Part of the Humourology series
Season 1, Episode 20
Advertising legend Rory Sutherland – Creativity through Comedy
Join Rory Sutherland and Paul Boross as they discuss How humour helps herald a successful marketing model, on this week’s Humourology Podcast.
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On this week’s episode of the Humourology Podcast Paul Boross is joined by Rory Sutherland, a multi-award-winning marketing master. As a legend in the advertising industry, Sutherland knows that creativity comes from crushing expectations with comedy. How does a run-of-the-mill toothpaste campaign become a memorable media moment? Sutherland says that thinking outside the box is the place to start.
“I think that the role of comedy and basically bursting assumptions is vital and probably It’s why we evolved a comedic instinct.”
Not only does Sutherland share wisdom from his legendary career in marketing, but he shows the universal importance of humour and creativity in any field of business. You will stay snickering as Sutherland shares a selection of stories about selling success this week on The Humourology Podcast.
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Rory Sutherland – Creativity through humour
– The tragic thing is nobody has ever looked at the possibility that comedy gave rise to the industrial revolution or that it has economic value.
– Welcome to the “Humourology Podcast” with me, Paul Boross, and my littering lineup of guests from the worlds of business, sport and entertainment who are going to share their wisdom and their use of humour. Humourology is the study of how humour can dramatically improve your business success and your life. Humourology puts the fun into business fundamentals, increases the value of your laughing stock and puts a punchline back into your bottom line. Please remember to like, subscribe, and leave a review wherever you get your podcasts. Our guest on this edition of the “Humourology Podcast” is a multi award-winning advertising industry legend. He is one of the most influential men in marketing and a charismatic promoter of psychology and behavioural science. He’s the vice chairman of Ogilvy and author of the bestselling book, “Alchemy: The Surprising Power of Ideas That Don’t Make Sense.” As a revolutionary, he revels in getting a reaction and running rings around traditional market research and micro economics, all whilst rightly being renowned for his rich and riotous humour. Rory Sutherland, welcome to the “Humourology Podcast.”
– Thank you very much for inviting me. It’s a fabulous idea.
– It’s a great pleasure. In your book “Alchemy,” you talk about advertising being fundamentally about human behaviour. The book is full of really, really funny stories. What part does humour play in influencing human behaviour?
– Part of the reason I think I latched onto behavioural science is that human behaviour, by which I mean the yawning gulf between how we pretend to think, decide and act and how we really behave and act is inherently comedic. It’s funny because everybody knows there is this discrepancy between the official rational explanation for our actions and what really lay behind them, the evolutionary or instinctive forces that truly drove them. And I always give this example of one of those things, which is toothpaste, which is the official rational explanation for why we buy and use toothpaste would involve prevention of cavities, dental health, et cetera. But let’s delve. We give the official kind of Colgate explanation for maintaining gum health, removing plaque, reducing the risk of cavities and fillings. Yet, when you look at two things, first of all when people really clean their teeth. It’s got nothing to do with this at all. Would you clean your teeth before a date? Almost certainly. Do you clean your teeth before sex? It kind of depends how long the relationship’s been going to be absolutely honest. Do you clean your teeth first thing in the morning before you go to the office? Yes. Do you clean your teeth after lunch when it would really make sense? Almost never. And you realise it’s much more driven by the vanity and fear of bad breath and by maybe having gunky teeth than anything to do with long-term dental health and further evidence for this, the fact that 98% of the world’s toothpaste is flavoured with mint. A lot of people don’t even like mint. Mint has no contribution to dental health, but it has a hell of a contribution to making your breath and mouth feel fresh and kind of wholesome. And you realise that what’s supposedly going on and what’s really going on are pretty much orthogonal. They’re not really correlated at all. And that kind of thing is funny because it’s the job of comedians in a sense to puncture the bubble of our own rationalist self delusions, and comedy and creativity in general, but comedy especially, does that remarkably well. And I think that role of comedy and basically bursting assumptions is vital and probably it’s why we evolved a comedic instinct. This is one of the most fascinating questions. Humour sits alongside music in one of those things that’s more or less common to all humanity. There are, by the way, small numbers of people who are completely amusical. And those apparently include both Che Guevara and Milton Friedman, the economist, who couldn’t really distinguish between music and random noise, but it’s an incredibly rare condition. And total humorlessness, okay, is pretty rare. There are people who are better or worse. There are people who are creators, whereas there are merely people who are consumers of humour, but total humorlessness in a person is actually alarming.
– Do you think that there is a correlation between complete humorlessness and dictatorships sometimes?
