that happens to mean to be, it does, you can become slightly farcical <laugh>, but, but to have gratitude for the simple fact that you survive these things and the general nature of human beings, I think, or at least people that I know.
And again, yeah, my father the same. I mean, I think men of our father’s generation, you know, the react reality is they endured things that are far worse than almost anyone encounters now. You know, my father lost his mother to tuberculosis before he was a year old, you know, and that really, that was not unusual before penicillin. You know, there was quite a lot of that kind of stuff. And you lose brothers and sisters, you know, and people used to have more children than they wanted because they knew they’d lose some, you know? So I mean, we just live in a completely different universe. If those people could find things to laugh about, which they clearly could, you know, whether the George Formby and Gracie Fields or whatever it was, or the comics or, or just the sort of, I’ve always said the, the, the forces humour. Trenches humour is some of the funniest, you know, it’s not necessarily incredibly sophisticated or witty, but the trenchant kind of the attitude that it, that, that radiates from some of the, you know, the banter of men under fire or nowadays, often in operating theatres and so on. You know, it’s, it’s just hilarious.
Paul Boross (16:59):
We had John Sweeney on, who spent most of the last year in Ukraine, and he has been in 60 war zones and uprisings, and I think, and he talks about how important that, that kind of dark humour is to survival. Yeah. And I think it is, you know, surgeons, I used to train surgeons at Guys Kings and St. Thomas’s, and they would have the darkest humour. Mm-hmm. But sometimes you need that to survive.
Simon Evans (17:32):
I totally agree. And also I would add, you don’t even need to justify it like that, you know, if you can laugh, why not laugh? You know, you don’t need to say, well, it’s a survival mechanism. It may be a survival mechanism, and it may also simply be I am happier, you know, this cheers me up the way that humour always does. There’s nothing distasteful. If you are laughing at someone who is in misery and distress and they’re there present in the room, you know, that’s obviously another thing. And then, then I suppose you might struggle to say, well, it’s the only way to get through this. Well, I’m sorry that there might be, you know, you don’t want the police to come to your house to investigate a burglary and have them just openly laughing at the, you know, at the nonsense that the burglars have taken, or the fact that they shat on your rug or something. I mean, that’s, you know, that’s, that’s unkind. But once they’ve gone in the car, if the police wanna turn to each other and go, did you see the state of that vase in the, in the kitchen? What the hell are they? Do you know what I mean? That’s fine with me. That if that’s, you know what, as, again, it’s not even as a survival mechanism. Just if it makes ’em laugh, I have no quarrel with that at all. I just think people should laugh for its own sake, you know?
Paul Boross (18:40):
No, I agree. I’d agree. Do you think that you can be, anybody can be a good communicator or even a great communicator without understanding humour?
Simon Evans (18:53):
Well, I dunno about understanding there. There can be, I wouldn’t wanna overstress it. There are great communications. There are great, there’s great ps there are great speeches that I’ve, you know, come across. I wouldn’t say… I mean, there’s a great old Farside cartoon where you are looking over Lincoln’s shoulder at Gettysburg, you know, at the podium. And he’s got his speech and it goes, and the duck said, no, that’s mine or something. And, pause paused for laughter, and then it was three score years and 10 ago, you know, <laugh>. And then he moves into the famous address. I mean, the Gettysburg Address is, is often held up as, the acme of human rhetoric. And, uh, there’s no jokes in there at all. There’s no sense that anyone has any sense of humour.
It’s a sombre occasion. And it’s not even particularly like a rallying cry, you know, it’s not, I mean, Henry, the fifth speech in the Battle of Agincourt two speeches, you know, those reduce me to shivering tears almost every single time. You know, I sometimes sit and watch Branagh, Olivier and others on YouTube in succession, just like absolutely bathing in it, you know, the ab the incredible, the poetry, the, you know, just the understanding of human motivation and the, and the, again, the rhythm. And it’s not, it’s not clever, clever language at all. It’s quite earthy, you know? But it’s, I just, I just find it absolutely, um, spine-tingling. There’s no jokes in there at all. So I wouldn’t say you need to have jokes, but clearly Shakespeare could also write jokes.
