Part of the Humourology series
Season 1, Episode 22
Alastair Campbell – Punchline Politics
Author and Former Press Secretary to Tony Blair, Alastair Campbell shares his thoughts from years of experience working with world leaders with Paul Boross. How can humour help the House of Commons work together? Find out this week on the Humourology Podcast.
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On this week’s episode of the Humourology Podcast, Paul Boross is joined by author and strategist Alastair Campbell. As the former press secretary to Prime Minister Tony Blair, Alastair knows how levity can affect leadership. Campbell discusses how the right kind of humour can help your message get through.
“Wit, I think, is an incredibly powerful thing in politics. It’s not the same as comedy, it’s wit.”
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– ♪ Oh flower of humourology ♪ ♪ With Paul Boross ♪ ♪ We’re talking about it ♪ ♪ Because he makes a podcast ♪ ♪ And he writes books too ♪
– Welcome to the “Humourology Podcast”, with me Paul Boross, and my glittering lineup of guests from the worlds of business, sport and entertainment, who are going to share their wisdom and their use of humour with you. Humourology is the study of how humour can dramatically improve your business and your life. Humourology puts the fun into business fundamentals, increases the value of your laughing stock, and puts a punchline back into your bottom line. Please remember to like, subscribe and leave a review wherever you get your podcast. Our guest on this edition of the Humourology podcast is a writer, communicator and strategist, best known for his role as former British prime minister Tony Blair’s spokesman, press secretary and director of communications. He’s the author of 17 books including “Winners and How They Succeed” an analysis of what it takes to win in politics, business, and sport. He’s deeply involved with several mental health charities and causes speaking about his own experience of depression, psychosis, and addiction. This has culminated in his latest bestselling book, “Living Better: How I Learned to Survive Depression” Due in no small part to his droll sense of humour he is also a sought after speaker at events around the world, specialising in strategic communication, leadership, team building, and crisis management. However, he’d probably give up all of his astonishing achievements to for his beloved Burnley FC. Alastair Campbell, welcome to the Humourology podcast.
– Thank you very much.
– Well, I was speaking at an event with Burnley manager, Sean Dyche, who I believe, you know well, just before lock down. He said that he thought humour was absolutely essential as a tool in leadership. Do you agree?
– Yeah. And yet Sean is a very funny guy. I mean, you’ve seen some of his press conferences. He, he takes the mick out of the media quite a lot. He takes the mick out of himself. He’s quite good at that. Yeah, I absolutely do believe that. I think that humour is it kind of, it’s so key to everything. I mean, if I meet people, one of the first things I suss out about them is whether they’ve got a sense of humour and if they haven’t, I just don’t want to be with them. I don’t want to work with them. So yeah, totally, leadership, teamship is in there. I mean, I can’t get through the day without, you know trying to find things that are funny.
– So is leadership enhanced by the ability to laugh at yourself? You mentioned at yourself as well, is that important?
– I think the ability to laugh at yourself is definitely important and the ability not to take, how I describe it is I think you should take your work seriously but that doesn’t always mean you have to take yourself too seriously. One of the best things of working with Tony Blair for examples, we, you know, whatever was going on, we did have a good laugh and we, you know, we’re very good on black humour. You know, whenever there was a big crisis going on we would sort of, you know, put on black hats and telling me he had a week before he was going and Gordon was getting the curtains measured up. And, you know, we just sort of I think that ability to find humour in any situation is incredibly important. And you mentioned the latest book about depression, for example, I got a fantastic email the other day for this guy. And the book is all about depression. There’s quite a lot about suicidal ideation. There’s a lot about taking medication. There’s a lot about psychosis and all this stuff that I know. And you know, so it’s a pretty downward, you know, downbeat you might think, but I’ve got this wonderful email from a guy who said he read the book and he said, is it okay to say that I laughed out loud at your description of your breakdown? And I said, of course it is because looking back at it now there are elements of it the paranoia that I was enduring at the time. So for example, I thought that when Des Lynam was reading from the teleprinter on Grandstand I thought he was feeding me secret anagrams that if I could work them out, I would be able to I’d be allowed out of the hospital. Now when that’s happening to you, that is really scary. And when people around you, nurses and family and you’re saying, you know, oh my God, I can’t crack that one. And, but look, I can talk about it now I can laugh about it. So yeah, I think you’ve got to try and find humour in everything.
