Part of the Humourology series
Season 3, Episode 57
John O’Farrell – Why Whimsical Wit Wins
Award-Winning Writer and Creative Mind John O’Farrell joins Paul Boross on The Humourology Podcast to discuss his career as a comedy writer for the screen, stage, and page. O’Farrell discusses the value of humour when it comes to easing tensions and connecting with a crowd. Join us as we cover a career of comedy greatness from a humble and humour-filled John O’Farrell.
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Paul Boross is joined by John O’Farrell who has built a corking comedy career as a witty and wonderful writer. From television to books to musicals, he is the creative mind behind some of the cleverest pieces of comedy around. His award-winning works span a variety of topics while always having humour at the heart.
“To be capable of engaging an audience, a good sense of humour is something that should be in your armoury.”
O’Farrell knows how important humour is to connect people. Listen in as he shares stories from a lifetime of witty writing and performing to learn how you can use humour to bolster your business. Join us as we cover punchlines, politics, and the power of a laugh only on The Humourology Podcast.
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John is a much in demand speaker, find out more Here
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Paul Boross (00:00):
Sharing, what makes us laugh is a bonding thing and I think if you’re talking about business; business, thrives on cooperation, on people all pulling together that’s a great corporate glue that you can find. If you can all share a sense and find a way of putting aside your differences with a good joke and having a good laugh at the people over there ,at your competitors.
Paul Boross (00:34):
Welcome to the Humourolgy podcast with me, Paul Boross my glittering lineup of guests from the worlds of business ,sport and entertainment who are here to share their wisdom and their use of humour with you. Humourolgy is the study of how humour can dramatically improve your business success and your life. Humourolgy 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.
Paul Boross (01:11):
My guest on this edition of the Humourolgy podcast is the multi-award winning witty writer and creative mind behind a quality collection of comedic works. As the former lead writer for shows like Spitting Image and Have I Got News For You? He established himself as a lighthearted leader of laugh-filled television. His books are comedy treasures that utilise laughter and satire to get his point across. They’ve reached the bestseller list time and time again, and have been translated into over 25 languages. In addition to his impressive career, as a screenwriter and novelist, he broke onto Broadway as the co-writer of the massively popular musical Something Rotten. He continues to make mirthful musicals with his most recent work Mrs Doubtfire, which hit the Broadway stage in December of 2021. Few writers can boast such broad success from the screen to the page, to the stage. John O’Farrell welcome to the Humourolgy podcast.
Paul Boross (02:19):
Thank you very much. Thanks having me on
Paul Boross (02:21):
No, it’s an absolute pleasure to, to have you here. I’ve been a fan for many, many years. You grew up in Maidenhead where many years later you went on to challenge a certain Theresa May to become the member of parliament. Was the young John O. Farrell funny and was humour valued in your family?
Paul Boross (02:45):
Yes, I think I would say that we came from a home where there was a lot of laughter both my parents had great senses of humour. And my dad had that sort of Irish storytelling skill that he said he’d inherited from his mother. And I do remember when I made him laugh as a teenager, he said, I can’t wait to see your jokes on television, John. And I remember thinking then, that was the most flattering and sort of impossible idea, but he bought me a book saying, Writing For The BBC and left it by my bed very quietly. And I read it very enthusiastically, but still, never thought that was something that was possible for me. But that said, you know, we laughed a lot and we watched a lot of comedy as well. So it was something we did together was watch all the sitcoms and talk about them.
Paul Boross (03:33):
So they were, they were supportive. And so there wasn’t a case of like, when you did become a comedy writer, they were going, when are you going to get a proper job?
Paul Boross (03:44):
No, I mean there was a period after university, quite a long one, really, three or four years , when I was drifting and had no purpose and was doing building jobs and driving jobs. And they never gave me a hard time about training to become an accountant or going to do a law conversion degree or anything. I was trying to get bits of writing away and sending off things without very much idea about how to do it, but no, they were very supportive in that time and I think knew that I had aspirations to work in comedy or TV or something. And never gave me a hard time then became very thrilled when I started to have some success at it.
Paul Boross (04:25):
Do you still hanker for performance. I mean, I know you get some of it out with your brilliant podcast but do you still hanker for it? Is there still that bit inside you going, I really want to perform?
Paul Boross (04:40):
Not really to be honest. I there was a time when my books first came out and I had a column in The Guardian say the turn of the century, really when I was sort of… the phone went a lot for these things. And I said, yes, generally, because I felt A, it was good to it sold books when I was on the telly and it got the brand across as it was, my publicist was very happy with me at my publishers. And I also enjoyed it. I enjoyed going up and doing speeches at Labour Party conference, or after-dinner talks for charities and stuff, that was nice, but I’m not sitting there going, oh, I wish I was on QI. I just don’t think I’d be as good as Stephen Fry or Alan Davies or, you know all the people are on, Would I Lie To You? They’re so funny. And I think I’d be a C plus compared to their A plus. So I’m realistic about how good I am at those things, which I think is probably quite important.
Paul Boross (05:35):
Well, I think, yeah, it’s actually understanding how far you can go. I do think that, that you are brilliant with Angela Barnes on the We Are History podcast. I think that that’s really good because it’s a very light sort of look at history. And I was recently listening to the Robert Maxwell one and it just draws you in so …
Paul Boross (05:59):
Well, that’s good.
Paul Boross (06:00):
It’s very nice of you to say, so. It’s a very easy, relaxed as you say, format. We’re not aiming to be BBC One at prime time. So perhaps the expectation is not as high and we’ve done some work and we’re communicating some information that we’ve researched, so that sort of justifies us being in front of the microphone but I enjoy doing that with Angela, but that said, I see that as a bit of a hobby rather than a career move, if you know what I mean. And my core work is being at my laptop, writing scripts, books, screenplay novel, librettos for musicals.
