The Article 50 Bill has passed, Ian has a brand new job, what could go wrong?
A new Ian Bowler video for you…
Right, with PMQs coming up tomorrow – here’s a look at last week’s jokes, what they got right, and what they got wrong…
“Not so much the iron lady as the irony lady” (3:41)
This one’s just a disaster from start to finish. Badly written, badly delivered, and vague enough that it sounds like it might be a compliment.
- There’s no link between setup and punchline, Delivered separately it’s quite difficult to remember what the irony is that Jeremy mentioned in the setup. It might even have been worth mentioning the word irony before, because there’s quite a conceptual leap to be made.
- This is a laboured pun. Not impossible, but more difficult than some kinds of jokes to deliver well. It requires getting the audience on board and acknowledging that the joke is weak and that you’re enjoying its weakness. Jeremy does none of this. He doesn’t make eye contact with anyone except the Speaker, and delivers it like he thinks it’s a good line. It’s not a good line.
- The inflection is wrong. I’d advise using a rising, incredulous inflection or putting a huge pause after “Not so much the iron lady…” and seeing if the audience will do some of the work for you. Again, acknowledging the weakness of the gag is the key to pulling something like this off.
- However, there’s no such thing as an “irony lady”. It fundamentally doesn’t make sense as a statement. That hobbles this joke as it’s always going somewhere that isn’t going to make sense when you arrive.
- It’s hugely context-specific, and isn’t going to stick in anyone’s memory unless you’ve done a lot more work to establish that Theresa May is full of irony somehow. Maybe at the end of something like: “She wants to represent the will of the people, but has never won an election to anything; she wants to being back parliamentary sovereignty but sideline parliament; she wants Britain to be a global power, but seems determined to annoy large chunks of the globe! She’s not so much the iron lady…”
- Eye contact. Throughout this exchange, Theresa May, as ineffective a speaker as she largely is, makes eye contact with the Opposition benches, and is unafraid to turn and gesture to her own. She makes a point of closing her notes as she’s getting up (with a finger in so she can find what she might need to later). Jeremy Corbyn only makes eye contact with his notes or, occasionally, the Speaker. This does him no favours at all.
“I’ve got a plan. He doesn’t have a clue.” (4:55)
This is solid, but so confident is Theresa of her delivery here that she veers into actual caricature of a disapproving gossip serving tea at a jumble sale.
- Much better written than her jokes usually are. This is a simple balancing statement with a contrast between its two halves. Here is one statement (“We have a plan”). Here is another (“He doesn’t have a clue”).
- The lengthy petard-hoisting quotation works better for her than it does to Jeremy, although he tries in at least three question to do the same to her. Partly because she’s quoting his own words at him, whereas he’s trying to tie her to other ministers, and partly because it’s simply a better-selected quotation. It ends with its killer line.
- The quotation – of course – isn’t saying what she’s saying it is, but it doesn’t matter because the look of incredulous despair and change it tone sell it utterly and distract you from the fact that the quotation is entirely reasonable.
- This is the best performance I’ve seen from her. Withering contempt seems to be effective as a stance from her, and she seems to actually relish it, as opposed to the concerned statesman she’s tried to pull off before.
Not many jokes this week. Theresa had the much easier job, in that hers was better written and easier to deliver, but she also did a better job with what she was given.
If you are intending to use humour in a speech it’s essential that it look like it’s coming organically from you. Very little is more awkward than someone trying to do a joke they’re not happy with. Corbyn’s pun seemed forced on him, May’s scorn seemed real.
Full disclosure: I’m part of TTW, a company that teaches this sort of thing to people who have to talk in public. If you’d like more of this sort of thing, do get in touch.
Scrolling down FB I saw this on a friend’s post: “Stop comparing it to the rise of Hitler. We are in a different age. Social media, tv and information is readily available. We are not going to wake up one morning and want to ethnically cleanse the earth.”
Neither did the Germans, of course.
They wanted to restore order to their country in the aftermath of a huge economic shock. They wanted to right the wrongs they felt were done to them after the end of the First World War. They wanted motorways and Volkswagens and huge Olympic ceremonies, and to be respected in the world again. They wanted to take their country back from the liberals and put on a show of strength. They wanted to take back control. They wanted to make Germany great again.
And, in order to do it, they were willing to overlook some anti-semitism. And then some more. And then some more.
Of course there were virulent antisemites in the party, but there were also those who liked most of the package of what Nazism offered, and ignored those bits they didn’t like. I’m rereading Victor Klemperer’s diaries and he tells a story about how they are having friends over to dinner who say, knowing Klemperer is Jewish, they’ve joined the Nazis. They are educated, employed academics, personal friends with Jews who feel “Everything has gone wrong. Now we have to try this.”