– We were doing an interview with Dr. Richard Bandler, who said humour is a tool to unlock the mind and change reality. Did you, did it help you change your reality?
– No, I don’t think it does. I don’t think it’s about changing reality, I think it is reality. I think finding things that are funny and seeing the funny side of things even when they’re serious, I was watching the TV series last night, “Your Honour,” And there’s a bit where this boy has lost his entire family. They’ve been wiped out in a kind of horrible attack and there’s the funeral, okay. So the camera’s kind of following him, right. And then as he goes through by the funeral there’s a load of people who are at the funeral and they’re all laughing about whatever it might be – a funny story – And then of course, as soon as he walks in they all stop laughing because it’s his family that’s lost. There’s nothing wrong in them laughing about something that either has something to do with something they recall about somebody who’s died or it’s something completely different. So I don’t think you should ever not be thinking that a good reality has humour in it whatever’s going on.
– Yeah, no, I agree. So what makes you laugh, Alastair?
– What makes me laugh? I like, I do like comedy. My daughter’s a comedian, you know.
– A very good one as well. Grace is great.
– Yeah, she does stand up. So I do like, and I’ve always liked I loved Tommy Cooper growing up. I think Billy Connolly is one of the funniest people who’s ever walked the planet but actually out and about, so when it’s the top level of comedy I love those rambling anecdotes that never quite finished. And there’s just endless sort of, I love the observational stuff. And that’s what I find funny in myself. And I think if we were talking to Fiona, she writes in the depression book, she says I’m still the person who makes her laugh the most, right. And I think that’s true. And my, the stuff that I make her laugh about tends to be observational about stuff that we’re seeing. And I spot things that maybe she doesn’t see and I just make her laugh. And so I like observational stuff, you know.
– Earlier on you were talking about, you know, you can look back and laugh at when you had your paranoia so does that mean that comedy really is tragedy plus time?
– It can be, definitely. It can be. I mean, you know, you hear people telling funny stories about, you know stuff that happened in wartime or, you know people emerging from poverty. You know, we do we tell funny stories about everything and I think it’s a way of maybe dealing with them. You know, funny enough all this royal stuff going on at the moment. And, you know, I can think back to say around the time that Princess Diana died. Well, you know, it was horrific in lots of different ways but when you have misunderstandings, you know at the moment in the time they can be, oh my God. But actually when you sort of a quarter century later you can tell stories about it and it can, you can it’s okay to make it funny. So I think it’s… yeah tragicomedy is an interesting kind of… an interesting concept but I think the dividing line sometimes is very, very narrow and the other thing to say is what some people, you know let you just take something like slapstick, you know why do we laugh at people slipping off a pavement on a banana? Why do we find that? Why do people laugh at that when actually they might be dropping dead of a heart attack. Right. But there’s something about seeing that sort of I guess, mild, gentle pain that we sort of go, ha that’s funny. I have this thing about every time I’m driving if I see a car where the people are on the hard shoulder they’ve got the mechanic out, you know, whatever. And you know, I just have this sort of sense of God thank God that’s not me. But then I allow myself to sort of play with ideas as to what their story is and how it might, you know, might be comic. And so I just think you’ve got to look around for laughter because I mean, let’s be honest the world at the moment is so shit in so many ways you’ve got to find it. You’ve got to try and find it funny.
– Well, it’s an antidote, isn’t it really to the fact of how horrific things are. And presumably you know the more horrific things get in war or everything, the level of humour goes up to compensate, I suppose. You talked about funny stories. You must have a myriad of funny stories of things that happen to you that now looking back are funny. Can you share one of them with us?
– Well, one that I use a lot, in the days when we were still doing after dinner speaking.
– Oh yes.
– Is a true story about not far from here where I live, Hampstead Heath running track, And I was out running in the area of the track and it was dark and there was a guy getting mugged and I could tell he was getting mugged and I saw it. He was on the ground, he was being kicked. And I thought, what’d you do like, you know, it was there were four or five kids who were beating this guy up. So I did this thing where I ran across, but I was throwing out different voices in different accents to pretend that I was like a squad policeman arriving. Anyway, they scarpered. And this guy was, he had blood coming out the side of his head, his nose was all bent. He was really, really badly shaken up. And I said, I’ll take you to the hospital. He said, no, no, no, I’m fine. I’m meant to be meeting some friends at the church just around the corner in Savernake Road. Maybe if you could take me there. I took him there. I handed him over to these people and I said, listen, you need to give me a ring and you should report it to the police, right. And I didn’t see much but I can at least tell them something. So I wrote my name and my number down, Alastair Campbell. I put my number. I gave him the piece of paper and he looked at it and he said, “oh my God, you’re Alastair Campbell.” I said, “yeah, I am.” He said, “I fucking hate you.” There you go.
