Part of the Humourology series
Season 1, Episode 14
John Sweeney – Letting Laughter in when Life gets Dark
John Sweeney joins Paul Boross to discuss how a sense of humour can bring you through troubled times. Throughout decades as a war correspondent and investigative journalist, Sweeney shares the saving power of a smile.
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On this week’s episode of the Humourology Podcast, Paul Boross is joined by award-winning investigative journalist John Sweeney. Sweeney shares story after story of how humour can help you through the horrors of war.
“The weird things about war is the comedy of it.”
How can a sense of humour bring you through horrific moments of human suffering? Join us this week on the Humourology Podcast to hear what Sweeney has to say.
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The Humourology Podcast with John Sweeney
John Sweeney – Letting Laughter in when Life gets Dark
– The following podcast contains quite a bit of explicit and slightly fruity language.
If you’re listening to this somewhere where you have young children, you might want to pop in your headphones.
Now on with the f**king show.
– A sense of humour is kind of the engine oil of doing stuff in dark and difficult places, and it’s my shield.
– 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. Humourology is the study of how humour can dramatically improve your business success 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 episode of the “Humourology Podcast” is a multi-award-winning investigative journalist, writer and presenter, who describes himself as old school. He’s considered fearless, and seems to happily go where other journalistic angels fear to tread. He becomes transformed into a Power Ranger in the presence of the connected trying to shut ordinary people up, and has created an extraordinary career by speaking truth to power. He has covered wars and revolutions in more than 60 countries and somehow manages to retain his droll sense of humour in the face of fiends, fundamentalists, and the fragility of life. His relentlessness and acerbic wit has enabled him to rattle a few cages, ruffle a few feathers, and run rings around the wrong’uns. John Sweeney, welcome to the “Humourology Podcast”.
– Hi, hi, Paul. Pleasure to be here. It’s fantastic to listen to all that alliteration.
– I thought you might spot that.
– I don’t understand Humourology, I don’t think it works, and goodbye.
– This has been the best and shortest podcast we’ve ever done. Hurrah! Well, I said in the introduction that you’d been in 60 wars and revolutions. How important is a sense of humour in those situations?
– Weirdly, it’s very important, and I actually feel really quite evangelical about this. It’s 1994 and I’m a reporter for “The Observer,” and there are a small number of Bosniak, Bosnian Muslim, their kind of settlements, which were almost overrun by the Bosnian Serbs, effectively under the sway of the Serb strongman, Slobodan Milosevic. One of them is a place called Bihac, and with difficulty, we arranged, with the help of the, it was actually the French Foreign Legion working as part of the UN would escort us down this terrifying mountain track, down to Bihac, so we could talk to the people there. How are you doing for food? Has the hospital run out of oxygen? That kind of journalism. Essentially, we’re in a car driven by a French aid worker, and it’s a tiny Renault 4, or something like this. French aid worker. French, it was a lady and another lady in the front, and then me and this other guy, who I’ve never met before. We’re in the back. We’re driving down this road, and then the Serbs start shooting at us, and the consequence is that we are, front and back, are big, massive French Foreign Legion army transporters, and as the bullets start flying, they put their lids down, so they’re secure. But we’re in what they call a soft skin. I mean, if one of these bullets lands, we’re in trouble. The driver who’s good, but you can feel her fear. I mean, there is a bit of snow, but it’s snow going to mud. So a bit slippery and she’s trying a hunch down while driving because you can hear the bullets crack, and it’s very fucking frightening. I can swear, can’t I?
