Part of the Humourology series
Season 2, Episode 15
Dr. Phil Hammond – The Healing Hands of Humour
Phil Hammond, NHS Doctor, Presenter, and Comedian, discusses how humour can heal.
From the black humour of the Operating Theatre to the humanity-based humour used in bedside manner, Hammond breaks down how a sense of humour can help you hold it together in the hardest hour.
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Paul Boross is joined by NHS Doctor, writer, and comedian Phil Hammond to discuss how humour can help connect humans in their hardest hour. The doctor discusses how humour helps us deal with death by finding the lighter side.
“Humour exists to dig us out of a hole.”
Listen in as Dr. Phil Hammond administers a healthy dose of advice, stories, and laughs. Hear how a sense of humour can build relationships that can help humans heal. Dr. Hammond has the tips on how fun and comedy can cure what ails you. Listen this week on The Humourology Podcast.
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Hosts & Guests
Dr. Phil Hammond
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Sometimes we prefer to read rather than listen, so here is a full transcript of the podcast for you to enjoy.
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Dr Phil Hammond on the Humourology Podcast
– As my Auntie Quennie used to say, she used to go, “Philip, the moment your sperm meets your egg, you join the queue for death.” She was actually quite cheerful. And she was basically saying, we’re all in the queue for death. You can shuffle yourself around by eating your greens, wearing a seat belt, having a vaccination, open the window. And humour is the best way of dealing with your impending death.
– 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 an NHS doctor, broadcaster, and comedian who knows that laughter is the best medicine. When he’s not practising general medicine or working with the NHS, he spends his time tickling the country’s funny bone. A joyous Jack-of-all-trades, he has spent time as a doctor, a writer, an investigative journalist, a TV presenter, a comic, a philanthropist, a speaker, and a broadcaster, to name but a few. His show, “Trust Me, I’m a Doctor” aired for five series and solidified him as one of the country’s favourite TV doctors. His stage shows leave audiences in stitches, , while diagnosing the disasters of healthcare, politics, and life. When it comes to the issues of the NHS, personal healthcare, or health-related politics, he has a social prescription for helping humanity heal through humour. Dr. Phil Hammond, welcome to “The Humourology Podcast”.
– Thank you, Paul. And thank you for that very lovely introduction. Wasn’t that nice. Thank you.
– Well, it was all true and it was all from the heart. You have-
– I was going to say, tell that to the General Medical Council. I hope you’re recording it for their benefit too. Positives first .
– Well, yeah, let’s start with the positives. And one of the positives is you’ve done a lot of training of doctors and medical students to communicate better with patients. Do you think that you can be a really good communicator without understanding humour?
– No, I don’t think you can because humour is… I mean, human beings are essentially social animals. We’re like leaves on a tree and we want to belong. And the best humour unites us. I mean, you can, humour can be very divisive. You can deliberately go out to upset and divide a room or a patient and their relatives, but the best humour unites people. And we very much need that, particularly at the moment. So the best communicating doctors I know have had very warm, compassionate senses of humour, but I’ve seen doctors who have no sense of humour at all, but happened to be brilliant brain surgeons and rely on their junior staff or the nurses to do the difficult communication for them. So there are lots of different skillsets you need to be a successful doctor, but in terms of the important stuff, I mean, you know, most of health, interestingly, is built on relationships. If you look at what keeps people healthy over a lifetime, yes, there’s luck, there’s genetics, there’s access to vaccines, et cetera. But actually the healthiest people have strong relationships over the course of their lifetime that are built on love, compassion, and humour. So I think if you have those three, you’re pretty well set up for life.
– Well, that’s really interesting ’cause as you know, I used to train doctors in communication as well. And one of the things we noticed was there were nurses at a big London teaching hospital who would get their patients better or out of the door, if you like, much quicker, because they would do things like chide them and gently tease and play. And as we call it in psychology, ‘future pace’ them into health. Do you think that’s something that all medical people should have?
– Yeah, there is a role for what we call ‘humorous nudging’, and it’s very hard to predict human behaviour, as we’re finding in this pandemic. We don’t know how the virus will behave, but we don’t know how humans will behave. And so humorously nudging them into a better mindset can work. But it also depends on the context of the situation. What’s interesting is that doctors and nurses at the moment work under very stressful conditions. And it’s quite hard to find humor when you’re very stressed. As you said, I used to teach medical students and doctors how to communicate under pressure. And it’s a different context. When you’re in a classroom with an actor, you know, learning how to break bad news or how to manage an angry patient or explain a difficult diagnosis, it’s a world away from being in the pressure of an NHS situation where you haven’t slept for 18 hours and you haven’t eaten and loads of people are shouting at you. And we had a wonderful female student who was brilliant. She was a funny, compassionate communicator in the classroom. And she did her first job in an emergency department with people screaming at her. And this person kept going on at her, “Can you guarantee me that my treatment will work? “Can you guarantee?” And she cracked. And she said, very simply, “If you want a guarantee, buy a toaster,” which was a lovely line, but got her her first complaint. But actually it’s one I use now, gently with humour, is that there are no certainties in medicine. It is about dealing with uncertainty and one of the way to take the fear and the edge off that uncertainty is to use humour.
– Well, it’s really interesting because some of that will be about the delivery, won’t it?
– Of how you deliver it. ‘Cause you can put one line in somebody’s mouth and if they are really stressed and they blurt out, “If you want a guaranteed get yourself a toaster,” you know, it’s a difference from-
– I’d imagine when you deliver it, it’s done with a little bit more gentleness and tact.
– Yes, it is interesting. I mean, the medium is the message and the way that you deliver a gag matters. I cheat. I tend to laugh jokes in. I remember talking to Ade Edmondson about this when I was working with him. And he says, “Oh, you’re cheating.” If you’re laughing a gag in, you’re letting people know that you think it’s funny as well and you’re giving them permission to laugh, but you don’t quite have the element of surprise. Some of the best jokes are like a knight’s move in chess where you don’t see them coming at all. But if you start laughing a joke in, you’re saying, “I’m just about to say something funny, prepare yourself.” But I tend to do that in that context. I let people know that I’m trying to be funny. Sometimes it doesn’t work occasionally . I had a very dour Scottish man who told me that the consultation room was no place for a joke. But in most cases, even towards the end of life, I think you can use humour to help ease people’s passage.
– Yeah, no, absolutely. And that there was a gag in there somewhere as well.
– Well, there was. Actually, this is a true story. I’ve just been doing a series for Radio 4 where I’ve been popping around interviewing NHS staff, patients, and carers, and volunteers. Yes, during the pandemic, so it’s quite difficult to manage and some of the interviews were in masks or outdoors. And then I do like a comedy show for the hospital at the end of it. And it’s going out, I think it’s something like August the 28th it starts on Radio 4. But I spoke to this wonderful chaplain talking about using humour towards the end of life. And she was in Birmingham. She reminded a bit of Julie Walters. She had a tremendous sense of humour. And she said this woman, poor woman who had cancer, who was dying and wasting away as you often do with cancer. But she had breast implants and the thinner she got with her cancer, the larger the breast implants got and slightly uncomfortable. And she knew this woman really well. And she’d been round to see her. And just as she was close to death, she leant forward and said in her ear, “Would you like me to pop those before you go to sleep?” And they both roared with laughter. Now, that could’ve gone either way, and you needed to know someone, but imagine you’re a hospital chaplain, somebody’s on the verge of death with cancer and breast implants and you lean forward and gently say, “Would you like me to pop them before you go to sleep?” That’s comedy. And you need to be able to judge the mood of the situation and the context very finely or it can backfire on you. But I thought, “What a brave gag that was.”