And I don’t think, I think you have to sort of suppress a sense of humour sometimes, but I suspect anyone who does understand human beings will naturally have a sense of humour. I don’t necessarily think it needs to be part of your communication. And there are times when it, but I mean, I think even now, the most celebrated Ted Talk is the one, there’s a, I can’t remember his name, but it’s an educator, um, Ken Robinson. Yeah. Talked about, um, the dangers of, uh, school sort of crushing creativity in students. Fabulous Ted Talk. It is amazing. And, and he uses humour brilliantly, but not in the points that he’s making. It oscillates back and forth. So he breaks the tension, he gives you some important information, he makes a strong assertion and, and it’s thought-provoking. And then while sinking in, he kind of, you know, tells a funny story about what it was like flying to America with his son on the flight. And his son would take the headphones off or whatever, that kind of stuff, you know, little kind of observational humour. I don’t know whether you’d necessarily say he was using the humour to communicate. It was more like they were a series of palate cleansers between short, pungent, pithy pieces, but they just allowed the rhythm to break in between each piece.
Paul Boross (21:30):
I’d also say that it is so important to that – and why it is so popular – is because he is creating ultimate connection and rapport with the audience. Yeah. Through the humour. Cuz you could just fire off those, those facts and it would land completely differently.
Simon Evans (21:51):
That’s absolutely true. Yeah. I mean, I think there’s at least two points, and the one I made is essentially people need a bit of time to absorb the last point before they get the next point. And humour gives that little space, but also the point you’ve made, which is that it establishes rapport. It means there’s understanding. And yes, there’s nothing that is more effective at kind of going, I’m just like, you, you can trust me. I do understand human beings as somebody doing that kind of humour. Other kinds of humour are higher risk and you might turn people off. So that’s, you know, he, his is very well judged from that point of view. It’s quite low status. It’s quite self-deprecating. He’s presenting himself as a hapless dad. You know, here I am, a man with an expensive mic holding court in a big debating platform. But trust me, there are times when I’m on the school run when I’m just like, you, you know, that, that really works as well. Do you are
Paul Boross (22:38):
A, a, a master at, uh, hosting corporate events and awards. What advice would you give to people who have to get up and speak for work events?
Simon Evans (22:49):
Mm, well, they are tricky. I mean, every comedian dreads them a little bit, probably more than they should do. I think part of the reason being, of course, that nobody in the room has paid to see you. There’s no expectation, there’s no commitment from their point of view. So psychologically that’s a big difference. I, generally speaking, find them more on my wavelength now than comedy club audiences. Comedy club audiences are in the mood for comedy, but they’re not necessarily in the mood for a 57 year old man. They’re often sort of in their twenties and thirties, the people who go to comedy clubs. Whereas the corporate events are more often my age group, to be honest, and probably a little bit more aligned with me politically and that sort of thing. So I don’t find ’em that frightening. But again, I mean, I wouldn’t say there’s any major difference.
Confidence is absolutely key and people don’t expect any kind of apology. They don’t particularly like that kind of… we rehearse this sort of thing, but let’s see how we go. Or where’s my, where’s the prompter? You know, where’s my laser pointer? They like it if you’re totally in command. They really do. Um, I do think, you know, working every event I do now, the confidence that the sound desk have as well, those sort of things and the lights, and get there early and rehearse that properly and make sure that the lighting is good. The sound desk have understood the challenges that you are gonna confront because some rooms are noisy once everyone’s in there, you know, and, um, and if you have if they give you a lapel mic or one of those ones that clips onto your ear or whatever, or just like hover zone your cheek, that frees up your hands.
Use your hands. Because there’s nothing worse than somebody with a clip mic just standing there with two, like limp sleeves hanging down either side of their jacket. People like a little bit of that. Not too much. If you want somebody who’s a master at it, Ron DeSantis, you may not like his politics, but he’s fantastic with the hands. It’s a little bit Donald Trumpish at times. But he, do you know him? He’s the governor of Florida. He’s, yeah, yeah. He’s probably a, the re candidate,
Paul Boross (24:44):
the next coming man, isn’t he?
Simon Evans (24:46):
Yeah. And, I’m well aware that a lot of people watching this won’t like his politics one bit, but you can still learn from his command of a podium is extraordinary. yeah, I mean, you can watch a few people like that.
You know, but I mean, Christopher Hitchens was always like an incredible master and he was very louche would break every rule I’ve just said. He was sort of shamble on his well, and Boris Johnson of course, you know, tie Squiffy and, and one collar out, and that he could command half a million quid for a, you know, for a speaking engagement. People loved it. I found it tiresome that that endless kind of performative shambolism. But you know, there are always people who break the rules and get away with it. But if you, if you just want to kind of hit 80%, if you just wanna be like safe and know that what you are doing is likely to connect, I would say clean, like clean gestures, clean silhouette, clean language, don’t risk like using a little bit of slang to try and break.