That’s why it’s important to keep our eyes open now.
When politicians offer strength, and confidence and religious bars to citizenship and ends to freedoms of movement and religion and the media is full of hateful rhetoric for religious or racial or marginalised groups, and when hate crimes rise and there are fascists on the verge of being elected across the world, when the nationalists and nativists and far-right are on the march, let’s be careful.
Even if we really, really want that Volkswagen.
(Politicians Telling Jokes is an occasional series devoted to politicians telling jokes. The first is here.)
Jeremy Corbyn opened with a gag. After a fractious conference, an attempt to unseat him, and the publication of a book the central comic premise of which is that Jeremy Corbyn can’t tell jokes (The Little Red Book Of Corbyn Jokes which is very, very good and something you should definitely go and buy), he opened with a gag.
Let’s see how he did.
The answer is surprisingly well.
The first thing that works about the joke is the context. After a year of seeming awkward, earnest and humourless, the challenge was to change that perception.
It’s was also a self-deprecating joke about one of his most notable recent cock-ups, and having the confidence to do it so soon after a leadership election is a good move. By making a joke of it, he’s deprived Theresa May of the opportunity to do a similar in her speech next week, as well as defusing the issue. It was a good joke made at the right time.
In terms of delivery, he’s improved hugely since last year. He genuinely seems to understand the structure of the joke and is prepared to give a long pause before he trundles on to the punchline. Again, it seems hugely confident.
Which is where the writing lets him down.
We all know what the joke’s going to be at 00:09. He knows it, the audience know it, they’re laughing. He could quite easily have stopped there and let a gesture do the rest.
Instead, however, he gives a punchline that neither raises the stakes or changes the imagery to get a bigger laugh, nor flips it to make a political point.
For me, the biggest disappointment is the repetition of the word “hall”. First, it’s a terrible word to try and get a laugh from, an echoing, empty syllable that’s all aspirated and labialised without any nice, crunchy consonants to cling onto.
It’s also displeasingly vague. “Foyer,” “narthex,” “vestibule”. None of these work contextually, but all are funnier words for “part of a hall”. Picking a specific place would have worked, especially if it reinforced some of the facts from the story. Even “They’ve told me there are 800 seats in first class” would have worked. It would have added a surreal element, but the idea of a Labour conference having a first class section is a nice one and gives you room to play.
So, can we get more specific or just more funny? The simplest fix, I think, would be just to make it “They’ve told me there are 800 seats up the back.”
It’s a nice final consonant to end on, avoids the repetition, gives you a nice rhythm to attack at the end, and is slightly more conversational.
Leave your suggestions for better punchlines in the comments below.
(Natt Tapley teaches this stuff with TTW Training)
We’ve got a show coming up. Ahem.
It’s traditional at this point to write a thing about how it’s going to be the best show in town that night, and you should drop everything to go and see it. But I can’t write that. Because we’re not the best show in town that night.
We’re not even the best show at the Leicester Square Theatre that night.
Playing in the main house, when we’re in the Lounge is Barry Crimmins. If you haven’t heard of Barry, go and watch Bobcat Goldthwait’s documentary about him right now. It’s on Netflix. you have no excuse.
He’s going to be amazing. If I weren’t in a show approximately thirty feet below him at the time, I’d definitely be going to see his show. Because it’s going to be brilliant, and angry, and a life-affirming experience.
So, we’re definitely not the best thing on there that night.
And then Bridget Christie’s on. She’s almost guaranteed to be better and more thoughtful and more worth telling your friends you’ve seen than us.
Oh, and Will bloody Franken’s on. One of the most naturally-gifted character comics you’ll ever see will be on a stage close enough for you to touch his mad brilliance.
So we’re possibly the fourth best show at the Leicester Square Theatre this weekend.
Except that Aatif is excellent, too…
God, this is depressing.
Not that ours isn’t brilliant. It is. It’s a life-affirming hour of Wombles, Rumbelowses, ruminations on the philosophy of lookaliking, OHP shadow theatre, and a lots and lots of jokes.
It’s also short enough that you can see it and then go on and do something else.
Like seeing one of those other shows.
Defeat? I do not recognise the meaning of the word!
Mrs Thatcher said that at the beginning of the Falklands War. Which was brave, because in most situations, as you’re going into a war, you’d at least want a leader who knew the meaning of basic military terminology.
We can only imagine her wild confusion on learning the Argentinians had suffered huge defeats.
