Part of the Humourology series
Season 1, Episode 5
Leading, Learning, and Laughing – Neil Mullarkey shares the value of reaching Humanity through Humour.
How can taking yourself less seriously result in a more productive collaborative team? Legendary improvisational comedian Neil Mullarkey joins Paul Boross to talk about the value of laughter in leadership. Neil shares his insights from years of comedy and draws parallels between the boardroom and the boards of the improv stage.
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Humour encourages humanity. In this week’s episode Neil Mullarkey, Founder of The Comedy Store Players improv group, joins Paul Boross for a chat about when laughter is appropriate as a leader. Neil draws on years of improv experience to talk about how the best creative teams use humour to feel more human.
“If a team is laughing together, they’re going to be more creative, they’re going to be more resilient.”
Whether in comedy or business, when creative teams feel comfortable and safe to take the stage, try new material, and possibly fail, the results can be brilliant.
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Humourolgy Podcast with Neil Mullarkey
– But if we can use humour in business, to understand one another, to create psychological safety, to create engagement, and actually, if a team is laughing together, they’re going to be more creative, they’re going to be more resilient.
– 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 up punchline back into your bottom line. Please remember to like, subscribe and leave a review wherever you get your podcasts. My guest on this edition of the Humourology podcast has had a hugely successful career with humour at the heart of it, from co-founding the world famous improvised nation group, the comedy store players with Mike Myers through to appearing on the likes of “Have I Got News For You?” “Whose Line Is It Anyway,” and Austin Powers movies. For the past two decades, his comedy chops have led him to develop workshops, to help businesses across the globe communicate better to build high-performing teams. Drawing perceptive parallels between comedy improvisation and business, he says teamwork is vital, whether at the comedy store or in a corporation, collaboration is critical. Neil Mullarkey welcome to the Humourology podcast.
– Hello, thank you very much for having me. What a brilliant intro to me but to your idea, the punchline, the bottom line this is brilliant. Absolutely marvellous, thank you for having me.
– Well, bless you, and thank you for being here. On the front page of your website, are two words, learn and laugh. How does laughter help people to learn?
– Well, it’s well-established if you’re laughing, you’re going to learn stuff. And if you’re not laughing, you’re going to be a little bit antagonistic, you might not be engaged, but the best teachers at school I know are the ones who kind of entertained us, sometimes we were laughing, sometimes we were intrigued or that they’d ask questions, they’d give demonstrations that brought us in. And I find that a lot of people don’t like corporate leadership development management training, but if I can kind of side line them and say, “Actually I’m making you laugh.” “Oh, hang on, there’s a bit of learning here as well.” And that’s what I really believe, that especially my world of improv, you can learn something from it while having a laugh. And not only do I believe that you can learn while laughing, but the laughing should be part of our everyday life. That’s why I’m so happy to be on your podcast. And so somebody else you said, why do you have a learn and laugh on your website? A bit like the Jack Nicholson in a Batman, that character who has sort of two parts. And it’s one of my great beliefs that we’re all kind of a little paradox. So my children think I’m very serious, and then I’m very silly. I’m deeply embarrassing, and then I’m very bossy. And I think we could all sort of allow ourselves to be a bit of both. And so that’s what I liked the learn and laugh thing. So let’s say we did two photographs, one with a suit on and one with a crazy look, and we’ve combined the two and and somebody, many people who love me and know what I do, and they said, “It seems to encapsulate what you do. “You kind of get around the side by making us laugh “and then bring in something more reflective “but never too far from a moment of humour.”
– Yeah, well I’ve known you for a number of years and you’ve never been far from humour. But what makes you laugh?
– Oh, this is a tricky one because I always disappoint people because they say, “Who’s your favourite?” And I’ll say, well, Laurel and Hardy. I love Laurel and Hardy, I love Morecambe and Wise. If I, nowadays, if I want a guaranteed laugh, I’ll turn on “Frasier” the American sitcom or “Seinfeld.” So I’m not very radical in my comedy. Certainly I know a lot of comedians will tend to go to somebody very offbeat. I know in the old days, we’d all love Jerry Sadowitz, because we knew he was breaking the rules. However, you know, Miranda, I love Miranda and she’s very much mainstream, so I don’t want to make myself out to be too weird. But if I want to just relax, I know that I’ll get something wonderful from watching “Seinfeld,” for example, these characters who are all deeply unlovable, but deeply lovable.
– Well, I mean, Seinfeld is one of the best. I actually went to see him in London at the Hammersmith Apollo when he did it. And it was so amazing to see somebody who had honed every level. I mean, you’ve worked in comedy for, it must be nearing a long time, so we just say, because I know you’re nearly 27 now. So, but how do you know when somebody has got funny bones?
