Part of the Humourology series
Season 2, Episode 13
Arabella Weir – Finding the Funny in Family
Actress, writer, and comedian Arabella Weir joins the Humourology Podcast to discuss the power of humour in survival. The Fast Show star looks back on a career of creative credits to share stories on silliness, the stage, and survival.
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Paul Boross is joined by actress, comedian, and writer Arabella Weir to wander down memory lane and find the wonder of healing through humour. Weir shares stories from her time on the screen and stage to show how humour can help people survive. The Fast Show star draws on a difficult childhood to discuss how levity can get you through the hardest of times.
“It’s about being able to be to see the funny in stuff at all times. It’s about being able to have a sort of a gaiety of spirit or sense of lightness.”
Weir knows that you can cope with comedy and heal with humour. Join us this week to hear heartfelt stories of heartache, healing, and a career full of humour.
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Arabella Weir on the Humourology Podcast
– I hope people understand that you and I are not saying it means we don’t take very serious things seriously, it means of course, things like terminal cancer and job losses and everything, they are serious issues but it just, the way I see the world is levity, lightness can be brought in even to the darkest places. So a world without humour, no thanks.
– 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 podcasts. My guest on this edition of the Humourology Podcast is a scintillating star of screen and stage. As a hugely successful comedy actress, author and performer, she has established herself as a savant of sketch shows, parodies and sitcoms. She has a cracking collection of creative credits as a writer and actress in shows like The Fast Show, Posh Nosh and Two Doors Down. Her live one woman show, Does My Mum Loom Big In This? is a jest filled jaunt into her juvenescence that leaves audiences absolutely jovial. Unlike her famous character, ‘Insecure Woman’, she is a clever and confident comedian and creator who still leaves crowd’s cackling with her classic catch phrase, Does my bum look big in this? Arabella Weir, welcome to the Humourology Podcast.
– Hello, thank you. That was an embarrassingly effusive introduction. I always think, I wonder whether if you introduced people, in the sort of balanced way they really are, everyone would go, oh, I don’t want to listen to this. She’s a bit miserable at times, she can be quite annoying, she’s very controlling and she’s got OCD, please welcome my really tedious guest. I don’t believe I’m really tedious, I’m just saying that when people give you your credits, you think, oh my word. Yeah so, but thank you for that.
– Right, I’ll rerecord and start ladies and gentlemen, please welcome my really tedious guest Arabella Weir.
– She thinks really tedious but perhaps not as tedious as she thinks she is, nice complicated entry view there.
– Well, it’s wonderful to have you here and thank you so much for being a guest. In your fabulous state show, Does My Mum Loom Big In This? There are many hair raising and hilarious true stories about your self-confessed dysfunctional childhood. Was the young Arabella humorous? Did she instinctively understand funny?
– I think the answer to that without wishing to sound pretentious and in any way sort of self-aware as a little person, that is definitely the case. I can’t remember the moment but I do remember realising that if I was funny – and obviously as a toddler, who knows how crafted it was or self-conscious – but I do remember knowing that if I was funny, everyone would like me and that I would engage in that way and right from early on, perhaps not as a toddler but if you look at photos of me, that seems to be bourne out. They, my parents clearly, they never denied this, they wanted a girl but they had imagined a kind of 1950s when I was born in the late 50s, sort of dolly girl, tiny and petite and in those days he wore sticky out sort of Crinoliney type of dresses and I was a chunky little thing right from the get-go and I don’t, looking at the photos, not particularly fat but and I do remember it, I obviously, I can’t remember this consciously but it is clear from all the stories that at about two or three, I, something in my brain went well, you’re not going to be the girl that everyone goes, isn’t she pretty! A tiny little sort of delicate dolly type of classic pretty girl but that I could be funny and I am watching my son grow up who has, I hope not had anything like as dysfunctional a childhood as I had. I see that he sort of the same thing happened in him and it’s just a sort of exuberance and a confidence. It’s not that you think you’re the most brilliant person in the room, it’s just that whether it’s makeup or genetics or something else, fate, you just see those my will was set, from the moment he was a toddler, I thought my son was Sammy Davis Jr reincarnated and that kind of, that sort of and I suppose having had lots of therapy, I’ve realised it was a need to make sure everyone in the room was looking at me but also that they were liking me. You know, I wasn’t, that I was making sure not just as people would put it in a nasty way, you were the centre of attention but more that this was my way, humour and exuberance and liveliness was my way of making sure that people liked me.
– This classic nature versus nurture, where do you fall on it?
– Oh well, I definitely think if I’d been more unconditionally, well at all, unconditionally loved, I would have maybe not developed the need to constantly be, as I now put it sort of tap dancing, singing twirling, going look at me, I’m hilarious. Yeah, I think I would have been at the very least more focused and calmer but it was, my parents were Scottish and I’m not saying that all Scottish people are like this but they were classic Presbyterian non-religious but you know, you earn love, you do not get love if you are in any way displeasing because you just don’t. You earn everything. You earn your place in the room and I actually subscribe to that a lot but not in terms of parental love. Of course, you earn your place in the room as a member of society, as a pupil at school, as a work colleague but you shouldn’t have to earn your parents’ love but that was very, that was made clear right from the beginning and you don’t get it if you are fat, not pretty enough, talking too much, don’t get into Oxford, don’t do well at school, you fill in the gaps. So I would say nurture or the lack thereof in my case had a huge part to play in how I developed but of course, I don’t know how different I’d have been if I was brought up by two people who thought I was great and that nothing I did was wrong.