– Is everyone funny potentially?
– What is it that makes people funny?
– Well, sometimes it’s possible. I’ve met people where you meet them and then you say afterwards, that guy was so unfunny it was comical. I couldn’t believe, but no, I think some people the worst ones for me are the ones that really think they’re funny and they’re not.
– Okay. So it’s “The Office” character.
– No, he’s funny.
– No, but he thinks he’s funny.
– Exactly. Yeah. It’s that, it’s the people who say to you, oh you’re going to laugh at this one. You know? Ah, the minute anybody says to me, I’ve got this new joke, you’re going to love this, I never love it. I never love it. So, no, I think a lot of people are not funny.
– But do you think that’s delusional because everybody on their dating profile says good sense of humour.
– So yeah, people always say that but then I think what that means is that, you know there are things on the telly that they laugh at but that’s not being funny to me being funny is where you’re creating the laughter. Not, not just having an ability to enjoy it.
– So do you think in modern day politics it’s necessary in order to get on to A, be charismatic and B, does funny come into that charisma?
– Funny can and it should, I think, I think that, you know, a while back Hansard, the parliamentary record, they produced a book and they asked lots of people who were, you know, MPs and people like me would work there as a journalist and as a an advisor to Tony Blair, they asked us to pick our favourite ever Commons speech, which is, you know there’s a lot of good Commons speeches, right. But in the end I went for a speech, you may remember it by John Smith when he was leader of the leader of the Labour party. And he did a speech against up against John Major. And it was the year when the Grand National didn’t start. And he called Major the man with the non-Midas touch leading a country where the Grand National doesn’t start. And the land at Scarborough is falling into the sea. Now it was, his delivery was just so good. And what was extraordinary about it was that John Major was sitting there, knowing that this was like a punch right in the temple. But he couldn’t help laughing because it was so funny. And I’ll tell you another one who’s interesting, another politician, William Hague, when he was leader of the opposition, he was so funny in the Commons, these dry one liners. And we worked out that was his one strength against us. And we had to try to kind of disable it. And so we started running this line against Hague He’s all jokes, no judgement . And I think we did effectively make him worry about being funny all the time. I think we disabled his strength. He was very, very funny in the, my favourite ever moment in one of our less successful initiatives as a New Labour government was we did the thing about, we did a thing called the Annual Report, we had these press conferences in the garden. We’ve got all the generals in and the civil servants and Tony Blair sort of pontificated about what an amazing year we’d had. And then he went to parliament and he did a statement. And the annual report was this sort of glossy document. And Peter Brook was by then on the Tory back benches. And he stood up to ask Tony a question. And he said, “can the Prime Minister explain the significance within the document of the photograph on page 32?” And of course Tony didn’t have a clue, and the whole House of Commons arrived simultaneously at page 32, which was just a picture of a packet of contraceptive pills. Tony sort of looked at it, and it just brought home the absurdity of this exercise. And I don’t think we did it again. Wit, I think, is an incredibly powerful thing in politics. It’s not the same as comedy, it’s wit.
– Do you think the wit of The Lincoln Project actually had a significant effect on defeating Trump?
– It may have done. You can never tell in a campaign, what has, you know what has actually swung people to vote one way or the other but it definitely had, you know, The Lincoln Project was very, very powerful. I think Led By Donkeys that, you know, worked with us on The People’s Vote campaign. They did some great stuff that no, wit, I don’t know if you know the, one of my favourite quotes, one of the few things I remember from studying English was a quote by T.S. Eliot. He said, “Wit is the alliance of levity and seriousness by which the seriousness is intensified.” Now, if you think about that, you look at something like Boris Johnson, he gets away with stuff because people think he’s funny, right. Now, as a result of that, one, we’ve got Brexit, two, he’s the Prime Minister when he’s the worst Prime Minister we’ve ever had, but it’s partly because he was able to make people laugh without people seeing that second part of the T.S. Eliot definition. Where’s the seriousness that’s being intensified by the wit. And I think in terms of attacking him at the moment, I, you know, I think that Labour’s attacks on Johnson need a little bit more of that kind of, you know, wit, rapier wit.