– Yeah, I wouldn’t like to be that bold. There is a series of films called “The Third Reich in Colour” and, of course, they’re silent films. Eva Braun was kind of a photographer’s assistant and Hitler was a keen amateur photographer and artist, and being Nazis, they would have had all the latest kit. And so they kind of filmed themselves in the Eagle’s Nest and they managed eventually to get a lip reader to work out what was being said. And there is actually quite a funny joke from Hitler, which is that he’s standing there kind of overlooking this huge kind of mountain scenery up in the Bavarian Alps as he’s probably pouring over maps or planning some conquest and Eva Braun comes out wearing this new dress and says, “No matter what I do with this dress, I just can’t get rid of this crease across the stomach.” To which Hitler replies, “And you think you’ve got problems?” Which has to be said, is essentially mildly amusing. Okay, I mean, you know. So I’m not confident of that. I certainly don’t make humour a kind of a moral judgement , but I do think that humor’s indicative of your ability to change your mind. Or it may be a way of signalling your ability to see the same thing from more than one perspective.
– So, therefore, in creative circles, and obviously in advertising you’re in very creative circles, you would actively encourage humour to be there for the creative process?
– Yeah, ’cause I’m quite keen on that Peter McGraw benign violation theory that there’s- So this is the thing with music, okay? Nearly all humans have a musical sense. Nearly all humans have some sort of appreciation of humour. And the question you’ve got to ask as an evolutionary psychologist is why. If this were disadvantageous, it presumably would have evolved out. Okay. So presumably this confers some- It could be what’s called a spandrel. Something that’s just emerged as a byproduct of something else. That’s possible. Music might have emerged, an appreciation of rhythm was selected for whatever reason, and then this somehow just transmogrified into a ludicrous kind of peacock’s tail of competitive signalling in musical ability. It could be just about display. Nassim Telab’s made the argument that humour is a way to signal intelligence without nerdiness. And so it might have a valuable dating function. ‘Cause you know, you could turn up on a date with your IQ findings or your Mensa memberships, but I don’t think it’d really help you pull whereas the ability to run off a quick off the cuff gag is proof of the same thing, but actually in a vastly more attractive way.
– Yeah. I completely agree because I think that people are always saying I’m attracted to a good sense of humour and everything, but then why does everybody on their dating profile-
– Yes. Why do they have that?
– I’ve made the point. I think a lot of comedians are close to being behavioural scientists by which I mean they’re evolutionary psychologists. Chris Rock many of his best pieces are really evolutionary psychology. I better not repeat them ’cause I kind of want to keep my job. But nonetheless, they’re fantastic. Jim Jefferies, for example, has that wonderful observation which is very similar to an observation I made independently which is male strippers always, even when nearly naked ended up wearing a tool belt or a fireman’s hat because women regardless of the circumstances still want to know that he’s got a job. Now that’s a piece of evolutionary psychology pure and simple, deployed in the comedic world. My own observation was that if rationality were all that attractive in evolutionary terms, male strippers would dressed as accountants, not as fireman.
– Oh yeah.
– Okay. So there’s an element of this, which is really, really important. And I think in Jimmy Carr you could say the same thing. He’s patently interested in evolutionary psychology. I suspect that Cleese is. I suspect that evolutionary psychology is essentially closely related to humour in many ways. And there’s that whole thing of kind of, first of all, it’s a kind of endorphin reward for noticing things. It’s an endorphin reward for noticing things and interpreting them in a different or fresh way. It’s also an evolutionary reward for simple imagination, for absurdity, incongruity and so on. Let’s put it very simply. There are far more great ideas out there waiting to be discovered in the ether. There are far more great ideas there that can be post-rationalized than there are great ideas that can be pre-rationalized. Therefore, rationality in the scientific method simply will not get us to the majority of good ideas on its own. And if you look at science, the vast bulk I would argue of really significant breakthroughs have been kind of made by accident. I mean, penicillin being the most famous. But vaccination was anecdotal, right? It was kind of have you noticed that dairy maids don’t tend to get smallpox? One of the things we don’t look at nearly enough because we have this totally naive faith in the rational process to bring us all good things that are potentially out there is we don’t look at the value of things where the value is not in their precision, but quite the opposite. It’s in massively expanding the possible solution space for any problem. And so the reason I’m kind of a