– What a brave gag. But ultimately that’s about have you got enough rapport with the patient-
– in order to know this’ll probably fly.
– Yes, I mean, that’s the difference. In a, you know, in a comedy room, you may have people who come back to see you ’cause they’ve seen you loads of times before, but essentially an after dinner speech or some comedy, it’s a completely new audience. So you have to tread a bit more carefully. So yeah, you have to judge the mood of the room slightly more delicately than if you’ve built up a rapport with someone over the years or over the months.
– So how important is it for anyone, especially in the medical profession, to be able to laugh at themselves?
– I think that’s important. It shows a level of insight, isn’t it, that you’re critical of your behaviour and you’re prepared for it to be scrutinised. In essence what comedy is is scrutiny. It’s scrutiny with a punchline. But where medicine has gone wrong in the past is it has been very secretive. So, you know, doctors were all powerful. We created this ridiculous language that nobody else can understand. We weren’t particularly scrutinised. So if you made a mistake in the past, you generally got away with it. And we’re moving towards an era of transparency. It’s actually probably been the death knell of some of the blacker medical humours. So when I trained, even written in the notes, you would write things like PAFO on patients. If a patient was PAFO, it was pissed and fell over. PAGT, pissed and got thumped. PADE, pissed and denies everything. If patients were pumpkin positive, that means that we shined a pen torch in their mouth and their whole head lit up. We used to write, you know, if people were NFB, normal for Bridgewater or NFN, normal for Norfolk. I mean, you know, acronyms like TF BUNDY, totally fucked but unfortunately not dead yet. JP FROG, just plain fucking run out of gas. I mean, we, you know, we used to use these acronyms and occasionally write them in the notes. That’s all gone now ’cause it’s not so funny when it’s read out in court. So people still have the humour against themselves and against their situation, but I think it’s been driven into the, you know, the privacy of the sluice room rather than publicly paraded. And that was something I really learnt from my Radio 4 series is that people would talk about the old days when you played pranks on people. There was a nurse that said, “On the first day there was this little male student nurse “and we told him that he had to go to casualty “and pick up the most toxic drug in the world “and he’d have to wear two pairs of gloves, “but the drug would burn through his gloves “if he didn’t get back to the ward in 30 seconds “and he’d need to be double gloved.” And he goes down there and they put a little tablet of paracetamol in his hand. And of course it takes two minutes to get back from the ward. And this little boy’s screaming that the drug is burning through. And we used to, you know, put K-Y Jelly on the telephone and clingfilm over the toilet and et cetera. None of that happens anymore ’cause people are worried that it’ll be misconstrued as bullying. So I think medicine has probably become kinder and less funny as a result.
– I mean, that was part of the fun of it. And surely one of the things that people need for resilience is to have fun. So doctors, especially at this time, who’ve been through, you know, just hellish times, surely that is a release, isn’t it, that should be there for them.
– Yeah, I think it is. And they still do. It was interesting, wasn’t it? ‘Cause there were lots of videos of people on intensive care units who’ve worn this awful PPE that cut into their skin and they can hardly breathe or whatever. And they do a little dance routine. And social media was divided as to whether this was appropriate during a pandemic, that people in ICU should be dancing and laughing and having a bit of laugh or whether they should be all deadly serious. And it’s, you know, we’re so judgmental now. In my hospital, they sent the Marines in to help on intensive care, partly ’cause so many people coming in with COVID were overweight and they needed help proning people, turning them from front to back.
– So they sent the Marines in and the sister on intensive care said, “We thought they were going to send “all the old house beans in, “who were coming up to retirement, “but because COVID is riskier the older you are, “they sent in the youngsters who were rippling with muscle.” And the nurse said, “By mistake, ‘by mistake,’ “we made them change in the corridor “and gave them really small outfits to put on “so their muscles would be bulging out.” And she said even though it was a really serious situation, it really lifted the spirits. So I think there are clever ways of still using humour in a very difficult situation. But yeah, black, the really black humour is kept quite secret now. I think it still happens, if you work in the police force, in the ambulance service, you know, you see dreadful things and sometimes you have to deal with it through black humour, but I don’t, I think you can be compassionate and have a black sense of humour. I think the two can go hand in hand. And it’s important to recognise that, that some situations will make you cry and some might make you laugh and your emotional response in a stressful situation is often hard to judge.
– We had John Sweeney on who’s the ex-“Panorama” and he does “Hunting Ghislaine”, but he’s been in 60 war zones and insurrections around the world. And he talks about black humour being part of your shield. Part of your protective shield from the thing. And surely doctors need that protective shield as well.
– Comedy can sometimes be lies for laughs, but the best jokes have an element of truth. As Miles Kington used to say to me, you start with a grain of truth, and then you develop your pearl. You can add different layers to it to exaggerate it, but there’s a grain of truth. And the danger with the black humour in medicine is that it prevents you from taking action when something awful is happening. So when I was a junior doctor, there was always a surgeon in the hospital called Chopper Charlton or Killer Keane or Butcher Bates, or there was one up north known as the Terminator. And you would laugh about it. It’d be in the Christmas show. We’d sing a song about Killer Keane or Chopper Charlton, but you wouldn’t actually do anything about it. Your way of dealing with it, here’s a chap who has given his life and his liver to the NHS. And in his mid-50s, he’s probably a bit jaundiced. He’s falling over in the potting shed, but because he wants to maximise his pension, he’s hanging on there until he’s 60, 65 when I wouldn’t let my dog near him, let alone my relatives. And yet people are too frightened to blow the whistle. So what do they do? They transpose those difficult emotions into satire. They call him Killer Keane and then sort of avoid him unless they need his reference. And that in essence was the heart of my switching from comedy to serious investigative journalism, is that my local heart surgery unit, including paediatric heart surgery, in Bristol, when I was still doing comedy with “Struck Off and Die”, was nicknamed by the junior doctors the killing fields and the departure lounge. Now you don’t get much blacker than that. And Tony and I went up to the Edinburgh Fringe and we said, “Our local heart surgery unit’s “known as the killing fields and the departure lounge,” and people roared with laughter. In fact, it was made into a BBC CD that you can still buy. And then I met Ian Hislop in the toilet at a BBC light entertainment Christmas party. I followed him in and I said to him, “Can I have a column in ‘Private Eye’?” And he said, “Do you mind standing so close to me?” But we had a chat and he gave me this job as “Private Eye”‘s medical correspondent. He had this idea that what “Private Eye” needed was more expert journalists. And he said, “You can’t write under your own name “because you’ll be drummed out of your profession. “We’ve had this issue before. “Jonathan Miller had a few issues “when he was writing for ‘Private Eye’. “So I’m going to give you the pseudonym MD.” And because I knew that there was this problem in my local heart surgery unit, that was one of the first stories I broke in 1992. Took seven years to have a public inquiry. The Bristol heart inquiry was then the largest public inquiry in British history. And I was called to give evidence. And so I’d sort of reinvented myself as a serious investigative journalist, but I take the stand and this shit hot barrister leant forward and said, “Dr. Hammond, when you refer to the Bristol unit “as the killing fields and the departure lounge, “that’s medical humour, is it?” And this is at a public inquiry with parents of bereaved parents and doctors and you know. And it made me think, “Gosh, you know, “I’ve always done comedy about stuff that matters.” You know, healthcare matters. Competence matters when you’re choosing a heart surgeon. But it sort of came back to bite me on the arse because I’d made jokes out of this. I mean, yes, I’d done the right thing and blown the whistle and raised concerns, et cetera. But it made me realise that sometimes the use of black humour in medicine can actually be detrimental to proper action. You, as I say, you displace your emotions into satire and then sort of move on and don’t act to stop it. And that’s sort of been the history of NHS scandals. There’ll be black humour around Mid Staffordshire and black humour around all the big, and probably black humour around the pandemic, I would think. In one sense, it’s useful because it pricks that bubble of pomposity, doesn’t it, and then gets attention for it and people start talking about it. So it’s a way in to dealing with it.