Paul Boross (06:41):
But they all have one thing in common, which is humour runs through them all. How important do you think it is to have humour at the core of what you do? And why do you think that everything is revolving around humour for you?
Paul Boross (07:02):
Well, it’s what I am good at, I suppose. I look at some people who can draw and I think, well, that’s a magic trick that you’ve got there, that you can look at that bowl of fruit and get the dimensions of it and recreate that on paper. That for me is an impossibility. I tend to look at things and see the humour in them. And people have said to me in the past, oh, I love the serious bits in your books. You should write a serious book and I’m going, well why would you want me to write a serious book? I’ve got this, I’m not gonna write beautifully crafted literary sentences. I know how to structure a joke. I know how to tell a funny story and to examine things that I think are ludicrous or bizarre, or just funny.
Paul Boross (07:47):
And that’s my thing. And so I don’t say, I don’t think everything is funny. I just think that’s the way I like to approach things. And that’s the skill and experience I’ve got, I suppose, limited as that is. So that’s just the way I like to proceed and I enjoy making people laugh. I have to say, I look at people who have really tough jobs, dealing with tragic situations and I think how lucky am I? I’m surrounded by people laughing in my work. That’s a great privilege for me.
Paul Boross (08:24):
Well, and you’ve done it at the top for so many years and I’d like to take you back to it, because you did 10 series of Spitting Image indeed and recently I interviewed John Lloyd your producer. When you were doing that, it seemed to have real cut through, and the comedy really seemed to cut through to the psyche of the country. Do you think that relevance in politics has diminished in some way and therefore it’s harder to do satire like you did in those days?
Paul Boross (09:02):
I certainly think it’s harder to do a show like that today. First of all, back in the eighties when Spitting Image came along, there were four channels and Spitty Image was viewed by millions and millions of people. It was must-see television on a Sunday night on ITV. You know, now the audience is scattered much more widely across hundreds of channels. So you don’t get that shared national experience that you had back then. The other thing I would say about that time was that believe it or not, our politicians still were held with a certain amount of reverence. And our Royal family were held with a certain amount of reverence and there was a pedestal to pull them down from. Now I don’t really think there’s anything that Donald Trump or Boris Johnson, there’s nothing you could put in their mouths that would be more ridiculous than what they’re saying already. So how do you satirise people who are sort of light entertainment performers already. That’s what got them elected so it’s a much harder job to prick that pomposity when it’s already a sort of comic persona that’s been… that is in office.
Paul Boross (10:18):
So do you think that’s happened by accident or do you think by design the Trumps and the Johnsons have worked out that if they go beyond satire, they’re essentially safer?
Paul Boross (10:32):
I don’t think they’re thinking about satire. I think they’re thinking about character, brand. Donald Trump was… his public persona was invented on The Apprentice in America. He pretended to be a top businessman when he’d never been a particularly successful businessman. He’d sort of, you know, managed the fortune he’d inherited and managed to sort of not lose all of it. And there was this fiction on this show that was, very popular across America, that he was this top hard-hitting businessman. And people sort of went, that might be good running the country. That would be good. And Boris Johnson, the same, he pretends to be a bubbling sort of jovial sort of buffoon and sells it as a brand. And it is a breath of fresh air to some people as a contrast for the boring cautious suited businessmen that we’ve had trying to get our votes most of the other decades we’ve been alive.
Paul Boross (11:34):
So do you think that now in order to get the top office in the land and here in America, and maybe in other countries, it’s now created a precedent whereby you have to be humorous, you have to be perceived as somebody who is charismatic and humorous.
Paul Boross (11:54):
I think humour is a very valuable asset for anyone in politics or business or in anything. And to have a good joke at the top of a speech, gets the audience on your side and it relaxes them. I don’t think that Kier Starmer needs to be comic any more than Gordon Brown needed to be comic, or, you know, Theresa May. Sometimes the politician elected is a reaction to the last one and it might be that people have had enough of the clown in Downing Street and want a sort of proper grownup. That’s my hope with the leader of the opposition at the moment.The most successful politicians do know how to woo a crowd. And that includes being fun. Obama was funny. Tony Blair could tell a joke to be capable of engaging an audience, a good sense of humour is something that should be in your armoury that said, Mrs. Thatcher had a terrible sense of humour. Could never tell a joke. And it never did her any harm.
Paul Boross (12:54):
Well, yeah, it’s interesting cuz we had William Hague on the podcast and he said definitively, she had no sense of humour.
Paul Boross (13:05):
Well, he’s actually a rare thing, a Tory politician who has a good sense of humour and knows how to tell a joke. He had some good lines against Blair. I remember. And in a different time he might have been a more effective politician, but it was not the, it was not the moment to be the leader of the Conservative party. But yeah he could tell the odd gag, I think.
Paul Boross (13:23):
Well, I’m interested in the speeches because a lot of our listeners are in business and you know, the whole premise of the Humourology podcast is how humour, can improve business success and life. So in terms of speeches and putting jokes in, because as a psychologist I’m brought in to tell them how to tell jokes and how to do the speeches. And I’m more inclined with people who don’t know how to it, to take them out.
Paul Boross (13:57):
Yes, there’s nothing worse than a bad joke that falls flat of course. It makes you look… So I mean my advice would be punch up, not down. Make jokes about yourself or about the boss that they’re all exasperated by. don’t Don’t put down some poor secretary who’s sitting in the front row or just going up to get a drink and self-awareness and tone are the key things. I would say, you know, if you are going to be doing a joke at a serious event, getting the tone right and getting the subject matter right is important if you’re gonna get it wrong, better not to do it at all.
