Part of the Humourology series
Season 1, Episode 26
William Hague – Using Humour to Create and Connect
Former Secretary of State William Hague joins Paul Boross and The Humourology Podcast to discuss humour’s role in the House of Commons. Hague draws on years of experience to share how levity can engage your audience. Want to stand out and make mirthful memories for the masses? Join us this week on The Humourology podcast.
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Former Foreign Secretary William Hague joins Paul Boross to discuss humour’s place in politics. Hague draws on years of experience in Parliament and Global politics to share stories of levity and laughter from his stint as Secretary of State. Hague says that a touch of mirth in the right moment can make for a memorable encounter.
“The ones who do have some humour to defuse a situation and make a connection to make a point memorable, do have an extra advantage.”
As an amazing after-dinner speaker, Hague gives advice on building a speech from the ground up. Much like a building, Hague suggests that your message is your foundation and humour can act as the window dressing. The laughter draws your listener in, and your message makes you memorable.
Hague is a firm believer that laughter is the lifeblood of creation. In both business and foreign affairs, a smile and a snicker can set up a succinct solution. Join us this week on the Humourology Podcast to learn how a bit of laughter can provide all of life’s answers.
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William Hague on the Humourology Podcast
– Humour has a big role in giving people perspective and allowing them to bond together. It’s got a very big role in creativity in particular.
– Welcome to the Humourology podcast with me, Paul Boross and my glittering lineup of guests from the worlds of business, sport, politics and entertainment, who are going to share their wisdom and their use of humour with you. Humourology is the study of how humour can dramatically improve your business and your life. Humourology puts the fun into business fundamentals, increases the value of your laughing stock and puts a punchline back into your bottom line. Please remember to like, subscribe and leave a review wherever you get your podcasts. My guest on this edition of the humourology podcast was a prominent political leader for more than 20 years serving as Conservative Party leader, Foreign Secretary and leader of the House of Commons. In 2015, the Queen conferred on him a life peerage and he now sits in the House of Lords. Having known many global leaders with firsthand knowledge of the likes of Tony Blair, George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin, he speaks from rich experience about different styles of leadership. With a combination of true Yorkshire wit and natural comic timing, good humour is at the heart of everything he does. Due in no small part to his mouthful manner, he is rightly regarded as an exceptional keynote speaker and raconteur. He was even once hailed by Hillary Clinton, as the David Beckham of toasting. William Hague, welcome to the humourology podcast.
– Thank you very much, Paul. Great to be with you.
– Well, it’s an absolute pleasure to have you here. When you were Foreign Secretary, you visited more countries than any other Foreign Secretary in history which I believe was 83 countries. Did you find that humour helps get rapport and connection with people around the world?
– Well, it does help a little bit. You have to be careful as Foreign Secretary, of course because you’re dealing with very serious situations, with war and conflict and refugee flows and so-and-so. But humour is less appropriate in the job of Foreign Secretary than in most jobs, and you could watch when Boris Johnson was Foreign Secretary, he’s a naturally humourous person, he almost had to teach himself out of being humourous. You have to be more serious. Nevertheless, there are amusing things that happen. There was one time at the United Nations Security Council where I witnessed another foreign minister read out the speech of the wrong country. He’d just picked up his colleague’s and he got well into this speech before he realised it couldn’t possibly be his country that he was talking about. He was welcoming fellow Portuguese speakers to the council and he wasn’t a Portuguese speaker. And so when you’re a Foreign Secretary, things like that pass for amusing, that is not really, it’s not a sort of rip roaring joke or anything but things happen that you have to find amusement in when you’re Foreign Secretary. And of course, yeah, sometimes humour diffuses a situation in a private meeting and you can enjoy a joke or sport together. You just mentioned Putin, I took him to the Olympics, I hosted him at the Olympics in London in 2012. I did judo, well he’s a big enthusiastic about judo. So we were able to go and sit and watch the judo together and really enjoy… every time a Russian was playing judo, they were always winning. We now know, of course subsequently all the drugs that were being used to ensure they won but our relations were better. Our relations with Russia were better that day than they’ve ever been before or since in modern times, I think, because we were enjoying a more jovial occasion together.
– So does Putin have a great sense of humour when it comes to sort of, more sort of, when he’s doing something he enjoys like judo?