– Well, the thing is, I believe that everybody can be funny. I think that the funny bones, there’s a movie called “Funny Bones,” and the thesis is that you’ve either got one or you haven’t. And I think everybody can make others laugh. There are professional comedians but they’ve been training since they were nine, probably, they’ve been working on the physical side, they’ve been working on their rhythm and stuff. But because I teach improv, I’m not creating or bringing out perfectly honed lines like Jerry Seinfeld has, you know, it is sick, on every line is perfect. His stand-up is just brilliant because there’s not a wasted word. One of my favourite stories about Seinfeld is that he had a calendar and he’d cross off a day when he hadn’t written, I think. So he knew that to be a comedian, you have to write write, write, and that’s not what people don’t understand that. Sean Lock, brilliant stand-up, found that he was earning enough money not to go and be a brickie. So he said, “I’ll hire an office and everyday “I’ll work just as hard as I was as a brickie, “safe in the knowledge that my hands “weren’t getting all hurt and stuff.” So what I will say is that there’s a kind of honed comedy and there’s improv comedy. And from my teaching improv comedy, anyone can do it. All of us are funny with our friends, and what I find sometimes is the funny one in the office is a bit irritating. It’s a man normally and he wants to show off and he puts other people down. For me, humour is all about sharing our vulnerability. It’s all about acknowledging we’re all fragile and human, and the best humour is about me being an oath. As Arnold Brown said wonderful stand-up comedian who was there in the beginning of the days of alternative comedy, he said the comedian arranges his or her own disgrace. We kind of set ourselves up to be less than perfect. And I think it’s interesting when you see a comedian like Stewart Lee who pretends to be a character called Stewart Lee, who thinks he’s great. And then he kind of deconstructs that. And that’s a long answer to one of your simple questions which is some people just can do it professionally, and then when you meet them on stage, Paul, you’ll find they’re funny on stage. They come off stage and they’re quite sour and grumpy.
– How many years have we spent in dressing rooms with those people? It’s no, but actually what I’m interested, is because both of us started in the same era at the comedy store and worked through there. And you’re quite right, some people are grumpy but both of us now work in the area of business as well. And your notion that everybody can be funny, I think a lot of other comedians would challenge because I think maybe it’s using the things that comedians use in context, maybe like listening skills. And I know you talk a lot about the listening skills that you’ve brought to improv. Can you expand on that for business a bit more?
– Yeah, well obviously I’m bringing improv which is a slightly different skill from stand-up comedy. Stand-up comedy at its best, it’s beautifully honed. It’s a perfect meal delivered to your table. Improv is a bit of a takeaway, a bit of a picnics, see what happens, it’s a bit messy. But the skills of improv, as you say, listening is number one. And it’s dealing with uncertainty and diversity and complexity and differences of opinion. It actually started with a social worker in the 1920s in Chicago, and she was helping children, inner city children, deprive children, maybe they weren’t native speakers. And they were a bit shy about speaking up in class. And she gave them confidence with some exercises. And it was her son who then created a form of theatre that we now know as improv. Now not everyone knows what improv by the way is, if you don’t, there’s a TV show called “Whose Line is it Anyway?” Some of your listeners, Paul, maybe even too young to know what that is. But it’s a, if you’re not, somebody who knows improv, you’re like me 40 years ago, and I’d never seen it. And that the audience gives suggestions to the actors and the actors act out scenes and stories. And rule one of improv is listening. And of course that’s beautifully applicable to business. How do I listen to my customer? How do I listen to my team? How do they listen to each other? How do we listen even to ourselves, our unconscious, where ideas may come from. So I’m not bringing comedy stand-up comedy techniques, although when you’re presenting, you would do need stand-up comedy techniques, you do want something well-rehearsed, you do want to point. You need to have a rhythm, bada bada, here’s the funny, here’s the important, underline this word. Don’t do everything on a monotone. Find an attitude, repeat stuff, pause, all of the things that we know made comedy whether it’s improvised or stand-up. Stand-up, it’s when you say great stand-up you know she or he has done it night after night, but they found their rhythm, they found the metre. Improv is more a little bit messy, a little bit jazz, a little free fall.
– But it still has the same fundamentals that, I mean I think listening would be applicable to a stand-up because they’ve got to listen to the audience and work off the timing of that. Improv is very specific because you really do have to listen but doesn’t all humour ultimately come from listening because you have to react off something?
– That’s true, I mean a great stand-up or comedy actor is riding the laugh. She or he knows when to time the moment, whether they’re acting in a play or a stand-up. So there’s listening to the fellow player, there’s listening to the audience and I thought you were going to say and I was about to applaud you, listening to what’s going on in society. The great comedy writer whether she’s a stand-up or Shakespeare or Ayckbourn or Richard Curtis, they’re listened to what’s going on, what are people thinking? And they’re articulating things that we’ve all thought but haven’t even realised we have or haven’t expressed it in that way. So there’s a kind of deep listening to create material, and there’s a great listening in terms of the performance as well. The rhythm, listening to the audience, timing a beautiful moment, and the moment maybe just that look away. Mark Twain said that there sometimes there was never a word so good as a well-timed pause. And sometimes as somebody said, it’s not the music, the notes, it’s the space between the notes sometimes that makes a music comedy hit us somewhere deeper than just intellectually.
– No, I think that’s a great point. Tell me a funny story about something that’s happened to you, no pressure.
