Part of the Humourology series
Season 1, Episode 21
Comedian Marcus Brigstocke says Improv Yourself!
Comedian Marcus Brigstocke leads with laughs as he explains to Paul Boross on this week’s Humourology Podcast how Humourology and the art of improv leads to learnings that light up your life.
Listen, enjoy and subscribe where you get your podcasts
On this week’s episode of the Humourology podcast, Marcus Brigstocke shares his insights from years of experience on the stage, screen, and radio. For Brigstocke, the key to quality communication comes with a touch of comedy.
“I’d say that the best communicators in the world have to be able also to be funny.”
As a comedic entertainer, Brigstocke knows how important humour can be in getting your message across. He knows that a quality connection between people is what helps move the message.
Brigstocke knows that humility is bred through humour. How can you bring more mirth to your message and profoundly impact plenty of people? Find out this week on The Humourology Podcast.
Find out more about Marcus
Follow Marcus on Twitter
Visit his Website
Follow him on Instagram
Hosts & Guests
Read the podcast
Sometimes we prefer to read rather than listen, so here is a full transcript of the podcast for you to enjoy.
Click to see the transcript of the podcast
Marcus Brigstocke says – Improv Yourself!
– I think there’s something wrong with us and humour is the sticking plaster.
– 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 in 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. Our guest on this edition of the “Humourology Podcast” is a true Renaissance man. He’s one of Britain’s finest comedians and broadcasters as well as performing in the “West End,” in “The Railway Children,” and “Monty Python’s Spamalot.” In front of the camera he’s a regular on TV in shows such as, “Live at the Apollo,” and “Have I Got News For You.” Radio 4 has become his second home with hits such as, “The Now Show,” with Punt and Dennis, and he has written and recorded three series of “Giles Wemmbley-Hogg Goes Off.” His multitude of media credits are all underpinned by an almost magical mastery of mirth. Marcus Brigstocke, welcome to the “Humourology Podcast.”
– What a delightful introduction, Paul, hello mate.
– Hello mate, how are you?
– Yeah, not bad muddling through-
– Good, good.
– Under the circumstances I’d say everything’s great.
– Well, the Jesuit say, ’cause I like to start off with the Jesuit’s as you know.
– Best play.
– “Give me a child of seven and I will give you a man.” Was the young Marcus already interested in humour?
– Yeah, no, I was, I was, yeah. I mean, I had an ability as a kid to remember chunks of script from things that I found funny. So when I first saw, “The Young Ones,” when I first saw “Not the Nine O’Clock News,” and then “Blackadder,” “Blackadder” especially, and then “Robin Williams: Live at the Met,” I could see them once and remember huge chunks of the script. And in terms of my own comedy, yes, I mean, I was able to do impressions and accents, I was able to sort of to see the joke and it was definitely for me a way of sort of getting recognised, having a bit of popularity. I mean, simply put mate, I wasn’t terribly good at anything else. I wasn’t sporty, I wasn’t really academic, I certainly didn’t behave well, but I could make people laugh, teachers included, so yes, it’s always been there.
– Do you think it’s inherent ’cause as a psychologist I’m trying to get to the root of is, do you have to hear the funny, do you have to feel the funny, is it something that’s inherent from a very young age?
– Look, this is a wild stab in the dark, but honestly what I think about that is, no, I think there’s something wrong with us and humour is the sticking plaster. Now, when I say something wrong with us, that needn’t be catastrophic, it needn’t be terrible, or even negative at all, but there’s something wrong with us. I mean, there’s a sort of, there’s a need there, or in my case, for example, I’m dyslexic so I found reading very difficult and I was able, in learning to read, to see words in a rather different way and see that how they stuck together. So puns are always very obvious to me. I also just had a, I had a good ear, I suppose, as I said, for things like accents, but also I had a lot of problems when I was a kid and comedy was a way of not just sort of getting positive attention that I wanted, but also kind of ordering the world and making sense of it so I think it’s inherent in that way. I mean, I know like most of my friends are comedians, and if you scratch the surface by no means all, but I would certainly say most have some stuff going on. You could say trauma if you wanted, but I mean that makes it sound rather more dramatic and negative than I intend.
– Yeah, what I’m interested is from a psychological standpoint because obviously having worked with comedians most of my life, I know that, but I’m wondering if they’re any less, any more sort of traumatised than everybody else, they’ve just found a different outlet for it?
– Yeah, that’s true, yeah, I, they’re certainly not more traumatised than most people. Most people you scratch the surface there’s stuff going on, isn’t there ? Yeah, so it’s interesting, who knows man, who knows? I mean, I don’t, I need to be careful because you and I met properly, I was aware of you, but met properly on this new app, Clubhouse, which is absolutely flooded, amongst other things, with entrepreneurs, but also with magicians. And I don’t really like magic, I never have. I’ve always found the, I’m going to conceal something from you and then we’ll all pretend that we’re amazed, contract, very odd. But where I think magic exists is if you’ve seen say Ross Noble doing standup, or Eddie Izzard doing standup, or anybody, any of the greats, or my wife, Rachel Parris, where something occurs to you on stage that would not have occurred to you anywhere else and this happens particularly in improv where your brain does something extra that you, you know if you asked me to write a lot of the stuff that I’ve improvised on stage, I’m not sure I would ever arrive at it, but stuff happens. And to me it’s genuinely a magic trick, it’s genuinely something was conjured out of the air that didn’t exist before that moment. And I am, I remain, I’m glad to say, despite being a comedian for 20 something years now, absolutely enchanted by it still, I find it magical.