– Well, yes in the sense that, yeah, he can become an animated person in those circumstances. And we were certainly very happy, when… as soon as a Russian won a gold medal, he was over to them to kiss them, they didn’t look like they really wanted to be kissed by their president but he was rushing over to embrace and kiss them. And then Putin, he really laughed and smiled a lot. And we had champagne and his aides all looked like really sort of thank heaven that the Russian won, because we weren’t going to go back to Moscow until a Russian won, and now he’s happy. And he was really genuinely, patriotically and personally happy about it. So even to leaders like that, who we disapprove of in so many ways, there is a human side and you can have some human connection with them.
– Do you think that humour humanises people generally in your experience?
– Yeah, absolutely. Yes, it is part of the way we relate to each other. I think humour has a big role in giving people perspective and allowing them to bond together. It’s got a very big role in creativity in particular. Here, I’m digressing a bit here into something else, but when I was preparing for Prime Minister’s Questions against Tony Blair, which I did hundreds of times, I used to have a team of people working with me. Well-known people subsequently Daniel Finkelstein, George Osborne, were my team. And a lot of the time we were actually coming up with humourous and ridiculous things that we couldn’t really deploy at Prime Minister’s Questions. One time we were, as Christmas was coming, we were saying, well, we could ask Tony Blair, does he believe in Santa Claus? Because if he says, yes, the headline will be, ‘Blair age 48 still believes in Father Christmas’. And if he says, no, the headline will be ‘Blair ruins Christmas for millions of children’. So we’ve got him, he can’t say yes, and he can’t say no. Now we couldn’t really ask him without me looking ridiculous. Does he believe in Santa Claus? But it triggers a train of thought, well, what are all the other things we can ask him which are much more serious where he can’t say yes and he can’t say no and so we will have caught him. You know, we’ll have got him in a difficult situation on the floor of the House of Commons. So to me, humour is very good at creating serious thoughts. It actually helps your brain onto other, it encourages lateral thinking really, Particularly when you’re in a group of people.
– So it helps creativity, essentially if you have a lightness in the room?
– Absolutely because the mind enjoys that, of course. And something that your mind naturally enjoys and take part in actually helps everything to flow. And so provided that humour is appropriate, and it’s not offending anyone, well, then it helps everybody in the room to take part in what’s going on and gives them a connection with each other. There’s no doubt about that.
– We had to ask Alastair Campbell on the podcast and we were talking to him and I actually have a quote from him, he said that William Hague was so funny in the House of Commons with his dry one liners. We worked out, this was his biggest strength and we had to try and disable it. Were you aware that they were trying to disable it?
– I had a little bit of awareness because there was, after about 18 months of these Question Times there was a leaked memo, a leaked Downing Street memo that basically said, Blair was sending out a message to his staff of “help me” and we need new ways of dealing with Prime Minister’s Questions. And his way of dealing with it became to suggest that you could be good at jokes but have hopeless judgement , so that he always had an answer. And that was probably in political terms of perfectly effective answer. But it didn’t stop me making jokes at his expense, partly because I didn’t have much else going for me. I was way behind in opinion polls, my party was in ruins after the previous election. And also it was my way of making somebody who was very powerful, look a little bit ridiculous at times. And I regard that as being in a great British tradition and a great democratic tradition that it’s important, the more powerful somebody is, the more we have to have a bit of irreverence towards them. And also it was one way of undermining him on his own side and making them laugh at him. And again, when somebody is so important and powerful, it’s just too tempting to do that. So when I used to say things like, when he was having a terrible time with the Mayor of London, and I said, well why doesn’t he split the job and have Frank Dobson as his daymare and Ken Livingstone as his nightmare. And the Labour MPs themselves laughed about that. And they were laughing at Tony Blair as well as at the joke, this can be effective. Of course it’s very important to add that humour on its own isn’t effective, but it is in support of other things that your talking, if you’re making a serious point, it helps people to notice it and remember it but you do have to have, as Blair would have pointed out, a serious argument as well, underlying the humour.
– Well, it’s interesting that you go on about the pricking the bubble of pomposity, ’cause I think that sort of thing, I was recently speaking to, on the show, Rick Wilson of The Lincoln Project, which if you’re aware of in America, was the Republicans who came together to get rid of Trump. And they used humour in a very very cutting, where they weaponized wit essentially. Do you think that works on every level or, I mean, there are obviously some places you can’t use that?