– Well, luckily Paul, you were kind enough to send this to me the other day. I thought I can’t think of anything that is repeatable and worthy of repeating in fact, most basically lots of things where I should have gone to bed earlier. So I will tell you one thing, when I was in the sixth form at school. So I went to an all boys grammar school and it was a new headmaster. The previous headmaster, he used to come into assembly, and say, “Good morning everybody, hymn number 27.” Okay, right, la la la. The new headmaster came in my first day on the sixth form and said, “Good morning.” And we all go, what the hell is this? And so he had a particular way of speaking. And so I found myself sixth form, you don’t have a lesson initially, a free lesson, free period or whatever. So I was like, I said in the sixth one coming out, “Good morning,” and then of course, opening the door was the headmaster who immediately said to us, “What are you doing here? “Haven’t you got enough work to do.” We’re all thinking, “No, it’s the first day “of the sixth form, we haven’t got any work to do.” “You better get on with work now.” And the sixth form common room was just, you know, people sitting about on horrible sofas. So off he went, and then of course I thought that was fun. You know, everyone’s laughing, I’ll have another go, “Good morning,” and of course, I’m by the window and there he’s crossing the playground and the window is open, he looks up and sees me. So I’m called his room and he said, “Why, what are you doing?” And he said to me, “If I was your father I’d punch “your silly fat face.” Okay, this was the 1970s, and then he made me pick up the weeds in the playground. So I had to go around with a bin, picking up weeds and stuff like that. And your sort of rubric before this interview, we said, what’s the hidden valuable learning. And I thought as I work in leadership, I think the learning where as a leader, sometimes best to ignore stuff. He should have just managed not to hear me, ’cause he made himself look even more stupid by coming down on me, just for being a bit silly. I wasn’t pointing it at him, he may not realise that, but it was just kind of, life would have been easier for him if he had ignored me. Just sometimes, there’s something to be said for a leader, just overlooking certain things and just let people get away with stuff, choose your battles. For him, it was kind of one of those things where for the next two years, people would tell stories about me, doing this thing and it was about him. And I think he could have had a bit of a better ride, had he just decided to overlook the silly thing that I did.
– I think that’s brilliant. And you beautifully encompassed the learning from it as well. And in business, I think people sometimes just get too wound up by things and sometimes everybody is going to have the fun or the Mickey taken out of them at some stage. There isn’t that part of the humanising effect of how you become a better leader.
– I think it is, I think humour is a really valuable leadership tool. Luckily I found an article in the New York times to justify this, but what it said was humour is a way of getting perspective. If you step away as the humorous does, they look at it from a different point of view, we can laugh at it. And if an alien was to land, then look at what we do, which is often the way comedians describe Hum Dum activity, was that, “Yeah, of course, why are we doing that? “Why are we still living with those bizarre things?” And so for me a leader who has a sense of humour can laugh at herself or himself and tell stories about that. “I did a stupid thing, but I recovered. “I learned something from it.” It helps the junior members go, “Oh right, that’s okay. “It’s all right to make a mess every now and again.” And who knows if that had mastered, just looked up and smiled at me, would that have got him a lot of more kudos? I don’t know that there’s kind of pros and cons in school. He thought I was attacking him. And it’s interesting that in teaching, apparently, there’s a thing where you start hard and nasty and then you kind of lighten up. You can’t do it the other way. So there’s a phrase in teaching, which has never smile before Christmas. You start in September. I mean, I don’t think that is right but I do know some leaders who are very apparently stern and severe, and then when you see a light side, it’s kind of all the more exciting. ‘Cause on the other hand, you’ve got David Brent who’s, I see myself as a comedian first, a leader second and a manager third, or whatever. And it’s just nonsense. And he’s taken the Mickey out of that person who thinks they’re funny, but if we can use humour in business to understand one another to create psychological safety, to create engagement. And actually, if a team is laughing together they’re going to be more creative. They’re going to be more resilient. So whilst I wouldn’t say go to business school and learn to tell jokes, I would say, allow humour to emerge naturally. And I think a lot of leaders actually unite their team by being loathed equally by their team. We all laugh at the leader behind his or her back. We all go to Starbucks and have a giggle about that person. And they may be, that may be, you know, a good thing in terms of team morale, but I don’t think it’s the best thing. And of course, what you want leaders to do is really to make themselves at some point not necessary, they can jump in when they need and let the team create their own things. They can create the moment where people feel they are responsible, but they’ve also got that sort of guidance and support and coaching of a leader. And so humour is a great way of doing that. What I mean by that is not humour, let’s all laugh at Paul, let’s all laugh at people different, let’s all laugh at that bloke, let’s all laugh at difference. It’s all, let’s all just be aware that we’re all vulnerable, fallible and the leader can model the fact that mistakes are not terminal. Mistakes can sometimes lead to great ideas or to learning or to understanding that Matt, perhaps if you did that, something wasn’t going to go right. So allowing for failure as a risk taker but also sometimes just acknowledge it was a mistake and the leader steps in and can say, “Oh well, nevermind.”
– I was taken by the word you used, that it creates psychological safety. Can you just, is that what you mean about it? That it you, because when you can laugh at yourself, you what you are psych, considered more psychologically secure as a result of that?
– I think so, I used the phrase and then I thought, oops, have I said the wrong thing? Because psychological safety is used a lot now in organisational development and leadership courses. And of course it’s dangerous, ’cause we don’t always know what it means. What I’m hoping it means is that I can come to you with a problem. I can share my vulnerability. I can suggest an idea, not feel that I’m going to be shot down. I can bring perhaps, any pressures I feel outside work, and this is where humour is not always understood. If I laugh at you, that’s not psychological safety, that’s not humour, that’s bullying. If I can laugh with you at myself or we can sort of satirise the situation or the problem, then we somehow do feel, I think more humane. So in my book, “Seven Steps”-
– It’s a brilliant book, by the way. I know it very well.
– Thank you.
– But I wrote a whole bit about affiliative humour where we all come together, disaffiliated humour and an in-group and out-group and my editor cut it all out. It means I can put it in my next book, but it was a bit too highfalutin. ‘Cause there are different types of humour which are, we’re all in it together versus we’re in it, but you’re not. And this is interesting in terms of what your podcast and your book will be about is when is it appropriate? What is humour? When does it fit the moment? What sort of humour? ‘Cause a lot of my humour that I encourage in business is improvise humour. It’s not coming in with gags and dressing up for comic relief day, it’s kind of just saying, “Oh, Phil, you’ve had a haircut. “Oh, how are we going to cope with this problem?” Sort of anything that feels human and sharing rather than pointing a finger.