bit famous accidentally is I made a kind of gag on TED where I said, “Look, they’re spending six billion reducing the journey time between Paris and London. And they’re laying down new tracks between St. Pancras and Folkestone on the coast and this’ll reduce the journey time by about 40 minutes. It’ll cost six billion quid.” And then I said, “You know, serious point, well, are we absolutely sure that you wouldn’t achieve the same extra desirability of the journey, not by reducing its duration, but by simply putting wifi on the trains, which wouldn’t cost six billion. It would cost about 48. If you wanted sort of 5G along the tracks, it would probably cost 50 or 60 million, but it might actually have a greater effect in getting people to abandon the aircraft for the train.” And then I added the gag. If you really want to go large here, why don’t you just employ all of the world’s top male and female supermodels, get them to walk up and down the train handing out free Chateau Petrus to all the passengers. It’ll only cost you about a billion pounds and then people will ask for the trains to be slowed down.” Right? Now, that is an absurdist joke, but it’s making a really serious point, which is that are we exclusively focusing on the numerical metric that engineers love, which is duration of journey and speed of train and usability of rolling stock. And we’re completely neglecting the real human reasons, the toothpaste reasons, why someone might choose a train to go to Paris rather than the plane. And what you’ve actually done is you’ve frozen humanity out of the equation with your stupid transport economics value metrics. To a great extent, humour is R&D for serious thought. It can play that role. And if you apply the same standard as censorship to humorous suggestions that you would apply to serious ones, you’re in danger of a huge opportunity cost, which is no one now feels free to be slightly silly because of the attendant risk of scandal and shame and so forth. And that strikes me as very, very dangerous. So when you talk about dictatorship and humour, yeah. I mean, I wouldn’t go as far to say that you’re not very funny, so you’re a Nazi, okay? I certainly wouldn’t go that far, but I’d say that collective efforts to outlaw humorous or surreal behaviour would strike me as deeply alarming because it’s the characteristic of a regime that to be honest can’t afford a jester, okay? If you can’t afford the court jester, you’ve got something to hide or deep down you know you’re doing something wrong.
– No, I think that’s fascinating. In terms of business because you’ve been at the top of the advertising business.
– No, I’m not at the top. I’ve found myself a niche.
– I’m a vice chairman, which gives me a certain amount of ability to ring people up and say I’m the vice chairman. They don’t trust me with the money. It’s very difficult in modern business to actually progress without entering this tedious adminisphere where you spend your whole time looking at spreadsheets and reporting shit.
– Well, that’s what I really wanted to ask you about is because you’ve seen how business functions and how can you make business function with more fun.
– It terrifies me. Okay, this is Sutherland’s law, right? Which is any creative suggestion, and this is true in business, even more true in government. Government doesn’t really welcome creative suggestions ’cause it’s not looking to make good decisions. It’s looking to avoid blame, which is why I’m weirdly a bit of a Tory oddly. Okay. But yeah. I find institutional decision-making deeply alarming. I’m actually anarcho-syndicalist as well. I hate bureaucracy, okay? It genuinely fills me with, I’d rather live in a tyranny than in a bureaucracy ’cause the tyrant might be quite nice if you luck out or you can make friends with him, right? Or he might have a sense of humour. But a really bad bureaucracy kills everything. What happens typically in businesses is this bizarre double standard, okay? If you are a creative person, you come up with a creative oblique, unexpected, surprising idea. You will have to present it for approval to lots and lots of really, really rational people. And they’ll do a cost benefit analysis, a feasibility study, God knows what else, okay. Now I think that’s fine. I don’t think that’s unreasonable. I don’t think showing ideas to people with a different mindset is a bad principle. Now, my problem is that never happens the other way round. If you have a bunch of accountants in a room and they come to a conclusion, they never say, “Well before we go and put this into action, let’s share idea with some really wacky people to see if they can come up with a more interesting solution.” And so there’s a double standard. There’s no symmetry, which is rational people think there’s nothing outside rationality. Whereas creative people are always subjected to rational evaluation and as a result, there’s an enormous opportunity cost out there in business just to expose boring, conventional assumptions to a little bit of a court jester treatment.
– I think that’s brilliant. That’s actually perfect for the whole “Humorology Project.” It’s actually tip it on its head. If you’re going to do one, you should be doing the other.
– Do the other.
– Yeah, absolutely.