– You talked about being dyslexic when you were growing up, my son was diagnosed dyslexic, and I actually think of it as just a different way of thinking.
– The connections are different and very often better. And it’s-
– It’s only because we go to schools whereby they measure it in a certain way. You know I think that there should be, if you were giving tests for brain connections, and word association, then comedians would score magnificently high.
– Absolutely. Simply put there’s not enough money for school ’cause not enough people pay their taxes so you can’t have a special curriculum for each person that’s in there and in some respects, I can say this with comfort now that it’s all over for me, and the trauma is finished, the fact that there is a set of railroad tracks that you have to stick to when you’re at school and if you think in a different way, or construct language in a different way, or you’re, for example, dyslexic, you’re not going to stick on those tracks. But actually bumping off them, turning off the side, the pain associated with that is also part of what makes your brain work differently and I like that. I really like the fact that I’m dyslexic. I know for sure, whilst I found reading very difficult, and still find spelling and all sorts of things bafflingly difficult, that it does make me look at language construction in a very specific and very helpful way.
– So is a comedy a superpower?
– Yes, yes it is. I genuinely believe it is a super power because it’s unique to human beings for a kickoff. All human beings are capable of it, absolutely. Some of the driest, seemingly humourless people, are more than capable of being hilarious it’s just a question of A, whether they want to, and B, setting up around them their capacity for humour, but yes, it is a superpower. It’s something we can do that will change the people around you. I mean, it literally physically changes people. If I’m on stage and I’m delivering a show and it’s working, and you’re doing what you’re supposed to do, it’s because I’m doing what I’m supposed to do. If I make you laugh you will be physically weakened by that experience, people say helpless. They talk about pissing themselves right? Losing, literally losing control of their body. Other sort of more elaborate, well, I laughed my head off. They’re all to do with the body. So yes, it’s a super power. Creating laughter in other people you’re controlling a room full of people, you’re using a mind trick.
– Well, yeah, and the bizarre thing is from a psychological standpoint is you’re getting people in a darkened room to do an involuntary action.
– Yes, and it’s why among, other than I have an ability for it, and was glad to discover I had an ability it fairly young, but it’s why I love comedy probably above all the other art forms because art is a bit floaty, isn’t it, it’s a bit nebulous, and it’s a bit unknowable. Comedy isn’t, comedy is a transaction. I do a funny thing, you laugh, right? If you’re not laughing I’m not doing my job and I really like how straightforward, and measurable, it is as an art form. So when I’m developing a new show and I go out and I’m trying new material that I know isn’t ready yet, that contract between me and the audience isn’t yet formed, we’re still negotiating. And then when my show is ready to take on tour, for example, I then have a contract with you and stuff can happen, you know, like terrible news can occur, or a particularly bad or particularly hot weather, or a theatre that’s not set up in a playable sense, but broadly speaking if you’re not laughing I’m not doing my job.
– Yeah, yeah, I love that as well, but also what you’re performing is, at a psychological level, state change in somebody else.
– Yes, yeah.
– And so you’re able to actually go, I’m going to take you into a completely different state so whereby maybe your problems are lightened as a result of that.
– Yeah, and state change in myself too. There’s a thing that happens when I step onto that stage that I’m not fully in control of that I really like. I’m not a very technical comedian, I never have been. There’s definitely a state change that exists in me. I operate in a space on stage that I don’t operate elsewhere and my brain works better. I’m quicker, much quicker.
– Well it’s very interesting because in psychological terms we always say that if you want anybody to go into any state you have to go into that state first. So do you find unpacking your humour, do you find that you are, you talked about being a different person up there, you are creating a state that you want the audience to mirror?
– Yes, but I’ve always enjoyed the idea, especially since I started writing a lot of satire, that if you can convey an idea through the medium of comedy it will be remembered.
– And I think that that’s true. I think in the same way that we remember song lyrics, right, and they’re perfectly simple, you know, “Well I heard there was a sacred chord that David played, and it pleased the Lord.” Well, what’s that, I have no idea. It’s a story about someone, who this, what’s that about, but you remember it, it’s pretty simple. And I think that comedy is the same people remember routines, and partly they want to remember stuff. They want to be able the next day to go, did you see, think back to Billy Connolly’s first appearance on Parkinson where he told the…
– Oh god, yeah.
– Parking the bike in-
– You know, burying someone with their bum up so I could park my bike, and everybody the next day, ’cause no one had heard of Billy before then, remembered what he’d done. And obviously that was a story about burying someone with their bum sticking out of the ground, so fine, not satirical, but plenty of other stuff is, you know.
– Well, do you agree with Seinfeld’s take on this, that comedy is the closest thing to justice because if you’re funny you survive, and if you’re not, you don’t?