– Yes, I think actually in your culture, in your organisation, your business, if you hear a rumour about something through humour, I mean, yes, you have to establish the facts and yes, you have to properly investigate, but you know, rumours often surface in comedy and sometimes they’re true and sometimes they’re not, but it’s a useful indicator. I always used to say to people, ’cause you couldn’t find any performance data on your local surgeons, so when you went for your hernia operation or your hip operation, you didn’t know how many they’d done or what their results were like or where they compared to the national average. So I used to tell people jokingly, “Just sneak in the back of the hospital show,” in the days when there were always hospital shows, “you’ll find out who Killer Keane or Chopper Charlton is “in that hospital and just avoid him.” Or you follow the doctor into the canteen and see how they use a knife and fork. If you have a surgeon who struggles to get the salad out of the salad bar or a dentist with bad breath, they’re probably best avoided.
– Well, I loved your Radio 4 series, “Bedside Manner.” Do you think bedside manner is a dying art or is it just different now?
– I think it needs to be reinvigorated. I mean, the art of conversation, in essence, what medical interaction is, is a series of difficult conversations, usually, and most of mine now are coming via Zoom or video. I work in paediatric chronic fatigue. So I’m seeing young people with post-viral fatigue, some with long COVID, but we made the decision not to let them go into hospital where there might be a risk they’ll pick up another virus. So we do it all via video. And so there’s certain, obviously lots of cues that you pick up when you’re face-to-face with someone that you don’t necessarily get. And in general practise, a lot of the consultation has been done on video and they’re less satisfying. You don’t, you know, compassion is key in healthcare and that just the gentle laying of a hand on somebody’s shoulder or their arm can make a huge difference. And you can’t do that via a video link. But the bedside manner is still important. People remember kindness. If you’ve ever had bad news, you remember how it was broken to you. If it was done kindly, you never forget. If it was done harshly, you never forgive. And those moments really, really matter. And often it’s the little things in medicine that really make a difference, that little look of kindness. And there’s a huge well of compassion in the NHS. I’ve noticed, on my radio show, I interviewed a domestic called Haley who was being paid tuppence ha’penny, but she was working on intensive care and she refused to let anybody die alone. So she would just sit in there in the full PPE, even when she wasn’t paid or on a shift to do so, hold their hand and talk to them. And that’s, you get so many people like that in the NHS who have such, you know. And she would laugh as well. So she’d tell that story and then she’d tell me a funny story and then she’d tell me a tragic story. And that’s the interesting thing about the NHS is that tragedy and comedy are two sides of the same coin. And in the same day you can have three good laughs and three good cries. And that’s the nature of your work.
– So, what makes you laugh, Phil?
– Oh, gosh, well, all sorts of things make, I laugh a lot in consultations and patients do make me laugh in the best possible way. If you’re thinking about standard comedians that I’ve seen over the years, it’s seeing someone for the first time. So I went to Edinburgh 1990 and I can remember seeing people like Eddie Izzard for the first time, Sean Hughes for the first time, Bill Hicks for the first time, Ross Noble for the first time. And that’s the really exciting thing, when you see someone who just takes you on a complete flight of fancy with all those knight’s moves that you aren’t expecting. It’s like climbing inside a very clever brain. And then when you see him a second or third time, you can see, well, okay, even the ones who were claiming to be improvisers and winging it, you can start to see a structure and you can analyse how they do and you start thinking it through. The funniest comedy gig I ever went to was at the Edinburgh Fringe and it was a Canadian trio called “Corky and the Juice Pigs”. And again-
– I remember them.
– The first time I’d see them, the Gilded Balloon main theatre, they sang a song called “I’m The Only Gay Eskimo” that brought the house down. “Me and nuck fluck chuck buck, we both like blubber, “but me, I’ve got a crazy fetish for rubber. ♪ “I’m the only gay Eskimo.” ♪ Phil, Greg and Sean were, in terms of enjoying something, so you could dance, you could laugh. So I really like clever musical comedians, too. But yeah, of the up and coming now, somebody like Kevin Bridges, I like. All that spirit of Billy Connolly, people who, they can do a range of accents and they can act in a sense. You can see some comedians who make great actors and you can see they have that sense of timing. They can do accents. So yeah, I’m fairly easily amused .
– Well, not that easily amused ’cause I, whether you know it or not, I had two musical acts, “Morris Minor and the Majors” and “The Calypso Twins” and I didn’t, we didn’t get a mention in any of your favourites. So I’m cutting that bit out.
– Oh, I do apologise-
– And I’m going to re-dub “Morris Minor and the Majors” and “The Calypso Twins.” “Morris Minor and the Majors” is one of my all-time favourites. Very, very funny. Very clever.
– And you’ll be singing some of our hits, won’t you?
– Yeah, yeah. And, yes, of course I will. And of course the other thing, the old , so the great thing about “Private Eye” parties in the old days, you would meet, I met Peter Cook on the piano, Willie Rushton, unbelievably funny. And I was sort of mentored by Miles Kington. So Miles’s wife, Caroline, directed the early shows of “Struck Off and Die” up at Edinburgh. And Miles just used to come up with these lines that always, the one that I loved was, “Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit. “Wisdom is knowing not to put one in a fruit salad.” And I heard Brian O’Driscoll, the British Lions rugby captain, say that at a press conference. And I’m thinking, “Wow, this is really interesting. “So Miles Kington has translated to rugby union.” That’s a great one, isn’t it?
– What was Miles’s, he had a, a three piece act.
– He was in “Instant Sunshine” so he was-
– “Instant Sunshine”. That’s what I was trying to remember.
– I knew them because they were St. Thomas’s doctors. So I trained at St. Thomas’s and we used to do the Christmas show that always had an appalling title like “Back Passage to India” or “Beverly Hills Flop”, “On Her Majesty’s Secret Cervix”, “Brown Finger”, “Desperately Leaking Lumen” and you could go on. So we would do these awful shows. And then on the old boys’ night, “Instant Sunshine” would come back. And Miles was the one who wasn’t a doctor, and there were three doctors. There was Alan Maryon-Davis in public health, Peter Christie who was a paediatrician, and David Barlow who was a venereologist. And Miles told this wonderful story of they were flying to New York and somebody got sick on the plane with stomach ache. And they said, “Is there a doctor on the plane?” And of course the three Instant Sunshine doctors tried to hide and Miles said, “These three are doctors.” And they went up and of course, you know, the paediatrician said it was whatever, appendicitis, and the public health doctor said it was dysentery and the sexual health doctor said it was syphilis or something. And it just showed you that if you take your symptoms to three different doctors, you’ll often get three different diagnoses depending on their specialty. So that’s another great story he used to tell.