It’s okay for a comedian cause we’re given licence. But if you’re a professional who’s, and if you are gonna use any humour, make it entirely at your own expense or at the expense of somebody you know, the audience has genuine consensus on, there is nothing worse than a performer who assumes a consensus that doesn’t exist. You know? So, I mean, obviously the extreme example of that would be to tell a racist joke in front of an audience who don’t like racist jokes. It’s gone. Do you know what I mean? You’re never getting it back from there. But if you tell a joke at your expense or something about company culture that everyone understands, I mean, there are always those kind of feeble jokes that I personally find annoying where the the MD is, uh, takes the piss out of the chief executive for his obsession with Man United.
You know, and you just think, oh God, it is such a normy thing to be obsessed with Man United. You know, it’s just not interesting. But they love it cuz they all know about it, you know, and it just connects them anything that – comedians always do this – anything that lets the audience know what you look like to them, but without being kind of horrifically squirming, embarrassed about it, you know? So, I mean, again, I keep referencing him today, but Stewart Lee did a routine taking the piss out of this, where he would just go, I know what you’re thinking. So and so has let himself go. And he would have a whole list of people who’d let themselves go, you know, and he would kind of go, they all are, he does look a bit like all those people, you know, it might be Tucker off Grange Hill, I think was the first one. But, um, you know, he does look a little bit like Mark Kermode, the film critic. He does look a little bit like the bloke who used to present the word. I can’t remember his name
Paul Boross (27:26):
Simon Evans (27:28):
It wasn’t Lamar, but Yeah. But he does look a bit like Lamar as well. It wasn’t
Paul Boross (27:31):
Oh no, the Manchester guy.
Simon Evans (27:34):
Manchester one. That’s right. Yeah. Uh, yeah. But he does look a bit like Lamar as well from Buzzcocks. Yeah. Anyway, the point is, if you just say, um, I mean, I do a joke still to this day. Funny enough, I’ve got a pair of glasses I can do it with. I go, I come on a, I need my glasses to read the script. Um, I will just say though, I can’t help noticing, whenever I wear these glasses, it appears I’m also wearing a false nose <laugh>. And there is something about glasses of my nose that does make that work. I mean, I’m not saying nick that joke, but you know, anything that you can do like that where people go, oh, he knows what he looks like, that’s quite good. You know, that helps because it just closes a loop somehow.
Paul Boross (28:09):
Do you remember Cardew Robinson, who was a hundred year old and he had a, he was a very wisdom old man and he used to do after dinners, and I was lucky enough to meet him and sit down and we had lunch once and he said, and he was doing exactly what you do, cuz by that time he was probably about 85 years old. Wow. And they book him, and he said, I would deliberately shamble on and look very sort of you know, weakened, you know, and he said, for the first minute, I would, 30 seconds, I would look around and go, uh, uh, oh, I, I, I’m sorry, uh, uh, and you could feel the audience feeling sorry for him, and then feeling awkward and everything. And he goes I just have to find my glasses. And he would mess with paper and, and, and he would get and he goes, unfortunately, and he put the glasses on and goes, unfortunately, my eyes aren’t what they used to be. They used to be my bollocks. And he said, it <laugh> coming from this old man. Wow. He used to just get a woof. And it was a slightly a, a woof of relief.
Simon Evans (29:27):
That’s an amazing joke. Uh, it’s a very good technique is to initially give people the impression that you are not gonna be up to the job and then to prove that you are up to the job. But it’s high risk of course, and you mustn’t carry it on for too long. But there are, that’s a great example of it. And of course to be 85, I mean, to deliberately shamble on, I mean, I, you know, to be able to shamble on at all at 85 is pretty good. So, you know, fair play to him. Barry Humphreys, who we went to see recently, I think was 90, who we saw earlier this year at the, uh, or sorry, last year at the, uh, Queen shooter at the Gilbert in Shaftsbury Avenue. He was just doing a sort of an amble through his life and works, you know, almost like a memoir kind of show.