– Yeah, I guess that’s a more Seinfeld version of my definition of it being transactional. You know, that there’s a deal, there’s a deal made, if you come and see my show I must make you laugh. I can make you cry, I can make you think, I can make you angry, I don’t aim necessarily to do all of those things, but I have done all of those things in tours or shows but yeah, it is, it’s transactional and yeah, there’s justice in there, definitely. You can walk away from a theatrical production and say, “I loved the direction, but I didn’t love the script.” “I loved the story that they told, but I hated the costume,” and blah, blah, blah. And you can certainly say the same about comedy, but really the only thing anybody’s talking about when they leave a comedy show was was it funny or not?
– We both played The Comedy Store, but you know, a room full of Comedy Store people smiling, it’s just about the worst thing that could possibly happen, isn’t it?
– It’s awful, especially if the smile is sympathetic. It’s the worst, it’s the worst, silence is the worst thing. I will take aggressive heckling any day of the week over silence. And these days, with regret, people’s attention spans are arguably shorter, although I say, arguably, and I’m not totally convinced of this. Oftentimes it’s not that their attention span is short, but people are used to sharing anything they’ve enjoyed, right? So a good meal, a good cup of coffee, a nice walk, a dog you own, a cat, a nice outfit, capture it, share it, tell people. And so often now people will resort to their phone and break their engagement with the person on stage and not because they think you’re crap, but because they want to share what they’ve seen with someone else and it’s hard to discourage people from that. But yeah, silence, silence when you’re onstage is by some distance the loneliest place on earth.
– Yeah, I can, I can attest to that.
– So the only place lonelier, than the silence you experienced on stage, is the moment you walk off stage and your friends are in the dressing room and they not only are also silent, they won’t make eye contact with you because you’ve got the stink of a bad gig all over you.
– You talked about you’d rather be heckled, have you had any very memorable heckles?
– Oh yeah, yeah, but mine now exist in a certain context. So I’ve been a member of CND since I was about 15, I’ve never really grown out of it, I sort of had a look and thought, I’m not sure that weapons that can kill that many people at once can ever be used with any precision, or justification, so I thought I’ll be a member of CND. And CND asked me to go on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury to talk about the campaign for nuclear disarmament. And it was roundabout the time Barack Obama was taking office and he was the first President to talk about reducing America’s nuclear stockpile, and I said, “Yeah, fine.” Anyway, unbeknownst to me, they put an act on just before I went on stage and it was a hip hop outfit called, N.E.R.D., Pharrell Williams’ group and N.E.R.D. overran and you can’t overrun at Glastonbury because they’ve, you know, you’ve got the Rolling Stones waiting to come on, so they cut their mics and pulled them off stage and the audience went mental. 60,000 people booing, and chant, N.E.R.D., N.E.R.D., like this, and the stage manager went, “There you go mate, your mic’s live,” and I walked to the front of the stage in front of all people and went, “Hello, I’m Marcus Brigstocke, you may have seen me, or heard me on Radio 4, and I want to talk about the campaign for nuclear disarmament,” at which point in one voice, 60,000 people scream, fuck off. And they were literally, one guy, I remember how he looked, he was sort of wiry thin, like Iggy Pop, he was lifted by his friends in order that I could see how much he hated me. And so I talked for about five or 10 minutes about CND and shuffled off. It wasn’t a gig, you know, I wasn’t really trying to be funny on that occasion, but since then all heckles have existed in the context of, mate, I’ve been booed off by 60,000 people, I mean, this is your, oh, tell us a joke, uh, your mum, it doesn’t, you know, doesn’t amount to much.
– Well, a lot of our listeners are not in comedy so-
– I know it’s shocking. What advice would you give to people about dealing with hecklers, somebody who has to get up and make a speech at a business event, or a wedding?
– This is, this is easy, it’s easier than everyone thinks. So the number of people who ask me, and all of my friends, about a best-man speech, that’s the one, that’s what people come to you for, I’ve got to deliver a best-man speech, what should I do, what should I do? And you go, well, what’d you want to do, and they’ll always tell you the same thing. They’ll always say, I thought I’d get up and call the groom a bit of twat, and then I’d say how many people he’d shagged, and then I’d mentioned the time he crashed his car. And I give them the same advice every time, I say, “Get up at the beginning of your speech and say, tell the audience how much you love the groom.” “Tell them this is my dear, dear friend, and he’s asked me to be his best man and I am so happy to see him here today doing this beautiful thing, marrying someone who he loves, who I’m coming to know, and who I love, and it makes me so happy,” right? That audience will allow that best man to be the least funny human on earth, and I’m talking about someone then trying to be funny, it couldn’t matter less. So the advice is simple, it’s, be nice, be nice. I’m not always nice on stage, but I am when I first come on stage. I’m filled with a genuine love and gratitude for the people who have come to see my show. I am overwhelmed that they might have chosen me. And I’m not, there’s no bullshit here, I mean this, and in fact, it’s something that as over time I’ve actively connected with. I write a gratitude list every day and I do a little gratitude thing just before I go on stage. It makes all of the difference and I would say if in business you have to deliver some sort of speech and you think there’s some expectation, or requirement, that you might have to be funny, be nice first, because if they don’t like you from your first few comments, you’ll never get it back. If you get up and you think it’s fine because you know Janet, who’s introduced you, she’s head of HR and Janet’s introduced, you and Janet go way back and you’ve always had this thing about that she wears the most awful shoes and you get up and you go, “Thank you, Janet, and may I say what an appalling pair of shoes?” Well, as far as the rest of the audience are concerned they’ve just seen a man say something really shitty to someone who they quite liked and they don’t know the context, so don’t do it. Don’t fall for the trap that slagging people off is going to make you popular. Ricky Gervais can do it, he’s already there, fine, leave him to it, you can decide whether you like it or you don’t. Be nice first.