– Well, I’m very interested ’cause suddenly when you use the term psychological safety. I went to another place. Both of us have worked in creativity for most of our lives. And I think psychological safety is one of the most important things for a business or for comedians to be creative. It’s really hard to be creative when somebody is going, “Well that’s not a good idea, Neil, back your ideas up, “come up with more good ideas.” When in fact what you need is a safe environment to be creative. And so many companies, I know they come to you, they come to me to talk about, we want everybody to be more creative. Well, a way to do that is create an environment where there is a laughter and a lighter sense.
– Yeah, there’s a sense we can laugh together and we can then share ideas. And I’ve been to some places and where there is laughter. And of course, they have great ideas and they have, they actually have specific ways of entertaining new ideas and levelling the hierarchy rather than people being scared. Now, I’m fearful that we’ve sounded a bit too, you know, touchy, feely, let’s all hug. But what I think it’s just very simple thing which is I am here as a leader and you can come to me. You can go to somebody else and say, “Here’s an idea.” And I can suggest an idea, you can suggest an idea, and if it doesn’t work, that’s fine, but we’re open to ideas. And when there is lots of research that if we’re laughing together, we’re going to be more creative, we’re going to be more collaborative. It’s obvious to say that. So it’s one of those things that I did a whole chapter in my book called lighten about let’s lighten the atmosphere in the office. And it was one of the things where you think, we’re all talking now about, have you had your five a day? Have you done 10,000 steps? Has anyone ever done a laughter audit in your organisation? Which is, are we laughing enough? And if we’re laughing, are we laughing for the right reasons? Are we laughing in meetings or are we laughing over the road in small cliques? ‘Cause there’s plenty of creativity in most organisations. Sometimes it’s not being used for the benefit of the organisation. There’s creative, shall we say expenses? There’s creative ways of pretending to do work and not doing them. You see what I mean? The sort of the darker side of creativity, it’s been done all the time and sending each other rude gifts and stuff at other people’s expense. This creativity is happening, but can we harness it for the good of the enterprise? So it’s one of those things where I would that was the discretionary gap, I think it was called, which is how much are your people working nine to five then going home? How much are they just sitting there and looking like they’re working, well how much are they giving off themselves? And I think it was called discretionary value or something that, which is how much you harnessing the possibilities in your team? And the number of times I’ve done a workshop with people and we just do a little exercise and it turns out somebody who’s great at sailing or painting or running the rugby team, and other people didn’t know. And there’s all these elements of the person that could be brought to work a slightly different point of view, and you feel, “That’s a shame.” Doesn’t mean they have to work longer hours, doesn’t mean they have to get more than they wanted themselves. But it just a sense of, “Oh right, there’s actually more “to one another than we realised.” And often I’m spending a day with people and I’m saying improv is all about listening, and it’s dealing with changes in environment and disruption in the market and adaptive leadership and stuff. And people will say that’s very profound but actually wasn’t it great to spend time with each other and have a laugh? We don’t do that enough.
– No, and I just love your term, the laughter audit. I just think that that is really the future of companies. If they’re not doing that, they’re throwing money at so many things that aren’t actually practical in the long run and they’re giving them a highfalutin names and everything, but a laughter audit is exactly what most businesses need. So broad question, where would the world be without humour?
– I don’t have a clue, I can’t picture it. I suppose, having seen the movie or read the book as well “1984,” is that a world without humour? I think that’s all I can think of. It feels like a humour culture, the arts are something we should value. Of course we know right now in the COVID crisis that this is one of our major industries brings billions of pounds the United Kingdom economy, as well as giving skills to young people, they can use, even if they don’t become professional artists, but there’s something about community, reflecting culture. So I can’t imagine a world without humour unless it’s some sort of totalitarian state that I’ve seen depicted in films, books, movies. And even then you get the sense that laughter is under the counter. It’s not possible, human beings will always laugh. And dare I say, what’s he called? Is it Viktor Frankl who wrote about being in Auschwitz.
– And sort of even there, you could choose to find moments of laughter. Even there people would play some music.
– And search for meaning, which is one of the most for our listeners, one of the most important books I think ever written but actually you’re one of the few people who brings out, this couldn’t be a more tragic situation. And even in the midst of the tragic situation, there are times when laughter is important.
– And it’s a tiny victory over the evil Nazis. Even I suspect laughing with those guards who were able to talk to the inmates. It felt like a moment of choosing a moment, and just things, reading Viktor Frankl and other things about, where people chose to keep that part of themselves, their health, it kept steady and improve. Those who kind of were hopelessly optimistic would suffer, and those who were just eternally that pessimistic but they had every reason to be, would suffer as well. But those who said, let us look for moments of tiny optimism and that could be sharing poetry, sharing music, sharing laughter, they’re the ones whose mental resilience saw them through. I’m not saying humor’s going to save your life but I’m saying we can make choices. But even in that inhumane environment, there was a sense of humanity and Arthur Smith, the wonderful comedian and writer quoted Viktor Frankl saying, people ask in those concentration camps, where is God? And Frankl would say, “Well, where is man?” I mean these were inhumane moments, but even in those moments, we could share something that fundamentally unites us as human beings.
– I think that’s fascinating as well, there’s a lot of research out there now that people with good humour are much more resilient and resilience is one of those words that keeps coming up. You and I spend a lot of time with businesses, everybody’s talking about, “We want to make our people more resilient.” Well, one of the ways you can do that is have a lightness of touch, have more humour to do well, the humour audit or whatever, is one of the ways you can lift your people up by doing that. So I actually think that that’s a really important point. Do you find yourself funny, Neil?