– Do you think potentially everyone has the ability to be funny or is it a gift given to the few?
– Well, funny is in the eye of the beholder or the listener, isn’t it? So some people are unintentionally funny when they’re not meaning to. So I think everybody has provoked laughter ’cause it’s such an intrinsic human trait, but clearly not everyone can earn a living out of humour. So yes, you can be funny. The secret is often to be unexpected, but not so unexpected that people don’t understand what you’re talking about. I can remember seeing Harry Hill for the first time before he was huge and Harry was really surreal. And he’d say, “What’s one of these? “It’s an upside down one of those.” And he kept going on about badgers. And some rooms would absolutely lap it up. Like Eddie Izzard, “I was going down to the supermarket “on the back of a giant prawn.” And either you’re willing to buy into this surreal madness or you just don’t get it. So you get some people who are now famous comedians, I’ve seen them play to a room full of silence because people don’t get it. So you can’t really judge someone’s humour unless you know what the audience is. But yeah, often people are unintentionally funny. And I think everyone has the capacity for humour.
– From a medical perspective, are people delusional? Because everybody will put on their dating profile “Good sense of humour.” So are we all potentially delusional? Going… “No, I’ve got a really great sense of humour.” How often have you ever run into anyone who says, “I really haven’t got a sense of humour.”
– Well, it depends how well you know someone, how honest they’re being. If you’re trying to impress, you’ll say that, ’cause obviously when you’re dating, to say, “I’ve got no sense of humour at all,” is like saying, “I’ve got terrible halitosis and,” “no penis.” Not that that’s important. But yeah, I think that’s true. I mean, I do worry about the way that we present ourselves and we buff and polish and try to make ourselves slimmer and fitter and funnier and more exciting than we really are. But actually, if you think about the comedians you really like, they’re often very self-effacing about their failings. I mean, they make humour out of saying, “Actually I’m not perfect. “I’ve got all these things going wrong with me.”
– What would the world be like without humour?
– Well, I don’t think we’d be human. So the thing is, humour exists to dig us out of a hole and humans are the one species that knows long in advance that we’re going to die. As my Auntie Queenie used to say, she used to go, “Philip, the moment your sperm meets your egg, you join the queue for death.” She was actually quite cheerful. And she was basically saying, we’re all in the queue for death. You can shuffle yourself around by eating your greens, wearing a seatbelt, having a vaccination, open the window. But ultimately we’re all queuing for death. So the essence is, what are we going to do while we’re in the queue for death? And humour is the best way of dealing with your impending death. So it’s, you know, humour can be a socially acceptable sublimation of aggression. You can deal with difficult issues. But a lot of humour is about either denying that life is futile and empty and we’re all going to die, or finding ways of dealing with your own demise. So I can’t imagine, humans are so evolved, they have to have humour because it’s actually a really important coping mechanism for us. If we didn’t have humour, we wouldn’t be human. We’d be, I dunno, newts or something like that. Toads.
– Yeah, well, I know that you work with Heads Up, the mental health charity. How important do you think that humour is to good mental health?
– It’s phenomenally important. There are types of humour, as I said. There’s humour that unites and humour that divides. So the kind of humour that unites, it generally goes hand in hand with optimism and self-compassion. So those three things are pretty important. I mean, you can get people who are terribly worthy about their health and their self-compassion and their meditation and stuff. And that in itself makes me laugh. So, you know, if somebody doesn’t have a sense of humour, I intrinsically don’t trust them. It’s interesting. Medicine is built on trust. If somebody really doesn’t appear to find anything funny, I think that’s a bit peculiar. I mean, obviously I want my pilot and my brain surgeon to take their job seriously, but I also like to think that they have a sense of humour. So yeah, there’s good evidence that the optimistic mindset, it can also be quite dangerous. I mean, you could argue that Boris Johnson is an optimist and sometimes, say in a pandemic, too much optimism might make you make rash and stupid decisions that harm lots of other people. On the day that we announced it was a bad idea to hold hands, Boris boasted, “You’ll be pleased to know, I visited a hospital. “You’ll be pleased to know, I shook everybody’s hand.” And a couple of weeks later, he’s on intensive care. So too much humour and optimism, it needs to be targeted with sensible risk management. And the mindset, actually, I use as a doctor and in most of my life is what I call intelligent kindness. So I’m faced with a dilemma and various courses of action, I think, is it, A, intelligent and B, kind? If it’s C, funny as well, then that’s an extra bonus, but for me, the prism of intelligent kindness is how I view most problems. And I think if we had an Intelligent Kindness Party in politics, IKIP I would call it, we’d latch up the UKIP vote. I think, you know, everybody could unite behind intelligent kindness. What do you need to do in a pandemic? Well, stuff that’s intelligent and stuff that’s kind.
– Oh gosh, that’s the bit we’re going to clip straight away.
– Would you vote, actually, would you vote for IKIP if I stood?
– I was going to stand against, Jacob Rees-Mogg is my local MP, and I thought I’d stand against Jacob. Jacob’s terribly good fun. He’s got 97 children. They’re awfully funny. And I thought I’d stand for him against the Intelligent Kindness Party under the Martin Bell model. So I said to Labour and Lib Dems and Greens, “Look, I will stand for one term only as an independent. “And if we club all our votes together, “we can oust him, just like Martin Bell, “and then I’ll be gone again.” And they all said no. I was sacked by the BBC for saying that I would stand against him. And then when I… ‘Cause they all said, “Oh, we’ll support you.” And when the parties came, they just couldn’t collaborate. So Labour hated the Lib Dems and the Lib Dems hated Labour, and the Greens wanted to go it alone. So I didn’t stand in the end, but I still have this idea of the Intelligent Kindness Party in the back of my mind, that it might make a repeat performance somewhere.
– Well, I, 100% you’ll have my vote and you’ll also have me out on the doorstep canvassing for you.
– Excellent, well, that’ll make all the difference, Paul, thank you.
– The people of Southwest London will be-
– It’s not much good for you, really, is it?
– No, but the great thing is you can be a member of another party. You just have to embrace intelligent kindness. It’s not difficult, is it? I mean, we know that cruelty, if you’re thinking about your kids, you want your kids to be happy, you’re kind to them. Yes, you set them challenges and you don’t make things too easy for them, but we know if you’re really cruel to your kids from an early age, it often scars them for life. So those first few years, the first seven years, as we say, if you have too many adverse childhood experiences early on, you often never recover. So kind, supportive, gentle, chiding humour is good, but cruel humour to kids isn’t good.
– Yeah, no, I completely agree. And I think the Intelligent Kindness Party should take over, to be honest with you.
– There you are.
– I’m intrigued, and this is going off on a bit of a tangent. Why do you think people won’t cooperate? I mean, is it just, has politics become that tribal, not just between Labour and the Tories, but also with all the parties that they can’t see the common good?
