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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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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…

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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

I straightened my Union Jack tie and looked straight down the lens. Was I really going to do this? Today? Well, there was only one way to find out…

Did you hear the one about the Woolwich murder? Probably not, comedy’s been a little quiet on the subject for the last week. Even Twitter, where paedophilia, death, and genocide can provide punchlines mere moments after they’ve happened* seemed muted.

Usually, a tragedy is the time at which Twitter divides (roughly equally in my timeline) between those making puns about it, and those saying “Hey! A man / woman / Thatcher just died here people! Show a little respect!” Last week, half of those people suddenly seemed to discover that discretion was the something part of whatsit, and decided to stay quiet.

When a Dutch show included a cheap reference to the murder in a sketch about Eurovision, the hyperventilation of the British press (who, lest we forget, are staunch defenders of freedom of speech) became a constant, high-pitched whine capable of shattering snail shells. All of the coverage mis-characterised the sketch as ‘mocking the murder of Lee Rigby’. All of the headlines named Lee Rigby, who wasn’t referred to in the sketch at all, as the butt of the sketch. It’s pretty clear from watching it that they weren’t mocking Rigby at all, they were using his murderers as a stereotype for all of Britain, the same way they were using German stereotypes for the Germans.

But any joke which contains reference to the Woolwich murder is – in the eyes of the British press – a joke that mocks Lee Rigby.

In character as Sir Ian Bowler, a corrupt MP, on the Thursday morning I tweeted a not-hugely-amusing joke about MPs resenting being recalled to Parliament every time they went away on holiday. I was surprised by the fact that someone was hurt by it. I’d actually made someone cry with a joke. And not in a speaking-truth-to-power way, in a you’re-probably-an-inconsiderate-dick way.

So I decided to ask social media whether or not I should do an Ian Bowler video that day. There was a lot I wanted to say about the responses of politicians to the incident, and the ways in which they were spinning it to suit their own agenda. I was cross that the half-truths (which are equally half-untruths) of a whole swathe of people from Theresa May to the EDL weren’t being challenged in the media’s narrative. I was angry. And when I’m angry I tend to put on a blue suit and bellow into a camera.

Like during the riots.

But I’d been brought down to earth by that tweet. Should I say something that I knew would upset a lot of people? Should I say it that day?

The responses were interesting. The advice from most comedians was to leave it well alone. Most people who like watching the videos wanted one. Family members (mine) politely suggested that holding off might not be a bad idea, at least until they had had time to board up the windows.

One comment, however, completely took the wind out of my sails.

 I think Sir Ian should be thinking about the victim’s family, not his own career.

I’ll deal with the issue of respect in a minute, but the accusation of careerism was particularly painful. I don’t know what sort of career the commenter assumes talking into a video camera in a shed comprises (My wife could tell him. “Not much of one.”) but it was a point I couldn’t answer.

As someone whose career is his jokes, and often his jokes in response to the news, I can’t help but be something of a vulture, picking at the carrion of current affairs. It’s what I do, it’s the way I communicate. Some people write columns in newspapers, some people write plays, some people go and nod at each other on news programmes. I write jokes. They are the way I work out what I’m thinking.

When it comes to respect, of course, I don’t think it’s the satirist’s job to offer respect. Quite the reverse, when the whole country is united in feeling something, it’s the satirist’s job to point out the ways in which we are blinding ourselves to the truth. Or to what they see as the truth.

Even if it’s wrong, especially if it’s uncomfortable, there should be someone taking an unpopular position.

Someone should always challenge the prevailing media narrative, especially when a consensus is reached as quickly and completely as it was last week.

If a satirist has a duty it is not to show respect, not to defer to the social norms which are being used to silence and ensure conformity of word and thought.

There was a survey recently, which scientifically proved (did not scientifically prove) that there was such a thing as ‘too soon‘. Distance in time allows us to see the violation of social norms as ‘benign’. However, in a country where we are all more than happy to work ourselves into a group-think lather at the drop of a people’s princess, one must wonder whether our humour should be ‘benign’.

Gawker recently lamented the fact that ‘too soon’ had apparently disappeared from the world with social media. The response to the Boston bombing showed, they thought, that Twitter had killed the concept of ‘too soon’. What they might have seen in the Woolwich case is the way in which Twitter is used to police ‘too soon’.

There have, of course, been jokes. Sickipedia has 5 pages of jokes about the Woolwich murder. Most of them gleefully taking the opportunity to be openly racist.

The left has also found its outlet: the EDL. From the EDF gags to the ‘Never Submit to Aslan’ photoshops, the EDL are the one thing the country is letting itself laugh at. The anarchist blogger who pleads with his audience not to laugh at the EDL may well be right that the problem they pose is serious and imminent. However, in a culture where the central tenets of the narrative are not open for mockery, we latch onto the next closest thing. Sorry, EDL.

In their responses to the Aurora shootings both Dane Cook and Chris Rock had different experiences. Cook used the tragedy to make a tired joke about how bad the film was; Rock used it to raise issues of gun control and joke about them.

One used the moment to joke about the issues, his anger, and what he felt was important, and was rightly praised for so doing. The other used it to trot out some hack material, and caught the rage of the Internet.

There is no such thing as too soon. There is, however, such a thing as too stupid.

I’m a great believer in the fact that not all self-censorship is wrong. Taking the impact of what we say into account when we say something is not a betrayal of free speech. Taking responsibility for our words and the effect they have on others isn’t always a bad idea.

However, we shouldn’t frame all of our discussions as if they are likely to be beamed directly into the faces of grieving relatives, even though, with the Internet, they can. And we really shouldn’t let concerns about what people will think our motives are govern whether or not we speak out.

Ian Bowler will be back tomorrow. Some of the things I wanted to say still need saying. Other seem tired now, or trite, or just like I couldn’t pull them off as my rage has matured. Look forward to that. Some slightly stale material that feels like it would have been more relevant last week.

Because I didn’t do it. I switched the camera off, took off the tie, turned on the News, and felt awful. Awful that I was conspiring in silence, awful that I hadn’t had the courage of my convictions, awful that I hadn’t said something deeply offensive to right-thinking individuals. Just awful.

* For those unaware of Twitter, it’s a system used to ensure that Frankie Boyle gets pretty much blanket coverage by The Daily Mail.

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