Paul Boross (14:36):
When you talk about self-awareness, I think our audience will be interested in what they can take away. How, would you describe that to people? You know, people will have come to you and I go, I need a funny line. Yes. To get me started. Yes. And,
Paul Boross (15:00):
And have you got any… Gordon Brown, I remember once saying to me, Oh John, I’m just about to do this Scottish trade union conference. You got any good Scottish trade union jokes lying around? It’s like, yeah, Gordon, I’ve got a whole file of unused Scottish trade union jokes right here. Let me read them all out to you. So the idea that you’ve got some jokes spare, you know, you always have to create the joke. It’s like saying to a carpenter, have you’ve got any spare shelves, you could put up in my cornice. It’s like, it doesn’t work like that. You’ve gotta make the shelves and make them fit and sand them down, all that. So it’s work and it’s everything has to be bespoke. And you know, getting it just right for that event is the key.
Paul Boross (15:40):
Well, it’s interesting because I’m sure all of us have had experience of getting the tone wrong. I mean, I remember, hosting many, many years ago conference for vets and I did the thing that usually works is I took the piss out of the CEO. Right. And it’s normally the thing that brings the crowd together and I just judged it wrong. Wow.
Paul Boross (16:08):
And He hated it. Wow. And everybody in the room looked to see if he was laughing.
New Speaker (16:15):
And they didn’t feel able to laugh or what?,
Paul Boross (16:17):
And they didn’t feel able to laugh. Wow. So he obviously had that kind of hold on his whole group. So I’m wondering if you’ve had instances when it’s gone wrong like that?
Paul Boross (16:29):
Well, I did used to do paid after dinner speaking, which I didn’t never enjoy very much, but they used to pay a fortune. So it was like, months and months of salary for one night’s speech, which was the sort of stock speech that I had in my back pocket. So, but I always felt a bit cheap doing it somehow. And sometimes it was great if I did it for sort of a public servants, if I did it in the public sector, like the health service or a transport organisation, they seemed to like me. But when I did some business in the city, they were sort of, I could tell, they didn’t really know who I was and they’d rather have had sort of Roy McGrath or something. And they were hoping for Clarkson and to be honest, and so that never felt great.
Paul Boross (17:12):
There there’s times what I remember doing once, which was for a load of diamond traders, and I thought, why have I been asked to do this diamond traders event? And they just must have just been, I must have just been available, but they were all Belgian Hasidic Jews. English must have been their third language. I reckon presuming that they probably spoke either French or Flemish. Flemish probably then English. And I was there doing my jokes about being left wing and middle class and writing for Spitting Image and the Labour party. And they just sat there and smiled so sweetly at me the entire evening, then they all gave me their business card. And I thought, well that’s better than heckles and being gonged off but I just had them nod for half an hour whilst I gave my funny speech and it was completely wrong audience. So that’s, you know, and then I could do the same speech to, you know, a regional Labour party and they were bloody fall about laughing and love me for it. So, you know, it’s just horses for courses. Isn’t it.
Paul Boross (18:12):
So, John, what makes you laugh?
Paul Boross (18:15):
I always watch Would I Lie To You? I often watch Have I Got News for you? I love old sitcoms. I love Billy Wilder movies. I love standup. My daughter started doing standup now. So I’ve enjoying watching her stuff about, you know, from a young feminist perspective. She’s in her mid twenties. So that’s very eye-opening and fresh. I like funny books from Bill Bryson to Jonathan Coe to, Caitlyn Moran. I love Jo Brand. I love Eddie Izzard, you know, I watch all of them. The great thing is I can put it down as work, watching comedy. Oh, that’s research. I’m watching the masters and that informs what I do. That’s my excuse for watching comedy so much.
Paul Boross (19:07):
Well, it’s interesting from a psychological perspective, you were saying, it informs what you do. How much do you think is osmosis and how much is actually looking at what somebody’s doing, whether it’s a rhythm thing, a timing thing or the way it’s constructed? Yeah,
John O’Farrell (19:30):
I think ome is just pleasure. You know, if I sit there and watch Lee Mack on Would I Lie To You, I’m just laughing at how funny he is or David Mitchell is but cause I don’t write standup or I don’t have an outlet for those sorts of jokes at the moment. If I’m sitting down to read Caitlin Moran’s book, I’ll go, oh, that’s really interesting how she… I’ll look at the balance in information and comedy, you know, and jokes. I’ll look at the… if I go and see a funny musical, I’ll look at the structure of it and how they use comedy in there and what sort of tone they’ve gone for. And even if I’m not going away and writing it up afterwards, I, it stays with me and I’ll talk to directors or whatever editors and go, did you ever see such and such a show? I was thinking something more like that. So, you know, it’s useful to have to be absorbing stuff all the time.
Paul Boross (20:25):
So, when you are around comedy, I think it improves everything. So I’m just thinking for our audience to, you know, take away is the fact that somebody who is so embroiled in, in comedy is still inhaling it whenever they can .
John O’Farrell (20:45):
Yeah. I mean, I, I inhaled serious stuff as well. I mean, I love watching films and dramas and all of that informs me really. And I read a lot of books. There was a great… I dunno when this is going out, but we lost the dear Barry Cryer. We lost Barry Cryer last week, very recently, dear Barry. And I knew him from writer’s rooms of old, but there’s a great clip of him on Pointless. They’re standing there beside agility. And Xander Armstrong said to him, when was the golden age of comedy and Barry Cryer gave the best answer you could give, which is now! I’m not gonna talk about the old days being better than today. we are living in the golden age of comedy. There’s all so much talent around. There are so many brilliant new comics coming up, and it’s a pleasure still be doing it after all these decades. And that’s sort of the answer I aspire to give you my eighties, that to stay relevant, to stay interested and to keep learning from people younger and fresher than you.