– I think that’s so true and as a psychologist I actually always say to people that I walk into every room when I’m lecturing assuming that everyone is lovely.
– Absolutely, that’s true. I mean, sometimes as a comic, you’re waiting in the wings and you can see that a section of the audience isn’t lovely. You can see the stag who’ve misjudged it and got pissed too early and they’ve shown up and they think that throwing things, or being obnoxious, or talking while an actors on, not heckling, but talking ruining the show for people round them, you can see that they’re not lovely, but there is still a way to engage with those people, you know, there are lots. One is to go on their front foot and rile ’em up and attack them and demonstrate your dominance over them. Fine, it works, but good luck, you need to be pretty proficient to pull that off. Another is, do you know John Maloney?
– Yes, yeah-
– John Maloney.
– Worked with him for 40 years.
– Lives just down the road from me. He’s got terrible political views, I think, but we love winding each other up on that front. John Maloney is an extremely good host for a comedy show. So if the audience gets rowdy, John’s response, most people’s response is to go, now we, blah, blah, blah, blah, get loud, and John’s response is something he learned as a teacher, just go slow and talk quietly.
– Just slow it down. And instead of building the audience up to bring an act on what he does is he says how personally pleased he is that they’re there because this a wonderful comedian and I know you’re going to enjoy them. It’s really skillful stuff and it works so well and it works, the reason I mention it, Paul, it’s operating a version of the same system you just described. He’s like, I know that these people are assholes, of course they are they’re proving it every moment they wreck the show for everybody else. However, I am going to treat them like they’re delightful people who can be reasoned with and very often you’ll find that, you know, that you’re right. And certainly like, of course there are people who do show up to a speech, or an event, or whatever, who want it to fail because they like a train wreck, but there’s something wrong with those people. The vast majority of people who show up to any show, any speech, any event, the speech part of a wedding, already want it to go well.
– That’s the mental attitude you have to have to make it work which is I think a brilliant takeaway for people.
– And for me, just to come back to the gratitude thing, humility is essential. You know, I’m a tall, posh, straight white man, successful in comedy for over 20 years, right, it’s pretty easy for me to be objectionable, all right? So when I play a stage, a tall stage, where the audience is down beneath me, down there, and I’m 6′ 2″, and I’ve got a microphone, I am literally talking down to you so I need to do something to change that system. I need to humble myself, I don’t mean in a fake way, but the best way for me to connect with humility in order to genuinely be likeable, not create some artifice, but genuinely be likeable,’ is find gratitude for the opportunity. Dig into it and go, this is wonderful, isn’t it, isn’t this, this is special, this is really something. Now obviously it’s my job and I love it so that helps, but if I’d say to someone giving a speech in any context, find gratitude for it. Even if it’s the thing that makes you very nervous you can still find gratitude, you’ve been asked to do it for a reason. Someone thought you were special.
– What makes you laugh, Marcus?
– “The Muppet Show” I write, most of what I write, less so these days, I guess, but is satirical, often very angry, politically-charged comedy. The truth is mate, “The Muppet Show” makes me howl with laughter, the absolute screaming absurdity of little foam puppets and how, Gonzo The Great. I remember as a kid I had the record album, I’ve still got it, and Gonzo, on a kid’s show, begins by going “Fans of the occult,” . “I will now eat a rubber tyre to the music of the Flight of the Bumblebee.'” And they play the “Flight of the Bumblebee” and all you hear on the album is Gonzo going and then the music just goes, da-da.
– It’s, you know what, it’s the first time on this podcast that somebody has mentioned “The Muppets” and it’s so right, isn’t it, because it’s sometimes your first entry into comedy is through-
– One of those points. And I honestly, and it’s suddenly reminded me, that I used to love Fozzie Bear and he was a standup, essentially a very poor one.
– But it was kind of like a Henny Youngman in his head, but you know, and the comedians a bear, no, he isn’t.
– No he’s not, he’s wearing a neck-a-tie.
– Neck-a-tie. It’s-
– Yeah. Wonderful, it’s wonderful stuff, it’s magic. Exactly like Tommy Cooper, Fozzie Bear’s laughs come from the failure, they come from-
– You know, so that’s what Tommy did, Tommy always pretended the trick wasn’t going well, or like the joke he had just told was so astonishing to him that he had to laugh at it, yeah.
– He looked to the side in a panic as if something had happened over there, tell the joke, yeah, there it is, and then turn to the side as if, that’s all right, isn’t it, I’m not going to get fired for this one, you know, brilliant, I love that. I love the unbridled joy of it all. I mean, Bill, I remain a big, big fan of Bill Bailey, too. Bill has a delight, a joy in his work that I think is great. More recently “Stath Lets Flats,” a series written and performed by Jamie Demetriou-
– Yeah, it’s quite a series.