– I think it has. I mean, the thing is, I’m not, I’ve never been a member of a major political party. When I stood against William Waldegrave in 1992, he was the health secretary, I stood for the Struck Off and Die Junior Doctors Alliance or SODJDA. And we hired an ice cream van to go around the streets of Bristol West shouting, “What do we want? Willy out! When do we want it? Now! “Willy, Willy, Willy, out, out, out!” We got 87 votes. But one of the reasons we only got 87 votes is that Labour went absolutely batshit crazy and said, “You’ll just split the left wing vote “and this is appalling.” So we stood on a mantra of, “Don’t vote for us but just understand junior doctors.” And it is intensely tribal. So, you know, there should be common ground. And if they want to win, what was interesting is when I said to the Labour and Lib Dems, “Would you rather collaborate and win “or go your own way and lose?” And they said, “We’d rather go our own way and lose. “We want to come second “so we’re the next challenger next time round.” So they weren’t interested in collaboration. It’ll depend on their leaders, I guess. I mean, poor Keir Starmer. I was thinking, “Wouldn’t it be great to have a sensible barrister “who can string an argument together, whatever.” But he appears, I’m not saying he does, but he appears to have no sense of humour at all and is therefore, in the modern populist political context, almost dead in the water. And I think that’s a great shame ’cause he could be a really good leader. He just needs to get involved in a pub punch up or something or do an open mic slot or something just to loosen up a bit, I think.
– Well, I actually agree. And it’s funny, isn’t it, that you talked about trust and how we trust people. And I think that this is universally true, that if they seem like they have a sense humour about themselves in a trustworthy, he seems to have a shield up most of the time. I hear from people we both know that he’s actually very charming in private and funny.
– It’s difficult, isn’t it? One-on-one, John Major, he could be delightful but when the Guardian started painting him or spitting image in grey underpants, you know, it was really hard to recover from that. So it is interesting. So often on a one-on-one basis up close, they’re far more charming. I meet quite a few politicians at “Private Eye” lunches and whatever party they’re in, I’m generally pretty impressed with their intellect and level of dedication to the job.
– We’ve talked about how you think the laughter has seeped out of the medical profession. Do you think that generally in other, you go into other walks of life, is there enough laughter in the workplace and is it something that you can bring back?
– It’s difficult, isn’t it? ‘Cause we try to be prescriptive about these things, you know, and there is laughter therapy that you can prescribe and you can get a laughter therapist to go into your organisation and Professor Chuckle with his juggling balls, and whatever, and some people find it funny and some people don’t. I think there’s a worry about being offended now, I think. I mean, politics should be earnest ’cause there’s some serious stuff going on. You know, the pandemic may just be the foothills of climate change and vaccines are amazing, but we may just about be able to cure all known diseases at the point that the world becomes uninhabitable. So there’s lots of serious stuff going on that isn’t terribly funny. And I quite like earnest politicians, but that earnestness and, “I have the right not to be offended,” and “I’m going to no platform you,” and you’ve got to be careful what you, so I think people are frightened now. People get in a terrible muddle about gender and gender fluidity and which pronouns to use and when to outsource your sexuality to the pharmaceutical industry. There are all sorts of really difficult complex areas. And I think there’s less humour now because people are worried of causing offence. So I think what happens is that you have your little groups. So I have a little group of blokes called the Wednesday Elders and we go on holiday together, on walking holidays, and we have our own little humour and we know we can say anything we like. I have that same bubble with my wife, Jo, who’s a GP. We can use traditional medical humour within that bubble, but I wouldn’t put it on social media and I wouldn’t use it in the workplace. So I think what it’s doing is it’s driving it underground into little pockets. And then occasionally someone in your bubble says, “You said something that’s completely beyond the pale “and I’m going to tweet it now,” and you’re dead in the water. So I was always saying, people say, “Do you seriously want to go into politics?” Well, I would have never got anywhere near it if phones had been available when I was a junior doctor and when I was a medical student. So we used to do outrageous things, the students. If someone was taking photos of that and tweeting that in real time, I’d have gone. So people occasionally send me old-style photos of things I did as a medical student, saying, you know, “Just in case you’re thinking of standing in politics, “here’s you doing the balloon dance in whatever “and here’s you whatever.” I did a naked conga once around the streets of Amsterdam with my trumpet and a whole load of St. Thomas’s medical students and there are photos of that that would probably finish me off. So I think it’s that level of scrutiny, A, ’cause of political correctness and B, ’cause people can tweet and record and take photos of anything in real time that people are probably a bit wary of it.
– But you say that, but then how does that explain the Boris Johnson phenomenon, which I’m going to use the word phenomenon, that he can seemingly have done anything, say anything, and it doesn’t stick because he’s, you know, perceived as a jolly good stick.
– Well, he’s perceived as a jolly good stick, but he also is, he’s perceived as having certain human frailties that ring bells. I mean the best humour rings bells with people and they say, “Oh yes, I get this gag.” Boris Johnson rings bells with people. There’s a lot of people have mucked up their personal life. You, Paul, have probably got seven or eight children. You’ve lost count of them, scattered all over the country, who knows? A lot of people make mistakes. They do heroic things like shake hands with hospital workers and then end up on intensive care with COVID. I think it’s ’cause he’s fallible as well as being blokey and personable, having a good sense of humour, that people sort of factor that in and forgive him. And it sort of changed the political discourse. I mean, well, you know, I listened to Matt Forde’s podcast that you did and he made the point very interestingly that William Hague is one of the funniest public speakers you’ll hear and was very funny at the dispatch box, but couldn’t quite move into the super stellar orbits that Boris moved into. But I met Boris, he’s the only one, I met him doing “Have I Got News for You” years ago. I was, I think on Ian’s team. I did two with Boris when he was in the chair and this was the sort of making of him. So he’s very clever and it, his gestation is a long time in the making. So you think, “Did he just turn up at the right place at the right time?” No, because his dad always said, “You will be Prime Minister.” He had this pressure of Eton and certain rivalries. He planned it from a long distance out. So all the “I’m going to be seen as a comedian, “go on ‘Have I Got News for You’, “be fully endorsed as a comic persona,” was part of the plan. So he turned up at Have I got News For You with all his entourage. And somebody said, there was all sorts of things about the Bullingdon Club at the time and David Cameron was refusing to say whether he’d snorted cocaine. And so I asked Boris, I said, “Have you ever snorted cocaine?” He went, “Oh, I did it, I did it, I did it. “I sneezed, I sneezed, it all went everywhere. “And it could have been icing sugar, who knows? “I was a very silly billy, billy, billy, “billy, billy, billy, brr.” And I said, “Well, that’s a really interesting answer “’cause you’ve sort of half diffused it in a, you know, “‘I smoked a joint, but I didn’t inhale,’ sort of way. “And you’ve done it through humour “and you’ve taken out the, you know, “‘Did I have drugs as a young person,’ card “that people play.” And I thought that’s actually quite clever. And so interestingly, I think “Have I Got News for You” helped endorse him in the nation’s favour and probably did him, you know, they might regret it now, the producers, I don’t know, but it probably really him as a vital stepping stone on his career to being seen as a bloke just like you and me.
– I know Paul very well ’cause we’ve worked together since the start of the Comedy Store world and all that. But Paul, and I think Ian as well, thought that they’d ruined his career properly and were pleased about it because they took the piss and made him look silly and were then stunned to realise that actually it enhanced his reputation and it had done the exact opposite.
– But if you analyse it, so Matt analyses him very well in that he has got the skillset of a comedian. He plays to the room when he’s in the Commons, even when there’s nobody there he acts as if he’s playing to the room so it looks competent. Jeremy Vine, have you heard Jeremy Vine’s story?