– And the guy sitting next to me says, “I know who you are. “You’re the bloke who fell asleep in the Devereux’s strawberry pavlova.” And I said, “Yes, yes, that’s embarrassing. How did you hear about that?” And basically there’s this wonderful bloke called Sean Devereux, who was a fantastic aid worker for UNICEF. He got shot dead in ’92 in Kismayo, in Somalia. And as an “Observer” reporter, I didn’t know Sean, but his family are lovely. Jerry Devereux, his father, and Maureen, the mum, and I wrote a piece for the “Observer Magazine”, about what a hero Sean was, which got turned into a TV drama. So to thank me, Jerry and Maureen invited me and the photographer, who had done the original story, round for dinner. Jerry used to be the number one air steward for British Airways. He used to serve the Queen. Doesn’t drink much. The Duke of Edinburgh doesn’t drink much. The Queen Mum drinks like a fish. He had a drinks trolley. He had a drinks trolley, and the moment I finished my glass of chardonnay or whatever, he would top up, like you were in first class. And the thing is, I’m a drinker, and also, to be honest with you, although this was a celebration of our piece, which led to this lovely dramatisation of their son’s heroism, it was also fundamentally unbearably sad. And the combination of this kind of speed drinking, which I can do, and the sadness of it, and also I think I’d just come back from somewhere dark. I don’t know where it was. But I fell asleep, and I fell asleep as pudding arrived, and I crashed into the strawberry pavlova with glasses covered in meringue. And they left me there for a while, and then I woke up. I was like, “Oh God, I’m terribly sorry,” and Roger, The Observer photographer, said, “What the fuck are you doing, Sweeney? You’ve fallen asleep.” Like anyway. So this story’s fucking haunting me. I’m going down the road, we’re all about to die, “You’re the bloke who fell asleep in the Devereux’s strawberry pavlova.” I’m kind of infamous in the UNICEF family for being the terrible journalist. And I said, “It’s true, I’m terribly sorry,” and then the French women in the front. So anyway, what’s? I’m going to try and say, “What are you laughing at?” Blah blah blah blah. And we kind of in bad French and English, we explained the story and they start laughing. And the ghost of Sean gets us all the way down that mountain. And when we get down to the bottom, the French Foreign Legion guys they’re really worried about us. Are we okay, were we shot, were we afraid. When we get out of the car, we’re laughing. We’re laughing so much, I’ve got my flak jacket on inside the thing and I can’t. I’m laughing so much I fall over and I can’t get up because I’m laughing so much. And we sit there, we lie there like kind of beetles the wrong way round, flapping, our legs and arms flapping ’cause we’re laughing so much. Laughing ’cause we’re still alive. That’s nice. Laughing ’cause the memory of me falling asleep in the Devereux’s strawberry pavlova, but what’s weird about this is it’s not weird. And when you meet proper soldiers, proper airmen, and proper sailors who do their stuff, that you know that one of the weird things about war is the comedy of it. And that you can have in terrible, terrible dark moments. you can have tremendous moments of humour and hilarity. And another thing is that if you’re in a car and you’re joking with each other and there’s something wrong or you’re worried about something, you can express it in the context of a joke or a jokey conversation. So you communicate better. And so all my time when I was working on stories are like Scientology or the Russian secrets state spying on us all the time, I would always want to work with people who had a great sense of humour and we bantered all the time. They take the piss out of me all the time because I’m an arrogant prick. And they actually say, “You’re an arrogant prick, John, that’s a problem.” And, therefore, if there’s something somebody’s seriously worried about or anxious, then you say it in that context and then information moves around. So of a sense of humour is kind of the engine oil of doing stuff in dark and difficult places. And it’s my shield.
– So it opens up the lines of communication as well. But is it also the aspect of that’s the ultimate bonding tool, isn’t it? So you get to trust people through it.
– Yes, and I completely. I don’t trust people who don’t have a sense of humour and a willingness to be mocked. Psychopaths, people like Trump, hate humour because of that. There’s one of my heroes in life and I’ve never met him, but he wrote this tremendous book about cults. His name is Professor Robert Lifton, and he was an American. One of the things Lifton writes in his book about cults and the authoritarian totalitarian mindset is that the tolerance of humour, tolerance of mockery, is something that the totalitarians don’t do. A sweet example of this is that British propaganda in 1939 was dreadful. It was too stiff and too boring. And a clever, really funny film director said, “We want to do a film.” And this guy came away and said, “Well, how about this?” And it’s the SS marching to the tune of the Lambeth Walk. And what you have is five seconds of them marching. And then it goes dah, dah, dah, dah, dah, dah. And then they go backwards and then forward and everybody laughed and everybody loved it. And also you’re taking the piss out of tyranny. So it’s a simple rule of my life that whenever you come across somebody who doesn’t do a sense of humour, there’s a problem. With Scientology, I’m working with two wonderful BBC colleagues, Sarah Mole, my producer, and Bill Brown, Northern Irish cameraman. By the way, BBC Northern Irish cameraman means tough as old boots because they’ve really, really, really, really, really been in the mill. And if it’s a riot, you think, crikey, this is a riot. They say, “No, you should see the Falls Road.” And I’m like, “Okay, okay.” So there is nothing that I can do that’s