– Well, it was interesting that you brought your being a mother yourself now and having watched your children but that sort of show off gene which I would say my son has as well and I have obviously with my background in comedy, it’s, it is something but do you think it’s, we develop it even more if we are from a slightly dysfunctional background? ‘Cause a lot of comedians that I know are from dysfunctional backgrounds on some level.
– Me too and lots of performers are from dysfunctional backgrounds, but then of course, as you will know, as well as I do Paul, the older you get, you find yourself wondering, who’s had a functional background? You read about a bus driver who comes from a perfectly ordinary life and then you find out his dad had another wife, you kind of think, what is normal and who is normal? And in fact, I would say the minority of people I’ve met in my life had two loving parents who loved each other, fancied each other, stayed together, brought up their children nicely and would die having said they’d had fulfilled happy lives but yes, I think what did somebody wants to describe doing what we do? And I include any kind of live performing in this. It’s quite an odd thing to try and get, to try and get strangers to like you because that is basically what our lives are. I’m going to go into a room full of people, I’m going to try, I’m going to spend a couple of hours trying to get them to like me, I’m never going to see them again, but that is what’s going to sate me and that is a bit bizarre. I mean, who knows? I mean, you know, do you become a racist or a homophobe or whatever ghastly trait you have if you’re brought up by… You know, would Hitler had been Hitler if he’d been brought up by loving Jews? It’s very unlikely so it’s a hard argument to separate but I would, it’s so hard making your way as a performer of any kind and I’m including musicians or anybody as it were on the path of trying to get strangers to like them. It’s such an incredibly hard path with so little meritocracy at play it seems that it seems an odd job to choose if you’re not trying to right some wrong of your nurturing.
– It’s interesting, do you think that the humour, because obviously this whole humourology project is about how humour can change people’s lives for the better and you are using humour at its utmost to actually say this was horrific but now let’s look at the funny side of it and it’s therapy for the audience in a way as well as yourself.
– Yes, I think that’s true. I mean, I don’t know personally of many situations in which I wouldn’t be able to make a joke but for example, in the show, I joke about my mother’s reaction to me being sexually assaulted at eight years old and somebody, a reviewer wrote, she shouldn’t be making jokes about child molestation and I didn’t reply ’cause why would I? But the point is I’m not, I don’t think child abuse is funny, what I say in the show is that my mother’s reaction, she was basically not able to cope with it so just said it hadn’t happened and that if it had happened, it was my fault. She’s not the first woman to blame another woman, even a child for bringing it upon herself. And so the joke I do, that I hope I do well and I finesse is about the structural societal issues that made my mother incapable of going, right, we’re going to do something about that, we’re going to get that man prosecuted, this is a real thing. She did what she’d be brought up to do is going, it must be your fault and we’re going to, this is just not going to be dealt with, we’re just going to forget about it and the joke I make is out of that. So the person who reviewed that in that way, I mean, she gave me thankfully a good review, but she thought is mistaken, I would never make a joke about child abuse, I’d make a joke, as I do, about somebody’s reaction and means of trying to deal with a child who’s reporting that, not the event. So it’s hard for me to think of a situation which has affected me in which I wouldn’t use humour to survive, because that is what I did as a kid, these things happen. I mean, at the time, I didn’t think, oh, this is funny, it’s that looking back on all these events and understanding my mother’s makeup, I see that how I got through them is to go is to understand intellectually what informed her and then to make jokes about her means of coping.
– It’s a survival mechanism and actually as a psychologist, I would say it’s a very, very useful one because what it does is it shifts the way you look at it and so you do it. It’s by the way, bad things happen to a lot of people. Another thing I found…
– I think it empowers you, it brings the power back to you. So and I, with the whole Me Too movement, I’m remembering the hundreds, if not thousands of times in the 70s and early 80s and frankly in the 90s when crew members would say things about your tits or how you looked or make ‘a joke’, ha, ha and my comeback was always was powerful but was always humorous because I didn’t know another way but I felt empowered and was A, felt able to belittle them without being too aggressive by using humour. So that has been my tool, my shield, my sword through life and I’m not saying everybody should do it but if you have the gift of being able to turn something horrible into a joke, I feel it protects you and repels the advance or the insult, whatever it is.
– Right, I was talking to Jo Brand about this very subject, about empowerment and her advice and I don’t know how you feel about this as well was to have a couple of quips in your back pocket which you could bring out and then pick somebody, if there’s a gang of them, you go for one person and you face them down on that. And I actually thought, that’s great advice for that because you to take back the power because what a bully wants to do is make you feel bad, make it your fault and actually words are powerful.
– The thing is, you can’t teach someone. I remember a girlfriend who was very, not stupid, but very sort of linear. She said, oh, teach me to be witty and I said, so it’s like, so what Jo says is absolutely right but on the other hand, if you had a child that was being bullied, you couldn’t teach them quips. It’s all the equipment. It’s being the kid who probably has six times where you’re going, don’t say anything, don’t say anything, God let this end and then the seventh time goes, do you know what? But it’s like saying, teach someone to be Lewis Hamilton or teach someone to be Vanessa Williams. I mean, okay, those are skills you probably could drum into a kid but not at that level.