– I do, I do. And I don’t know whether-
– You’ve got a mirror, haven’t you?
– Well, I do find myself funny, is that hopelessly narcissistic? I think it might be. I’m going to say this, I think it’s a sign of good mental health, ’cause a lot of comedians don’t find themselves particularly funny. They’re just seeking the laughter from the wider audience and then they come off stage and they’re alone. I love to make my children laugh. I love to meet my wife laugh. And I do find myself funny. I do seek also those moments of solitude and a lot of the time, I’ve be working with people right now in these virtual times, is they’ve been hankering for some moments of solitude, ’cause it’s really hard, you’re at home, you’re cooking meals, you’re doing the dishwasher, you’re checking on your children with remote learning. On the other hand, there are some people who are alone, haven’t touched another human being for months, which is hard. But one of the things I do mentioned in my book, is find moments of silence. And this is something I do look out after I’ve done a show or a workshop I need to stop, I need to get away. And only people like us who do run workshops know how just exhausting it is. And you come off stage, you just want to go and flop, or I tend to go for a walk, have a cup of tea and try not to talk to anybody. Billy Connolly, I saw him once after show, be sitting there with his manager John Reid, just sitting in silence having a cup of tea. So yes, I do find myself funny, and in workshops sometimes I’m thinking, well I could say that, that’s going to be really funny. And I think, I better not, ’cause today I’m being a workshop facilitator, I’m not being a comedian. That might be okay on the comedy store stage, but right now I need to be a little bit careful because there may be sensibilities in terms of individuals or teams. So I need to step back. So I have to bite my lip ’cause I know there’s a great joke there but right now that would be self-indulgent.
– No, but I think that both of us having the sort of comedy store background, the first instinct if you like, is to be funny, it’s actually holding back some of that because obviously both of us know hundreds of comedians that have worked with people over the years but one of the things that good comedians, good, and actually think this works in business as well, they are self-editing all the time. And actually I think that having worked with The Comedy Store players, you are the best in the world. You know, it’s such a thrill to guest with the no, no, it is because you are working with the sharpest brains in the world. And even to jet, it’s like, you know, playing, you know, with, you know, a symphony orchestra and you get to do a little bit but it’s the overall and the finest minds of doing it. But it’s that thing about actually getting humour into business is sometimes as I think you touched on earlier, knowing what not to say as well as what to say.
– Yeah, you can imagine when I talk about what I do and people that haven’t experienced, they think, “You’re telling people how to tell jokes?” And I say, “No no, I’m helping people use “the skills of improv comedy that started “with a social worker, trying to give confidence “to children in their communication, creative skills. “And I’m bringing those to business people.” People don’t always understand that. And so I’m okay, ’cause I say sometimes all I’m happy to just bring laughter and help people laugh with each other, but I’m not telling national health consultants how to tell jokes. I’m helping them work with one another. And when you get some, for example, in the public sector, you get to a leadership position and you’ve got to deal with a whole bunch of things. And improv helps you say well, “How can I live with not knowing, “how can I live with there’s no particular answer to this.” So for example, one of my, when I want to be very highfalutin, Paul, I’ll steal all sorts of ideas from people. And so there’s a guy called Keith Grint like Rupert Grint, but he’s Keith Grint. And he talks about wicked problems, sometimes in an organisation, this and that. There’s something where there’s no answer. And so he talks about clumsy solutions and I’m saying look, “Improv helps you with that,” which is, can I live with kind of it’s a bit messy, it’s a clumsy solution, let’s see how it goes. Let’s try again, let’s try another one, because that for certain situations, there’s no one answer. And if you try too hard to solve this, you’ll make that worse. Can you live with not knowing? And for me often that’s the improv mindset. And for me, because I do it in front of an audience who pay to see us not know, and enjoy our frailty, I can handle that, but I’m doing it for two hours in The Comedy Club, and I can say anything. If I’m running a major organisation or a big team in the public sector, I’ve got to really get into a different mindset because my training has always been, here’s the problem, here’s the answer straight lines. And the reality is in any human endeavour at certain points, there’s complexity. It’s just too complicated, if he thinks this, and they think that, and I’m thinking this, and I’ve got my own prejudices and they’ve got their own biases, can I just kind of live with seeing how we can get a little bit further on without cheesing off too many people? And I’ve got to hold, and that’s the psychological safety, I’ve got to hold this process where I can’t tell people what to do, but I’ve got to reassure those who I can, that it’s going to be okay. The Harvard Business Review once talked about humble optimism. And that’s what improv is, humble. I don’t know the answer, but I’m optimistic that we’ll kind of get somewhere soon, that’s okay.
– Oh, I love that humble optimism, that’s what really, is it important for first of all us or you or me, but leaders, people in business to be able to laugh at themselves?
– I do think so. You mentioned resilience and there are lots of resilience models. I’ve worked with Jenny Campbell over the resilience engine and she’s got various pillars of resilience. One of which is laughter. If I can’t laugh at myself, then I’m too close to the issue. I can’t step back, I can’t see perspective. And I know that we do need humour. So if we can’t laugh at ourselves, I’d be worried. And so sometimes when I coach people it’s, we’re talking presentation skills, and actually of course, it’s not just presentation, as you know, Paul, it’s not just stand still, speak slower. It’s who am I? What is the impact I want to portray? Do I deserve to be a leader? Who put me on this stage? It’s deeper than that. And sometimes I say to people, just tell me a story about you as a child. And of course they begin to smile and become human. So finding the human in your own life is profound because the best stories often are resonant of everyone’s experience. So if you’re finding the humour, you’re often finding the humanity and the commonality in your life.