worse than what Bill’s been through. Sarah’s really funny. She’s from Essex. And her plan is simple. She said, “Here John, you’ve seen “Jurassic Park,” ain’t ya? And I said, “Yes, I have.” And she said, “Yeah, in it there’s this bit where they tether this goat and then the T-Rex comes and gets it. Well, John, Scientology they’re the T-Rex and you’re the tethered goat. You can bleed, can’t ya?” And that was the plan and it worked beautifully, and all we had to do was carry two cameras with us at all times. A little camera with batteries, which we could switch on instantly if Bill’s big camera wasn’t working for some reason. So everywhere we went we had two cameras as a policy. Everywhere we went, I had two sound packs on me. So if one set of batteries went down I had the other. It made going to the loo a fucking nightmare because I had to, basically I was like electricity, a small electricity substation I had so many batteries on me but it meant that never once were we screwed. We go into battle with the Church of Scientology. And it was the funniest film I’ve ever made because they’re so fucking nuts, and also humourless about themselves. And what was strange was that we were dealing all this time with this guy, Tommy Davis, who I ended up screaming at and shouting at. I had to apologise. It’s wrong to lose your temper, but they drove me nuts. And I can remember saying to Sarah on the 7th day. I said, “Sarah, I can’t do this anymore.” And she said, “Shut up and get on with your job.” Anyway, in the middle of all of this, there’s a point when I said to Mike Rinder, the other PR man for Scientology, “Can we interview your pope?” This guy called David Miscavige. Another humourless bastard in my view. They say that I’m a bigot, blah, blah, blah. He goes, “No, John.” And I said, “Why not?” “Because you’re an asshole.” We were filming. We filmed everything. We’ve got so much stuff, we don’t need to put everything in. And Sarah and Bill just stopped. They put the cameras down and started laughing so much. And then Sarah started saying, “So the reason you won’t give us an interview with your pope is because John’s an asshole?” And Mike Rinder said, “Yes.” I said, “I can understand that’s right.” “Yeah, you are an asshole, John.” And she took the piss out of me. And Bill took the piss out of me. And there’s a moment when I could see that Mike found this distressing because we were a good gang and in a good gang, you can take the piss out of people. And eventually he, after that film, he left the Sea Org and three years later, he sat in the chair opposite me having left the Church of Scientology and said it was one of the moments was when Sarah and Bill started taking the piss out of me that he thought he could never do that inside Scientology.
– So he actually saw the relevance of being able to put the joke on yourself. How important do you think that is to be able to laugh at yourself essentially?
– It’s crucial for good wellbeing. Also, it makes life more fun.
– Do you think that because my father was brought up. My father was Hungarian, brought up under the totalitarian regime and he said exactly the same thing. You couldn’t laugh at- That he escaped in ’56 and they hated the laughter. Do you think that one of the things that was the downfall of Trump was that the Lincoln Project actually used humour against him? Do you think that had an effect?
– Yes, I think it has a massive effect. And Trump and Trump’s people couldn’t retaliate with a good joke.
– He didn’t have anybody in there who could-
– There was nobody inside his world who could say, “No, come on, we can fight back with this.” And I thought that the Lincoln Project were phenomenal in doing that. But I’m also, I mean, I’m always on the side of the people with the best jokes. They may not always win. Trump won in 2016, but the Hilary was a bit boring as well. Biden is more fun. And Biden got this reputation with Obama of sneaking in jokes and we haven’t seen it on display much, but I’d put money on it that Biden is more fun to be around with than Trump. I met Trump in 2013 and I challenged him about his friendship with a Russian born gangster called Felix Sater. And Sater had been, he’d been to prison for stabbing another. He was in Wall Street and he got into a row with this other guy, and he broke off his margarita glass and shoved the broken stem of it in this guy’s neck. And the guy had 110 stitches in his neck. And I say to Trump, “Listen, why didn’t you say to this guy Felix Sater you’re connected with the mafia, you’re fired?” And Trump said, “Well, maybe you’re thick, John.” And he gets up and walks out, and he offers his hand and I refuse to shake it. My picture on Twitter is of Trump putting his hand out to me, standing up, looming over me and I’m sat down my hand flat at him saying, “No, I’ve got one more question.” Which was why did you buy your concrete from Fat Tony Salerno? And by the way, there’s a clue folks. Fat Tony was a crime boss for the Genovese crime family, but also related to the Gambino crime family. His concrete was dirty and the concrete of Trump Tower was Fat Tony’s. There’s one more thing I want to say before I forget it, which is I’ve seen some terrible things in the world, but it’s always when things are in the dark and humour, at least some of the time, can help shed light and can also get you through those dark things. So there’s a particularly gruesome example. Actually both examples are gruesome. I did in ’88, as a young freelance reporter for The Observer, before I got my job, I went to Rwanda Burundi and there was a small series of massacres. Nothing like as dark as the ones that happened in ’95. And we knew there was a mass grave, but there was an army roadblock. And these guys with guns were preventing us, media from France, from Belgium, from Britain to see the evidence of their war crimes. And I was so inexperienced and, again, an arrogant prick that I wouldn’t take no. And there’s like 12 journalists, but