– With his sister, that’s tremendously funny. It’s just beautiful stuff.
– Is everyone funny?
– Yes, yes, absolutely. I mean, I don’t, you can laugh at anybody, I mean, laughing with, it’s just a question of finding that point of connection. I mean there are certainly some people for whom being funny is so far back behind so many layers of other stuff that gets in the way that it’s very difficult to find them funny. But yeah, everybody’s funny. I mean, I do think this. I think if someone is, thinking specifically about what you do, so in business if someone is delivering a speech, or similar, or hosting a meeting, or whatever it may be, and they think, I want to be funny, they may have a problem with that. By which I mean it shouldn’t really be the thing that you’re aiming at. You arrive at being funny by doing other things, by listening to other people, by being responsive, by being nice, by being humble, and all the rest of it.
– Yeah, I know that you do a lot of improv with the Comedy Store Players and I used to be, guest with The Players and learnt improv from Mike Meyers at the same time-
– As Neil and Paul and everybody. But you just said the word which I think is the most important thing for anybody trying to be funny, is listening.
– What was that?
– Listening, hey, hello. Sorry, I’ll get me coat.
– There we go. Yeah, of course, of course. And that’s a question, obviously in improv, if you’re on stage with other people of listening to them, listening to, if you’ve asked for a steer from the audience as to where an improv scene might go, listening to that. Listening to the audience as to whether they’re finding what you’re doing pleasing or not. And if they’re not, change.
– But we’re talking about people in in business meetings, or whatever, or interactions with customers, or whatever it is. Actually listening doesn’t just mean with the ears, as far as I’m concerned, really true listening, or listening off the top as it’s called in psychology, is about looking at somebody’s face. People will tell you everything you need to know that when people want to hear more, even if you just think of the eyebrows, the eyebrows go up, oh, I’m interested, I’d like to hear more. If they don’t want to hear more they’ll furrow their brow. Listening is much more of a process and actually one of the things I find with people very, very often it happens, is that people will talk without looking at the other person. They’ll look above them more, to the side, or everything, and that’s not where the information is so you really need to properly engage. The first book I ever wrote, “The Pitching Bible,” the first chapter was called, It’s All About Them, because it is. Any kind of interaction is-
– And that I think is where natural comedy comes from is properly listening.
– Yes, absolutely, absolutely. And from that people always talk about timing, Steve Martin had great stuff on that so good. He used to say, “Comedy is all about tim-ing, timing.” And my favourite of his, “Some people have a way with words, other people no have way” But if you want to talk about listening. So I saw Jerry Seinfeld at the Palladium some years ago. I didn’t love it. I think he’s an amazing comic, but I like a comedian with a little more of their soul on display than Jerry Seinfeld. That’s not to take anything away from him it’s just a taste thing, however, his first joke was magnificent. Obviously that audience went berserk when he walked on stage, because it’s Jerry Seinfeld and you’re at the Palladium, it’s exciting. So we clapped and cheered for ages and he stood very still in front of the microphone and said almost nothing, or said nothing at all rather, until it all hushed down, and then he just said, “You have to admire the Chinese,” and then stepped away from the microphone, huge laugh, because there’s all of this anticipation and tension in the room, and he let that laugh break, and then he stepped forward and went, “I mean, they’ve seen the knife and fork.” And then he stepped back and people say, brevity is the soul of wit, right, so that is the briefest joke you could tell. You have to admire the Chinese, I mean, they’ve seen the knife and fork. Your brain then goes to town on all sorts of fancy ideas about how hard it is to use chopsticks because we’re aren’t used to them, and all the rest of it, but, to come back to your point, what he was doing amongst other things, he decided to tell that joke first and he tells a very ordered routine of jokes, so there’s that, but he listened really, really. So imagine the scenario again, right? Jerry Seinfeld, everyone. “You have to admire the Chinese,” yeah, it’s a mess, it’s a mess, you can’t stop, stop you can’t do it like that. The only way you can do that joke is by listening and waiting and then say it quietly, stop, listen again, and go, obviously I’m making this point because it’s a comedian on his own, apart from the huge audience that’s there, so yeah, listening is essential.
– So what would the world be like without humour?
– Totally, totally, and utterly unrecognisable. Like we wouldn’t, we couldn’t know a world where humour hadn’t occurred to human beings. And I mean, obviously it would be awful, but we’d have no humour to remember so we would not have a context for it. It would be an appalling and bleak state of affairs. I think gallows humour, military barrack humour, and stuff like that, like people always say like the war, the pandemic, you know it’s a pretty rich time for comedy because it becomes more necessary and so comedy, the magic of comedy, the fairy dust of it goes well, I’m needed. And so the magical spirit of comedy makes itself known because it’s necessary in bleak and terrible situations. Anybody who’s loved and known someone who’s dying will have one story about, at least one, about some very funny stuff that took place and it’ll be very personal, probably not funny to anybody else, but it just is.
– You’ve worked in the corporate arena a lot, you’ve been in companies and around, do you think people generally in companies laugh enough? We’ve been lucky to live in the rarefied air of being in show business, but do you think generally in shops, and offices people laugh enough?