She’s been dead for years now, and yet – here I am – still yammering on about Thatcher, uselessly thrashing at her corpse with the pathetic fronds of what passes for wit in this benighted ago.
I’m doing another show about her at the end of the month.
I told a friend and they asked me why I was doing another show about Thatcher. I said I didn’t think I did that many shows about Thatcher. They pointed out that every show I’ve done since 2009 has featured Margaret Thatcher in some form or another.
I even did a seance for her.
They wondered if it wasn’t a bit creepy, if I wasn’t just making money out of the misery of a demented, helpless, vulnerable old lady. I think that’s what she would have wanted.
But yes, from The Thatcher Seance to the recounting of her final minutes in The Bowler Debates, she’s always been there, hovering, like a vulture. Like a vulture with less compassion than other vultures.
In everything I write, in everything I do, it seems like the big problem we’re addressing is Thatcher. A dead woman who hasn’t been in power for a quarter of a century.
And yet we’ve got someone trying out their best Thatcherisms at PMQs. We’ve got a Labour Party ready to split, ready to be led by a Welsh nonentity that no-one really cares for…
It’s like she’s reaching out from beyond the grave, demanding we pay her theatrical tribute, refusing to die until we’ve exorcised her from ourselves.
But it’s not like anyone even comes. Last time we did this show we had six people at one performance at The Hen & Chickens.
It’s enough to make you want to stop flogging that dead person.
It’s enough to make you give up.
But then I remember.
Defeat? I do not recognise the meaning of the word…
Book your tickets for Margaret Thatcher & The Buster Merryfield Resemblance here.
At the end of June, I wrote a passive-aggressive poem about Southern Rail and put it on the internet. Then BBC South made a video of it, which got more than 2 million views and it’s been on Radio 4’s You And Yours, and all sorts of local news programmes. People keep coming here looking for it, and I’ve just realised that they won’t find it if they do.
In case you haven’t heard it, here’s The Ballad Of Southern Rail…
Some friends and I have just set up a training company, to teach business people (and others) how to speak in public. We’re a television presenter, an actor, a comedian, and someone who teaches people to win pitches for a living who are tired of seeing people whose job involves speaking for a living doing that job less well than they should. Also, we want them to give us pots of cash.
In that spirit, then, here are 4 tips for Theresa May, to help her improve her joke-telling style.
When she launched her leadership campaign, you may have heard that she told a “hilarious joke”. It was certainly a well-written joke, but was it hilarious?
The squelch and crunch on “nearly new water cannon” is delightful, the set up is well-weighted, but a joke (in this context) consists of both content and performance, and her performance of the joke could be bumped up with a few simple steps. I think it’s fair to say that her delivery is a disgrace to the words she is uttering and she should never be allowed near a joke again. Unless she heeds the following tips…
- At least try to pretend that you’re happy to be telling a joke. At 00:29 your demeanour changes entirely. The breathing becomes quicker, you start looking down at notes to convince yourself that you’re doing the right thing, your tell-tale lower mouth discomfort-twitch becomes more pronounced. Breathe. Relax. You’re about to tell a joke. What’s the worst that could happen? It could bomb and the nation’s media could turn on you for ill-considered flippancy thus scuppering your hopes to become Prime Minister, and leaving your career at the mercy of one of the people you’re standing against. But APART FROM THAT.
- Don’t gabble. This is related to the point above, and is one of the nervous tics that being confident in telling your joke will help resolve. You almost kill this joke by running over “last time he did a deal with the Germans” which are all important words that help “three nearly new water cannon” land. Without that phrase it’s a much weaker gag. We can all see in your eyes that you wish you weren’t having to tell this joke, but you do. You’re standing there, so give it every chance of life by making the whole thing audible.
- Eye contact. In the first 29 seconds, where you’re not telling a joke you look down twice, both times at the ends of sentences of phrases so it seems natural. In the ten seconds you’re telling the joke you also look down twice, this time in the middle of sentences, which makes it look like you’re thinking about bailing on the joke. Don’t Commit to it. And try to keep the desperate pleading for a response out of your eyes when you look up at the end.
- Revel in your joke. Well done. You’ve told a joke. In this case the laugh seems slightly delayed, probably because it wasn’t a context in which people were expecting a joke and your body language didn’t cue them to the fact that you had told one. But once they are laughing, let them laugh. Seem to enjoy it. Don’t crash the laugh by rushing on when you have a second in which to enjoy it. After all, you might not get many of those in the months and years to come…
TTW Training is available to whack your business leaders’s words into shape here…