I’m the guy and I go for the, I think, Burundian officer and I go for him. Big time. And I win the argument. They let us through. But as we go through, I get in the car, somebody’s given me a lift ’cause I’ve got no money, I’m freelance, I’m on my own. And this Belgian reporter says, “You remind me of John Cleese in “Fawlty Towers.” Thank you very much, fuck you. But no, he said, “Well done.” Well, like John Cleese. And it’s kind of embarrassing, but anyway, I was and I can be. Anyway, we got there, we took the pictures, we talked to some people. You could smell the mass death and we found some bones. And basically, there was enough for us to tell the authorities go and hunt, find this place. We got enough. Not a crystal clear story, but a sense that something very dark had happened and we had some evidence. So we had to get out of there before we joined the bones. And as we drove away, it was a car full of good people, good reporters, four of us, five of us, and we’d seen something fucking awful and we know that we haven’t seen the half of it. And as we’re driving it starts to rain and it’s been raining and our wheels pass some poor African guy. And there’s a huge puddle. The roads are shit and we soak the poor guy in this puddle. And we all start laughing in a kind of embarrassed way. We’re laughing ’cause it’s funny because the guy’s wet, but it’s not the end of the world and we’re laughing ’cause there’s some emotional release. And then I find myself singing, “Dem Bones, Dem Bones, Dem Dry Bones.” So what do you do? I mean, listen, there’s not a psychiatrist around for about 1,000 miles. There’s nothing we can do, but we’re taking the piss and it’s a shield. It’s a shield. Your dark sense of humour is a shield. And again, I talked to coppers, fireman, ambulance people, soldiers, you know? Yeah, you see terrible fucking things and you have to deal with them in some way. Doctors, too, nurses, the same. You’ve got to remember a dark sense of humour. It’s your fucking shield and hold on to it.
– I love the idea that it’s your shield because I do think that, I mean, if you can laugh at a problem, it diminishes.
– It gives you a bit of a moment of humanity, of ordinary stuff, and so it helps you deal with it. You have to deal with it. It’s not like, it doesn’t cure it, but it helps you deal with it. And having a dark sense of humour is a shield and no one should be ashamed of that.
– I used to train doctors at Guy’s, King’s and St. Thomas’s and the surgeons had some of the- They had to deal with awful things constantly. And that gallows humour was always present. But you need that, but it’s a release. And also, it does change. As a psychologist, I can tell you it changes the brain chemistry. So it allows- Of course, you’re going to get sort of aftershocks when it comes and hits you. But actually the important thing is it also gives you perspective and you can come out of that moment. And the big problem happens when you get narrowed into that and that’s all you see. And what humour does is it drops a little pebble. So let’s you see something wider.
– Last year, we tried to do a “Panorama” into the far right, a guy Tommy Robinson, and one of his people who’d fallen out with him, and what she said was that she’d fallen out with him and his online hate mob had come for her and they’d threatened her with an acid facial. And I couldn’t believe that somebody who would return to the source of that level of threat, but that’s what happened. She was a bit like Nancy in “Oliver Twist.” She knew Bill Sikes was a bad man, but she was still a bit in love with him. And basically she secretly filmed me and I was doing my job as a reporter, which was to win this person over and give us an interview. I can’t give her any money, but I can, do you want a drink? Have another drink. She said, “Let’s have brandies. Let’s have lemon cellos, blah, blah, blah, blah.” And I looked like a dickhead and I was a dickhead and I was foolish and I was conned, but I was conned in the context of somebody talking about acid attacks on them or threats of thereof and that’s outside my human experience. And so I’m in trouble, and the BBC hit me with, they’re trying to get rid of me. I’m in such trouble that the union, The National Union of Journalists said, “Well, have you ever had PTSD, post-traumatic shock disorder?” I said, “well, yes.” Anyways. “Well go see a psychiatrist.” It’s one of the worst moments of my entire life. And there’s been quite a few of those. You’re sitting in a kind of a waiting room. There’s a couple of other nutters there too, but they’re looking at me because I’m a bit famous ’cause I’ve been on the telly. And I think what are they in for? And it’s super depressing. It’s like a clap clinic without the previous. And fuck, Christ, and I’m super nervous. And I go in, meet this guy. He’s a psychiatrist, I’m a fucking nutter. I’ve never done this before in my life. And he looks at me and he said, “Before we start, Mr. Sweeney, I just want to say I really liked your film on Scientology.” So he says, essentially, I’m suffering from work-related stress and therefore, the BBC can’t sack me full stop. The BBC hire a professor of psychiatry to check me out, to check out my psychiatrist. And I go and see the professor, and the professor, I get in and I sit down and he said, “Before we start, I just want to say I really enjoyed your film on Scientology what do you want me to write?” So I also think that not only is humour a shield, but it can also help you and also you shouldn’t- So that I have never been anywhere where there hasn’t been a joke around. And Primo Levi wrote this. This wonderful book, “If Not Now, When?” about the Holocaust in which he said even in Auschwitz people laughed. So the two professors carrying the shit waggon to and from the cesspit or whatever in this worst of all places, they still entertained each other with their own sense of humour, which kept them above the inhumanity all around.