– Let me tell you a story. What fascinates me is that rational people and I include the board of directors of advertising agencies in this. This isn’t just confined to the worst bureaucracies. They have a mindset where if you disrupt their map of the world. It’s what I call The Tube map fallacy, which is first of all, The Tube map, a model of the world, starts off being useful. The Tube map was undoubtedly useful. It helped you navigate The Tube. Then what happens is the map starts replacing the reality. And then people start thinking The Tube map is a map of London and this leads to total absurdity. So I had friends of friends who moved from Fulham, which for some deluded reason is considered in Central London ’cause it’s on The Tube. Frankly, it’s so far fucking west it should have its own timezone. It’s practically a suburb of Oxford. I can get into work from Sevenoaks much quicker than people can from Fulham. But because it’s on The Tube, it’s Central London. Okay, right? And they moved to Herne Hill. Now because they moved to Herne Hill, it wasn’t on The Tube and it had hill in the name. So they were basically expecting “Deliverance” to be absolutely honest. I don’t mean the pizza delivery firm, I mean the film with John Voight. And much to their total bemusement on their first day at work, they discovered their journey to work. They were moving out ’cause they’d had a kid and they wanted a few extra bedrooms. Their journey to work took half as long as it did from Fulham. And this had never occurred to them because they’d been looking at The Tube map. And what’s interesting is that certain people, bad engineers, bad finance people, bad economists become so attached to their map the attempt to actually impose or suggest a different way of looking at the world is met not with gratitude, but with annoyance. Now let me tell you a story, which is almost un-be-fucking-lievable. Now I made the point that the brief for High Speed 2 is reduced journey time from London to Birmingham to Manchester, right? And it’s also increased capacity between London and Manchester. And this is costing 60, 80, 90 billion quid, right? It’ll probably cost a 100 and something by the time it’s finished. I’m not even clear that it’s a good idea because in psychological terms there’s a huge difference between saving what High Speed 1 does, okay, which is people who live in Canterbury save an hour a day, 200 times a year, travelling into London. That’s a big deal. Now nobody travels between London and Manchester 100 times a year. If you do, you don’t need a train, you need an estate agent. And I argue, look saving an hour’s journey time six times a year for a million people isn’t really very relevant, right? It doesn’t change behaviour significantly. For me, a trip to Manchester involves a unit of time, which is called a day out of the office, right? And I’ve never woken up in the morning and said, “I would go to Manchester today, but it just takes half an hour too long.” Right?
– It’s rather like the comedian’s observation about the Edinburgh tram. The Scottish comedian says of the widely despised Edinburgh tram. He said, “Have you ever sat at the bus stop and looked at a bus approaching and thought, if only that thing was unable to steer.” Okay, which is really a tram is an elongated bus, which is incapable of even the most basic manoeuvring. There are benefits to trams. I won’t go into the whole argument of the thing, but here’s what happened. I said, “Look, you’re spending 80 billion to achieve this. I can do it for a million quid.” And they said, “Well, obviously that’s rubbish.” I said, “No, no, it’s easy.” Right, first of all, you redefine journey time not as the time spent on the train. That’s the good bit of the journey. I liked the time on the train. Okay, I can work. I’ve got wifi, I’ve got a plug. People bring me cups of tea. And the reason they bring me cups of tea is ’cause I bought an advance first ticket which costs about 50 quid. Because if you buy an open second class ticket it costs you about 200. So I’m not being a total moron. I choose the halfway option and I buy an advanced ticket, but I can’t afford to miss that train, can I? Because if I’m five minutes late for my pre-book train, my ticket is void and I have to spend 200 quid on a full fare, open, last minute ticket. So I always turn up at Euston with about 45 to 35 minutes to spare and I bum around Burger King uselessly or whatever. Or go to the funny first class lounge or whatever it might be. Anyway, that’s a total waste of time compared to the time on the train, which is enjoyable, productive, and useful. Now in that time, in that 45 minutes, two prior trains leave Euston for Manchester, 20 and 40 minutes before my own. And typically they’re half empty, right? Now, all you need is an app, which says I’m at Euston mate.” That used to be Richard Branson, but I think he sold or lost the franchise, hasn’t he? But when I originally suggested it was, it was Branson. And I said, “You need an app where you press a button and go look, I’m at Euston you berk, beardy twat, right?” And he could say, “Pay five quid. And you can board the train 20 minutes early and sit in the seat J8 or pay 40 quid, pay 10 quid, 15 quid, you can board the train 20 minutes early, 40 minutes early and have seat J10.” And I go, “It’s a deal.” Board a train. My journey time is reduced by 40 minutes. But wait, there’s more as they used to say in direct marketing. But wait, there’s more because by allowing people to occupy empty seats on earlier trains, you actually increase the capacity of the whole network. Now, how do I explain that? You shouldn’t allow people to travel on later trains. Because a seat rail seat is a perishable good, right? Now wait for this. I say this to someone who works in the rail industry and this is the response I got. Now you’d expect them to go, “Thanks very much mate. You’ve just saved a 60 billion quid, Have free transport for life, right?