He had, I mean, I think there were a lot of people who were worried about whether he, and he got a bit lost a couple of times. He had an autocue that was, um, appear that was presented as if it was a speaker, but it clearly had a teleprompter that was rolling across on it, you know, and he would glance down at it occasionally to pick up his time, but then every so often there’d be a flash of the wit, you know? And as a result, you just felt it, that it was like a little bit of that old steel came out, you know? And it was delicious. It was absolutely. But of course he was, everyone had bought into that, that’s a different thing. You know, they’re going to see somebody who’s given them half a century of pleasure and they, they entirely indulge him in, in being a little bit confused at times and needing to sit down between Bruin <laugh>.
But I love, I love the Cardew Robinson thing, and I do remember he was on, um, TW3, wasn’t he, I think, and, and things like that sort of early days of satire. Yeah. I mean, again, if you are venerable in that respect, it gives you, it gives you something to work with. But there is also that thing of just kind of straightening up and going, anyway, sorry about that. And everyone’s, I mean, it’s a slightly different thing, but what it’s reminded me of, do you know, remember the film seven, the, uh, Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman with Kevin Spacey as a serial killer. And the first 10 or 15 minutes of that movie, apart from all the grimness generally of murder scenes and so on, is shot in relentless rain. And there’s quite a lot of driving scenes and the rain is thundering on the roof of the car, and it’s quite hard to hear what they’re saying.
And Brad Pitt is kind of going, oh, I don’t wanna go and do this guy. Freeman’s like, yeah, we gotta go and do this case, you know, but the mattering, and you kind of, you think I’m missing lines. Oh my God, this is terrible. The sound is awful in this movie. I’m not, I’m not gonna be able to hear the dialogue. And then at a certain point it stops and they’re back in the police office, or they’re in the library looking at the book of the Seven Deadly Sins or something, and there’s a choir and a calm. And instantly you just like, you know, it’s a huge relief. You are absolutely, you know, you are almost bathing gratitude for the fact that they all, that kind of noise has stopped and you are aware that it has been a deliberate kind of priming device.
The kind of you’re almost straining forward in your seat to try and hear them and work out what’s going. The West Wing used to do it brilliantly as well. Slightly different thing, but The West Wing, the series, the first 10 minutes, every episode would be I media res, everything would start. They were immediately, they were already in a crisis. You weren’t allowed to work, you weren’t being told what the crisis was. You know, there was a certain bill that was not gonna get ratified if they didn’t get this speech ready by the afternoon or whatever. And you were like, I don’t understand. And British audiences would assume it was also partly cuz we weren’t American. And we had that disadvantage. And then at a certain point, I suspect in America after the first commercial break, but we didn’t have one there would be a conversation, Josh very often and his secretary, where they would explain what was going on. You get the exposition that would bring you up to speed, but by then you were already kind of panicking that you weren’t, you didn’t have it. And so you, again, there was, instead of kind of going, oh, it’s the exposition, you were like, oh my God, thank you, thank you. Finally, somebody’s explaining to me what’s going on,
Paul Boross (33:10):
<laugh>. But those are dangerous techniques for our listeners. Yeah. Is there number one tip to engage an audience quickly?
Simon Evans (33:20):
Well, if, if you are intending to be funny, then you do need to commit and try to be funny quite quickly. You can’t hold it off for too long because they will think, oh is, you know, but not everyone addressing a corporate audience has to be funny. But if you are gonna use humour, not the very first thing you say, but I guess again, it’s the timing, the rhythm, I would say. One comment. Alright, David, nice to see you. How’s the wife? Okay, good. Is she over that difficulty? Is she Yeah, fine. You know, like, you know, just like a little kind of, uh,
Paul Boross (33:52):
Simon Evans (33:53):
Yes, exactly. Something of that sort, rather than coming here, going before I start, here’s a joke. You know, don’t, you can’t do that. Yeah, If something, I mean, it’s very important to be in the room for at least, you know, 15, ideally half an hour beforehand. And be aware of everything that’s gone on. I, and I say that as a comedian as well, I used to hate it. If you tried to double up and you arrived just in time to go on stage, you had no idea what had happened before. You’d never have a good gig in those circumstances. You’ve gotta soak up the atmosphere, but also the specifics, you know, so you can say you know, if there’s been an interruption earlier, let’s say somebody’s dropped a tray of drinks or something, go, um, before I start, has everyone got their drinks this time? <laugh>, you know, that, that kind of thing. Just look, acknowledge that that incident happened earlier and you don’t want that happening again. Things like that. They don’t have to be witty, they just have to acknowledge the reality that you are all in. I think that is a very safe way of getting just enough of a laugh to bed you in. You know? I think
Paul Boross (34:51):
That’s brilliant. An I always talk about that listening to a room because I think that any great performer is listening and taking in, and that means listening with the eyes as well. Yeah. And taking in what’s actually happening. Because sometimes the funniest things are just those little asides or saying something that actually happened rather
Simon Evans (35:13):
Than Yeah, absolutely.