– One of my favourite books, “A Man’s Search For Meaning.” Do you know the Viktor Frankl book has sections in where people are surviving based on humour. And one of the things he comes to the conclusion of is that actually he thought as a psychologist going in there that he could tell who was going to survive and who wasn’t. And he was looking at sort of strong people who seem to think, but actually a sense of humour and some meaning in your life was more important to survival and you’ve never read it, I’ll send it to you as a book ’cause I think it’s one of the most astonishing books there is.
– When you’re working in awful places you’re going to know big, tough people. I’m not interested in those. I’m interested in small, slightly shy people who said, “What about this?” And you think that’s interesting, I’m interested in that. Also people who are not afraid to challenge me because I’m both a big bloke and also I have a monstrous fucking ego, but I always like it when members of my gang, my team, say, “But John, you’re talking bollocks.”
– But there’s the key, do you see? The fact that you can go, “I’ve got a monstrous fucking ego” means that your ego can’t be out of control and is checked by yourself at times because you’re telling people this. So you’re introducing the fact that I like to have this checked at the door. So you’re giving permission and I think for people who are leading teams, this is important. This is important that you open that door for people, that you humanise the whole thing.
– Last May, crikey, my cousin, Paul Sweeney, died of COVID. He’s 74. He loves a drink and he’s 19 stone. And so he’s very, very heavy and I say to his widow, my family are from Birkenhead, though I moved around. So I said, “I’m coming.” And I took Paul’s daughter, Rachel, who lives in London, and we drove up together, masked up and we go to his funeral and Sweeney family funerals are kind of orgies of drink and hello, how are you and all those kinds of things. And this is the most miserable Sweeney family funeral I’ve ever been to because we’re wearing masks. There’s no wake, we’re not staying in hotels. I’ve got to drive four hours back to London. Da, da, da, da, it’s grim. The service is beautiful. But the funeral blokes, they’re a bit small. They’re not big enough. And I know Paul’s a big guy, 19 stone. And anyway, they drop him in the fucking grave. They drop the coffin. And his widow goes, “Ah!” And it’s awful and we’re all hidden behind our masks and the funeral director lady has got a wonderful Scouse sense of humour. “I heard that Paul had a lovely sense of humour and I think he might’ve enjoyed his last ride.” And then suddenly this ghastliest, the most ghastliest funeral of all, turns into what he would have fucking enjoyed that too. And then they righted the coffin. And then we found our humour and our humanity again. I take my the hat I’m not wearing off to this lovely funeral director for having the kind of moral courage, the moral courage, to seize that moment and crack a joke in that dark moment and transport us back into a memory of Paul’s love of life.
– And the instinct to do it. I mean and the bravery actually. Yeah, it’s instinct and bravery together. What makes you laugh? I mean, ’cause you’re telling wonderful stories about sort of incidents. Do you laugh at regular comedy? Do you laugh situations?
– Oh yeah. So comedy, I mean, what is comedy? It is, I think, an animal thing. My dog’s got a sense of humour probably better than my own, but it’s a moment when you think you’re being led down one track and suddenly the tracks jump. We’re all about to die going into a Bihac pocket. We’re being shot at, and then suddenly you’re the guy who fell asleep in the Devereux’s strawberry pavlova. And that’s a jumping of track and that’s that. What you do is this lovely animal reaction, human reaction. You through your neck open to the enemy, you admit some measure of defeat. But in doing that, you’re bonding with people. So in Russian, I’m a stupid dwarf. Now, I’m 5 foot 11 and big. And the moment you say that to a KGB guy with a gun pointing at you because you’re in Chechnya and you shouldn’t have been in Chechnya and you might be a terrorist and the guy’s thinking about killing you. And the first thing I put my hands up and I said, “Hello, I’m a stupid dwarf.” “No, you’re not a stupid dwarf.” And then you go . It’s a joke, but not a funny one. And then you’re in a different place. The moment you’re most afraid you crack a joke and the shared humanity of humour builds a bridge with somebody who’s fundamentally, who feels fundamentally opposed to you and that can give you a break. So I’ve got two grown up kids now, Sam and Molly, and Molly’s developing as a young playwright. She also works in the charity sector. My son works with Barnardos. He’s a social worker and he’s done some difficult stuff with special needs kids who can be difficult and aggressive, trying to teach them to read. The family team, because the family historically it’s from Birkenhead, the family team is Tranmere Rovers and he was teaching at a special school in South London. “Which team do you support, sir? Which team do you support? Chelsea, is it Chelsea? If it isn’t Chelsea, why isn’t it Chelsea?” And Sam looks them in the eye and goes, “I support Tranmere Rovers and have you got a problem with that?” Which is a great line. He was working with kids who ended up in gangs. Many of them, Black kids in South London gangs and the policy is rather than approach them in court, magistrate or crown court, if they’re sick in hospital, that’s when you say, “Can we help you change your life?” So his thing was to go, and he’s a nice posh, middle White. He’s not that posh and he’s probably not that nice, but he’s a middle-class White kid and he’s starting