– It’s hard to know isn’t it? Henning Wehn is very funny about this, Henning, for anyone listening who hasn’t heard Henning Wehn he’s a brilliant German comedian who learned English in, I think in Penge, he’s from the industrial part of Germany and so his accent is quite, it’s a bit nasal, and also with a touch of Cockney in there. And he says, “We Germans, we enjoy a laugh, but we do it after work, not instead of work,” I’m paraphrasing very badly, his is much, much better than that. I think, yeah, who knows whether people laugh enough in the workplace. I mean, if most of what you do looks like, “The Office,” as in Ricky Gervais’ “Office,” and you’ve got a boss who’s like constantly telling jokes and stuff you’re not going to be very effective, you’re not going to get much done.
– So you could write a business case for comedy being in the workplace.
– Yeah, of course. Yeah, of course you can make a business case for comedy because comedy is an excellent communication tool and businesses that don’t communicate are either warped at their core, because they don’t need to communicate, it makes no difference what they do, or they need to communicate so they may as well do it well.
– Have you ever taken a joke too far and crossed the line?
– Many, many times, many times.
– Is that part of the process? Do all comedians have to push the boundary?
– No, absolutely not. Tim Vine, Tim Vine is Jeremy Vine’s brother, Tim Vine-
– One of the funniest people I’ve ever met in my life. I don’t think Tim has ever pushed, or crossed a comedic boundary in his life, it’s not the way he’s built. And he’s beautifully funny, brilliantly funny. I don’t think Bill Bailey pushes it very hard, I don’t think Rachel Parris pushes it very hard in terms of the line. It depends what you care about, but here’s the thing I think about offence. It’s not to be avoided, it’s only to be avoided a second or third time. All right, I like offence.
– Offence is how I know I care about things. I mean, how do I know what I think about something until I hear a counter opinion and recoil from it and go, you know. If you go back again, and again, and again, and you’re constantly offended, well, what are you doing, stop it. If you’re offended by “The Mash Report,” or “Have I Got News For You,” or me on Radio 4, stop listening, read a book, put another channel on. Who are these people going, oh, defund the BBC because I blah, blah, blah, Nish Kumar was on again, again, blah, and I don’t like him. So shut up, go somewhere else, read a book, open a comic, put another channel, there’s so many places to go. The idea that if you’re offended, the thing you’re offended by is supposed to then stop, is a nonsense. So, you know, then also as someone who makes comedy, you have to decide what you do and don’t want to joke about, I used to have a joke and I won’t defend it, I’ll just explain it. In the very early days of my standup, pre the millennium, I used to end my set, forgive me I was young, I used to end my set by saying, “Thank you so much ladies and gentlemen you’ve been a lovely audience and you know we live in uncertain times as we approach the millennium.” “I think a lot of us are asking questions and trying to work out the right way forward and I would just say this, never forget, Noel Edmonds killed a man, thank you, good night.” And it always would get a warmth and great laugh because it’s true, Noel Edmonds on “The Late, Late, Breakfast Show,” a guy died and you know, it’s a cheap shot, it was just a shock laugh, right, you can get those. I didn’t know any better I was a young comedian. I was in a bar, I was playing the upstairs room of a pub in Winchester and after the show, which had gone great, and that joke had got big laugh, at the end a bloke came up and said, “That was my dad.” And I went, “What?” And he went, “The man that died on “The Late, Late Breakfast Show, that was my dad.” And I just went, “Oh man, I’m so sorry, like I don’t, you know, you write a joke, sort of, it’s not even a joke is it, like half a joke and you think it’s funny and I don’t know what to say, can I buy you a drink?” And he went, “Nah,” and he just walked away and I just felt like, I felt monstrous, I felt awful. And he came back about half an hour later and he said, “You know what, you can buy me that drink.” And we chatted for a little while and I apologised again and it was left okay. I never told the joke again, I’ve repeated it here, and it’s shocking, and da-da-da. I didn’t tell that joke again. Conversely, I’ve done material about those, who in my opinion, either lied, or deliberately misrepresented what Britain might look like if we left the European Union. I’ve also done jokes about people who wanted that, who voted for it, and I’ve offended people and deeply upset people and I’m fine with that, it’s okay. You don’t have to love me, I’d like you to like me, I’d like you to be interested in my work, and I would like to think that if we disagree about Brexit you would still conclude that what I have to say is interesting and funny enough for you to come back. But Brexit went deep with people, really deep. It divided communities and families and it still does and I think for some people it was kind of too much, but I’m all right with that. You know I don’t want to-
– Yeah. Take cheap shots and just go, “If you voted for it you’re thick and racist,” ’cause that’s not true of everybody.
– It is true of some.
– Well, and it also, no, but they, well god, I mean it’s awful to say, but they were manipulated into a way of thinking, which was used.
– And as a psychologist I could see it coming way down the line, it was just emotion.