Paul Boross (21:41):
Well, is that what drove you to do the musicals in on Broadway? Because, it seems like quite a leap having gone from television to books to then suddenly you are doing hit musicals on Broadway,
John O’Farrell (21:56):
It does sound rather grand, doesn’t it? It sort of didn’t happen like that. Really? I didn’t go now I’d like to do a musical. Yes. I actually have success with that. I mean, what happened was… I mean, it is true that I do like to try new things. So, you know, I voluntarily gave up being one of the lead writers on Spitting Image. After 10 series I could have, we could have carried on, but we all felt we’d been there long enough and it was time to do something else. Then I went on to be one of the first writers on Have I Got News For You? And that was a fresh new show and felt an exciting thing to do. When I came to write books that wasn’t a long term plan. It’s just that the first book idea I had was a success and I enjoyed the experience.
John O’Farrell (22:45):
and so I wrote more books and then after 10 years writing books and someone said, would you like to co- write a musical with me? I sort of thought, well, that sounds interesting. And I didn’t think we’d get it on Broadway. I didn’t think it would happen, but I was prepared to give it a go, but the lights kept turning green and rival shows kept falling away. And producers kept saying yes, and it happened. And it ran for two years. So suddenly I’m a Broadway musical book writer. This isn’t a part of a plan strategy. The other thing I would say about that is just be prepared to try stuff out and experiment. There’s lots of things I’ve tried that have failed and you’re remembering the ones that have been a success. And the other thing I’d say is be someone people wanna work with, so don’t be an idiot, don’t be a Dick. Don’t be difficult, be prepared to do your rewrites and work hard and hit your deadlines and then maybe you’ll be asked back a second time or people who’ve done one project with you might ask to do another,
Paul Boross (23:44):
I think this is something that recurs on the Humourology project is that in order to create an atmosphere where whereby humour can flow, you have to be of good humour. Don’t you?
John O’Farrell (24:02):
Yeah. Well, it does vary. Actually. I hear I’m not gonna name any names, but there are very famous people in this industry who are quite difficult to work with and cuz they’re stars, they get away with it, but it won’t always be like that. And one day they’ll be slightly out of fashion and the producers will go, I’m not doing anything else with him. He’s a pain in the arse. And it seems to be foolish to not be someone who’s pleasant to be in a studio with. One of the ensemble said to me, when I was in New York, in the autumn said, you should never do a musical with anyone you wouldn’t go camping with. And I thought, you know, cause you’re in the trenches and you’re working long hours and everyone’s having to sort of make sacrifices and lose songs or have their lines cut or be asked to do something different again and again, and again, you have to have such patience and trust in one another that you know, you really need to put your ego to one side and do what’s best for the show. And that’s that applies right across the board. I think
Paul Boross (25:03):
Yeah, it’s, it comes down to be being decent, to being nice to being…
John O’Farrell (25:10):
and having humility, I would say is the other one. So the other thing I’d say about being a writer, you need an enormous ego. We talked about ego at the beginning, just an enormous ego of me to go. I’ve written a book here’s 80,000 words. Everyone. I think you should read it. That’s a very arrogant thing to do, but to make the book any good at all, you’ve got to also have enormous humility to say to yourself, it’s not good enough yet. I can make it better. I need to rewrite it again. And again and again until I think it’s really the best it can be. If you don’t have that, then you’ve got, you know, and there’s plenty of people out there who will give in their first or second draught, but you’ve gotta have that balance of ego you humility, I think to really push yourself. But the best that you can be out there.
Paul Boross (25:53):
Yeah, I think you’re right that humility and that being nice. Nice to be around as well. I think, I think it was Larry Gelbart who said something like to write comedy is to report on life viewed through a special lens.
John O’Farrell (26:09):
Yes. I think that’s fair comment. Yeah, that’s what I’ve got. I’ve got a lens, cause I’m not gonna sit here and go, oh, I don’t think I’m very funny. Clearly I’ve been writing comedy for 35 years. I know how to write a joke. I’m not the very best in the business, but I’ve made a living at it for 35 years. So I’m able to, when Have I Got News For You turn around and say write 12 jokes about Winnie Mandela. I could do that. And that’s not something that everyone can sit down and do. As I say, I can’t paint a picture. I couldn’t run for political office. I couldn’t win as a politician. I wouldn’t be a success as a politician. I’ve tried other things and find them very hard, but just to have a skill and to be able to thrive doing it. I am gonna say that lovely thing of I’ve been very lucky. I feel incredibly lucky to have made a living at the thing I’ve really enjoyed doing. And it’s been… It’s been quite a ride to have all these different outlets, you know, in which to work.
Paul Boross (27:10):
Is everyone funny, John?
John O’Farrell (27:13):
No, no, it’s weird. It’s weird, of all the things that people won’t admit to. So people will say, oh, I’m rubbish with money or I’m no good at maths or I’m rubbish at sport, but no one thinks they’ve got a bad sense of humour. No one ever … Mrs. Thatcher would never go you’ve if you said to Mrs. Thatcher, you’ve got a terrible sense of humour. She would never have gone. No, you’re right. That’s one thing I, you know, I’m good effective politician, but comedy forget it. She would think, oh, I like a good, I like humour. I’d like Arthur Askey or whatever she was into but so it’s not something that people are prepared to admit, but it’s definitely the case that not everyone is funny or able to enjoy comedy or has just has that, you know, that bone in their body that appreciates or enjoys comedy, I think it’s appropriate.
Paul Boross (28:09):
Do you think that you could actually teach people or you can teach people to be better surely, but do you think there’s actually a level whereby they haven’t got a funny bone, so, it’s impossible now?
John O’Farrell (28:24):
Well, you probably could make anyone a bit funnier or make them a bit more open to how comedy works, but you know, I’m trying to think of some other people who I think are desperately UN funny. I think some people are just so earnest and pompous and self regarding and severe that I cannot imagine ever sharing a joke with them.