– Jeremy Vine did some corporate gigs with Boris Johnson and one of them, I think it was one of the big rooms, probably the Dorchester in London, so one of the big rooms. He was playing thousands of people. Boris Johnson was late, he was late, he was late. He turned up with his cycle helmet on. He said he was cycling. He, you know, got behind, stuck behind a bus, slightly dodgy ’cause somebody saw his car keys in his hand, but they thought, “Well, that’s a bit peculiar.” He didn’t know who was talking to. He kept getting the name wrong. He kept having to turn round to see the name of the institution he was doing the after dinner speech for. He told a very old gag and then forgot the punchline, had to ask the audience what the punchline was, stumbled through, brought the house down. 20 grand or whatever. And Jeremy Vine said, “What an absolute bloody shambles that is. “I can’t believe he’s just walked off with 20 grand “for delivering that execrable mess.” Two months later, he’s doing something and it’s the same setup. He’s hosting and Boris Johnson is the guest speaker. And exactly the same thing happens almost word for word. He turns up at exactly the same time, being late with his bicycle helmet, pretending he’s late. He delivers exactly the same missteps, forgetting who the audience is, turning round at the same time, delivers the same joke, forgets the punchline, almost word perfect as if he was a professional comedian. So that’s probably his modus operandi is to actually learn something and then wing it.
– And I mean, one of his quotes is that he loves chaos because everybody turns to him.
– So he creates chaos, which in your story is what he’s doing essentially, and then it’s sort of a, he pulls it back.
– So he’s, he’s got it, it’s an actual tactic. Gosh, it actually really is-
– It is, but you also need somebody who’s got attention to detail if they’re at the very top or you need people around him. So I mean, he’s good at doing that bit of being the show pony. But in terms of, you know, managing the complexity of a pandemic, perhaps slightly less so.
– Yes, beautifully understated.
– I’ve written a book, I’ve got a book, a series of my “Private Eye” columns are coming out in a book called “Dr Hammond’s Covid Casebook” and it’s my first “Private Eye” book, so that’s very nice, with an Ian Hislop quote on the front. But what’s interesting about my coverage of the pandemic is I had to do it in real time. So I wrote a long column for “Private Eye” every fortnight. So there’s no room for hindsight. What I thought at the time, all my hits and misses are laid out in chronological order, which I think is where it’ll be useful, particularly for public inquiry. But it is interesting that I don’t entirely blame Boris because nobody really knew what was going to happen at the start of it and how it was going to behave. And the scientific advice he was given was a bit like Frazer from “Dad’s Army,” so SAGE at the beginning going, “We’re doomed!” because they discovered that this virus, as well as being very infectious, could spread without symptoms. And they thought, “Gosh, this is just to take off like rocket fire. “Border controls, quarantine, “nothing’s going to make any difference. “It’s going to spread all over the world like wildfire “and we’re just going to have to take it on the chin.” And that was some of the advice that he was getting. So that may well turn out to be the right thing. When we’ve looked at all the countries over the years and who fared best, we may all be stuck in the middle and not much will have made much difference apart from vaccines.
– Really? So you think that there might be a case for Sweden may have been right?
– Well, you don’t know until everything is done later. So Sweden did well compared to the UK, but actually not very well compared to Finland and Norway, which were stricter. But the, now I’m half Australian. You can’t get into Australia for love nor money now. And they had this fortress Australia approach, but they’ve been slow on vaccines. So they’ve got zero tolerance to COVID and no vaccines or slow vaccines means they’re going to be isolated for another few years, which will have a huge economic and cultural impact. So they may end up doing more harm than good. But it’s, you’ve got to get access to vaccines around the world. That’s the issue is that we need to share the good fortune that we’ve had with as many other countries as we can.
– Well, yeah. And without that, we’re all ultimately doomed, aren’t we, until the world is vaccinated, because people-
– Well, I wouldn’t say doomed ’cause most people won’t be seriously harmed by it. That’s the truth. It’s a bit like COVID roulette. You never know how it’s going to affect you. You know, you may have had it already, Paul, and not know. Some people get minimum symptoms.
– Some people, for reasons they don’t understand, are completely wiped out.
– Well, I had it very early and because I give blood, I spent nine months last year giving my blood plasma so they could use it-
– Oh, good for you.
– for medical research and-
– And put it into people. So, yes, so I was actually very fortunate and I thought because I’m so fortunate, I want to give something back.
– Well, that’s been the real message of it is that again, intelligent kindness, people, we wouldn’t have the vaccines, it’s not just brilliant scientists, if people hadn’t volunteered for vaccine trials. We wouldn’t have new drugs and therapies if people like you didn’t volunteer. So that’s the nice thing about it is that there’s a certain collegiate collective aspect of health, instead of it just being very individual, “This is what I do to stay fit,” it’s recognising that our environment actually is the prime determinant of our health. Which again comes back to that gag about, you know, medical science will rid the world of all known diseases at precisely the time that the planet becomes uninhabitable. Well, that may still happen. We’re focused on our laboratories that we forget our environment and environment is absolutely key to health and happiness.
– So, if I asked you to write a business case for humour, what would you include in it?
– You’d have to tease apart the nature of how, I mean, it’s difficult, isn’t it, ’cause when you write a business plan, there are certain ground rules that you try to adhere to. And the trouble is if you start writing rules for humour, it suddenly becomes much less funny. People try to analyse what makes you laugh. But I think focusing on humour that unites rather than divides, I think it’s really important for any organisation to have space where people can have difficult conversations. And the thing I’ve noticed about the most successful organisations is that they collaborate rather than compete. And the idea of collaboration is that you have this whole team of individual talents. So you might have Mark on front desk who has a really good sense of humour, and you might have somebody else back office with no sense of humour at all, but their voice and their input is equally valid. So I think there’s a, the business case for humour is actually saying a business case for open discussion and collaboration where people in your organisation feel free to challenge and they can challenge through humour or they can challenge seriously and they know that that challenge will be heard and they know that it will be acted on. So it’s that sense where you’re all working for the same aims and objectives. And it’s difficult, when you try and manufacture humour, go away on a funny away day and make people jump through hoops and do things, it often doesn’t quite work. I just think spontaneous groups and gatherings, often outdoors in a pandemic, that’s a good idea ’cause of the risk of being indoors. And I’ve also found groups that walk together. So I’ve seen medical groups where they walk together and you’ll come up and you’ll have a little chat with someone and a laugh and then you’ll drop back and reflect and think, and then you join up with somebody else. So walking and laughing and sharing. There are lots of companies now having meetings on the move, which I think work in all sorts of different ways at the moment. So lots of inventive ways of bringing humour. But I suspect if you look at the bottom line, you say to people, it’s like John Lewis’s bottom line is they want their place to be a great place to shop and a great place to work. And that’s in essence what you want your business to be. And if people are saying, “I really look forward to coming to work,” one of the reasons will be, “I’ve got great relationship with my colleagues “and we laugh together and cry together “and share stuff together.” So I see humour as a way of cementing good relationships within your organisation.
– Do you think the only way to do that is top down though, that if it comes from-
– the CEO or the culture, or do you think this can be bottom up as well?
– I do. I always say you need a bidet revolution from the bottom up, but that means valuing and empowering the voices at the bottom. That’s really important. When I travel around hospitals, I try and seek out, you know, the woman who’s pushed around the League of Friends trolley for 30 years for tuppence ha’penny. Those are the people who glue it all together. The chap who works in the canteen who helps all the junior doctors when they arrive on August the first, ’cause they don’t know what they’re doing and puts his arm round them and makes them laugh and supports them. You know, we mustn’t forget the role of the people at the bottom of an organisation. So yeah, as a chief executive, you have to walk the floor and listen to people, but you also need to permit a culture where voices are heard at the bottom. And I think that’s absolutely vital.