– Yeah, but there were plenty of people who are very intelligent, more than capable of completely reasonable rational thought, for whom emotion doesn’t normally sway their view of one thing, or another, who still voted to leave for their own reasons and I profoundly dislike the choice they’ve made because it so negatively impacts on my life, and the life of those around me, so there’s that. But it’s no good saying that they’re all thick. You might get a cheap laugh out of it, but. So the line, the famous line in comedy that you should, or shouldn’t cross, it exists in a different place any night of the week. The night that someone dies, someone really famous dies, you can be terrible about that person that night. The second night, you can’t, it’s not on, people have had time to think about it. They’ve had time to consider the loss, the grief, the family, the funeral, the tears, and all the rest. Third, fourth, fifth night, whatever, a week later, probably not, a year later it’s funny again. It’s weird, isn’t it?
– Yeah, it is. And I’ve seen that very often at The Comedy Store, or Jongleurs and it does work in practise.
– Yeah, yeah, absolutely.
– But why is that?
– 100%, well because, because any comedian, or any performer who convinces themselves that what they’re saying, even if they’re delivering a Shakespeare script exists with no context, is being a fool. Everything exists in context, right?
– At the moment, while we record this, there’s a British amount of snow falling outside, right? It’s crap, it’s like enough to inconvenience everybody, not enough to be magical. All right, if there’s a massive amount of snowfall, there’ll be the standing jokes about Britain and snow and how we can’t achieve anything when it snows. If as a result of that snow fall there’s a bus crash and that bus has a bunch of children on it, none of that snow that week is funny, it just isn’t. Jokes about the snow will be tinged by the fact that a bus full of children crashed and a bad thing happened, and that existed. You only had to say, New York, even frankly, America, in the year or two years following 9/11, for there to be in most people’s minds, if you mentioned New York, certainly, that’s where that thing happened.
– Well, I don’t know, I did the song version of “The Aristocrats,” if you remember the film, and the Gilbert Gottfried bit where he’s doing a roast two days after 9/11, do you remember that? And he said-
– Oh yeah.
– “I’m sorry, I’m late, but I couldn’t get a direct flight I had to come via the Twin Towers.”
– And the audience just absolutely go mental and go too soon, no, no, no, and they were, and the way he digs himself out of the hole is to tell the most inappropriate joke he could which is “The Aristocrats”-
– And everything, but I just thought that’s a very clear example of what actually happens about, and context is everything.
– Of course, with comedy, you are looking for consensus. You’re looking for the consensus in the room that what you’ve said is funny, but you’re not really looking for consensus. There are people still who if you said something about Princess Diana, that that would go to a rather painful place for them, you know, and so it’s kind of curious. But there’s always a button to be pushed. You cannot spend your time trying to dodge those sorts of things, but you can also decide that jokes, for example, that are directly about the number of people who’ve died as a result of the pandemic, are firstly ill-advised, but also ill-judged anyway. I’d say, what are you doing, what’s that about? I had a good, a very good joke early on when the pandemic first came up, I said, “It’s only really Libertarians who won’t follow the rules and it mostly kills old people so I think from that we can conclude that God is a remainer. A perfectly decent joke but now a lot of older people, and plenty of others, have died as a result of COVID. So I’m telling you that joke with this explanation, and that context-
– Yeah, it’s really context.
– And we decide it’s funny, or it’s not, but a context exists for it now, where, I don’t, it’s not a joke, it’s not a joke to me anymore, too much context, it stops being a joke.
– Well then on the converse side of that have you ever gotten yourself out of trouble by using humour?
– Yeah, kind of, kind of, I mean, I did at school for sure. You know, messing around enough that a teacher would sort of back off, but I don’t think you can get yourself out of serious trouble with humour, nothing, nothing that matters, probably only a fuss about nothing.
– So, but you said at the start that humour was instrumental because it was something that you were good at and you had a natural instinct. So you would, you were using it at school, but it must have been sort of every time you used it worked, you did more.
– Yes, but it was often, yeah, but it was often humour that got that got me into trouble.
– And so if it’s taking the piss and doing voices, and accents, and impressions, and quips, that’s got you into trouble, they tend, doubling down doesn’t always work, that’s the point I suppose. There’ve been plenty of times when I have been involved in a conversation where I slightly lose my grip on the conversation, either it moves into an area that I don’t know enough about to keep up, or yeah, something like that. Humour works very well there. It doesn’t help anybody else, but it works very well for me. It helps me to be the clown and move the agenda back onto me, if that’s what’s necessary or needed. ♪ Quick Fire Questions ♪
– We’ve come to the part of the show, which we call Quickfire Questions.
– All right, well, you’ve heard me so far, Paul, I’m not a man given to brevity, but I’ll give this a go.
– Well, you know what, it doesn’t have to be that quick for, an hour and a half will be fine. Who’s the funniest person in business that you’ve met?
– Tim Smit who built The Eden Project.
– Why particularly?
– He’s just brilliant, I mean, the story of The Eden Project, basically, is he needed funding from government, bank, and lottery. So he told the lottery, the banks were funding it, and he told the banks the government were funding it, and he told the government the lottery was funding it, and they all believed him, until they didn’t, and found out that the other was not necessarily funding it. And he said, “Well, hang on a minute, when you thought they were funding it you were willing to fund it, and when you thought they were funding it, you were willing to fund it, so why don’t you just fund it?” That’s Tim, he’s got that about him, he’s got a real sense of chutzpah. He’s one of people in the world who of course he didn’t build the Eden Project, people built the Eden Project, a community, a group of people built the Eden Project, but to make the Eden Project happen you needed Tim Smit and I happen to like Tim very, very much and find him very funny. And sometimes you need a person who is not liked by everybody to get stuff done. I can give you, I’ll be, this is the quickfire round. Boris Johnson’s a perfect example. Now I hate Brexit, as I hope I’ve made clear, however, he was the right person to get it done.