– No, I don’t think you can do that but you can learn to have the right attitude and do it quickly because actually, I mean, having spent years on stage at The Comedy Store, really, if somebody heckles you, it’s not so important what you say, it’s the timing of how you say it and your attitude when you’re saying it.
– Exactly, all the audience want to know is that you are not undermined by the person heckling you or calling out in the streets or whatever it may be is that you, is that you’re in control and you’ll only ever be in control, whether you’re funny in your retort or not, if you’re confident of yourself. So it’s about teaching your children that they matter, not that they’re the most important person in the world but that they matter and if they don’t like something someone says to them, they have the right to go, actually, I’m not having that without necessarily going, fuck you, I’m going to smash your face in because of course, what will, what disarms any kind of attack, however tiny it may be is that you know that you are and you’re not going to go, oh God, please, please don’t say that to me or confidence, can’t teach, you can’t really teach confidence.
– Well, as a psychologist, I think you can teach confidence. I think everybody is confident in certain aspects of their lives and so you can map that confidence over into other areas. So if you’re, I mean, if you’re
– Can you fake it?
– Absolutely and I think that’s important.
– I remember getting on stage with my show, which is very exposing, the Does My mum Loom Big in This? I think you’ve see what I’ve done there, yeah? I’m thinking why on earth by subjective myself to this? Why on earth? And then literally I was, I was walking up the steps, I thought, why have I done this? I don’t need the money, I’m a bit old to be doing this and why have I done this? This is the most utterly terrifying experience I’ve ever had. And then I thought, well, you’re going to have to tough it out because they’re, these are strangers. If you go hi, I really don’t know why I’ve come, I’m sorry you spent 17 pounds 50 ’cause oh. Or as I discovered with insecure woman, whose catchphrase was, does my bum look big in this? Take the thing that you are most frightened of the world finding out about you and out it just as I always used to say at the time, I outed my bum, because until that moment, what had happened is I spent my entire life completely genuinely working out outfits, handbags ways of getting out of rooms, because I was absolutely convinced that not only was it the biggest bum in the world but that everything pivoted on people not seeing that very much like I imagine a gay person going, whatever happens, people must not find out I’m gay because my entire career, my happiness is predicated on them not knowing that and it was only when I thought, when we were sort of riffing at the end of the first series of The Fast Show and Paul and Charlie went, why don’t you do someone who’s like you? And I went, what do you mean like me? And they went, oh, we’re always going on about, do I look fat in this? And are these, is my hair the wrong? And I went ah and hilariously, I went, I’m not like that and they went, yeah, you are and then I started sort of riffing and just going and imagining as I did to great success in the second and third and fourth series, what somebody would be like that who was being arrested or in court or whatever it was if she was still thinking, yeah, nevermind about whether I’m guilty of this, is my hair, is this too short or are these the wrong earrings? So it was the micro and the macro and yeah, so yes, I, that it was outing my greatest fear rather than trying to pretend I was thin and had a small bum, which had obviously been a huge effort because it was a conceit.
– It’s a classic owning it, isn’t it?
– Yeah and going, before you get ahead of this, I’m actually on top of it.
– Going back to Jo Brand, working with Jo, I mean, I remember when Jo used to come on the stage, she used to come on stage and she used to go and take the mic out of the stand and her line was, I’ll move this stand so you can see me. It’s a, it’s a beautifully sort of um…
– Observed yes.
– Observed, it’s so simple, but what it’s, it’s a good, it’s a little.
– She is getting ahead, what Jo was doing there and she used to be much, much bigger as you and I will both remember her. She was getting ahead of anybody who might be thinking, oh, I’m going to say something or I’m going to think something about her size and she was getting ahead of it. She was, so she was going, in case any of you are thinking of forming a hilarious heckle in which you notice I’m overweight or something I’m over, I’m ahead of it. Yeah, well, Jo’s sort of one of the best.
– So, Arabella what makes you laugh?
– There’s two types of, I mean, much to my amazement, I found that sort of real stupidity, I mean, kind of cretinous stuff makes me laugh. So I will laugh out loud at Stath Lets Flats, not saying it’s not sophisticated but I’m saying that’s quite broad, there’s a lot of physical stuff and that makes me laugh out loud, so does What We Do in the Shadows. I think what it is is contextual stuff, people behaving ridiculously in the wrong context but stuff that makes me smile and I kind of enjoy without laughing out loud is things like Curb Your Enthusiasm but quite a lot of comedy nowadays is sort of painful, deliberately and I find it interesting to watch but not sort of, it doesn’t make me laugh out loud.
– But wouldn’t you say that Curb is painful in a sense as well?