– Do you think that the current Labour leader is capable of that wit?
– Well, I hope so. And look, he’s–
– He’s very bright. He’s incredibly bright. I think the Commons at the moment, it’s just a strange place because you can’t, you know, when John Smith was making that speech, when Peter Brook was, you know, having that little jibe at Tony about the contraceptive pills, the place was packed. You know, it’s like when Grace is doing her stand up, you know, if you’ve got a full house, I know this from doing the, on the speaking circuit, if you’re speaking to 500 people packed into a room the atmosphere is better already. You can be funnier. You know if people laugh, you’re going to hear it. Whereas in the house of commons with eight people in there, even if you funny, it’s hard to land it.
– That’s very true. I hadn’t thought about it because my background is at the Comedy Store as well. And 500 people with a low-ceiling room. Just, it just goes in a different way.
– And also the tension, you know, sometimes when I’ve been to watch Grace, like when she did the Edinburgh festival, I went a few times and she made me sit at the back with a hat on. And, but you know, as the place fills up their laughter is starting even before the comedian comes on because they want it to be funny. Likewise, in the Commons, if you’re the Labour leader trying to take the Tory leader apart and you’ve got 200 MPs behind you, they want you to do that. And therefore, if you’re, if you do something funny, genuinely funny, they react. And when you know, you’ve really landed it is when the other side react as well.
– I think that’s very incisive actually because the room does make a lot of difference to the whole thing.
– For sure.
– What would the world be like without humour?
– Boring. I mean, boring, just boring, you know. Unlivable, frankly. I mean, you can’t. Yeah. You can’t get, I couldn’t, I mean I get depression and when, even when I’m depressed I’m looking around for things to make me smile. So yeah. No, I think the world without humour, I can’t imagine it.
– No. Well, it does seem awful. Do you find yourself funny? ‘Cause I think you’ve just indicated that you’re looking around for humour about yourself as well.
– No. And about the world. I do think I’m funny. I think, I’ve always, when I was a kid, I used to make people laugh, definitely. And frankly, I mean, I see a lot, I do see a lot of myself in Grace in terms of some of the… I’m not, I don’t know if you know this, I once was doing an after dinner speech and there was a guy there who was a TV producer and he had this idea. He said, listen, I didn’t realise you were so funny. Right. I didn’t realise you could tell these anecdotes in such a funny way. Why don’t we make a documentary about you learning how to do stand-up. Right. And I thought stand-up is bloody hard. I mean, the good stand-ups is really hard. So I went, I know Eddie Izzard quite well and I went to see him, you know what you think? And he said, ah, well he said, if somebody said to you let’s make a film about you being a professional footballer would you go and talk to Wayne Rooney and say, hey, Wayne, I want to be a professional footballer. You’ve got to be it. And there’s something in that. So I know what I can do well. I can, I can make observations. I can be sharp. I can tell funny stories. As long as I know before I’m telling them how I’m telling them. But what I couldn’t do is that stuff that the stand-ups do where they’re just kind of rolling. I can roll with it a bit. But I think what I also can do is I can find, I can find humour pretty much everywhere, but yeah, I think generally I’m quite good at making people laugh.
– Well, that’s, I mean, that’s what I think I have a theory and you’re a great speaker. And I have a theory that the difference between a good speaker and a great speaker is humour, is wit, and the ability to pick up on the audience and play essentially. Do you think that’s true? ‘Cause we’ve been at a lot of conferences where you’ll get people who are intense and they’ve got a very good thing, but there’s no humour.
– No. And that can work for some people. So for example, you talked about in politics, do you need charisma and do you need to be funny? I would say one of the great modern politicians is Angela Merkel but she’s not, you know… she does have a good sense of humour but she’s not somebody who wants to display it and put it out there. She wants to display very occasionally that she has a nice smile, that she has a nice manner but she’s not somebody who wants to make people laugh. Bill Clinton, I think quite enjoyed making people laugh. Tony and Gordon, honestly, read my diaries, one of the worst parts of every conference season was come this sort of weekend, I haven’t got any jokes, I haven’t got any jokes. I’ve got to have some jokes. And I was always that, you know, the guy, even though I was doing all the serious stuff as well it was like, find me some jokes. And we got into trouble. Well trouble, the papers found out that we were actually talking to Roy Hudd.
– Great gag writer.
– And he gave us some absolute belters, most of which Tony wouldn’t use but John Prescott did.
