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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)

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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)

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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.

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(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)

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