– I’m not even saying you shouldn’t build High Speed 2. I’m saying it is totally deranged and stupid to build High Speed 2 until you have tried this vastly cheaper solution. So I’m saying, “Look at the very least you should try this before you build a fucking great railway line through a load of trees.” Which nobody wants by the way, not even northerners. Part of the problem is if you actually live in Manchester and you travel to London a lot, you don’t actually live in Manchester ’cause you live in Cheshire in a massive blinged up mansion with a swimming pool shaped like a dollar sign, right? Now, therefore, you actually board the train at Southport. You don’t boat in the wrong direction to go into Manchester. So High Speed 2 will actually make the blinged up people of Cheshire will make the journey into London actually more awkward than it was before ’cause the trains won’t stop at Southport ’cause they’re going too fucking fast. It’s Stockport, sorry. I’m terribly sorry. Stockport, isn’t it, just south of Manchester. Now anyway. So I point this out to rail people and go, “Look, this is the inarguable solution, which costs a tiny fraction which just comes from actually asking a few different questions and reframe the problem.” Do you know what the guy said? He said, “Yeah, but if you did that and you reduced waiting time at the station, you’d lose out on retail sales.” And I’m going, okay these people are fucking insane and shouldn’t be allowed near decision-making. You can criticise comedians, but this is a guy basically saying we’re spending 80 billion pounds to prop up a branch of Oliver Bonas. Well, I don’t want to be rude, but I’m sure there are cheaper ways of doing that. Right?
– Every high-speed fucking train journey comes with a 50 quid Oliver Bonas voucher. That would probably do it quite well. But I mean, this is true of economists. They settle on a narrow single model of how the world works and they love it for the extent to which removes the risk of subjectivity, the risk of blame and the extent to which it removes possible ambiguity. And then they cleave to that model for every goddamn decision they take. And it’s basically a form of intelligent stupidity because education selects what… John Cleese is very good on his latest book on creativity, right? The whole education system, as he points out, sort of selects for an ability at context-free reasoning. Yet real life and evolution selects for your ability to use a different model of the world according to the context. And I might argue that humour is an evolutionary mechanism that gives you an endorphin reward for context shifting in some shape or form, right? And actually if your board meeting’s full of a bunch of people telling gags you shouldn’t be worried, you should be delighted, but it never happens because we acquire this thing called the higher twaddle, which means that now I’m in serious business decision maker or policy mode, I have to endlessly use words like cost benefit analysis. And I can’t talk about like, should we make this purple? Right?
– I couldn’t operate in the board meeting. I’ve just been invited to apply for a non-executive position on a board, and I realised no, no, no, I do want to do this. I don’t want to sit on a board where 90% of the time is spent basically as a masturbatory male contest in balance sheet reading and saying, “I noticed that this variable has gone up by 3% on a year on year basis.” There’s no fucking value created by doing that. What I want to do is create a separate parallel comedic board, which actually looks at things through a completely different lens.
– Can I be on that board?
– Yeah, no. You’ll be the first non-executive director, I think.
– Well, no, in psychology there’s this saying that the map is not the territory. So you don’t get-
– No, no, it’s famously attributed to a guy who used to play jokes on his students whose name I’ve briefly forgotten, but he used to actually bring the same guy, and it’s in my book, used to bring dog biscuits into his room, but in a plain wrapper and he’d feed them to people and they’d all munch away deliciously thinking they were eating biscuits and he’d suddenly remove the outer wrapper and reveal that these people were eating dog biscuits, at which point I think one person was physically sick, three people ran out of the room to wretch and he made the point you see that you don’t only consume a food, you also consume words, which is a fantastic justification of advertising and marketing by the way.
– Oh, brilliant, yeah. Pavlov’s biscuits.
– Yeah, beautiful, beautiful.
– What makes you laugh, Rory?
– Almost everything. I’ve got a very, very. I’ll have to admit to being a very, very big Stewart Lee fan. I thought the routine he gave in Scotland where he basically does this benign violation thing in a brilliant way, essentially abusing Scottish national heroes while somehow getting away with it. Now that’s an advertising thing benign violation, okay? This is why, we have a thing in advertising called planning and that’s where you decide what the advertising should say. And then you hand it to a creative department who then decide how to say it. Now that’s a gross oversimplification, but it’s a total flaw because there are things you can say in a funny way that are appalling if you say them directly. The point is it enables you to say something with wit and charm and humour that if you said it directly would make you an unpleasant person or would get you a punch in the face. That’s why I find the Stewart Lee performance in Glasgow. absolutely fascinating because it is the classic case of extreme benign violation. Stewart Lee also breaks rules by insulting other comedians. Particularly by insulting observational comedy. The tragic thing is I like it when he does it because it’s funny, but I actually like observational comedy. I don’t see anything wrong with noticing things that other people haven’t noticed. And this is by the way, if you look at Colgate, right, I mentioned at the very beginning, there’s the official reason, dental health, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah and then there’s the real reason, which is the vanity and the fear of not having fresh breath. Now Colgate has to ingeniously come up with a phrase ‘the ring of confidence’, which covers both eventualities. So it covers both what you might call the official explanation for why we clean our teeth. I’m going to the dentist. Look, Mum, no fillings. And the unofficial reason, which is you’re turning up on some Tinder date and you’re not utterly paranoid that your mouth smells like a cess pit.