Paul Boross (35:14):
That here’s a gag, you know?
Simon Evans (35:17):
Paul Boross (35:18):
oh, I completely agree. I
Simon Evans (35:20):
Always get a laugh radio theatre, whether you, they record Radio 4 plays. I think the is art deco kind of architecture. You can’t always see it depending on how many screens they got up. He just has a vaguely Third Reich vibe about it. You know, it just looks very slightly like one of the big rallies. And any attention you to that always gets a laugh. And I think partly because it’s a little bit risky as well, is that because there’s always a suggestion that I might have an unpalatably keen interest in Third Reich architecture take, you know, but things like that, anything you can point out that Yeah, just like, uh, I mean, Arthur Smith, you know, always used to do jokes about the, where the fire extinguishers were, if there were any students in, you know, that sort of thing. It just, you know, anything that anchors it to the situation you are in the environment so that they don’t think you are phoning it in. That’s another important thing just to let them know you’re already there, you know?
Paul Boross (36:10):
Yeah. No, no. Be relevant to the situation. Yeah. Yeah. No, I think that’s great. Anyway, Simon, we’ve reached the point in the show, which we like to call Quickfire Questions.
Simon Evans (36:21):
Okay, go ahead.
Quick Fire Questions
Paul Boross (36:23):
Who, and this is, you are a comedian, so you, who is the funniest business person that you’ve met? Somebody who isn’t in the business of comedy?
Simon Evans (36:38):
Well, I haven’t met that many. I mean, obviously I’ve seen a few people like, talking on TV or whatever in conferences. But there is a man I know he’s the father of one of my very best friends. Uh, my friend’s name is Danny Solomon, and his dad’s name is Sir Harry Solomon. He’s a significant North London Jewish businessman. He’s a part owner I think of Hills Down Holdings was his big firm. I remember when it was floated on the stock exchange when I was sharing a house with Danny at university. And I suddenly realised that he had a slightly different life than my own <laugh>. But Sir Harry is a very funny man, very, very funny indeed. A lot of his humour revolves around football is a Middlesbrough fan. Um, and he can banter with his son brilliantly about, you know, they can be walking.
we went, we occasionally been on a couple of walks through the countryside cuz the old man’s well into his eighties now, but he’s still fit. And, uh, and they’ll see like a village name and it will be like, um, I don’t know, Haymore Saffonshire or something. And he’d go, oh, Haymore Saffonshire. He was a left back fo, uh, Leyton Orient, wasn’t he, you know, <laugh>. And they just have this kind of banter, which is brilliant. So he’s a man who was coped with it, with huge amounts of success and prestige and has kept his feet very, very, you know, on the ground. I think he reminds me, I’ve never met him, but I, he’s a little bit like what I imagine Warren Buffett must be like, you know, hasn’t moved house, hasn’t kept constantly upgraded his car every time he gets a, you know, I think humour is a big part of his success personally. I, I remember registering and, and the first time he came down and took us out to dinner when I was at Southampton, that this was a man who had enormous success, but immediately put you at your ease because he was, he was funny.
Paul Boross (38:16):
Oh, brilliant. I will look him up. You, you are a wonderful writer and you really have a amazing facility with words. What book makes you laugh?
Simon Evans (38:29):
Well, I did. I bought some Woodhouse yesterday and I think anyone who’s ever encountered Woodhouse, you know, would to put him on the very top shelf. Maybe that’s a bit obvious. David Sadaris used to he’s been writing for about 25 years now, Sadaris and I kind of feel like
Paul Boross (38:45):
A lot now. Yeah,
Simon Evans (38:46):
He is. I find his voice the way he speaks. He’s, you know, he has a very markedly lising sort of gay American acts at me. He is gay. There’s, you know, I’m not complaining about that, but it’s, it’s almost like a stage gay, you know, the way he speaks and, and I find him in prose much more enjoyable. I like to, you know, read it at my own pace. But his book Me Talk Pretty One Day. I mean, I do remember, you know, people say, you know, don’t read this in public transport because you’ll just be laughing and it’ll annoy people. It was that laugh out loud funny. That would be his funniest book for me. I would say that would be one of them. Douglas Adams used to make me laugh, like almost until I was gasping for Breath. And that Patrick Campbell story that I mentioned, um, the Hot Box, that is one of the funniest things I’ve ever read. Alan Coren as well could write at that level. Um, Steady on Mr. Beethoven, that was your fifth! about Beethoven’s Liver demonstrating his alcoholism and, and Coren defending Beethoven’s right to enjoy a drink. <laugh>
Paul Boross (39:43):
<laugh>. Oh, well, no, wonderful, a lot of choices there. What film makes you laugh?