– There’s an exclusive. So do people laugh enough in the workplace you think, Alastair? You’ve been in some very serious workplaces. Do you think there’s enough or is it encouraged enough?
– I think you got to get the balance right. I think people’s work is important to them, but I think they’re going to work better if they think that at least they can have a laugh. Now, you don’t want a situation where you’re going to work and it’s like walking into a pub, you know, where there’s lots of noise and there’s lots of laughter. But I think people feeling that they can have fun at work and tell stories that are funny, and you know, so for example, you mentioned some of my work environments, say like in Number 10, you know, I had a big office in the corner and I walked out onto this kind of open plan, quite a lot of people in there quite a lot of TVs on the wall watching the TV. And, you know, I would expect people, as the TV was playing, if they thought of something funny, to observe about, to say it and to try it. And I would quite often do that. I’d walk through the room sort of, you know, talking to the television and ripping apart what was being said or whatever it might be, purely to try and make people, you know, have a bit of a laugh. So I think you’ve got to get the balance right.
– Well, yeah, but it’s an also, I mean, as a leader, you’ve got to shift that state haven’t you? Because otherwise the atmosphere gets very heavy.
– Yeah. And sometimes, sometimes you need the heavy atmosphere but I always felt, I really felt whatever was going on, you had to have the capacity to be able to lift that mood. You know? And I think one of the… I couldn’t work in a really stuffy environment. I’d find that really difficult. You know, if everybody had to be serious all the time. If everybody had to be conscious of status and, you know, you can’t speak up, you have to speak down and all that, I’d find that very difficult.
– So if I asked you to make a business case for humour, what would you include it?
– I would say that the key to business success is a happy and healthy workforce who are prepared to be innovative and think differently. And you’re going to get a happier, healthier, more innovative work force if you encourage humour, if you encourage people to, you know, to enjoy themselves
– On the back of that what’s the return on investment for that? For companies? Because companies are now all looking at the bottom line and going–
– These things are hard to assess, but I would say a happier, healthier workforce is going to deliver better for you. How you measure that, I don’t know, but I bet you could measure it, for example, if you suddenly said right, over the next year, we are going to change our happiness. We’re going to integrate happiness, the happiness index, the fun index, right. I bet you over that year you would end up with fewer sick days. I don’t know that, but I bet you would.
– That’s worth investigating, isn’t it? I think I know the answer to this but have you ever taken a joke too far and crossed the line?
– Yeah. Why do you think, you know the answer?
– Because I think you pushed the boundaries in a good way. And I think, by the way, people who are funny tend to actually have to push the boundaries.
– No, I think that, you know, Fiona, she’s like my sort of sounding board say, for example something on Twitter, but I give you a recent example of where I went over the top. And actually it was, it was to do with being manic. I was manic at the time, but it is quite funny. I have the, again in the depression book, I talk about in the chapter about Fiona I have this habit when I’m a bit, when I’m happy, really when I’m kind of firing on all cylinders but that’s where there’s a danger I become manic. And I do this thing, which I think is funny, where I, to the tune of “Flower of Scotland,” wherever we are I just described the scene and I can do it about absolutely any situation, you know? So if I do it to you now, ♪ Oh flower of Humourology, ♪ ♪ With Paul Boross ♪ ♪ We’re talking about it ♪ ♪ Because he makes a podcast and he writes books too. ♪ So I can do that. Any situation, right? So I was doing this thing where during the height of the Dominic Cummings, Barnard Castle thing, the stuff of comedy for lots and lots of comics made a lot of good gags out of that. I was, we were walking on the Heath and I was doing lots of “Flower of Scotland” stuff. And then I thought, and it was all about Dominic Cummings, right? And Boris Johnson and Barnard Castle. And then I saw, I got bored with the “Flower of Scotland” and I started to do other national anthems. Did the Russian, the American, the South African, the French, the German. By the time I got here back to my office now at home, I was so kind of on it and thinking I was so funny, and this was just the public needs to see this now. So I decided to do “God Save the Queen.” I put a picture of the queen up on the wall. I had a flag, like they’ve all got flags now. And then this is where I took it to, I’ll give you the song first. It was Boris Johnson singing, ♪ God save our gracious Dom ♪ ♪ Long live our noble Dom ♪ ♪ Oh I love Dom ♪ ♪ Send him to meet the press ♪ ♪ That will clear up the mess ♪ ♪ Like Prince Andrew at Pizza Express ♪ ♪ God save our Dom. ♪ And this is where, I thought I’m moderately funny. Right. Okay. Where I went over the top is that because I was pretending to be Boris Johnson in front of The Queen, I put on a suit and tie, and I put on my brother’s guards medals, right. His military medals. Now you don’t do that. You don’t do that. And funnily enough, within minutes, I realised I’d gone too far. And then it’s important, friendships important. I got a call from a old mate of mine I used to work with, Martin Sheehan, and it’s a football thing, he always calls me Gaffer. And the phone, he just said, “Gaffer do as a favour, turn your phone off for a few days.” And he knew I was in that state where I was going to overstep the mark. So yeah, I do overstep the mark, yeah.