– Yeah, that’s right.
– We’ve all done it. I mean, actually, the tragic thing is nobody has ever looked at the possibility that comedy gave rise to the industrial revolution or that it has economic value. And it occurs to me in economics, right, the invisible hand mechanism as posited by Adam Smith, which is a beautiful insight and terribly valuable, but the assumption of the mathematical economists is that it works automatically. We are automatically self-interested and, therefore, the invisible hand needs to be powered by nothing other than individual self-interest in two parties who can then engage in an exchange which is mutually beneficial. I’m suddenly reading this the other day and reading Deirdre McCloskey stuff and going this is bollocks. It requires an act of imagination to get to valuable mutual exchange. And it occurs to me that actually one necessary requirement of any kind of economic activity is a degree of imagination required to see how this might, in other words, you have to envisage yourself both in the other person’s shoes and you have to envisage the collective outcome of this joint effort. You’re not going to get the heights of the economy like TK Maxx, right? Not joking there by the way. I tend to look at economic activity. Bear in mind I’m right of centre. Interestingly, by the way, and you’ve got to bear this in mind, consumers of comedy lean right according to Peter McGraw. Right-wing people basically find more things funny than left-wing people do. So it’s ironic that in a sense, comedy leans left and it may be, of course, a market optimization strategy which is if you’re a right-wing comic you’re stuck with the right-wing audience. Whereas if you’re a left-wing comic, everybody will turn up. I dunno, okay?
– Yeah, maybe.
– It could be a market size growth strategy, which is, well, I’ve got to be a lefty to appeal to the lefties. It’s a bit like, you get all those things. It’s why you serve wine at a party, right, ’cause blokes will drink anything, but 30% of women won’t drink beer. So that’s why you serve red and white wine. Blokes would all prefer to drink beer. A lot of the women would prefer to drink beer ’cause beer’s a better drink. I’m a half teasing there, I’m only joking.
– Oh, I know.
– But actually 30% of women don’t drink beer. So, oh God, if I want to please everybody I’ve got to have like five alcoholic drinks at this party. Oh, blokes’ll drink anything red or white. The interesting thing there just to be clear about this is that nobody’s looked at essentially the economic value of a mechanism that encourages you to think imaginatively and hypothetically, but that’s exactly what comedy does.
– Do you think it’s important for people to be able to laugh at themselves? Can you laugh at yourself? I think you can. Is it, do you think that in business.
– It helps to do that?
– Business is quite good anyway ’cause it’s much better than academia. And it’s much better than government because it’s one sphere of activity where you actually get paid to change your mind. If the facts change and you suddenly realise God that decision I really believed in five years ago looks like I made a mistake. It actually pays you to do something different. Government, the reputational consequences of a U-turn or admitting that a prior decision you made were wrong are entirely negative. So business does actually incentivize a certain degree open-mindedness. But I’d also argue as Jimmy Carr does with his story about the jester and the court of the Chinese emperor who wanted to paint the Great Wall. And it was only the jester who could finally get across the absurdity of this. Comedy has a value in that also in that it makes it possible possibly. Benign violation is where it’s possible to be cheeky to someone without the usual status risk or the risk of physical retaliation. Peter McGraw looks at things like tickling and play among cub animals, young animals. Extraordinary amount of human activity is given to play because it’s effectively a way, it’s a flight simulator for life. It’s a way to safely explore hypothetical possibilities. Now, if you look at a flight simulator you don’t want to basically put a pilot in a plane and throw birds into both engines because one bad decision and the guy’s dead, but on a flight simulator you can actually create those conditions under circumstances with a lower downside risk. And in the same way play does that. It creates circumstances where you’re rewarded for being slightly cheeky to your boss, for example. Someone told me it’s essential in the software industry because the weird thing about the software industry is the guys doing the coding are actually better coders than their boss. So if you have a massively strict hierarchy where everybody defers to the boss, they end up just shutting up, biting their lip and doing really stupid things. So among software coders, you need an atmosphere where you could go something like, boss says, “I want you to do this.” Coder replies, “Yeah, I could do that if it was 1987, but fortunately we have this new invention called so-and-so which allows us to do it much better.” And the boss can then go, “Fair play mate, I take your point.” Now, if you had a very high status distance thing and you didn’t have humour that would be a major social dilemma to solve that problem.
– So could you make a business case for introducing more humour into business?
– What would you include?
– Well, it would be humour in the cockpit. So if you took the highest status distance culture going, which is Korean culture. There were cases where Korean planes were flying into hillsides.
– That’s right.