– Yeah, unfortunately.
– Yeah, he was, because what it needed was chutzpah, and jollity, and someone to drive a forklift through a wall of bricks and go, let’s a, let’s, you know, get it done, and we’ll say, we’ll get Brexit done better than ever, Britain bah like this, it needed that. Now I don’t like him, I don’t like the guy, and I don’t like Brexit, but he was the right guy in the right time in the right way for that thing and such people exist, I happen to like Tim.
– What book makes you laugh, Marcus?
– “I, An Actor,” by Nicholas Craig, who is actually a pseudonym for Nigel Planer.
– That’s right.
– He wrote a fantastic book about what terrible wankers actors are and it makes me howl with laughter.
– What film makes you laugh?
– “Blazing Saddles.” It’s perfect.
– That comes up again, and again, and again, with people.
– I have never watched “Blazing Saddles” and failed to find it anything other than gut bustingly hilarious. Mel Brooks, and the entire cast of that film, beautiful. I bow down before its magnificence as a piece of comedy and my wife doesn’t much like it she doesn’t care for it that much. What can I say.
– What word makes you laugh?
– Yes, I have no idea why.
– At the age where, so I’ve got two kids, and there’s an age where every time they see their friends they put on a show, it’s quite normal, children go.
– We’ve done a show, and everyone has to turn the sofa around and listen. And I remember very, very well, my daughter and her friend, Madeline, doing the show, it was actually genuinely very, very good. And, Alf, my son, was required to bring on and hold a sort of wreath that one of them wore over their heads. And in a moment of silence, he was only about 10 I would think, or younger than that, he turned to the audience and just went, I’m being a plinth and it absolutely brought the house down, so yeah, it’s a very, it’s a very pleasing word to say, plinth.
– I do, I love it, I love it. Going to the other end of the spectrum what’s not funny?
– Bullying, I mean, don’t get me wrong, some bullying can be funny, but you have to have the consent of the bullied. Comedians are good at bullying each other, but it’s not bullying then is it, because we all kind of give our consent. Bullying’s not funny, it’s easy and it’s cheap and it’s why I don’t really believe Donald Trump’s a good communicator. It’s easy to do what he did. It’s easy to tear things down. It’s much harder to try and make something so I don’t think that bullying’s funny. And that is also why a best-man speech that begins with, when this knob here first asked me to be his bloody best man I thought, what for this twat? Like it’s not, it doesn’t play, it just doesn’t play.
– So yeah, bullying’s not funny.
– Would you rather be considered clever or funny?
– Do you know, you gave me a steer on what some of the questions would be for this, and I read this and it made my bum hole heal over. It makes me- It makes me wince as a question because the people that I love the most in comedy, the answer is very clear, they would much rather be funny than clever. But, for me, I don’t know. For me this is a rather ugly truth, but I’m going to be honest with you rather than spin you a line is I don’t really know. It’s certainly important to me to be thought of as clever and there may be all sorts of reasons we could go into as to why that particular thing is important to me. I don’t know, I mean, there is also this, I don’t think that you can be funny unless your, I mean, funny for a living, I said and I mean, everybody’s funny, but you can’t be a comedian without being clever. Even what appears- I completely agree.
– To be quite basic comedy, you know, like not that Chaplin is in any way basic, it’s a very sophisticated form of humour, but if you look at the more basic end of what Chaplin, or Buster Keaton did, physical knockabout comedy, there is vast intelligence in understanding why one thing is funny and another is not, so I don’t really know the answer to it, but I wish I could say I don’t care whether people think I’m clever, but I do, ouch.
– Yeah, no, by the way, I actually think that comedians are some of the cleverest people. The way they, their neural pathways you have to have to get to that thinking has to be right at the top of the tree.
– Yeah, yeah, even if the brain is firing on different cylinders, it is firing at least.
– Yeah, and finally, desert island gags. You can only take one joke with you to a desert island, what is it?
– I’ll tell you the joke that I, if it was one sketch it might very well be, “One Leg Too Few,” by Cook and Moore, but a joke is what you asked for and I love this joke. Did you hear about the inflatable boy at the inflatable school who was sent to see the inflatable headmaster for bringing in a pin? He said, “You’ve let me down, you’ve let yourself down, but worst of all, you’ve let the school down. I love that joke so much, it’s such a pretty joke in it’s construction. It’s a slow reveal with three punchlines and everybody knows what punchlines two and three are and they’re still coming. It’s just lovely isn’t it?
– It works on every level. Marcus Brigstocke, you work on every level. Ah, thanks man. Not during the pandemic.
– Thank you so much for being my guest on the “Humourology Podcast,” it’s been a complete pleasure.
– Thanks, man.
– [Announcer] 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.