– Yeah. Well, no, I think most genuinely funny people do, but they have to be told, or instinctively know when to pull it back. I’m a big fan of your book “Winners” from 2015. And one of the big things you find about winners is that they’ve all got resilience. And I wondered if you think humour aides that resilience?
– Oh yeah, definitely. And I mentioned earlier about when we were in tough times, you know, I think black humour can be really useful. What is resilience? The resilience is the ability to endure, and more importantly to learn from things that have gone wrong. Well, often the things that have gone wrong they’ll prey on your mind longer and longer and longer. if you cannot see there’s some good in them. And the good in them often, as with my breakdown, can be the humour.
– So is there a definite correlation between people who are funny and being winners as well? Or do you think that’s going too far, Because I’m interested from sports, ’cause you’re a big sports fan, I’m a big sports fan. And I just wondered, you know we know the determination, the bloody mindedness that comes into it, but I just wonder, if they have to have a release valve.
– Yeah. I think it, that’s a really interesting question. I don’t know, so for example, if I think through a lot of the sports and winners in the book, so it takes some like Clive Woodward, you know the only man who’s ever managed England, coached England to win The Rugby World Cup, Clive’s got quite a dry wit but he’s not somebody I would describe as funny. His real strength comes from an incredible intensity. Dave Brailsford’s the same. Dave Brailsford, he’s got an incredible intensity to him. Now he can be funny and he can be, you know, but he’s somebody who’s always, he’s always on it. Sean Dyche, who you mentioned, I think is genuinely funny. I think he’s got a, I think for him that is a release. I really do. I’ve met Arsène Wenger a few times and he’s another one who’s got a very dry sense of humour, but you don’t see it in his public profile because he’s, you know, football, He’s just on it. So I think it depends. I don’t think there’s a kind of, some people I can think of who are successful, you know Paul Gascoigne, Paul Gascoigne is hilarious, but it’s also, there’s a sadness in him. Maybe he’s a tragicomic character. A very close friend of mine, Paul Fletcher who played for Burley and he and I, we’ve become very close friends. We’ve written a novel about football together. I speak to him a lot. He is hysterically funny. He’s one of the funniest, practical jokers I’ve ever met. He does the most elaborate practical jokes that can go on for weeks and months. And now he’s somebody who I think, his humour is about keeping himself and others absolutely, he’s one of those guys who thinks you have to be positive to do well. Would he be able to carry that? He was never captain of the team. And I wonder whether that, ’cause he’s definitely got leadership skills, you know, he’s been a CEO, he went into business and helped to build Wembley stadium. He’s a very successful guy, but he was never captain as a footballer. And I wonder whether the manager would have thought, the thing about Fletcher, he’s just funny. Well, sometimes you can’t just be funny. Now he’s actually a lot more than that. So I think it’s a little bit horses for courses, that one.
– And it’s also perception, isn’t it? That if you’re perceived to be an inverted commas joker, you are given less credibility perhaps. I think that’s right.
– It’s an odd one that, but in the book so you don’t think there’s a correlation between winning and humour? At least having a sense of humour?
– Put it this way, I can think of people that I would define as amazing winners who I don’t think it would be very funny and I don’t think we’d put it high up their list of attributes. I can think of others where, you know, they are both winners and a part of their winning is, you know, this ability to use humour.
– In business, do you think it’s survival of the fittest or survival of the funniest?
