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Funny is power

Everyone from MPs to businessmen are cracking gags. How did this happen?

Funny is power

Boris Johnson is in charge of London: a city of eight million people and the fifth-wealthiest on the planet. He falls into rivers, off bikes and into disrepute by offending entire nations in one fell swoop. These two sentences shouldn’t be about the same man — statesmen are supposed to be statesmanlike — but they are. And there is one good reason: he’s funny.

When Johnson turned up at the closing ceremony of the Beijing Olympics to represent our capital city and the next home of the summer games, billions of television viewers weren’t greeted with the glinting smile of a Tony Blair or the sharp attire of a David Cameron; they were greeted by an ungainly, loose-tied flag-wrestler whose flyaway hair ensured that the stadium wasn’t the only Bird’s Nest in town that night. Was everyone embarrassed by this bumbling spectacle? Were they heck — they were proud.

Johnson’s comedy, whether deliberate or otherwise (and he is more than capable of both), is his greatest asset — and that’s because humour these days is a key weapon in any power battle. Look at our politicians — to varying degrees of success, they’re mixing policy with punchlines, dressing the dry salad of debate with the vinaigrette of wit. Such is the blurring of the lines, comedians are even invited on to Question Time to ‘funny things up’.

Barack Obama, congratulating Nicolas Sarkozy on the birth of his daughter last October, said: “I’m confident that Giulia inherited her mother’s looks, rather than her father’s.” Sarkozy probably hated it, but the public lap up this sort of thing. Cameron and Conservative MP Peter Bone have a little double-act going during Prime Minister’s Questions, in which Bone will begin his address to the PM by recounting conversations with Mrs Bone. It seems there is no emphasis on sensitivity, either. When George W Bush was filmed looking under a White House desk in 2004 and proclaiming, “Those weapons of mass destruction have got to be here somewhere,” some people found it as tickling as it was tasteless. It’s enough to make Frankie Boyle think of running for office.


This wasn’t always the case; people used to look for gravitas, inspiration and a good set of braces in their leaders. Winston Churchill wouldn’t have won any plaudits for smoking the odd exploding cigar. So when did we start wanting our leading figures to go from upstanding to stand-up?

“The role of the Seventies’ alternative comedy movement was formational,” says Sam Friedman, a University Of Edinburgh sociology lecturer specialising in popular comedy. “It introduced new styles of critical, surreal and intellectual stand-up and, crucially, it made comedy an acceptable cultural taste for the middle classes.”

Television played an influential part in this. As anyone who’s ever had a friend ‘sleep on the sofa for a couple of nights’ knows, let something into your house and it’s hard to get rid. Once the television, which already had its claws in vast swathes of the world’s population by this point, began pouring this rich variety of comedy into our living rooms, it became part of us. We assimilated, imbibing the humour and using it ourselves, whether that was as simple as quoting Monty Python or as brave as coming up with our own ‘material’.

It’s led to humour becoming our default method of communication and, subsequently, if you’re good at it, it will help your chances of success. What’s true for politicians is true for any walk of life; if you want to get ahead, get funny.

“Funny people are more likely to succeed,” says Friedman, “but it depends on what you define as success. I found that sense of humour was heavily dependent on one’s social class. Therefore to succeed in a working-class job, or to make working-class friends, one might need to be funny in a particular way.

“But in a middle-class context this working-class humour might act more as a hindrance to success. The important difference is that society tends to value middle-class humour more, and therefore it is these cultivated styles of humour that are likely to help you succeed in high-status professions such as law, medicine and politics, or make you high-status friends.”


It stands to reason if you think about it. Who do you want to hang around with: the funny guy or the unfunny guy? Who’s the most popular boy in the classroom? The funniest one. Who’s the most popular person in the office? The funniest one (please note that staplers in jelly, snipped ties and photocopied undercarriages are not funny). It puts us under pressure to perform, and this is never more apparent than in the dating game.

“I try to be funny in early email exchanges with a woman,” says Rob Doyle, a 30-year-old IT consultant from south London. “You’re trying to sell the best version of yourself. So I rewrite emails and texts, and do a few versions to make them funnier. And when you’re on a date you try to make jokes because in any situation where you’re nervous it’s a good way to lighten the atmosphere.

“I do it in meetings at work as well, but you have to be more careful. I heard about a guy at another company who made a joke about a client looking like a lady of the night — and he was kicked off the project for it. I always try though, because it can help you get on if you have better working relationships. It’s something that is becoming more valued. Maybe it’s because there’s an element of intellect behind it.”

There is a fine line to tread in the quest for comedy kudos. Nobody wants to be the killer of conversations, the bringer of tumbleweed but, unfortunately, one of the surest ways of achieving that ignoble status is to try to be funny. Or rather, to try too hard. Know your limits.

Let’s go back to PMQs. While Cameron and Bone have nailed their routine, around the House others look and learn. They know that it’s doing the PM the power of good, making him seem more attractive and clever, and they want in. The problem is that others are, to put it politely, less gifted in the comedy department. Take Liberal Democrat MP Sarah Teather. Last year, she stood in front of her party conference and quipped: “I thought I wouldn’t keep you for too long tonight because I want to get back to my hotel room to watch Strictly. Do you watch it? Of course you do. I heard though that they’ve got Peter Hain booked for the next series. He’s doing the tango. Or has he been tangoed?”

The reaction made a lead balloon look like a soufflé.


The truth is there are many Sarah Teathers out there. Most of us aren’t going to sell out arenas off the back of our innate comic gifts. Most of us aren’t going to hold court in our local pub. Some of us even struggle to keep our own attention. According to American comedian Doug Stanhope, though, while we can’t make ourselves funny, we can still make people laugh.

“It’s tough,” he admits, “because everyday people aren’t funny normally. They’re only funny accidentally. They don’t even know they’re doing it, like the local weather guy or someone like that. But I hang out with comics, so I’m spoiled. It makes it hard to hang around regular people, because they’re boring.

“People can mimic comics and be considered humorous around their peers. They can even make careers out of it. There are comedians who are scientists and will study the art form and mimic it, but they’re not funny as people. They can see the structure of a joke, but you can’t teach them to be funny.”

All you can do is play to your strengths. If you don’t have the quickest wit, perhaps get yourself a good line in funny faces. If you’re shy, don’t turn up with clown shoes and a red nose. In fact, never do that. Go with the flow, laugh at the really funny people and keep your powder dry, only chipping in when you’ve got something you know is funny to say. If all else fails, do a Boris and fall off something. The most important thing, though, is to be able to laugh at yourself; if you do, so will everyone else.

Image: rex