– Well he’s so uncompromising and he’s rich and stuff so I don’t feel any kind of social pain because he’s uncompromising and a lot of the times completely in the right but his behaviour is so appalling with other people. I remember seeing Larry David in an interview and he said, the thing is, I think that guy is right about everything it’s just that he’s intolerable but you know, like, there’s that whole hilarious thing when he puts some, when he puts an apple core in someone’s bin and the bin is huge and they and you just think, well, he’s right, who does care? I remember going to see my great friend who I write with sometimes Jon Canter, we wrote Posh Nosh together and he lives in a perfectly ordinary street in Suffolk with no parking restrictions and one of his neighbours came out and said, can you not park here ’cause it’s in front of my house? And I just thought, what do you mean? It’s an empty street and there was a whole Larry David thing in there and I just went, what are you talking about? And of course John was going, because he lives in the country, he was going to politely just move the car, I was going no, it is an empty street, but you know, that sort of thing makes me laugh but things that make me angry make me laugh as well, I guess that’s true.
– Tell me a true funny story about something that’s happened to you.
– God, there’s loads but one that I can think of particularly, I had a big birthday party and a load of people wrote, thank you, emails and one person said, I never got chance to speak to this person and this person has an unusually spelled name and he is very high profile. So I wrote back, just as well, because he’s got the worst breath you’ve ever smelled on anyone. And then I couldn’t remember how to spell his name so I put it in the email box to copy and paste his name but left it in there and to his eternal credit and this man was very high profile at the time, extremely high profile and anyway, I won’t say more because it’d be too identifiable, but he was very, very high profile and to his eternal credit and the person I was writing to was also very high profile, so I mean, that’s not me showing off about the famous people at my party, it was about saying neither of them would have, they knew who each other were and they would not have wanted this to be said about them. So I said, yeah, just as what you didn’t talk to him because he’s got the worst breath I’ve ever smelled on anyone and that’s not good considering his job. And I’d had a couple of glasses of wine when I wrote the email and after I sent it saw that I had copied it to him and literally thought I’m going to kill myself, I literally don’t know what to do and to his eternal credit, he wrote back, I don’t think this was meant for me and I wrote back, I can’t thank you enough for your elegance and I apologise. And somebody else actually said, do you know what? maybe that, ’cause he has improved his breath since then but he had one of those bad breaths where you recoil, where it’s like the bottom of an empty vase of flowers, you know where you’re going ugh! And he had a very high profile job that involved a lot of interfacing up close with people. So yeah, that’s one of the worst things I’ve ever done. Yes and when I told one of my closest friends that story, they said, that’s such a terrible story, never tell it again to anyone, including yourself.
– All right, it’s okay, just the millions who will listen to the podcast but I think it’ll disappear quickly, I’m sure. Do you find it funny when you mess up? Funnier than when you see all the people mess up?
– I’m afraid I do. I’m one of those pathetic class clowns that thinks it’s absolutely hilarious when I cock up. If I’m on stage and I genuinely lost my way, which happened about two times during the live show tour, which by the way, listeners, I’m going back on in September this year, 2021.
– It’s fabulous, book your tickets now.
– Arabellaweir.co.uk. One time I went, I’m really sorry, I’ve completely lost my way and they all started laughing and I went, no you think I’m joking but I haven’t, I’ve not just lost my way, I don’t know how to get back to where we were and they kept laughing and I went, you can keep laughing all you like but I am telling you the truth, I don’t know where I am in the show and I’m going to have to find out and I did find that quite funny but I also found it terrifying because I thought, I don’t know how to get back on the road, I don’t know how to get back to giving them their night’s entertainment. I did get a bit better at going, no, look, I know I’ve lost my way, but can I start again? And then of course, when you’re confident enough to do but you’ve got to be so confident, say, can I start again?
– Yeah but I think that’s a really useful takeaway for our listeners is the facts that you actually, we actually psychologically love people more when they admit their fallibility and when they, we don’t really love, I mean, when you go out with your friends and they say, this all went really well, I met the man of my dreams, I met the woman of my dreams, they say, so everything’s perfect. You go, yeah, nice story but if somebody tells you…
– I do think machismo in sort of Anglo-Saxon society has a lot to do. I think we were only just getting close to footballers as being able to cry, talking about minding about online abuse and stuff, we’re only just there and we’re not really, I think we must, we are still pretty much entrenched in don’t tell them about that and when you’re in an interview, tell them you chose not to go to Oxford not that you didn’t get in. I think we’re still very invested in show them you’re a winner and that’s why I’m saying you’ve got to have the kind of solid database within you to be able to go, I’m really sorry but let’s say you were having a meeting to be an accountant at a firm, you’d have to be very confident to say, look, I don’t, I’ve never heard of that programme and I’d have to have a whole day of being taught how to use it because your parents, depending on what they like would be likely to say to you, no tell them that you’re all over QuickTime or whatever the latest accountancy programmes are.
– Well, that’s very American, isn’t it? That whole, that thing came in from America, I used to live in America and it was, never be the person who didn’t know and always be there but I actually think that for most of the rest of the world, it’s endearing, it’s warm, we like people more who go, do you know what? I have no idea but if you say I have no idea with charm, with confidence, somebody, people will go, okay.