Paul Boross (28:52):
It’s interesting though, isn’t it? That everybody on their dating profile puts good sense of humour.
John O’Farrell (28:58):
Yeah, yeah. yeah, exactly. And everyone, and it’s a sort of deal breaker, isn’t it really? For most people, if you’ve got no sense of humour but it’s ridiculous really that how much stead we put on it in our society. That to be funny just makes you likeable and it’s so much less important than being trustworthy. I mean, take Boris Johnson. You know, he was quite funny on Have I Got News For You. And I have been on panel shows with him and he’s been quite funny and I’m thinking that’s, what’s got him so far, you know, he’s just sort of, plays this comedy buffoon, and it’s terrible that we, we fal it. We fall for that. And we value that above integrity competence. We’re not, we’re not asking, we’re not appointing a, head of a panel show here. We’re asking someone to be prime minister. And yet the comedy seems to count more than the sort of stern sort of competence of someone like Gordon Brown or Theresa May, which just doesn’t go last very long.
Paul Boross (30:00):
Well, it is extraordinary, isn’t it? And I think that’s why I asked the question earlier of, have we now reached the stage where it has to be that, or is the world going to turn back because we’ve gone too far and go, actually what we need is a grey man or a safe pair of hands, somebody to… because you are very politically active.So this must frustrate you mustn’t it?
John O’Farrell (30:27):
It drives me crazy. I mean I feel slightly responsible as someone who’s working on. Have I Got News For You when Boris Johnson was sort of turned into a celebrity, you know, without those shows, I don’t think he would’ve become Mayor of London. I don’t think he would’ve become, you know, prime minister. So the comedy industry sort of has some responsibility for our current situation.
Paul Boross (30:50):
Wasn’t it the case, sorry, I’m just gonna pick up on that, but, wasn’t it the case because I’ve talked to both Paul and Ian about this. Wasn’t it, the case that actually at the time, you all thought you’d ruined his career? Well, in the sense that he’d made a buffoon of himself.
John O’Farrell (31:09):
I just think that being able to seem to be up for a joke, did him know harm at all? So yes, he was, he seemed damage when he was… Some of the bad things he’d done was exposed, but you think about Neil and Christine, Hamilton. They came on the show, Paul and Ian, well, Ian particularly just kept going at them for the things they had done and pointing out the terrible corrupt things that they had done. And they just kept chuckling as if it was a joke and everyone went, oh, they seem to sort of take it on the chin. And they sort of, it sort of got them off the hook in a weird sort of way. It’s not like a skewering by sort Paxman or, you know, John Humphreys or something. To be over there with a panel show, laughing and clapping sort of gives them permission to be the characters they are.
Paul Boross (31:52):
Well, that’s very interesting in the sense that, that now politicians are avoiding the big sort of news night type ypieces and going for the easy light entertainment model. Yeah. So that must be a deliberate ploy, must it not? To think, well, actually people are just going to see we’re in inverted comma is ‘pleasant’. And so that’s…
John O’Farrell (32:17):
Yeah. I mean, this is not new, Thatcher preferred going on the Jimmy Young show than going in front of Robin Day. That’s, although he was quite respectful. I mean, there’s something I’ll say about else I say about all of this is that we have this grand idea that satire is this brilliant political weapon that can skew a politician or bring down a government. I think it’s quite possible that the opposite is true that a really good satirical joke that you’ve all shared sort of processes, the anger that you had. And now you are laughing at the politician instead of being furious with them. And somehow it sort of process dealt with and we can move on to the next thing and you feel it sort of smug superiority for laughing down at them. And somehow the politicians got away with it and can move on to the next thing. So sometimes I think that satire does the opposite of what us satirists intend, and it sort of helps the politicians,and in countries like sort of Iran or Indonesia where there is no, you’re not allowed to be funny. Absolut think the anger continues to boil up because there’s no outlet for what you wanna say.
Paul Boross (33:24):
That’s really interesting from a psychological perspective, because you’ve really made me think and I’m, I’m going well, actually the joke has induced a state change. Yes. So therefore we now longer have the anger, like you say.
John O’Farrell (33:41):
Yes. Yeah. It’s been it’s been sort of… It’s been converted by like some sort of enzyme has sort of converted anger into contempt, mocking contempt. And there we are, the situation has been processed and I no longer feel like I wanna sort of storm the Bastille i or whatever.
Paul Boross (34:01):
That’s really interesting. So maybe memes are not helping. Maybe memes are just sort of deflecting.
John O’Farrell (34:08):
Well, I do feel this with Twitter. I feel that Twitter and social media is that we are all going, ah, look how unpopular the government is on Twitter. And then you will see another Tory landslide. It’s like, guys, yes. Get out there, talk to people, change people’s minds and engage with people who are not on Twitter because you get into this little bubble, you think, oh, look how many likes that’s joke got? Things are really changing. It’s like, Nope, Nope. You’re just still talking to a tiny minority of people. And you’re not engaging with the mass of voters. You are not that interested in politics actually. Will just go out once every five years and probably vote for the status quo.
Paul Boross (34:50):
Yeah. That’s what really sort of bothers me that can comedy change things? I mean, because we had Rick Wilson from the Lincoln Project on the, a podcast and there was kind of a feeling that the Lincoln Project did have an effect on Trump because he hated being mocked. Yeah. And I wondered if you think there’s really a way through, I mean, Led By Donkeys, do it in this country.
John O’Farrell (35:21):
Yeah, I think that’s, I think sometimes a good joke can crystallise a feeling. I think sometimes and it can help, it can help damage an individual politician. So the famous example going right back is Henry Brook. And That Was The Week That Was or there’s , the way that David Steel was portrayed in Spitting Image alongside David Owen. And I think that probably did do some personal damage to that particular politician, but, In terms of bringing down governments, I think, governments lose elections, Satirists don’t win them. I think is the phrase.