Simon Evans (39:51):
If you want one book that will gather them all together, Frank Muir wrote, uh, I think it’s called The Oxford Book of British Humour. It’s a big compendium, which you can pick up for a couple of quid on Amazon in hardback. It was out probably 30 or 40 years ago. And the incredible anthology of, of Great British prose, I think that would be my Desert Island book, probably. Oh,
Speaker 1 (40:12):
Fantastic. What film makes you laugh, Simon?
Speaker 2 (40:19):
My worry is that I’m gonna be, it’s gonna be all too obvious. Most of them are, most of my sort of top selections are widely understood to be <laugh>. Uh, Spinal Tap would be one definitely. Um, my
Speaker 1 (40:33):
Favourite, my favourite. I,
Speaker 2 (40:35):
I love, um, yeah, I, I mean all of the, again, those impro guys, the Best in Show is lovely as well, actually from them, possibly slightly more underrated. Um, I did think, I mean, I dunno if it’s, is it quite a comedy? I think Groundhog Day is a masterpiece. Yeah. And because it has that bittersweet element as well, you know, incredibly funny, but also, it’s saying something important about life. And then I think the great scr ball comedies, like, uh, his Girl Friday would be a good one. Carrie Grant Lym Russell, um, from the thirties old black and white movie, the speed of the dialogue, the snap of the whole thing. Incredible. Or a little bit later. Some Like it Hot, you know, that’s about as funny as a film could be. You can’t, you can’t fit any more jokes in than and good jokes. You know, the turnaround on some of those routines is like a single word, bat. Bat. It is like a, it’s not even like a tennis match. It’s, it’s, it’s like a kind of slapping match. It’s extraordinary speed. Yeah.
Simon Evans (41:34):
Probably if I was forced to name one, I think Some Like it Hot, I would think.
Paul Boross (41:39):
No, no. Uh, just a classic superb. We’re gonna take a shift to the other side and I, I, I think I know, uh, you and where you’re going to come from on this question, but what’s not funny?
Simon Evans (41:59):
Well, as we’ve said earlier that I don’t think there’s any subjects that aren’t funny, but generally speaking, I don’t like it when I sense that a comedian is wanting to be liked. That’s what will kill a joke for me if I censor a, a comedian is telling a routine or taking an angle or taking a, taking a an approach to a subject because they want you to, to like them or because they’re trying to, they’re, they’re foregrounding something other than the, their job, which is to be funny. I didn’t like Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette show, not because I disapproved of her message, but because I’d been told I was about to watch a standup comedy show, and instead I was subjected, I felt to what amounted to a lecture about why standup comedy is not necessarily a force for good, because it allows people, it lets people off the hook instead of confronting and dealing with difficult issues such as the homophobia she encountered as a young woman in Tasmania.
Now, that’s a perfectly legitimate subject for her to talk about, but it wasn’t standup comedy as far as I was concerned. Now, obviously, I’m in a minority, or at least she found a sizeable enough minority herself to make a lot of money out of that show. And the video I saw was filmed at the Sydney Opera House, you know, so she did well out of it, but I don’t find that funny. I find that preaching and hectoring and, and, uh, sanctimonious to be honest, you know, and that isn’t funny to me. If you’re trying to make kind of, I don’t know, social justice points or whatever with comedy, if they, if they’re funny, that’s great and you, and you are left afterwards with a realisation that you know, refugees there, but for the grace of God go, I, yeah, of course. You know, that’s absolutely fine. But if, if the message has been allowed to dominate where the, where the comedy goes rather than the comedy itself.
Paul Boross (43:46):
Yeah. So that’s a, that personal thing, but being a libertarian, you wouldn’t get in anybody’s way for doing it. Oh,
Simon Evans (43:54):
I would never, ever protest outside a show or something. Absolutely not. I mean, it’s counterproductive anyway. It just makes people want go and see it, isn’t it?