– Well, you and I laugh a lot. You know, we’ve known each other for a long time. We’ve worked together, we’ve, you know, laugh together. We laugh a lot, and it’s part of the process for that for us. Do you think that happens enough in the workplace?
– Obviously, I don’t. However, how do we get it into the workplace authentically, organically? I know people try and right now they’re trying hard with virtual drinks on a Friday, virtual fancy dress, virtual let’s all cook muffins together, and it’s hard. And I think right now we’re missing those organic moments of serendipity where I bump into you the microwave or in the corridor and we have a laugh and we share an idea. So obviously I’m going to say we need more humour in the workplace, but it doesn’t have to be people dropping their trousers or custard pies, it has to be just part of the day to day. In a meeting, have a bit of a laugh, then move to something quite serious. George Bernard Shaw says something like, “Things that are serious become no less serious “because we laugh at them and become no more funny “if we find serious,” or something better expressed than that. But I’ve been to many funerals and wakes, which are full of laughter because we’re all sharing memories of the person we miss. That departed person, we miss her. And I often I’d love to have a funeral where somebody hasn’t died. ‘Cause it seems a shame that we have to wait for her or him to die, that we have that laughter. So, obviously I’m saying let’s all have laughter. How you be authentically, I don’t know. One of my research projects was, I found out about the Glee Club in India where some women just to get together and they laugh, they just laugh and they don’t have, there’s no joke, they just laugh ’cause it’s just good for you. And all the lungs are happening and that the deeper breathing and that, and you’ve all the you know, the oxytocin, the endorphins are happening. And so I don’t know how you bring it more authentically to a western office life other than by hiring me or you to do it, but allowing it to be part of the daily process. Certainly the research says, if we start with a few laughs in a meeting, the meeting will be more creative. And certainly the research I’ve looked at is spend 10 minutes before the task starts in a virtual meeting, just checking in. I’m encouraging people to look at each other’s background in virtual, you know, what’s that funny part plant pot? What’s going on with your hair? Is that a cat behind you? Just trying to get them to realise that we’re not in the real world?
– Well, that’s really interesting because I used to, as you know, do a lot of training for people like Google and one of the things was telephone sales. And I would always say in telephone sales, people will tell you a lot of information without you knowing it. So if somebody picks up the phone and you go, “Oh, sorry. “Hello,” and you go, “Oh, Paul got a bit of a cough.” My mother always swore by, you know, honey with a little bit of whiskey in it, and I don’t think we are now. And actually what you’ve described which is brilliant, is doing that in the virtual world. You know, I’m looking at your books and I’m thinking he likes colour coding.
– Well, and that’s what I’m trying to get people to realise is that in this world, we’re both in the meeting, formally business, but also we’re at home. And we’re slightly worried, is my daughter going to come through that? Am I going to shout at my wife for stealing the WiFi? Will there be a knock at the front door, Amazon bringing something? The other day I was doing a workshop and there’s one said, “Do you mind if I just go, “I’m having a car delivered.” And my stepdaughter is in a nightie having to deal with the bloke delivering the car. Okay, that’s fine. So we should acknowledge that we’re all slightly worried and there’s just stress about, will the WiFi keep up? Will I suddenly lose you, is my laptop fully charged? And we shouldn’t just say that is stressful and let’s acknowledge we’re all human, and I haven’t always managed to get the right room and I’m in the bunker, ’cause my children up there and they’re boring too much, ’cause they’re on Minecraft or whatever.
– If I asked you to write a business case for humour, what would you include in it?
– Well, of course I’d include stuff we’ve talked about, which is resilience, creativity, engagement, psychological safety and leadership. I think all of those are going to be improved by an awareness of humour, allowing human to be out of the day-to-day, certainly presentation skills. If we can get authentic humour into a presentation, and by that, I mean not just the 400 people in a conference room, it could be at the town hall, in the canteen, it could be a virtual conference, it could be to three people in the corridor, it could be a boardroom. How do we bring relevant humour to our communications, formal and informal? So I think there’s a huge case to be made there. I can’t think of many places where humour would be wrong, I suppose if you are making spreadsheets, humour may not be relevant there. But of course, if you’re trying to explain what’s in the spreadsheet, if you’re trying to get the information that goes into the spreadsheet, humour will create the engagement, both where the person giving you the data, explaining the data, so humour seems to me, it’s not the be all and end all of course, but it’s a pretty good spine of creating the connection that leads to a more creative organisation in terms of making people feel belonged, creating the culture, the engagement and the resilience of the individuals and of the organisation. ‘Cause people tend to leave, isn’t this the truth, we tend to leave ’cause of our boss rather than because of the job. Lots of stories I’ve heard about was, “I went to this firm ’cause the money was better, “and I left ’cause my boss wasn’t.” That kind of stuff, and the boss may not be allowing enough humour. It may be that she or he themselves feel constrained, I don’t know, but if humour is authentic and part of the day-to-day fabric, then I think it will if it make it in a more creative, more resilient place where things can get done, risks, appropriate risks can be taken, ideas can flourish and people feel they belong.
– So you’ve sort of concluded that what the return on investment is really, that’s perfect business case.