Paul Boross (35:59):
Right. I was just thinking about the David Owen and David Steel. Were you responsible for that, that gag, which was , we’re going to use your part of your name and part of my name…
John O’Farrell (36:12):
No, that’s just before I came on the show, but I remember the one you’re talking about. But I’ll tell you a little bit, I think it’s interesting about that is that David Steel’ continual portrayal as the junior partner in that double act, I think propelled him to try and reunite… to Unite the, the SDP Liberal Alliance quicker than David Owen was willing to go. Led to a split, led to them, standing against each other at the Richmond by election. And they would’ve, the alliance would’ve won that election if they’d not stood against each other. And then William Hague won that became an MP became leader of the Tory party. And so he owes his entrance to parliament to, I think, Spitting image. This is my radical, uh, a pitch for, uh, the butterfly effect, but that, that little gag on Spitting Image. So incensed David Steel, that it led to Hague winning the byelection that made him make it to parliament. Take it with a pitch of salt but I’m standing by it.
Paul Boross (37:16):
Well, I’m gonna clip this and send it to William Hague and see you see how he feels about that.
John O’Farrell (37:22):
I wrote about it in the New Statesman, so he might have encountered it before, but we’ll see.
Paul Boross (37:25):
No, but I perfect. You see humour can have radical effects, but I’m really interested that it can be not the effect you want.
John O’Farrell (37:35):
Yeah I think…Sometimes you never know. So for example, I did a Spitting Image sketch when Maggie was about to lose the leadership of the Tory party. And they’d had the, it was coming up to the first vote. And I did a scene of her just walking around an empty House of Commons and shadows with echoes of her former speeches. You know, this lady’s not for turning no, no, no. And then she was just sobbing quietly in the corner and it went to the end of the show and it was just like final Central TV logo. And I thought that’s put her in her place. And two MPs it was reported to me by somebody inside Westminster, two Tory MPs were so moved by that, that they changed from voting against her to abstaining. And that those two would’ve been enough to get over the line at the first vote. So there’s me trying to get Mrs Thatcher out of Westminster. I was helping her stay in for a little bit longer and she ended up going anyway as it turned out. But so you never know what the impact of your joke is gonna be or whether it’ll be received in the manner that you deliver it cuz everyone it’s always subjective and people have their own reactions.
Paul Boross (38:45):
That’s fascinating. But so do you think… What part in bringing down a Boris Johnson government, do you think humour can effectively do or do you think it’s, we’re now just in the hands of reality?
John O’Farrell (39:04):
No, I think a good joke can – when you talk about the led by donkeys thing – I think that thing of equating him, you know, with a suspect in a really popular crime drama is a very clever way of crystallising, how we’re all feeling about him when what was it when Boris Johnson said to Kier Starmer you are a lawyer, not a leader. One of the, Labour bench, I think it was Alison McGovern said, yeah, I wouldn’t knock lawyers, Boris, you might be needing one soon. This is a, if you can get a joke that goes…if you can make your own side feel sort of, slightly sort of, comforted and feel better about themselves. But also it can cut through to people who are not really concentrating and a good joke might make them go, no, that’s, that’s funny. And you, they don’t know why they’re laughing, but they don’t realise all the other stuff they picked up along the way. And it helps them pick sides, I think.
Paul Boross (40:07):
Yeah. Well, and it also, somebody’d also thought, okay, lawyer, not a leader. Good alliteration. Yeah. Immediately I saw on Twitter, everybody say, I’d rather have a lawyer, not a liar. Yeah,
John O’Farrell (40:20):
Paul Boross (40:22):
It kind of backfired in that way as well.
John O’Farrell (40:25):
Yeah. I mean the other, the other famous example is Donald Trump being roasted by Obama. So Obama was president he’s sat there. He had his dinner. Trump was in the room and Obama just ripped the piss out of Donald Trump sitting at table 27. And I wonder if in that moment Trump went, I am gonna show that guy. And he became, you know, set upon becoming the guy who would end up replacing Obama. I wonder if that he hadn’t had that roasting, from the president in such a public forum, maybe he wouldn’t have become so determined to be a politician,
Paul Boross (41:03):
Unintended consequences. I’m really interested in that that particular moment, because it goes back to something you said about it sounds strange, but would that be perceived as punching down from the stage?
John O’Farrell (41:21):
It didn’t, if you’re talking about a millionaire property dealer, maybe I, I think that he’s punching across, you know, he’s I mean it’s hard for the president of the United States to punch up, frankly, he’s got to do jokes about God. So again, I think it’s pick your targets and a very arrogant, rich white man is a acceptable target for a witty black president. The other thing, I mean talking about that arrogance thing, I remember in the Blair years, there was a fashion for punching down. There was, a lot of funny comedy on British TV, but most of it was fairly posh people or fairly comfortable people like the Little Britain guys doing jokes about people on council states, Vicky Pollard,
John O’Farrell (42:15):
Vicky Pollard, or the bloke in the wheelchair. There was Harry Enfield doing The Slobs. There was Catherine Tate doing Am I bothered, but the way they got away with it was to make their targets arrogant. So you think, oh, they’re, they’re due for being taken down a strip or two, never mind that the people doing them, like, much as I love them, Matt Lucas and David Walliams. And I think they’re very funny, they’re quite privileged guys to be taking the piss out of Vicki Pollard. And they got away with it by making her really arrogant and needing to be taken down a peg two, which I think is the sort of tthe clever bit of it.
Paul Boross (42:58):
Yeah, no, because he was quite entitled to go for him. I just, because for me the word was perception because if you are talking about middle of America, mid America, were they perceiving that the president punching down to, because half of the shtick that Trump did was about getting rid of the elites.