out as a social worker. He’s also an amateur boxer. And he worked out that when he was sparring and he got a black eye, his hit rate of recruiting these gang members away from gang life went up because he’d just go in and they go out, “What about, what’s with the black eye?” And he said, “Don’t ask, mate, just don’t ask.” And that kind of, again, some bridge through the humour of it. And so what happened was towards the end he started borrowing his girlfriend’s mascara, shh, to touch up and you kind of know, yeah that works, and it works and it’s also a joke and he can tell a joke, but all of that stuff. So I kind of love humour wherever I find it. I seek it out. One of the curses for me of the- I used to love going to comedy clubs and an embarrassing thing for people who go with me is I get picked on. “Oh it’s that John Sweeney You’re the Scientologist, fuck off, et cetera.” I kind of love it. As I love reading the obituaries in “The Times” where you know this fantastic war hero and then is there’s a good obituary there’s a gag at the end or somewhere in the middle where you think, ah, I really would have loved to met this guy. There’s one the other day of a guy, a wonderful United Nations guy called, I think his name was Sir Brian Urquhart. And basically, he was the intelligence guy in the British Army said that Arnhem wasn’t going to work and they fucking ignored him. And Arnhem happened and it didn’t work. And he was a brave guy and he really fought his corner, but he was outgunned and it was very, very difficult time for him. Anyway, 20 years later, he’s in the Congo and he’s having an argument with a French para who’s saying, “You’re just a fucking civil servant and you don’t understand the esprit d’corps of the French Parachute Regiment.” And Brian looked at him and he said in perfect French, “Well, actually in 1943, I started teaching the first free French parachute regiment. So fuck you.” The story was more polite, but you know how it goes and you just think, ah, you know, that’s a bit of. I seek out those moments of humour and the best jokes are told when powerful people don’t want them to told when it takes real courage to tell a joke, and those are those. And this, for me, is the aristocracy of the human soul. The people who have the courage to tell those jokes like the funeral director at my cousin’s funeral who had the courage to seize the moment and tell a joke that can suddenly transform a whole ghastly situation.
– So what would the world be like without humour?
– Not one I’d recognise. Not one I’d want to. The world would be awful without a sense of humour. It’s the thing. I mean, I love stories. You know, there are things which are dark and serious, but at the same time, there’s always a joke. I always, I mean I’ve just- I don’t know if your listeners know, but I’ve just done a podcast about Ghislaine Maxwell.
– Which, by the way, before you even get into it. It is my favourite podcast of the last five years. Listeners, it is just compelling, compulsive and just brilliantly put together. So yes, please check it out.
– The thing with this is it’s a dark subject, but also there are moments of dark humour, which I treasure. And then there’s an old friend of mine, Roy Greenslade, who says- We’re talking about Robert Maxwell, who is Ghislaine Maxwell’s father, who now the point is Ghislaine Maxwell is accused of these terrible crimes. She denies any wrongdoing. Denies the six charges. We’ll have to wait and see until the trial as to what happens in July. So we don’t know, but her father was a monster. No question. I’m talking to old Fleet Street people who talk about this and one of them is Roy Greenslade, former editor of “The Mirror” and a good bloke. And he says, “So I’m on the phone all the time to Kelvin Mackenzie, who’s the editor of “The Sun.” It’s like two Fleet Street editors gossiping over the side of the Fleet Street fence, and Maxwell one day comes in. What’s happening is that Maxwell has got a former copper who’s spying on the phones so that I think Maxwell is listening into these phone conversation secretly and it’s slightly- But Roy doesn’t know that at that moment. And Robert Maxwell, “Let’s phone, Kelvin Mackenzie.” And his normal secretary, who’s streetwise to Maxwell, isn’t there. There’s a replacement. And the replacement is told get me Kelvin Mackenzie. And this is a phone conversation that Maxwell and Roy will have with Kelvin Mackenzie, the editor of “The Sun.” And then there’s a long silence, nothing happens. And this woman, who’s very young, like 18 or whatever. And Roy’s telling the story. He says, “Well, he went, he doesn’t want to talk to you.” “What did he say?” says Maxwell. “Well, I don’t like to use those.” “What did he say? Tell me exactly what he said.” “I don’t want to talk to that fat Czech cunt.” Anyway, that’s the flavour of the kind of stories that we tell in the podcast and the thing I love about it and I love podcasts and I want to do them to the day I die, is that they tell, it’s as close to reality, like if you were to meet me in a pub, I mean, obviously we’ve got lawyers and stuff like that and very smart editors and producers, but essentially, this is unfiltered Sweeney telling a story about Robert Maxwell and then the Epstein stuff as well. Maxwell had a sense of humour. So having a sense, and he could see jokes about himself too some of the time. So having a sense of humour isn’t a foolproof thing to speak to human decency. There are people with a sense of humour who can behave terribly as he did, but essentially it’s a shield against the dark things that happen to all of us from time to time. And it’s a way of, it’s a solve, a salve, do I mean? It’s something that that helps you get through life. And without a sense of humour, I can’t imagine my own life.