– What I’m saying Paul is to be able to say that you’ve got to know that let’s say it was accounting. you are a good qualified accountant, you just have this gap where you don’t know but you’re saying to them, just like with an audience, don’t worry, I can do this. You just tell me, you give me half a day to learn, I’m making it up, Quick time and I will do that. Not, look, I don’t know what I’m doing, please help me out and that’s the difference ’cause teaching people to go, you can tell people you’ve got a gap in your knowledge or you’ve forgotten your lines on stage, you can tell them that but they’ve got to know that you can, that you can drive the train. You can’t be saying to them, I don’t really know what I’m doing up here ’cause I’m feeling a bit insecure and ugh.
– From a psychological perspective, that is if you want anybody to go into any state, you have to go into that state first because what we do is we mirror other people’s state. So if I want you to be insecure, I’ll act insecure first of all or nervous. So if you want the audience to be confident, whether that’s a job interview, an audience of one or three or 10,000 people in a theatre, you have to go to that place first and then we’re into fake it till you make it, then we’re into understanding look and I fundamentally think you learnt confidence over your career. So even and you talk now about, I mean, I know all of us do, every person, I mean, we both been with probably between us, every comedian and performer from this country over the years at some stage, do you know any who haven’t had nerves or butterflies?
– No and as a very good friend of mine who’s very a very famous actor said, if you aren’t feeling the butterflies, you shouldn’t be doing it.
– ‘Cause if you’re thinking, well, this is just a piece of cake and I… then you don’t have the fire that you need to keep going and that is definitely true. And also the older you get, I’ve now become quite, I hesitate to say this but almost grateful for the terror because you think there’s, there’s not much in life, you get pretty settled and you kind of know where you are and you’re not going to get those, well, in my case, you’re probably never going to get those sort of that hysterical high you get from falling in love and all that. So if you can still get the terror that makes you get onto stage and try and entertain 350 people in Melrose, where I’m going, one of the places I’m going and that is going, that’s going to be really interesting because that is where my mother’s from and that is where the only person in my childhood, my granny, who showed me unconditional love lived and it’s a bit bigger now but it’s not much bigger. So literally I’m thinking I have to do the best show I’ve ever done in my life in Melrose, even though everyone’s dead but it’s a very significant place to me.
– Well for some reason, the Stephen Sondheim song Being Alive, sort of came to my mind but that’s what it is. It’s you feel like you’re alive because you’re getting that adrenaline rush you’re, that’s what life is giving that and I think that’s what the addiction is about performing.
– Yeah, it must be, yes, ’cause there are times when you think, why am I doing this? So yes, that definitely must be part of what is keeping you locked in.
– Is everyone potentially funny or is it a gift given to the few?
– I think most people can be funny, no, I don’t know whether they can be funny. I’m trying to think of the people I know who genuinely have no sense of humour and they’ve either got some form of sort of mental health issue. I think finding stuff funny or being funny as with everything in life comes down to confidence. You can’t find things funny, whatever they are, if you are trying hard to protect your boundaries. If your whole life is about going, no, I have got the right job, the right car, I do live in the right area, that is the correct partner. Every choice I make is correct. I can see how it would be very hard to laugh at anything because you’re trying so hard to hang on to your own boundaries. I don’t know whether that everybody can be funny but everybody ought to be able to find stuff funny.
– Yeah, look for the funny, so but being funny is, do you think that’s a superpower then?
– Well, it’s my superpower but I and I think people do think that being funny is being trite but I ask those people to try and make a room full of people laugh and then they’ll see what a incredibly hard job it is. Vivien Leigh said, apparently, I was reading a book about her and she said, I had no idea how hard comedy was until she did a comedic play and she said, you can make anybody cry about anything by mentioning your dead dog or your ill child, she said, because everybody will respond to that, oh boohoo, the child’s terminally ill or the dog is dead. And she said but you try getting a laugh out of a room full of people, that is the hardest job in the world and without wishing to sound super pretentious, it is very hard and so I don’t think people should think being funny is something to be looked down on. What they used to say at school, always larking about, never able to take anything seriously. I think I am able to take stuff seriously, but I’m also able to take… you know, my best friend died of cancer and as she was dying, we were both making jokes about it and I was having to do pretty repulsive things and she was saying, I just hope you know, I’d never do the same for you. And I was going on I know, I can’t believe doing it because that’s how we got through it and I don’t think it meant losing her was any less painful, it was just what we did to make it more bearable.
– And it’s that ultimate bonding tool, isn’t it? You know, I mean, I’m sorry for your loss and your friend but actually is that just not the most beautiful thing to be able to do even in those times? To actually laugh together and that’s a gift really because you were giving her moments of freedom. If you can make people feel better and change their state, wow that to me is a superpower, you walk in, people feel better. I used to, I spent two and a half years training doctors at Guy’s, King’s and St Thomas’ and actually what I used to say to them is, the doctor should be the placebo. You should walk in and people should go, do you know what? I already feel better and that’s kind of the job and if in life, if you can help people feel better around you, I think then you’ve, a life well lived to be able to do that and that’s probably what I’m trying to do is show people that this stuff is really important and most people are branding people like yourself as a clown and it’s dismissed.
– Well, no, I don’t mind, I don’t mind being the clown because I think a clown, the court jester plays a very, wasn’t the court jester’s original role to speak the truth in such a way that it meant, oh, well the king doesn’t have to behead him because he said it in a funny way but he said what the king needs to be hearing.
– So what would the world be like without humour?