John O’Farrell (43:26):
Right, right, right.
Paul Boross (43:27):
And so did it play into that? .
John O’Farrell (43:30):
Yeah. Well, maybe that’s what he was talking about. He was talking about those Washington types, the career politicians, I mean, I’m not sure that middle America watched the correspondents dinner or whatever it was that Obama did, but Trump made himself a victim. He made sort of, white America, rust belt America, feel like a victim from the liberals. And that’s a key bit of sort of positioning. It’s probably not that connected with comedy, but it’s to do with psychology, which you’re also very interested in.
Paul Boross (44:06):
Yeah. fascinating. Yeah. if I asked you to write a business case for humour, John, what would you include
John O’Farrell (44:15):
A business for humour? I’m not quite sure what you mean, do you mean, well,
Paul Boross (44:19):
I mean, like humour,
Paul Boross (44:22):
Why should we have humour in our company? What’s going to be better? Why should we allow it in what’s what’s the advantage really?
John O’Farrell (44:35):
I suppose if your company is a sort of an organisation where people have to rub along with each other and go through difficult periods together, then humour, like team building, like, listening to each other and everyone sort of learning to work with each other. Humour is a key part of that. People want to enjoy their work. They wanna like their fellow workers and jokes are just a very everyday way in which we share our experiences. Storytelling is essential to the human experience. And funny stories that happen to us is the first thing we wanna tell our friends when we get into the tea room in the morning, stand around the water cooler, as the Americans would say, so sharing what makes us laugh is a bonding thing.And I think if you’re talking about business business thrives on corporation, on people, all pulling together, that’s a great, you know, corporate glue that you can find, if you can all share a sense of humour and find a way of putting aside your differences with a good joke and having a good laugh at the people over there, your competitors. So it might be a good way of bonding your team.
Paul Boross (46:08):
I love the idea of corporate glue because that’s what humour does. And also if you are enjoying, going to work, surely that’s, you know, already you are winning because you are looking forward to going to… you’ve worked in lots of stressful atmospheres, whether that’s the theatre with Mrs. Doubtfire, or having to get, Have I Got News out on time. But if you shout at somebody does it help them to get more creative quickly?
John O’Farrell (46:47):
No, probably not. Yeah. I mean, it’s interesting. I remember it just unites you as an organisation, I think, to share a joke. So I remember if I’d do jokes at Labour party conference or at Labour, if I get a good observation about the opposition or about ourselves, everyone loves that. Somebody said that the Labour party conference. The Tory party conference is always a comedy review taking the Mickey outta the labour party and the Labour party conference, is always a comedy review, taking the Mickey outta the Labour party. Cause of course we enjoy mocking ourselves more than the opposition, but I mean, that’s partially true. But when I do jokes about what it’s like to go to boring meetings, you know, and sit there and have the one pedant sort of saying, point of order, madam chairman people laugh and go, I’ve been there, mate. Yeah. I know we’ve got one of those in our ward or in our constituency. People love that and it makes them feel part of something and it makes them feel like they belong, and I think it’s part of… It helps with identity and sort of self worth when you all feel like you’re sharing that experience together,
Paul Boross (47:56):
We’ve reach a part of the show, John, which we like to call quickfire questions.
New Speaker (48:00):
*Musical Sting* Quick Fire Questions.
Paul Boross (48:05):
Who’s the funniest business person that you’ve met.
Paul Boross (48:09):
I suppose this is a bit of a cheating answer, but Jimmy Mullville is a businessman now, I suppose, because he runs Hat trick productions and always has done, but he started out as a performer and writer. And I suppose he’s carried that across into his work running Hat Trick. So he’s someone that’s very good, fun to be in the company of, he’s very funny and very quick and witty, but he’s actually running this major television production company responsible for so many of the comedy shows in our lifetimes. So yeah, Jimmy Mullville will be right up there but then maybe I’m cheating because he’s probably comedy first business second.
Paul Boross (48:48):
No, no, I do think Jimmy is very, very funny. What book makes you laugh?
John O’Farrell (48:54):
I will say I was on a BBC radio four programme and they said, what’s the funniest book ever written? And they, one of them said, well, I think Nicholas Nicklby, and somebody else said something else, like Finnigan’s Wake or something. And I just read Frank Skinners memoir. And I just said, that is Frank Skinner’s memoir is so my much funny than those. And because it’s by this sort of working class comic, you are sort of not even counting it, but it’s hilarious. And his account of losing his virginity is the funniest and the grimiest thing you’ll ever read. Yes, so I would put that up there as one of the funniest books I’ve ever read.
Paul Boross (49:25):
What film makes you laugh?
John O’Farrell (49:28):
I grew up loving Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Life of Brian and things like that. Now, then I, um, and then I loved all the sort of Police Squad type stuff, things like Groundhog Day. I still love Billy Wilder and we’ll watch those again and again,
Paul Boross (49:49):
Taking a quick shift to the other side, what’s not funny?
John O’Farrell (49:55):
Certain things you just don’t do jokes about, you know, and when I was writing topical comedy there’d be a story and you’d go, I just think this is, do not enter this subject is too grim or too recent to do comedy about. And when I worked on Week Ending, they used to have this bloke we’d ring up who’d do a poem about the IRA bomb going off in Enniskillen, or you’d have it about a horrific thing about some animal torture thing that had been uncovered vivisection or something. People aren’t gonna laugh at a load of being tortured Elap, so don’t go there. Don’t do a joke about it. I would include recent murders, rape is not funny, violence against pretty well anyone is not funny. As I got older, I’ve got more and more sort of like not willing to do jokes about any sort of violence, particularly with the way that sort of politicians have started to become victims of violence themselves. So there are things that I just think, no, steer clear that it’s not worth it. I don’t tweet about them, even joking about wanting to slap Boris Johnson, because I don’t even wany to think you want to cross that line of talking about physical violence.