– Or crashing into the ground. And the reason was the level of deference was so high that when the senior pilot was flying, you would actually get on the voice recorder sentences like, “Sir, I think we have found the altimeter has proved particularly useful to us today.” And that was pretty much the guy’s last words. Now on Air New Zealand, which has the lowest power distance in the world, the stewardess can come into the cockpit and go, “Look, you dickhead, you’re going to crash into a fucking hill.” Now there’s a huge value to being able to bypass standard hierarchies in any social setting and without humour it’s bloody difficult to do this.
– I agree, I agree. And I think it’s one of the best business cases that I’ve actually heard for introducing it.
– Maybe that’s my next book is the business. Basically, I’ve defended ideas that don’t make sense. Now I need to go full out and defend ideas which are downright stupid. But as I said, there are far more good ideas out there that you can post-rationalize than there are great ideas that you can pre-rationalize.
– Well, I think the magic ingredient in everything is being funny, isn’t it? Because it’s the shift in everything, whether that’s bonding with people, whether that’s creativeness, I think it is the magic that turns everything on.
– I’ll tell you a lovely story, which is a true story. Which is a fight escalating in South Africa. It’s told to me by a friend who lived in Durban. And I’m fairly sure it actually happened to someone he knew, so it probably isn’t apocryphal. Which is two guys get into some minor road rage incident and the guy gets out of the front of the car and he takes out a baseball bat out of the trunk of the car. And the other guy goes to the trunk of his car and he takes out something like a samurai sword or something even more ridiculous. And then the other guy takes out a handgun. And then the other guy takes out some sort of automatic weapon. What happens next? They both laugh. They put the weapons back in the respective trucks of the car and they drive off. Now that’s kind of magical, right? Because you’ve suddenly diffused what seems to be an inescapable escalation. You notice this is a terrible, terrible joke. I’m going to lose my job for this, okay. But we love buying German manufactured goods, don’t we? We’re not so keen on German service industries. Have you notice that?
– Right. ‘Cause you’ve actually got to meet them. So Lufthansa should be the most desirable airline in the world, shouldn’t it really logically.
– It should be because you know they’re going to get the engines right. Everything’s going to be pretty reliable. Strangely no. And actually there’s a very interesting thing, which is someone said among the Ogilvy people who are kind of Asia hands. They said, everybody started off working in Ogilvy Asia loving Singapore Airlines and then they gradually migrated to Cathay Pacific. And the reason they did is when it’s perfect Singapore Airlines is absolutely perfect. But as soon as something trivial goes wrong, they don’t know how to cope. They don’t know how to improvise. And there’s a kind of thing there, which is the fact that improv is a form of comedy. And they said, you know Singapore Airlines would be almost like that Douglas Adams. This wouldn’t be a complete talk on comedy without a little bit of a paean to Douglas Adams. That case where the algorithm had prevented that spacecraft from taking off because they were short of lemon-scented moistened towelettes and, therefore, the passengers had been put into suspended animation for 30,000 years while waiting for the aircraft to turn up. And apparently my colleagues said that was a bit of the case with Singapore Airlines. Whereas Cathay had a bit of improv. They go, “We’ll tell you what, why don’t we just do this?” And the ability to improvise on the fly is, of course, much more valuable in reality than it is in the planned environment. But that’s the kind of thing where in a service industry actually having a sense of humour and maybe a sense that the capabilities to see the world through a slightly broader complex lens might be actually valuable.
– It’s crucial. We’ve come to very quickly, because it’s gone in a flash, we’ve come to the part of the show which we call quick fire questions ♪ Quick fire questions ♪
– Bugger, okay. Okay, what are you going to do?
– I love it. Well, no, I’m going to ask you some quick questions and you have to give reasonably quick answers if you would. Who’s the funniest business person you’ve met, Rory?
– That’s a good one. The bar’s not terribly high, is it? Actually a behavioural science academic Paul Dolan at the LSE, very funny guy. And I value him for that. Dilip Soman. Actually the behavioural science crowd generally. I mean that in business. In advertising, actually there was a guy who tragically lost his job called Nick Emery, who was a, I know it rhymes with Dick Emory. I’m not sure if they’re related or not, But Nick Emory at Mindshare lost his job for a kind of Zoom stunt where he used a urinal during a Zoom meeting, from behind I might add, okay? And so Americans, I think, complained about it. Now, I’m not entirely comfortable about that to be absolutely honest.
– No, me neither. What book makes you laugh?
– PG Woodhouse, “The Clicking of Cuthbert” is probably the funniest single… It’s worth remembering that Douglas Adams used to take PG Woodhouse paragraphs and sentences and spend hours essentially reverse engineering them to work out what it was that made them so funny. And it can be right down to cadence or rhythm. You know the wrong word in the wrong place. Stewart Lee writes about this. I love comedians who are a little bit of introspective. I mean, you know, you’ve got Jimmy Carr, you’ve got Stewart Lee. The people who actually write about their own process.