– Oh, bloody miserable, wouldn’t it? It would be like North Korea. In a place where you have to kind of stifle humour, well, it’s a dictatorship, isn’t? It’d be a very, very poor place and I think, I hope people understand that you and I are not saying it means we don’t take very serious things seriously, it means of course, things like terminal cancer and job losses and everything, they are serious issues but it just, the way I see the world is levity, lightness can be brought in even to the darkest places. So a world without humour, no thanks.
– No and also perspective is what you’re trying to do. Things are bad and it gives you a new perspective on it so it’s very important. Do you find, ’cause I know that I’ve heard you talking about the fact of like advertising agencies being there when you’re doing voiceovers and putting their two penneth worth in all the time, but do you find people actually laugh enough in the workplace and do you think there should be more of that?
– I mean, this is going to, please don’t write me letters ’cause I won’t answer them but this is going to sound incredibly sexist. In my experience, I think men could do with more humour in the workplace because it is men, as I’ve observed that are trying to make sure that everyone knows they are top of their game and no one’s having a… no one’s laughing at me and that excludes humour if you’re sort of busy trying to circle the waggons around your particular genius, because as, because I’ve met very few women who won’t sort of share some sort of humour in the workplace, even if it’s about they’re not being loo paper or that kind of where you just don’t see the person as the enemy, they make a joke and you’re not hearing, they’re laughing at me, you’re hearing, oh my God, that happened to me, hands across the water sort of thing. So there could definitely be more humour in the workplace, as I see it for men but no, I wouldn’t separate the men from the women I’m just saying what I’ve noticed over the years is men trying to go… is humour not being allowed in, in case they’re seeing it wrongly as you taking the piss whereas that’s not, in my experience, women’s first go-to place. They’re going, oh, you’re making a joke not you’re taking the piss at me but when you go to, in my experience, oh yeah, that’s a good idea guys going, well, what are you saying? And I go, it was a joke. So yeah, too much defending from men and as I say, don’t write me a letter because that has been my very small straw poll based on my own experiences but yeah, I’d say you could probably do with a bit more humour in the workplace.
– Well, you’ve had to learn and relearn new skills over the years, and I know you travelled a lot when you were young to different countries and of course schools, have you found that things you’ve learned most easily have been connected with humour or having fun?
– Certainly for me. I mean, I’m not an intellectual and I have friends who are what I would call swots and for them, they have absorbed through thick novels, science books, whatever and if that’s conduit, that’s absolutely fine, of course it is but I have found that I’ve only ever learned anything and been enriched by an experience if it’s been fun and that’s how, that’s how it gets into my skin. So if you can read Dostoevsky front to back in a day and absorb it, nothing wrong with that but for me, there has to be some element of joy in the learning experience otherwise I’m going, what the fuck are we doing here? Because anyone can read a book, anyone can get information if that’s, we’re not computers so if you want to put information into a person, you better, for me, attach some joy, otherwise what is the point?
– Well, I think so from a psychological perspective, I think that that when you’re having fun, it’s funny that when you go to the cinema, you can remember everything in detail if you’ve enjoyed a film, because you’re relaxed, you’re in a relaxed, fun, light state but when you’re really studying for your exams and all, you’re tense and it it doesn’t flow in that sort of way really.
– Well, yeah not for me. I mean, as I say, I do know people who just have sat down in a room full of mediaeval scriptures and gone, yeah I know I came away with all the information I needed but those people, actually, two of them that I’m thinking of who have got double first from Oxbridge and stuff, they both got great senses of humour, just how it gets into you and my skin seems to be impermeable to that heavy shit and I can absorb stuff when it’s couched in joy.
– If I asked you to write a business case for humour, what would you include in it?
– Yeah, you’re going to have to explain to me what a business case is.
– Oh, okay. We’re going into a big company and we’re going to say, Arabella and Paul are going to come in and teach people how to have a lightness of touch, how to connect with people how to…
– Oh, a sort of a sales pitch?
– Yeah, a sales pitch for why they should buy it basically.
– I would, if I were a business person giving us, I mean, I’m going to want probably three to 5,000 quid for this day, so let’s call it 3000. If I was spending that on me and I own the business, I’d want empirical evidence that learning through, that teaching people lightness of touch and joy actually means they deliver on the message. So I would back it up with, a hundred people were taught Dostoevsky and can’t remember the lead characters’ names but a hundred people were taught Dostoevsky as acted out in a fun way by comedians and acrobats and they remember the whole plot. So, I’ve made that up and you can have that.
– It’s going in the book.
– So I would back it up with, I think that’s the right word, isn’t it? Empirical evidence and I would say, I would say, watch me and you’ll see that people who are engaged and entertained won’t necessarily go, oh, I laughed myself sick ’cause that’s a different, you know when it’s gag, 15 seconds, another gag, that’s a different way of delivering a message but you will find that they absorb, they absorb the information, they take it away and they retain it and that would be how, also if you, imagine how awful, you and I are very fortunate but imagine how awful it is. You’ve only got to see a man screaming at you out of his van because you indicated the wrong way to think that guy must, he must not ever have known what it is to go, I’m really looking forward to going to work today. I’m going to talk to my great colleagues, I’m going to get in my van which I love, it operates beautifully, I can’t wait to deliver stuff. Just those tiny little things, that’s what I would also say in the business plan. I think showing people that enjoyment in what they do through humour is an absolute goldmine.