Paul Boross (44:02):
That’s true, isn’t it?
Simon Evans (44:04):
You know I think those South Park guys did well out of that. And actually, I mean, I went to see Jerry Springer of the Opera because of the protest, and I thought it was shit <laugh> <laugh>, but I never would’ve gotta see if it hadn’t been for the protest. So there you go.
Paul Boross (44:16):
It’s, uh, sometimes counterproductive, isn’t it? What word makes you laugh?
Simon Evans (44:24):
Good, good. Yeah. Well, my wife and I used to share words that we found were funny. I like small woodland animal type words like ferret, stoat, weasel. I don’t know why there’s all of those words. All the small kind of little rustling leaf animals are all funny. Um, I like words like foist. Um, I do like little word, I like kind of words that have a, like a single syllable, but have a little bit of, um, uhlike thumb for instance. Thumb is a funny word. I just think it’s a funny, it’s a little stubby, you know, protuberance, the thing itself is quite funny, but the th the thumb, I dunno, it’s just like a, it, I don’t like long some, I mean, some people do like, like long fancy perspicacious, you know, type there was a great, uh, Rutles lyric., Um, you are so pusillanimous
Oh yeah, nature’s calling animus go there. Which I did like the use of pusillanimous there because they’d broken it down for the rhyme. But, broadly speaking, I think all those long, clever words are not funny. I’m much more of an Anglo-Saxon, again, I go back to Galton and Simpson, um, Hancock, I think it was saying, oh, I thought my wife’s cooking. I thought my mother’s cooking was bad, but at least her gravy used to move about a bit <laugh>. Now, I don’t know what you’d say was the funny word there, but it’s, it’s the absence of funny. It’s like, it’s move about a bit. Do you know what I mean? It’s like, go move about a bit. You know? It’s, that’s, that’s funnier than any kind of, at least, uh, gravy had some mobility. I mean, that wouldn’t be funny. No. I’ll tell you who’s a master at choosing them.
Well, though is Bob Mortimer, I’m reading his autobiography at the moment, which is lovely light bedtime reading. Very, very funny. Lovely man. Of course. But a lot of his passages of remembering his work as a solicitor and stuff are elevated by just a really unusual well chosen. The more specific usually. That’s a good rule of thumb. I was taught that very early on David, Jason getting a laugh when he was complaining to Nicholas Lyndhurst in Only Fools and Horses that, I remember when you were a young lad and I was a young man. I was trying to get out, meet girls and instead, you know, every time I’d try and leave the house, you know, I’d have your, uh, puke on me, Ben Sherman’s, you know, nice. Because they were Ben, not me trousers on me shirt, but very specific. You could immediately picture him looking like trying to leave the house like a young mod. And he’s got a younger brother who’s just thrown up on him, you know?
Paul Boross (46:44):
Yeah. John Sullivan was a genius with that turn of phrase as well.
Simon Evans (46:48):
Yeah. He was
Paul Boross (46:49):
What sound makes you laugh,
Simon Evans (46:53):
Sound. Well, I do like that kind of balloon squeak, you know, that, you know, like a, a rubbery squeak. Yeah. Very fond of those <laugh>. And that one where you let a bit of air out of a balloon by, you know, with the neck where you’re putting the neck, you know that thing. Yeah, yeah. You’ve got balloon blood up. Yeah. My dad used to get a similar sound out with a bit of grass. He could hold it between his sums and then Yeah. Blow through it. Have you ever, do you remember seeing that? Yeah, of course. Yeah. Yeah. And he used to say they were Dangerroos, that’s what he collect. Oh, there’s Dangeroos in these woods. <laugh>
So that was a lovely sound. That’s a good, as well
Paul Boross (47:31):
<laugh>, penultimate question, we know that you have a background in legal and, uh, you’ve, you write brilliantly and everything. Would you rather be considered clever or funny?
Simon Evans (47:50):
Well, definitely funny rather than clever, cuz clever is a bit of a, that is often a backended compliment. Oh yeah. All that’s all very clever. But, you know, <laugh>, I can see what you’re trying to do there.
Paul Boross (48:00):
Too clever by half.