– I was thinking about return on investment. How do you invest in humour? I know return on investment in terms of, you know, new laptops, new office, giving everyone gym membership, you could see that, how do we invest in humour? And I think it’s actually the investment of time. Are the leaders taking time just to spend with the team, with the organisation? So important, when I hear about a leader who spends time chatting to the receptionist, that’s an investment of time. And it role model something over and above over the leader was spotted. It says something about hierarchy, creativity, listening to the organisation, listening to clients. The head of Vodafone, Vittorio, was famous for chatting the receptionist and also going to the phone shop that was at the bottom of the office block. Just what are you noticing? Are people happy with the handsets, their tariff? So I think, and you may put me right here but what is an investment in humour? I mean, I dread to think of the CEO saying to all who they seen leadership and, “We must be more funny.” “Okay, and I will send you a PDF in a few minutes “and you must do this.” How do you put that in a strategy document? I don’t know, it’s almost-
– Isn’t it about the leader allowing humour to flourish because they lead with it because that’s, if it’s acceptable then you know, it works in everything. So people who have a leader who is showing a lightness of touch, who is showing and I know this is not a PC word who is flirting in the broadest sense of the word and easing themselves into people, then that will actually feed up through the organisation or am I wrong? I mean, I think that’s how it works.
– I agree with you, and I suppose there’s too much emphasis on let’s all go ten-pin bowling, let’s have an away day that’s fun. And I want to say to people make it part of the day to day. Don’t separate it from work, don’t let’s all go and build a raft, then come home and still hate each other. And even building the raft made you hate each other even more. ‘Cause you know, he didn’t put his weight, she was too bossy, I didn’t do anything, whatever. So I think how we make part of the day-to-day so encouraging activities and I think stuff, and it can be broadly speaking as bringing cakes in on somebody’s birthday. But I think the leader role modelling, but also if I’m not a natural humorous person, I want to still have a place as a leader in this organisation. And if I’m an introvert, which isn’t normally associated with humour, but as we know many comedians are, but that quiet, dry humour let that happen. And that might be one-on-one in the office in those moments. But I think it’s an investment of time and role modelling, humour and mistakes and forgiveness.
– But actually, there is a big place in humour to be a good audience. You don’t have to just be, “I’ll be the funny one cracking jokes.” And so we both been in rooms where we’ve got, I mean, you know, with people who you just go, “Wow, I think I can hold my own, but I’m with a comedy god.” You know who.
– Yes, that’s absolutely right. So that’s very good, I think one should always remember, humour is the laughing. The boss laughing is great. I don’t think you want David Brent running every team. And he wasn’t self-aware enough, but just allowing it laughter, the dry humour, the quiet humour, when somebody says something, the boss laughing is great ’cause everyone looks, is that okay, was that wrong? And so you’re right, the generosity of the audience is as much a thing as the maker of the joke.
– And you can be, have an important place in there by being a great audience. Or, and I like your point about the generosity. You will be seen as generous as spirit, and therefore you will be included in everything and you will be seen as part of the humour mechanism if there is such a thing. Have you ever taken a joke too far and crossed the line?
– One time and forgive the name dropping, so I used to have to double act with my uncle, Mike Myers.
– [Paul] Whatever happened to him?
– Austin, I mean, I always have to check in people, you know, so young Wayne of Wayne’s world, Shrek Austin Powers. So we used to do a double act. So we’re doing, we’re trying to write sketches and things in 1980s London, which is not as glamorous as 2020 London. And so, one of my favourite things, I don’t know if I ever did it for you, Paul, was falling downstairs, falling over. And there was one time I used to do it, where I’d have a briefcase slightly open, I’d fall over in public places. And the briefcase contents would go everywhere and just, I do it to make one person laugh. Whatever, people would do lots of coming to help me. But I did once, so I was going around to Mike Myers’ flat in West Kensington and I’d knock on the door. And then as he opened the door, I would go, oh, and I fall down the stairs, Oliver Hardy style, head first ’cause there was plenty of carpet, it was quite a good angle. So I was going, oh, and he thinks it’s for real, even though I’ve done it many times for him. So he comes running after me, “Are you okay, Neil?” “Yes, I’m fine.” There’s a clunk, the front door of his flat shuts. He’s in the middle of cooking some carrots, he can’t get back in, his girlfriend is at the theatre. We drive to the theatre Jackson’s Lane, okay, so that’s quite a long way from West Ken, 40, 1/2 an hour drive. She’s watching a show. He’s got to go into there to get the front door key. She’s deaf in one ear. He comes out to the wrong side. He’s got to go around, and she’s getting, I see, thinking he’s come to see the play with, “Oh, that’s nice.” “No, I want the key.” So we drove, get the key, drive home by this stage when this sort of mansion block and there’s smoke coming through the front door and we get back in and the carrots now just, you know, black pan and that’s, I’ve taken it too far, just to be silly. So my thing is, careful falling downstairs ’cause the currents might burn, that’s my my deep lesson from that. But-
– Well, that’s something all readers can take away. Oh readers, yeah listeners. It’s funny because it just reminded me, I suddenly had this image, I was guesting with The Comedy Store players in those early days with Mike and Paul Martin and Josie Lawrence and yourself and everything, and we all went out for dinner afterwards and we were going through SoHo. And so we’re all just chatting after the show casually, and there was a pile of boxes and suddenly you threw yourself in the middle of the pile of boxes and it was it was hilarious, but it was, ’cause it was so unexpected. But it was kind of your party piece, wasn’t it? Have you ever gotten yourself out of trouble using humour, Neil?