– Well and that’s where the accountants come in and that’s the return on investment, isn’t it? They are actually a happy workforce who are interacting well with each other and their customers are going to actually affect the bottom line at the end of the day.
– In the end, it all makes sense. I know this answer really but I’d like to hear your thoughts on it that have you ever gotten yourself out of trouble by using humour?
– It’s quite sort of painful to remember but my parents were so spectacularly un-parent like that I always, always used humour. One of my parents’ favourite thing, no surprise that I came up with Does my bum look big in this? Would be, if ever when I was an adult, we were having a glass of wine, they were separated, they were long divorced by this time but in both cases, they would be as middle-class people do, there’d be a bowl of nuts and a bowl of sort of posh crisps or something and without fail well into my forties, I would have the wine and if I reached for a nut, they couldn’t help themselves, they would both go and as I say, not in the same room, word-for-word they’d both go, darling, I’m just wondering if you’ve any idea how fattening nuts are. And so I remember every single time and they still did it going, Jesus, you wait on 45 to tell me that nuts are fattening? Who fucking knew? Oh my God, nuts are fattening? Next, you’re going to tell me chocolate is fattening. Oh my God, are the crisp fattening as well? I mean please, oh, no, I feel awful now. What about the wine? And then of course they’d both go, yes all right. Very funny and I go, no, no, no, help me. I mean is bread and butter, is that bad? I mean, should I, it’s like I just had no idea, it’s not, ’cause you’ve never mentioned this before and it’s so helpful that you’re telling me now and thank you for inviting me for a glass of wine and putting out the nuts specifically so that I could fall into this fucking hole. And then yeah so I would get quite heated but they did it every time, every single time. Come round darling, I haven’t seen you for ages, I got some lovely wine in the fridge, bang. Oh darling you really, my mother used to say do you know, she was very posh, watching you eat nuts is like having hot knives stuck into my eyes. And then I’d go, well, why’d you put the nuts out then? And as my very good therapist pointed out, well she’s putting the nuts out so that you will eat them so that she can continue that argument. One of the stories I tell in the show and this is one of my proudest moments, ’cause in many ways, it wasn’t funny at the time but my mother had been told she was dying by the consultant, I’m the only one of her four children that’s with her in the hospital, this is in the show. And so we know she hasn’t got very long but she being my mother is of course, absolutely as robust as ever, it’s just that the internal workings are finishing but she’s absolutely, anyway, so I think, well, I’m going to be there all day and mum can’t eat and stuff, so I think we’ll, I’ll treat myself and I take a load of sort of bits from Pret A Manger and one of them is a coronation chicken sandwich which for the listeners who don’t know what that is, it’s got quite a lot of, it’s sort of creamy and stuff and I’m sitting there, mum is, as it turns out about eight days away from death and she goes, oh God, have you got any idea how fattening mayonnaise is? And I go, mum, you’re dying and we, are we really going to do how fat I am in your last days and I’m eating mayonnaise? And she doesn’t go, oh, you’re right, darling, thank you for being here, eat what you like. She goes, oh but I mean you’ve no idea. Mayonnaise is absolutely one of the worst things you can eat when you’re overweight. And I just go, yeah, well mum, you’re dying and I’m eating a mayonnaise sandwich and we both know which is worse.
– Oh gosh.
– No, it’s eating the sandwich. That’s the joke, eating the sandwich.
– Yes, I know, no, I’m going gosh.
– So I managed to get humour into that situation and I mean, I wasn’t laughing at the time but I thought, oh fuck, my mum is quite literally going to go to her death bed going you’re too fat and having a go at me. So yes, that’s where the humour comes from but I don’t regret using humour in any of those situations and that was how, as they say, that is how I roll. So when my dad was and I knew my dad would go, you’re not the right size, don’t eat the nuts but I also knew that I would get much more unhappy, I think that’s what I found out. I was much more unhappy not eating the nuts and trying to be the thin person I was never going to be who goes no nuts for me but then the other bit, the feminist and the competent in me was going, well what are the fucking nuts doing on the table then? Just don’t put them out if you’re then going to try and get me to fall into the you’re not teaching the nuts are you darling, cashews are so fattening.
– No, it’s… but humour is, it’s such an important device to change people and to change the situation.
– It’s a power tool.
– A power tool, I like that. Humour is a power tool, yes.
– It’s the best hedge cutter you’ll ever get and I’ve got a hedge cutter and I fucking love it but humour is the best tool you’ll ever have, the best power tool you will ever have.
– I couldn’t agree more. We’ve come to the part of the show that we like to call quick fire questions.
– [Announcer] ♪ Quick fire questions ♪
– Who is the funniest business person that you’ve met? I mean, not somebody who is not a traditional comic.
– Oh, I know, my daughter. You wouldn’t think my daughter, my daughter is training to be a solicitor, she is very uncompromising, very hardworking and my God, she comes out with some killer lines and you kind of look at her and think, blimey, that was really funny and comedy is by no means her business, but she can be very, very funny.