– I think if I was only allowed one I think you’d have to go with the fittest, but I think the real winners are going to have a bit of both. You have to. If you don’t you’re going to struggle. I think also, you know, I think if I look at I’ve just been reading the book about Robert Maxwell the new book about Robert Maxwell. Now given the guy nicked my pension, I shouldn’t find anything funny in it but there are actually moments in the book that are hysterically funny, partly because Maxwell couldn’t see at times how ridiculous he was. So he sort of had a sense of humour but it was like Trump’s sense of humour. It was all about, it was this inverted narcissism playing in on himself. Now, if you’re looking at that from the outside, there’s something comical about it. That Trump became a very dangerous figure, but a bit like Johnson, I can remember when I first started to worry Trump might win was actually when one of my boys, Callum, kept telling me he was watching all of these rallies and videos and interviews that Trump is, that God, this guy is hysterically funny. Now of course it was a mix of him saying over the top, funny things but also of the viewer thinking this guy’s just different. Funny, funny is different. You know, we get humour and say, that is not what we expect.
– You think Trump was a cartoon funny in that sense of like, you know people were drawn in by that whole cartoonish atmosphere. ‘Cause he’s not funny, he can’t deliver a funny line.
– No unlike Obama who delivered some very funny lines at Trump’s expense, which is probably why Trump ran for president. Obama’s delivery as a comic is terrific for a politician.
– Oh, I mean the best I’ve seen, I think.
– That’s partly I think because of the voice, he’s just got such a fantastic speaking voice. Trump’s got a whiny voice.
– Yeah, that’s true.
– Obama’s got music in his voice.
– I was just about to say that, but you said music, and I was just about saying he has brilliant rhythm. And what he does is he does that comedians’ trick of actually the face takes the gag in.
– I’ll tell you the other thing he does. He, and this is what the Billy Connolly, Michael McIntyre types do where they’re rolling. He signals that the joke is coming. He signals that it’s coming and then he sort of takes you in stages towards it. Whereas Trump is just to kind of whining narcissist but there’s something, were it not so dangerous, there is something comical. And sometimes, you know, I find it, you know it won’t be any surprise to know I can’t stand Johnson but you know, when you see him coming out, looking like Worzel Gummidge, you know sometimes all you can do is sort of go, you just have to laugh at him. Otherwise, what do you do? You know? So yeah. I think it’s yeah, Trump. I think Biden’s got a… he’s got a nice touch to him sometimes. Sometimes it’s about humanity. I think it’s when humanity comes through.
– Well and a lightness, and actually, the whole Humourology project is about bringing lightness into events as well. We’ve reached the part of the show called quick fire questions.
– Go on then, let’s go. ♪ Quick Fire Questions. ♪
– Who is the funniest business person you’ve met?
– God, there’s not that many that are a barrel of laughs are there? I’ll tell you one who I was really surprised. I was speaking at a dinner, and Ivan Glasenberg of Glencore was there. And he was surprisingly witty. He was definitely somebody able to take the piss out of himself and out of me. So I think I’d give it to him.
– Okay. Ivan Glasenberg. What book makes you laugh, Alastair?
– The last book that made me laugh so much, Fiona and I were driving down through France, listening to Billy Connolly’s, the book about Scotland. And there were bits of it, I literally, I couldn’t drive. I had to stop cause I was creasing up. That made me laugh. And then I think one of the funniest books about politics, John O’Farrell, “Things Can Only Get Better,” his recollections of life in the Labour party when we were not doing very well.
– John O’Farrell is brilliant. He’s written several great books. What film makes you laugh?
– I’ve got to say the “Blazing Saddles” farting scene does it for me every single time.
– That keeps coming up on this show, to be honest.
– And it does it every single time, as though it’s the first time. Sorry, but it’s true.
– Yeah. There’s films that come up over and over again, “Blazing Saddles” and “Life of Brian.”
– Yeah. The “Life of Brian” I can get that, but put it this way, you know, as a young man, I can remember rolling around on the floor of a cinema, but you don’t do that very often.
– Well as a young man, hopefully quite often. Taking a shift to the other side, what’s not funny?
– I think everything has the capacity to become funny but I think cruelty, genuine cruelty, is not funny. I think, you know, racism not funny and it is extraordinary when I talk about that programme we used to watch as a kid, “The Comedians,” so much of that was just about racism and sexism. “‘Til Death Do Us Part” was a lot of that was just about racism, sexism. So I think it was, you know I think culture obviously changes but I think the big -isms, but they become funny. They do become funny and we have to recognise that. So it won’t be long. Like at the moment we’re in the middle of this whole kind of, you know, Meghan and Harry and royals in crisis and dah, dah, dah, well come the weekend, the comedians are going to be all over it.