Simon Evans (48:01):
Yeah, exactly. There were, I used to sell carpet cleaning door to door and university holidays and classic thing, you know, you’ve got your little checklist going, oh, Adam madam, can I just check? Have you got any carpets that are more than three years old? Oh, you have, oh, you okay. You know, they, they’d go through this stuff and they’d all listen, you know, and they’d often to be a board housewife and they’d have sort of 10 minutes to spare, just listening. But they had no intention of buying. You know, sometimes they were too busy and they, I’m sorry, no time. Sometimes at the end of it, they’d always go, you are very clever, but I’m not interested. <laugh>,
If I was very clever, you wouldn’t have noticed that. I was very clever. Do you know what I mean? The cleverness art is not art, which announces itself, you know, you have to conceal it. Having said all of that, I do hope that as well as being funny, people think I am, you know, I have some unusual and perhaps esoteric reference points that I have something to introduce to the conversation that isn’t just ordinary or obvious, that I’ve maybe not thought about things deeply, but maybe have got a slightly lateral, you know or oblique angle on things. And it’s not quite the same as being clever, but it’s not. I’m, I wouldn’t think of myself as a clown. I don’t generally think of myself as somebody whose instinct is like, like the hawk for the rabbit. You know, when I see a joke, I’m not that guy.
There are some comedians who are like that, who are just, just their instinct. Lee Mack is a good example. You know, whenever you’re with Lee, he will, he will observe he will spot the funny in anything you say. It can be tiring, you know, he is, he’s not quite, but he is almost always on. And can almost be, you know, enough. Okay. But, um, but I’m not like that. I’m not one of those people. You could go a whole evening with me without me being funny at all. And, and instead trying to, I suppose if I’m honest, sort of impress you or at least entertain you with my erudition, you know, and that kind of stuff, because I do find that kind of conversation at least as valuable and worthwhile as one in which people are just, you know, uh, popping crackers.
Paul Boross (49:57):
Yeah, well, you can be both clever and funny and generally funny. People are always clever, to be honest with,
Simon Evans (50:03):
I do think it is a, it’s a sign of intelligence for me, but then again, of course, it, that it may be a sign that you are on the same intellectual wavelength. Do you know what I mean? There might be people who would look at me and think there’s not clever enough to be funny. And there’s other people who kind of go, oh, it’s all very funny, clever, but it’s not very funny. Do you know what I mean? I think it’s, we, we tend to share a sense of humour with people who, with whom. We also have the same, roughly the same reading age, if you know what I’m saying. <laugh>
Paul Boross (50:29):
12. Yeah. And finally, Simon Desert Island Gags, you can only take one joke with you to a desert island. Wow.
Simon Evans (50:41):
Paul Boross (50:41):
What would it be?
Simon Evans (50:43):
Well, that is a good question. I think there might be one or two that I’ve, that I’ve forgotten that I, uh, that I really should name, but there is one that I do remember. The first time I heard it, I just thought, that is glorious about the little, the little German boy who, I dunno if he’s adopted. I, it’s kind of, I, it’s a British joke. I think he’s adopted, and he, he’s German and his parents bring him up and they make sure that he, you know, because they know he is adopted and, and they know that life might be, it’s problematic for him. They, they make sure everything is absolutely perfect. You know, they never argue. They, his dinner’s always there on time. And he’s looked after very well, and he doesn’t speak, he doesn’t speak until about his sixth birthday.
And they’re very worried, but they’ve never like raised it or taken into the doctor. They’re just sure, give him time or whatever. And they bring out his, his birthday cake and he blows out the candles and they give him a slice of cake, and he takes a bite and he goes, oh, there is wax on the top of the cake. And they say, oh my God, you spoke, you can speak. He goes, yes, of course I can speak. I’m six years old. They go, well, why haven’t you not spoken until now? And he says, well, up until now, there has been no need to complain, <laugh>.
Paul Boross (51:58):
Oh, that’s a brilliant gag and a wonderful way to end wonderful interview
Simon Evans (52:02):
It’s lovely, isn’t it?
Paul Boross (52:04):
Yeah. Thank you. Oh, Simon. I, I
Simon Evans (52:07):
Can’t be sure whether he needs to be German, but it, but that’s how I heard it. <laugh>
Paul Boross (52:11):
<laugh>. It’s perfect. And a perfect way to end the perfect interview. Simon Evans, thank you so much for being a wonderful guest on the Humourology Podcast.
Simon Evans (52:21):
Absolute pleasure, Paul. Thank you for having me.
Speaker 1 (52:24):
The Humology Podcast was hosted by Paul Boross, produced by David Rose, 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.