– So if you were, somebody asked you to make a business case for humour generally, what would you include in that business case?
– I wouldn’t want to make a business case with humour, but what I would do is I would say if you’re making a speech or pitching something, stick a joke in and stick a joke in at the very beginning because people laugh. Basically I had a wonderful professor of philosophy, Wolfgang Van Leiden, Wolfgang Von Leiden, who was Austrian and Jewish. He was turfed out by the Nazis of the Vienna University in ’38. And he came back in ’45. And he said, “As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted.” But he said, you can only concentrate for half an hour. And then, “In my experience, your bottom becomes numb and thoughts of any interesting kind becomes difficult. So I will talk for half an hour and then we will discuss.” And it was wonderful. But really people are busy. You’ve got two minutes, you’ve got five minutes. And what you’ve got to do is you’ve got to make your pitch, your business proposition, whatever you’re doing trying to grab somebody’s interest for a story, trying to convince somebody that they should sit down and I should interview them. You’ve got two or three minutes. You put a joke in there, straight away. It eases things. So I wouldn’t say here’s a business pitch for humour. I would say that the faster you could convey your own humanity the better, the fastest and cleverest way of doing that to somebody who doesn’t know you is to tell them a joke at your expense. What you’re saying is you can take the piss out of me and the wall won’t cave in. That’s okay. Having every now and then a sardonic sense of humour, good fun. And I can remember one of my bosses at the BBC who I miss, a guy called Andrew Head. He said, “I’m not sure that this line works.” And I said, “Oh, don’t take that out. It’s really funny.” And he said, “Let us be the judge of that, shall we?” And I think I’ve stuck that in, I’ve stole it from him and stuck it in the podcast. If I’m a businessman, I’m not going to lecture them or anything about what they do. I would say that you have a far better chance of winning over your audience, if it’s a difficult audience, if you tell a joke in the first five minutes. It’s not a gag fest, but a joke signals something. It signals that you have a sense of humanity, a sense of humour, and you are willing, you get it that you’re not a superhuman.
– Yeah, it’s a social lubricant. We’re coming to the part of the show that we like to call quickfire questions. We don’t like to call it.
– You’re going to anyway.
– We just do call it that actually to be honest with you. Who’s the funniest person you’ve ever met, John?
– Dalai Lama.
– Oh hold on. You can’t leave that there.
– Sorry mate, no, no, quickfire questions. Quickfire questions. By the way, the person, I didn’t meet him, but Tommy Cooper is my hero, hero, hero. but the Dalai Lama.
– Hold on, you’ve got to tell me why, yes.
– I interviewed him for “The Sheffield Telegraph” in 1983 when I went to see one of my mates in India. I got terrible diarrhoea in the planes and I thought, I can’t, and I had three weeks of my return ticket. And I went up to the Himalayas, I turned the corner and there was the exile home of the God King of Tibet, His Holiness The Dalai Lama, and working as a cub reporter on “The Sheffield Telegraph,” my probation has been extended, I’m in trouble. And I tell lots of lies and I get to see the Dalai Lama. In my rucksack, I have a Robin Day red and white spotted bow tie, which I stick on to do the big interview. Because I’ve run out of money, I’ve got no socks ’cause I’ve worked my way through all the socks. And I asked a couple of very stiff questions and clearly I’m very nervous and not at ease. And the Dalai Lama looks at me and he says, “Why are you wearing a bow tie, but no socks?” And then he laughs and he laughs and he laughs like Sir James in the “Carry On” movies when Barbara Windsor used to pop her bra. And it’s really funny. Rather than having 10 minutes with His Holiness, I had like two hours and I got back to “The Sheffield Telegraph” and wrote three double page spreads. My world exclusive interview with His Holiness the Dalai Lama in 1983 and the phone goes and the news editor listens, puts it down and said, “There’s been a murder in Barnsley. Where’s the fucking Tibet correspondent?” that was the moment I knew I was safe and I might have the future as a reporter.
– What book makes you laugh?
– “Three Men in a Boat.”