– The memes are already out there.
– Exactly. Every angle. And I don’t have a problem with that but I do have a problem where people, I think where people set out to be racist, sexist and all the other -ists, I don’t like it.
– Well, that’s where it goes into bullying, isn’t it really? That level of you’re different, we can laugh at you. But it is such a fine line.
– It is a terribly fine line. And you know, I find myself, you know, we were talking about Will Greenwood before we started the interview, and I can remember on the lions tour, you know when you’ve got those nationalities there it’s just part of the way they gel that they have a few little national stereotypes going, You know, a Welshman sings and it’s like I thought you lot could sing, you know; an Irishman said something a bit crazy and you know, silly Paddy and all that stuff that just sort of, but I think it’s when I think there is a line and usually the people who want to cross the line say the trouble is you don’t know where the line is. We kind of do know where the lines are.
– Yeah. And that’s to me about listening listening off the top where you’re looking at people’s faces to see if you’ve actually hurt them or if they want to play.
– I think, you know, my daughter sometimes calls me out because I do have part of my kind of humour is that I will alight upon a characteristic. So it might be the football team that you support. It might be if I find, for example that somebody voted Brexit and now regrets it. I mean, they’re never going to hear the end of it from me. I’ll be quite kind in the main, but you know, that’s just going to be there forever. So, and she says that sometimes I can just be too repetitive and go on, you know, about somebody you know what I might perceive as a weakness or as a something that I think they shouldn’t have done. I’ll give you a very good example, Georgia Gould, the leader of Camden council, daughter of my best friend who’s sadly now dead, Philip. And she’s the most honest and the nicest person on the planet. Okay. But she once lied to me. And the reason she lied to me was that she and and her sister and my sons were organising a drinking competition. So I saw where the shopping bag and it had a bottle of vodka in it or two bottles of vodka. And she told me it was somebody else. And I’ve never, ever, ever, ever let her forget about it. Now, the reason why I know that it’s not going over the top is because it’s the one time probably in her life when she said something that wasn’t true because she’s so honest. So I’m in a way taking the mickey out of her goodness.
– Well, and teasing. That’s a very chiding, I think is a word we don’t use much anymore is actually a quite an inclusive thing. If you’re, if I’m chiding, you I’m including you in on that gag as well. And knowing you can take it. So I think it’s quite friendly.
– Well, I’ll give you another example of that. I did a podcast with my daughter, and we did Anthony Scaramucci last week.
– I heard it. It was brilliant and all our listeners should listen to it because–
– Thank you. You know the bit where he said that, you know, he said, my son, Alexander, he basically says to me now, everyone hates you. God, you screwed up. The Republicans hate you ’cause you turned on Trump and the Democrats hate you because he worked for Trump. You’re a loser. He can say that. But his son is saying that in a kind of… he used the word teasing. He said, he’s teasing me but there’s an element of truth in it.
– And you’re never going to let Anthony Scaramucci forget that he had Botox, are you?
– No, I’m not. But listen, and I didn’t bring it out of him. He volunteered it. I dyed my hair South-American-dictator brown. That’s what he said.
– I know that will be in your memory banks forever. So would you rather be considered clever or funny, Alastair?
– Clever, I think, but if I take my T.S. Eliot definition again, I think you need both. I think to be clever you need wit. Definitely, you need wit.
– I think it’s actually a sign of cleverness, because the mind can go to where is the funny? And finally, Alastair, Desert Island Gags. You can only take one joke with you to a desert island. What joke is it?
– Oh, that is so hard. That is so hard. If it’s a joke that I can listen to, right, it would be the Billy Connelly, the one where he ends up with the bike in the bum.
– On Parkinson, the classic.
– I do think Billy Connolly is the funniest raconteur there has ever been. So I think that’d be, if it was about listening to one, it would be that. If it’s a joke, you see the problem with your concept of the desert island gag, the only person you’re going to tell this joke is yourself because you’re on your own, right? So I think if it was only like one, it’d be Tommy Cooper joke. Probably the one where he said, “I went to a gymnastic teacher and said, “I want to do the splits. “And she said, how flexible are you? “And he said, I’m fairly free apart from Tuesdays.”
– I love it. I absolutely love it. Alastair Campbell, you’ve been funny and flexible. Thank you so much for being our guest today.
– I enjoyed it.
– The Humourology podcast was hosted by Paul Boross, and produced by Simon Banks. 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.