– So that is in essence top down, because if you don’t permit-
– that culture to happen, you don’t listen.
– You need both. You need a shower and a bidet. You need both ends. Bit from the top, bit from the bottom. And often, you know, they say often the best leaders are the ones who worked their way up from the bottom, ’cause they know what it’s like working at the bidet as they get up and have a nice shower. So that’s, you know, often knowing your organisation really helps, I think.
– Yeah, no, I think that’s very, very important. I heard you say that you prescribe five portions of fun a day that give meaning, purpose, and hope. From a medical perspective, what are the benefits of fun?
– I say that. It’s sort of a screening test. I mean, I’m dealing with kids who often have post-viral fatigue or ME chronic fatigue syndrome and they will describe it as, “Like I used to have a Duracell battery “and now I’ve got a Poundland battery.” So often kids who used to be full of energy and life and verve and vigour feel absolutely exhausted. They get extreme post-exertional malaise, which means they can do a bit of exercise and then be wiped out for several days afterwards. So I say to them, “With what energy you’ve got left in your battery, “as well as your five portions of fruit and veg, “try and have a few portions of fun.” I say up to five, ’cause five is often too many for them. And it’s quite a good screening tool for mood and anxiety. So if nobody’s got any fun at all in their life and nothing gives them pleasure, they’re at high risk of depression. Also gives you a really good insight into who they are. So I often say to young boys, “What are your five portions of fun?” And they name me five computer games that involve destroying the world. And then I tried to teach them that variety is the spice of life and that your five portions of fun all ought to be different. And it’s, it doesn’t have to be riotous laughter, but people need a sense of meaning and purpose in their life. And sometimes it’s the little things. It might be their cat. It might be sketching. It might be listening to music. It might be strumming a guitar. Particularly when life is tough, you need to have those little go-to things, particularly when you’ve had a tough day, that just, you lose yourself in the moment. So people talk about mindfulness and there’s a whole industry out of mindfulness. Mindfulness just means losing yourself in the beauty of the world around you, the surroundings around you, without having to judge it. And that can be in a favourite comedy. It can be stroking your cat or your dog. It can be sitting outdoors and looking at the flowers. Those sort of five moments are where you’re filling your mind with something that gives you joy and can actually push, we know that if you’re able to do that, it can push pain and fatigue and other unpleasant symptoms to one side. So most unpleasant things you feel in your mind. So if you can fill up your mind every now and then with sort of diversionary tactics, it can really improve things. You’ll know this as a psychologist. So I’m just sort of preaching to the converted.
– Yeah, I would, no, no, you are completely preaching to it, but we’re actually preaching to the audience, who want things to take away. And I think this is a really important thing to take away that I would perhaps, and I wonder how you feel about this, take it even further and go, maybe even diarize actual fun and just go, you know, and I know that sounds a bit forced, but it’s just a reminder that actually I have to put it in my day.
– I mean, people’s minds work in different ways. I mean, I am a big fan of dogs. So I had this, do this whole thing in my shows about dogs not drugs. And dogs are really good for your health ’cause if you hug a dog, it reduces your blood pressure. They also reduce your cholesterol by eating your food. They look at you and keep looking at you until you take them out for a walk. Your husband doesn’t look at you, your doctor doesn’t look at you, your wife doesn’t look at you. A dog looks at you and you have to take it out for a walk twice a day. So whether you want to, that’s in your diary. It’s in your diary, you got green fields, you got blue sky. Every other dog walker you meet is a friend. So you’ve got an immediate social circle. Dogs keep you supple as you bend over to pick up the poo. And if you’re too depressed to put your pants on in the morning, they lick your testicles. You don’t get that at the doctor’s, do you? Well, you might, it’s private patients only, but generally the doctor won’t lick your testicles. Prozac won’t lick your testicles. A dog will do that for you twice a day if you let it. So stick that in your diary. I get your point. So some people like diarizing things and some people like improvising things, but my diary is my dog. So I get up and I walk the dogs and I know I’m going to walk them in the evening. And I really love, sometimes I’ll listen to something like “The Humourology Podcast” which I can strongly recommend. Sometimes I’ll listen to the birds and the bees as I’m walking along. So I think absolutely diarizing it is important, particularly if you have a busy job. You’ve got to force yourself to do it. I play football very badly on a Thursday night, and it’s a bit late for me and I don’t sleep well afterwards ’cause I’m too hot and sweaty. And I always think, “Oh, I don’t want to go.” And every time I go, I absolutely love it. So I think you need to diarize and have things sort of, the Wednesday Elders is my sensible drinking group. That’s on a Wednesday. And so I have these little things built into my weekly routine that I think really help and I look forward to.
– Right, from a psychological standpoint, I think that is really important that people understand, ’cause I have similar things. I’ve got my running club and I used to play football as well with people and it was, but that’s all about creating little communities, isn’t it?
– Yes, I think that’s right. Yes, again, it comes back to relationships and the strength of relationships and feeling you belong. Belonging is a very important part of human nature. And also what I tell young kids, particularly, I see kids with fatigue who are just getting back into life and they’re bored and they’re sitting in their room, staring at their screen. And I always tell them to volunteer. Volunteer’s brilliant, because automatically, you’re submerging yourself in somebody else’s shit rather than your own. And it gives you really good communication skills and a sense of worth. And I’ve seen so many kids resurrect their lives through volunteering in a care home or for the NHS or for a charity. And it looks really good on the CV, but it teaches you to communicate with anyone and establish relationships with anyone. And I’m patron of a charity called Kissing it Better set up by wonderful, a former St Thomas’s nurse. And they, when the pandemic wasn’t on, they used to go into care homes and hospital wards, and young people would sing for the residents. They’d do manicures. They’d sort their hair out. They’d entertain them. And ’cause Duke of Edinburgh went a bit pear shaped, they got lots of young people to connect through iPads. They taught people in care homes who were isolated to use iPads and tell their stories. And the young people said it was amazing ’cause these older people, they’d lived through TB. They’d been in sanatoriums. They’d been locked up during the war. They understood what it was all like, and they got incredible stories back. So it was a real two-way sharing of stories that profoundly improved both people’s health. So if in doubt, volunteer is my top tip.
– Yes. And we’ll put links in the show notes so people can-
– Yeah, yeah, do that.
– No, I actually think it’s really important.
– So yes. Reach out and connect.
– Absolutely. And I think it was you that said that loneliness is as bad as 15 cigarettes a day for your health.
– Lots of people have said that. It’s slightly dodgy. It’s not a randomised controlled trial, but we know that social isolation and loneliness is really bad for mental health. We don’t really talk about mind and body anymore ’cause they’re inextricably linked. You know, if you have something going on in your mind, it will undoubtedly affect your body and vice versa. So yes, you need a sense of purpose and passion in your life. And shit happens in everyone’s life. We know that, but if you have good relationships around you, you’re more likely to recover. In fact, they used to say, the BMA, British Medical Association, used to have a sign up in their office and it said, “Shit happens, but we can adjust the level.” And then somebody had written, “up or down.” So sometimes we can make things worse. But the thing that generally pulls you out of the shit is relationships. Even better not to fall in the river of shit in the first place. So that’s, wandering upstream and prevention is probably as important as pulling people out the river.
– Well, beautifully put. Poetically put as well.
– Thank you.
– We’ve now reached the part of the show, Phil, which we like to call quickfire questions. ♪ Quick fire questions! ♪
– Ooh. Okay. Go on, then.