– [Paul] Okay.
– Best travel book ever, and the pubs still exist. So I’ve got a canoe and I’m going to, the moment lockdown stops, I’m going to do that book with the wrong way round. I’ll read it backwards, but it’s really funny. “Three Men in a Boat.”
– What film makes you laugh?
– “Some Like It Hot.”
– [Paul] Oh, superb.
– Which I’m going to watch tonight.
– Oh, great.
– Also “Duck Soup,” also “Airplane.” It’s a hospital. What a hospital? It’s a big building with sick people, but that’s not important right now. Great fucking lines.
– Nice beaver. What word makes you laugh?
– I don’t know what unguent means.
– Unguent is an oil, but there’s a kind of unctuous. It’s oil from unctuous. It’s an oil, but it’s kind of, it’s got a smell of Uriah Heep in there somewhere. That kind of creepy and yes, Mr. Sweeney, welcome. That kind of thing.
– I’m going to tilt it to another direction now. What’s not funny?
– Cruelty. Bullying. A crowd against an individual. Those things can be dark and horrible. The lack of pity, lack of empathy, lack of mercy. Humorlessness, that’s not funny. Literally.
– No, that’s brilliant.
– It’s very hard to shoot somebody, to kill somebody that amuses you. There’s a moment in “Homage to Catalonia” where George Orwell is about to shoot a fascist. He’s a sniper and the guy drops his trousers and goes for a crap. And George lifts up his gun. He’s not going to kill a man is going to go to the toilet ’cause it’s so human.
– Would you rather be considered clever or funny?
– [Paul] Why?
– If you consider yourself clever, you might as well join the IQ wankers and I think they’re really stupid. So one of my mates, I mentioned him, Jonathan Gabby, I went to school with him and I used to pinch his math homework at school. And I would get like DF because I was rubbish. And then I’d pinch his homework and get A triple star and he goes to Cambridge, does physics and he’s now a rocket scientist, literally a rocket scientist, but he has a wonderful sense of humour. And then every now and then I was trying to do my son’s homework when he was little. And I said, “Well, what’s the answer. We spend hours and John would just go, “The answer’s nine.” He’s very clever. I’ve got another really clever friend who’s in my podcast who I call, he’s called Ash. I met him in a pub, which is kind of true, but he’s the professor of neuroendocrinology at Oxford University and super, super clever and a great doctor. And he’s got a great sense of humour. We went on a drink one day and he said, “You know, the problem, John, is that if you screw up tomorrow, then all that’s going to happen is you land the BBC in a multimillion pound libel case. But if I screw up, I kill somebody. That’s not good.” But it’s also, so I know clever, truly clever people. Far cleverer than I will ever be and they have a proper sense of their own humanity as well. So I’d far rather be thought of as being funny than clever. And I’m suspicious of people who play clever. Also who play stupid, like Boris Johnson plays stupid, but is clever, but he’s not as clever as he thinks he is and he doesn’t work hard. And if you don’t work hard, however clever you are, you’re effectively stupid because you’ve got to do your homework.
– And finally, desert island gags. You’ve got one gag that you can take with you to a desert island, what is it?
– So me and my first wife, mother of my kids, we had a tiny house in Hackney by a railway line and Sam’s a newborn baby and then there’s a big rat scurries across and it’s terrifying with a newborn baby. She’s sick with worry. We go on the council and these two rat catchers come and they’re great. And they love Tommy Cooper and they come back and they become like family friends. And I think actually, completely separately, I worked for “The Observer” this time, BBC does a documentary about them because they’re so funny. Anyway, they’re great characters and they’re lovely and this guy, one of them. I’m going to call him Terry. I don’t know whether that’s- It was a long, long time ago, but Terry loves Tommy Cooper. And he goes out to Kent a small pub near Canterbury. And it is the annual outing of Kent University’s Tommy Cooper Appreciation Society with 100 students wearing fezzes sat in a pub going, “Just like that. Just like that.” And all I remember is Terry, the rat catcher, while sort of putting down this sort of terrifying rat poison to kill the rats in our tiny home, just going, “John, it was the best day of my fucking life. Just like that. Just like that.” And that celebration of humour over fear is lovely and it sticks. It sticks in my mind. It’s a moment rather than a joke, but I love it.
– You’ll take that moment with you to the desert Island. John Sweeney, it’s been an absolute pleasure and I’m afraid, you know that I couldn’t sort of make a wallflower out of you. You’ve absolutely just given us stories galore, laughs galore and a lot of joy. Thank you so much for being on “The Humourology Podcast.”
– It’s been a pleasure, Paul, and I’ve enjoyed it, but actually I feel a bit kind of emotionally drained so I’m going for a drink. Downstairs, obviously.
– [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.