– Yes I have, many years ago, 1979, before you were born Paul, I went to see the 2-Tone Tour. So you know, music 2-Tone, The Specials supported by The Selector, not Madness ’cause they’d left, and Dexy’s Midnight Runners, I’d never heard of them at the Lyceum. So a lot of skinheads went to see this gig. So I’m there with my sort of 1979 hair, not skinhead, ’cause my mum wouldn’t let me do that, and no DMS, you know, I wasn’t wearing jeans but I wasn’t looking terribly skinhead-ish. So my friends and I were coming out, and these guys look at me say, “Do you want something?” “You know, yeah, you wanted this?” And I said apparently, ’cause my friend told me the other day I said, “I think you’d regret that. “I think you’d find that was a mistake. “You really don’t want to do that.” And so, “What hey,” rather than sort of running away or saying, “Yeah, I’ll take you on mate.” I just sort of used irony apparently. So there you go, so irony is always your, that’s what I’m always, I often have this kind of a dream of, if somebody does want to mug me, I’ll suddenly go, “Blububu,” and so I think you might call that sort of disruption of their psychological model. As yet, I haven’t been mugged. But anyway, that time I just said, “I think you’d really regret beating me up.”
– By the way, I’ve done the same thing. And I actually was about to get beaten up, and I looked at the guy and went, “Have you got a six foot tree outside your house?” And he just, the neurological pathways got scrambled and he just looked at me and then forgot what he was trying to do. So now we come to the part of the show that is always very exciting. It’s quickfire questions.
– Okay, tadanta.
– Did I say that, like it’s got a jingle to be honest with you, but. I’ll make a jingle.
– Okay, who’s the funniest person in business you’ve ever met?
– Fru Hazlitt, Fru F-R-U Hazlitt, as in William Hazlitt, I think the plotter. she was the head of ITV Media. I saw her speak once she was a great speaker and it was an example to me of how great speaker in a conference can actually make a difference. And for, I would say for a long time, after 18 months, you know, people said, “Remember how good she was. “And that’s why we want to work for her.” Fru Hazlitt, F-R-U, she was ITV Media. She’s a non-exec director of Channel 4 now, she runs a group called La Piazza Group. I think she lives in Italy, but she was great. There are lots of others I might say, in improv who are not public figures like her. And I would say, I dare say, because comedy is sexist, women are great at improv ’cause they listen.
– Yeah, pardon? Oh, are we still on? What book makes you laugh?
– In the current, you use the present tense there, I was trying to think about books, of course, Douglas Adams “Hitchhiker’s Guide.” When I was younger, I did read funny books, nowadays, I read sort of management books, or non-fiction about World War II, but I must say the books I remember liking as a child, “Just William” by Richmal Crompton, who’s a wonderful. Just great stuff, Richmal Crompton, “Just William,” very good books.
– Yeah, no, I love those. What film makes you laugh?
– French films. Okay, I’ll tell you-
– That made me laugh as well, just the idea of French films.
– Oh, they’re great, there’s one called “Wild Target” with Jean Rochefort, who’s an assassin, but he’s also a kind of romantic and he’s learning English. He goes, “Hello, I am an assassin.” But I’m going to say “The Blues Brothers,” great film, funny, and it’s kind of what got me into improv ’cause I’d heard of Saturday Night Live. And then I did investigate it, what is Saturday Night Live? And I heard about Second City, and that’s when Mike Myers said, I’m from Second City. I could say, “Oh, I know what that is.”
– What word makes you laugh?
– Well, I was fairly early to the party on this, the word pants. This is before people said, “Eat his pants.” So I was trying to think of a funnier word, but I’m going to go with pants.
– But pants was always funny because I remember that you and Mike and me and my old band, we used to take turns every week to do TVAM Saturday morning television. And it was Mullarkey and Meyers one week, and Morris Minor and the Majors the other week. And we were used to do that. And there was a lot of use ’cause it was for children. There was a lot of use of the word pants, wasn’t there at the time? Always funny. Serious question, what’s not funny?
– Very serious, I think where you point at somebody else and says they’re different from me, racism, sexism. Nowadays, we think it’s okay to laugh at people like me, pale male and stale, and that’s fine. You can laugh at me, I can laugh at white middle-aged men. I don’t find using things like your mental, and have you taken the pills? I don’t find that funny. So ’cause one of the four of us has experience at least has experienced some sort of mental health issues. So I don’t find that funny.
– Yeah, would you rather consider yourself clever or funny?
– Well, it’s tricky, not quite quick fire. I think-
– No, it’s not quick fire, but then I should have, I actually should have prefaced this, that you went to Cambridge and then you were president of the Footlights. So it was kind of, you’ve covered both bases. I’m going to put you on the spot, clever or funny?
– Story is, I went to see an agent who represents lots of funny people, and I was having lunch with her, I knew she liked me, and I liked her work and she liked my work. And I said, you know, “If you could describe me in one word, “what would you say?” And she said, “Intelligent.” I was really disappointed. I was hoping, could you say funny or versatile? Intelligent, no, that’s terrible. And that’s what I started doing less and less showbiz and more and more of this stuff. So I guess, I think I’d like to be known as clever, funny.
– Okay, and finally, desert island gags, you’ve only got one gag that you can take with you to a desert island, what is it?
– What’s brown and sticky?
– I don’t know, what’s brown and sticky?
– A stick.
– Neil Mullarkey, it’s been an absolute pleasure. Thank you so much.
– Thank you, Paul, hurrah.
– The Humourology podcast was hosted by Paul Boross, and produced by Simon Banks, music by Steve Hayworth, 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.