Paul Boross (51:14):
What word makes you laugh?
John O’Farrell (51:16):
When I was a little boy, the word gerkin used to make me burst out in hysterics and I learned that, you know, I suppose then that I learned that the K word, it just has a sort of resonance that all those Anglo Saxon swear words all end with K and that’s very helpful. You do learn that there are words to put on the end of a sentence, which are just naturally funny and the opposite applies so that when I would… For some reason it’s funny to say, he was a sales rep from Kettering. It’s more interesting than he was a sales rep from Islington for example. So certain place names that are funny, there are the M 25 used to get a laugh just saying the motorway used to get a laugh But the opposite applies. I remember when I was writing for Clive Anderson on his show – I used to write his monologue. And there was story about I think it was a nuclear test that the French were doing at Mururoa Atol. And there’s no way you can put the word Mururoa in a punchline. You just can’t say it even, it’s got so many vowls, but I tried to write this punchline. That was, yes. Well, tell that to the French at Mururoa. It’s like, no, it’s not gonna happen, John, you can’t. do it So, you know, if they’d been doing it, at the Balearics. Tell that the French at the Balearics, that would’ve been great. Sounds funny. So it’s a weird science, but changing, the place name, changing the surname of a character, these things can all affect the balance and the impact of a joke just from consonants and the balance of them.
Paul Boross (52:51):
It was, wasn’t it Neil Simon, who originally wasn’t it in The Sunshine Boys? Was that Ks are funny.
John O’Farrell (52:57):
Ks are funny. Poughkeepsie yeah. He’s stuck in Poughkeepsie. Yeah. Yeah. Ks are funny. It’s is fascinating, isn’t it? And maybe every language has its own rules like that, but yeah,
Paul Boross (53:09):
Well then Polish should all be funny then shouldn’t it?
John O’Farrell (53:12):
Yeah. Yeah. There was bloke I knew who used to write the gags for Noel Edmonds and some family were coming on as contestants on his show and he said to them before the show, what is it that you do? And he goes, oh, I do all the signage on the… and the streets furniture and things like the traffic bollards and he went, oh, great. Just say, when the Noel says, what do you do? Just go, “bollards” and then he can go. “I only asked”, so they went, okay, so just practise this. What do you do for a living? Bollards. Great. So live on TV. Noel Edmonds says the bloke. So what do you do for a living? Well, I do all the street furniture and all the signage. It’s like, Noel Edmonds is ready to go, I only asked! Bollards. Bollards is funnier than street furniture.
Paul Boross (54:02):
Yeah, Always. Yeah. Is there a sound that makes you fat of interest?
John O’Farrell (54:07):
I suppose a swanny whistle is funnier than a scream or a baby crying. I think sort of that sort of comedy of the sort of, you know, The Phantom Raspberry Blower. I feels a little bit easy for me.I dunno, is there a sound that makes me laugh there probably is. I can’t of it off the top of my head, Paul, but maybe whoopie cushion at a cabinet meeting would get a giggle. I don’t know, so I suppose context is, everything so inappropriate, inappropriate things is funny. I mean, I was on another podcast the other day and somebody said, what’s the something that you miss. And I went laughing when you’re not allowed to laugh. And that’s the best thing when you were at, at school and you got the giggles and it was a really serious teacher, the suppressed laughter is the funniest thing in the world. And I’m sort of sad. I’m never in situations anymore where you get to do that. Now I’m allowed to laugh. I’ve been working in comedy, I’m supposed to laugh, but that feeling you have on standing on stage on school speech day, get the giggles. There’s no better feeling
Paul Boross (55:08):
Actually, just as an aside, Ainsley and I were invited to World Commonwealth Day at Westminster Abbey. And we were placed right opposite the whole of the Royal family, the last time, the whole of the Royal family together. And it was the ultimate laughing in church beacuse we went together, two comprehensive school boys just giggling and our shoulders were going up and down. (I love it) at the ridiculous of it.
John O’Farrell (55:36):
Yeah. It’s like being back at school. Fantastic. Yeah. I mean laughing in church. I was at my cousin’s christening. My daughter was two years old and the vicar was giving long speech and she was lying on the floor in between the pews and just went. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Whatever. And just to see all the shoulders going up down in front of me was a joy to behold. I was thinking I can see from their body language, how much laughter is being suppressed in this room. And it’s the thing I remember most about that day. Of course.
Paul Boross (56:05):
Oh, wonderful. Wonderful. What a lovely image. Yeah. Would you rather be considered clever or funny?
John O’Farrell (56:11):
I suppose funny. I I’d like to be considered both and I try to be both, I suppose. I don’t think I try and be clever, but I try and be thoughtful. yeah. Funny. I suppose it shows you how shallow I am. It probably proves that I’m not clever actually that I’ve given you that answer.
Paul Boross (56:29):
And finally, John Desert Island Gags, you can only take one joke with you to a desert island. What is it?
John O’Farrell (56:38):
I think I’ll take the wide mouth frog joke because it has a bit of performance in it, it doesn’t offend anybody. It’s got a great switch in the reveal and a little bit of funny performance at the end of it. So if your listeners don’t know the wide mouth frog joke, well maybe they should Google it or something. I’m not sure I can do it now on live on air. But that’s a an old classic that’s been funny throughout my life.
Paul Boross (57:10):
It’s quite visual, but it’s a perfect gag to take with you to your desert island, John O’Farrell. Thank you for being a wonderful guest on the Humourology podcast.
Paul Boross (57:19):
I’ve enjoyed it. Paul always good fun to talk comedy
Paul Boross (57:23):
Humourology podcast was hosted by Paul VBoross 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 review, wherever you get your podcasts. This has been a Big Sky production.