– What film makes you laugh?
– That’s something that worries me by the way, which is Americans have a very different history to us, but they speak the same goddamn language, right? And it does slightly annoy me. It’s our language. They’re using it under licence as far as I’m concerned. And yet when they start policing our language a little bit, when we’re operating under different circumstances. I’ve got a lot of abuse on Twitter once, right. Now I’m a half Welsh. And this very cute picture of a sheep which was peeking out behind a kind of menhir or stone thing. And I just tweeted saying, you know Welsh Tinder just gets better by the day, right? Now I got a lot of abuse by Americans about that. Now, I had to point out, look, there are certain forms of humour where the Welsh have actually done this, where being accused of basically having sex with sheep would I agree under conventional circumstances be something of an insult, slightly demeaning, wouldn’t it? For some reason, the Welsh have decided to play that extraordinary trump card where you just turn it into a badge of honour. And there’s, well, of course. Nothing too young mind. Now, of course, the American doesn’t understand that context at all. I had to explain, look, I am half Welsh. I can’t explain why in the same way that Wisconsin fans of the, I don’t know, the Milwaukee Brewers or, what’s the other one, the people up the thing, Green Bay Packers, right. They wear cheese wedges on their heads because they were abusively called cheese heads.
– Owing it.
– Tories, of course. Tory was an insult and they just owned the insult. Right?
– And owning the insults is a strategy, right? But it’s often not widely understood outside a particular context.
– By the way you’ve answered my next question, which is, what’s not funny. And it would seem that that is not funny.
– No, no, no, no. It’s simply you have to give, I mean, if you create effectively an environment where judgement is not given the benefit of the doubt and isn’t given any contextual understanding, you’re free to police language without any understanding of wider context. Language is more or less dead. It essentially becomes kind of merely factual. Poetry’s dead. Playwriting’s dead. Alf Garnett’s probably dead. Right, okay?
– Yeah. Would you rather be considered clever or funny?
– Without a shadow of a doubt?
– Yeah, you can be clever in a worthless way, right? It’s not really. I mean, our education systems selects as I said, for context-free intelligence. It’s for solving artificial problems where you have all the data required to arrive at a single right answer. Nothing in the real world is like that. Nothing in business decision making is, well according to our model, we should do X, so, therefore. Because you never have enough information. The information is either not numerically quantifiable or commensurable. Or else your competitors are hiding the information they need from you. So instinctive intelligence as demonstrated by humour is always going to be a better bet than artificial kind of numerical academic intelligence as we inculcate in our education system.
– So finally, Rory, desert island gags. If you could only take one joke with you to a desert island, what would that joke be?
– Oh my God. Bloody hell. Yeah, the gag I’d take with me would be undoubtedly Biggus Dickus from “The Life of Brian.”
– Oh hilarious.
– The whole setting where there is one person. Okay, I have. Okay. That combined with the effort of the legionaries trying not to laugh. I don’t know if it’s very public school specific. It might be being Python. My brother went to watch “The Meaning Of Life” in a cinema in Zurich where it was actually shown in English, but with subtitles in three languages. And he noticed that there was absolutely, it was particularly problematic ’cause they were laughing five seconds before everybody else in the cinema. But it was doubly problematic when you got to the line about putting linseed oil on the school cormorant. Which, of course, my brother and his friends found hysterically funny, but then five seconds later, it comes up in the, what is it, the French and German translation and there’s considerable amusement. So that’s highly sort of context specific and location specific, but Biggus Dickus I suspect is universal.
– Well. It’s just I’m still laughing at Biggus Dickus and I’m meant to wrap this up.
– Does that reflect badly on me?
– No, it’s very funny. I need to say well, it’s, and also it leads me to go.
– I was a trainee teacher for a year and I suddenly realised I couldn’t do the job because you had to pretend to find the better jokes from the pupils unfunny, and I couldn’t do it. ‘Cause kids are funny. Working class people are often funnier than posh people, aren’t they, right? Kids are funnier than adults in many respects. And I basically found it impossible. ‘Cause A, I was supposed to take it deadly seriously when someone was caught smoking behind the bike sheds and I couldn’t bring myself to care. But the second problem was I knew it was hugely disruptive if a kid told a joke in class and the teacher visibly laughed because it encouraged everybody to compete to become the class clown. But to be absolutely honest, that’s what I was doing. I suddenly realised, okay, this isn’t for me.
– Well, with the closing on the gag of Biggus Dickus, I have to say Rory Sutherland, thank you for being a wonderful guest on the “Homourology Podcast.” 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.