– Who’s the funniest professional person that you’ve ever worked with?
– Well, the funniest speaker I’ve heard is a chap called Miles Hilton-Barber who became blind at a fairly young age, was fairly desperate about it, and then decided he was going to do ridiculous things like climb Everest, do a glider or whatever. And he tells his story. He says, “It’s not, you know, “We’re all dealt a certain pack of cards. “It’s how you play them that matters.” And he’s unbelievably funny telling stories about how he’s driving a glider or a plane. He’s got a lovely picture of his mate who is an army veteran who lost his limbs and he’s pushing him across the floor of the Dead Sea. So Miles is blind, his mate’s in a wheelchair. They both have their aqualungs on. And with his white stick, he’s pushing him across the floor of the Dead Sea. So he’s someone who’s now completely blind and does these most outrageous things, you know, he’ll free fall parachute or whatever. So yeah, I met him at a business thing and I just loved him. His positivity in the face of adversity was absolutely inspiring. So if you haven’t booked Miles, I would book him for your next conference.
– Remind his name, Miles Hilton-Barber? Was that it?
– Miles Hilton-Barber, yes. I think his brother has it as well. It’s a rare, he had a rare congenital eye condition that made him blind, but boy, he’s a funny speaker.
– Good, good, great. I’ll look him up. What book makes you laugh?
– The one I’ve laughed at recently, I listen to lots of audiobooks at the moment. And there’s this Australian author called Steve Toltz, T-O-L-T-Z, and he wrote a book called “Quicksand” which I think was his, my favourite, it’s called “A Fraction of the Whole” and it’s just a very, very funny. And it’s narrated in an Australian accent. I’m half Australian. It’s quite black, the humour and very well-drawn characters and relationships and very, very Australian. So it’s called “A Fraction of the Whole”. It was probably nominated for some award or something. But yeah, check out Steve Toltz and particularly on audiobook if you want to hear a good Australian accent.
– Oh, perfect. I love a good audiobook. What film makes you laugh, Phil?
– This is pretty mainstream and only gets a few stars, but my wife and I, Jo who’s a GP, we watched together “Blades of Glory” that has Will Ferrell in. And it’s a ridiculous-
– Ferrell’s funny.
– Slapstick about competitive skating and couples splitting up and two men having to skate together. And it’s ridiculous slapstick humour, but it really made us roll with laughter. You know when you don’t want to listen to clever satirical humour. You just want to laugh. It’s the kind of humour I can’t do. I just do words. And people who can do funny slapstick humour are great. And so if you haven’t checked out “Blades of Glory” you’ll be able to buy it in the pound shop or something and it will make you chuckle. It’s just stupid humour. The favourite series, though, is “Schitt’s Creek”. So “Schitt’s Creek” got us through lockdown. ‘Cause again, characters very well-drawn, brilliant lines and, you know, the Hicksville American town where they accept anyone, whatever their attitude or sexuality, I thought was a lovely context, but “Schitt’s Creek” really made us laugh as well.
– Great. Well, making a shift to the other side, what’s not funny?
– Any abuse of power. I think that the central ethical dilemma in life is the compassionate and responsible use of power. So anybody who’s using their power in a way that’s abusive. And there are millions of examples of that, but that’s, to me, that’s what I, you know, I’m lucky, I’m in a position of huge power as a doctor, you know, with a medical degree I can stick my finger in your ass within a minute of meeting you and you’ll be grateful. I mean, it’s extraordinary, the amount of power. It’s a bit like being in the Young Conservatives, I guess. They give us a huge amount of power. So, and as a comedian, you have power with your microphone. You can really hurt and upset people. As a journalist, if I get a story wrong, I can destroy somebody’s life. So it’s actually realising, recognising the privilege that you have and using your power compassionately and responsibly. So when I go after people, it’s not because they made honest mistakes. It’s usually because they’re not using their power in a compassionate or responsible way.
– What word makes you laugh, Phil?
– There are so many stupid Latin words, I was told at medical school, I’d learn more new words in my first two years at medical school than a student of Russian. And we used to cloak all these ridiculous words up. My favourite one of call is borborygmi, which is tummy rumbles. If your stomach’s rumbling and we call it borborygmi because we want to do something. It might be Greek, it might be Latin. I don’t frankly care. You know, he’s got borborygmi. There’s some borborygmi over in bay number four. It’s typical medical nonsense, isn’t it, hiding behind a cloak of ridiculous language. But it’s almost onomatopoetic, isn’t it? Borborygmi.
– Borborygmi. It is, I may have just made that up. It may not even exist. You don’t, you’ll have to go and check.
– Oh, of course we have full fact checks on this podcast.
– Good, good. Yeah, I’ll be checking it, yeah.
– What sound makes you laugh?
– I do laugh at a loud fart. I’m Australian.
– I can’t deny I love a fart. My Uncle Ron used to do amazing farts and he’d always go, “Better out than in.” And then occasionally, he had a dunny, an outdoor thunderbox, and he was obsessed with his poos. He’d eat lots of green veg. And when he did a really good poo, he’d called me over. He’d go “Come on over here, have a look at this, Philip. “I’ve done a golden grogan.” And a golden grogan poo would coil twice around the pan and be pointed at both ends. And I’ve never forgot that. So to this day I try and do a golden grogan and whenever I fart, I laugh and go, “Better out than in.” My wife is wishing she married somebody else, but there you go. 28 years down, she’s got nowhere to go now.
– Oh God, that’s so funny. Would you rather, and I think I know the answer to this, be considered clever or funny?
– Kind funny, I think. I don’t want to be cruel funny. I wouldn’t want to be Jimmy Carr, although I think he can be occasionally very funny. So kind funny, I think is important. But kind is the important one out of those two. I’d like to be thought of as a decent, kind person.
– Okay. That’s perfect. And finally, Desert Island Gags. You can only take one joke with you to a desert island. What is it?
– It’s not my joke, but it always makes me smile. A couple came to see me as a doctor in their 90s and they’d been married for 70 years. Lovely. And they came to see me saying they were going to get a divorce. And I said, “Well, that’s ridiculous. “You’re 92 and 93, married for 70 years. “Why do you want to get a divorce now?” And they said, “Well, we’ve been thinking about it for a while, “but we wanted to wait until the children were dead.” And it makes me laugh for all sorts of reasons. A, ’cause you don’t expect it.
– And B, rather sadly it’s happening now ’cause we’re all so obese that many people are being outlived by their parents. And the fact that so many marriages hang together that aren’t particularly happy because they don’t want to upset the children. So you’d hang together for 70 years of misery just waiting of the children to die.
– Great. Brilliant punchline that comes from nowhere. I love it. I absolutely love it. And it’s yours to take with you to a desert island.
– That’s what I’d take. It makes me smile.
– Oh, Phil Hammond, you have been both intelligent, kind, and funny. So we thank you so much for being on “The Humourology Podcast”.
– You did ask me if I’d look at your warty growth. If you’d just like to hang it up to the camera now.
– Yeah. Just if you could just have a quick, yeah.
– That’s perfectly normal for this time of year. Just give it a light dusting with icing sugar and a bit of cream, and you can pop that back in later. Use the end of your toothbrush just to pop it back up. Any questions? I am a proper doctor, actually. You can check me out with the General Medical Council. If you do need to report me, then my number’s up on the website.
– Thank you so much.
– You’re welcome. Good to see you.
– [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.