– What book makes you laugh, Arabella?
– The last book that made me laugh out loud and that’s quite hard in a book, especially as you’re usually reading on the tube or the train and stuff, but it made me guffaw was “A Short Gentleman” by Jon Canter. They did it on Radio Four, actually, Hugh Bonneville, they did a drama adaptation, but it’s just, that’s what makes me laugh. He’s a tiny little, I don’t mean, I mean, he’s just very short but he has ideas of a six foot four patrician and it’s, that’s what makes me laugh, pomposity, the don’t see what you see, see what I want you to see and if I say I am a patrician Queen’s Councel, then that’s what you’ll see. So like Trump, I mean, Arturo Ui, don’t see what you see, see what I’m telling you to see and that is always very, very funny. “Emperor’s New Clothes.” Don’t acknowledge what you are manifestly seeing, I want you to see something different and I’ll keep banging on about it until you do and that book is very, very funny and that it’s all that, it’s him pretending to be something he’s not.
– That’s very interesting ’cause we had Rick Wilson on the show who was one of the founders of The Lincoln Project and they basically pushed all Trump’s buttons based on his thin skin and so we talked a lot about that kind of idea of how that works. What film makes you laugh?
– When I’ve watched films with the kids, my two children when they were little, well, they weren’t that little ’cause obviously it wouldn’t have been appropriate but we did laugh out loud at Tropic Thunder. That, I thought we all thought that was very funny and I watched alone and for me to laugh out loud at a film on my own is quite something. The other day I couldn’t sleep and I watched Alpha Papa – Alan Partridge and the bit where he climbs out of the loo and his trousers come off and he’s trying to cover his genitalia is a superb bit of physical comedy and I laughed out loud at that. So those two films have made me laugh out loud.
– Well, I took my son to see it on the day it opened and it was a wonderful shared experience.
– Pretty good stuff
– Yeah, it really is. I’m going to take a shift to the other side and ask you what is not funny?
– Child abuse, poverty, job losses, death but they can all, how you handle them is between you and your, your ego, your self, but many, many subjects aren’t funny but that’s not my experience. But then it’s, I’m talking about my personal approach. I mean, of course I didn’t laugh, I was absolutely heartbroken at my best friend’s funeral but while she was dying, we had some laughs. My marriage ending was not in any way, shape or form funny but I have been funny about it since. So I think it’s down to the individual. If you don’t find it funny, it isn’t funny and it’s not my job to go no, no, no, let me approach this for you and my job is to talk about my experiences and say, this is what I’ve done with them. I hope that can give you a shared and enlightened experience but I’m not telling you you must make jokes about your marriage ending or your best friend dying or, I’m not here to tell anyone else what they can and can’t find funny or must make light of, that’s just what I, it’s what I do. You can come with me on my ‘comedy journey’ but you don’t have to, it’s up to you.
– Well, no but you can open a door for people to go if you want to go down that road.
– Step inside love.
– ♪ … let me find you a place ♪ What word makes you laugh?
– Every time because I had this friend of mine, we sound like a couple of intellectual, burgeoning intellectuals, it’s so not the truth. Before telephones, before, when I was an impoverished student, we didn’t have a tele, we didn’t have any heating, obviously no mobile phones, nothing like that. This old, very old from school girlfriend who was a student in a different college at the same time, we would let, we would drop a dictionary on the floor and where it opened, we had to test each other on the words and one of us usually would know and we both, I went pusillanimous and we both had no idea what it meant and we had to then guess. So we saw the word and guessed and we were going, something to do with pus and to this day, we’re both in our sixties now, but to this day she’ll go, oh, pusillanimous and when I see someone using it seriously, I cannot, it’s just a hilarious word and it begins with a p so, pusillanimous yeah.
– Yeah, no, no and it’s a great anchor, isn’t it?
– Beautiful, beautiful word.
– For that moment, that sort of thing. Would you rather be considered clever or funny Arabella?
– Funny because can I don’t know, anybody who’s funny who isn’t clever?
– Good point.
– I can’t think of a single, I may not like the humour they do and I may not like their standup or whatever they write that’s funny, but I don’t… in fact, I can think of loads of people who I don’t, whose acts and comedies and sitcoms and whatever I don’t care for but I you’d be hard pushed to find someone who is genuinely funny, who isn’t clever in some shape or form. They might be a vile person but I think you’ve got to be clever to be funny.
– I completely agree and finally, Desert Island Gags. You only take one joke with you to a desert island.
– It’s going to be my favourite one, which isn’t even really funny, I’m afraid, like as with all great sort of Larry David, it’s not a Larry David joke, it is an old Jewish joke, well, I was told it as a Jewish joke but it works. It doesn’t have to be a Jewish joke is what’s the only thing men and women have in common? They all hate women. Bad isn’t it? There’s another one, which is, that’s quite a bitter one but it’s pretty, it’s on the money. You’ve only got to know that women voted for Trump to know that. How many mothers does it take to change a light bulb? Don’t worry about me, I’ll just sit here in the dark.
– It’s a wonderful theme and you’ve been a wonderful guest Arabella Weir, thank you so much.
– Thank you very much. Well, I’ve had a lovely time doing this, thank you very much for asking me.
– [Paul] 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.