– Well, I think it works a lot in democracies, particularly those with a good tradition of humour in public life. And we are certainly one of those and I am really, my favourite period of history is the 18th century. I’ve written books about William Pitt the Younger who was Prime Minister then, and there so much humour and irreverence directed, in those days, at political leaders even at the royal family, much more, much ruder, much more vulgar, cartoons and press commentary than we experience today. Really very… sometimes very sexually explicit cartoons. And so that we would think was unacceptable today in the mainstream press. And so we’ve really got the history of that in this country. And I think that was one of the reasons we have a healthy democracy actually because we couldn’t take a dictator seriously. We would have made pitiless fun of them before they got to the position of having too much power. And so Republican with Trump who loved being, taking himself so seriously and claiming to have so much power, this was a completely fitting thing to do in America to make fun of him. So I think it works on most levels in politics, in terms of the levels of seniority, it can work at most levels. Again, a humour has to fit with the standards of the time, with the society changes in the humour that it finds acceptable. And so political humour always has to be within the parameters of what society finds humourous at the time. But there’s lots of scope there in any age to puncture the pomposity of an over mighty leader.
– Yeah, I think that’s really important and you’ve written two award winning books about William Pitt the Younger and William Wilberforce, as you just say which I advise all our leaders to look and read but it’s an extraordinary story especially William Pitt the Younger that he became Prime Minister at 24 years old. Was his ability for humour part of the reason why he could do it at such a young age?
– Well, certainly it was an important attribute of his that he didn’t take himself too seriously. That even though, of course, he had to show being prime minister in his twenties that he was a very serious figure, not an immature figure, and so his speeches in parliament were absolutely very serious and momentous. Nevertheless, behind the scenes, he retained a very playful attitude. He still enjoyed, well enjoyed a lot of drinking with his friends, which is one one reason he died rather early, but he could mess about, he could, wrestle with some of his friends. He could join in blackening somebody’s face and someone… to annoy them and make fun of them. It was, within the, that’s how people had fun at the time sometimes. So he was somebody who didn’t take himself too seriously. And I think that is important in a leader.
– Is that not important in any aspect, nevermind, just politics in life? Is that not important that you don’t take yourself too seriously?
– Yes, personally, I think so. Yes. Yes. And it does apply to politicians who vary greatly, of course, and whether they have a natural sense of humour, but the ones who do have some humour to diffuse the situation, to make a connection, to make a point memorable, do have an extra advantage, I think.
– Yeah, I think it’s another level, I really do. So William, what makes you laugh?
– What makes me laugh, well if you’re doing something as serious as foreign secretary you are reduced to laughing at somebody reading out the wrong speech as I just mentioned which wouldn’t normally count for most people as being a hilarious thing. What makes me laugh in terms of, if I’m watching a movie, what makes me laugh is something like a “Life of Brian”. Again, it’s the puncturing of a lot of serious talk really, or some of my favourite film. One of my favourite films is “Zoolander”, you know, about the models, and again, it’s a similar thought, isn’t it? It’s puncturing something very safe where they’re all sitting around saying there’s got to be something more to life than just being really, really good looking. So I really liked those sorts of films. Otherwise what always made me laugh as a member of parliament was encounters I had with my constituents that were just very genuine encounters, people coming to my constituency surgery, not meaning to be funny, but somebody once walked in and I said, what can I do for you, Madam? And she said, “Oh, I’m just looking.” And I said, “well, what are you looking at? this is not a shop, this is my advice surgery.” And she said, “Oh, I thought I’d just come down here and have a good look at you for 10 minutes.” And she sat there having a good look and then she went away. But you don’t expect someone who’s going to come in and also show up and say, well I’m just looking and things like this always amused me. And again, it keeps you down to earth if you have enough connection with people who do things like that, but you can’t take yourself too seriously.
– Well, I think that’s good. I remember hearing a speech you made once where you told a very funny story about getting a letter from a constituent. It said something like “I hope you can take some constructive criticism of your recent speech, it was rubbish.”
– Yeah, that’s what a Yorkshire man thinks is constructive criticism. Yes, I hope you take some constructive criticism of your recent speech, it was rubbish. But my favourite letter I ever received just said, demonstrate, Hague, the Taliban have taken over and with it comes body and no one has noticed. And that was the end of the letter, your all sincerely, whoever it was. And the thing about letters like that is, somebody has taken the trouble to write, to put a stamp on it, write it out, put a stamp on it and send it. And they know that it’s just a joke that you going to open it and just laugh. And it’s just a ridiculous thing. But it’s a good world where people will take the trouble, just to write out a joke and send it to somebody they’ve seen on the news.
– Well, the whole point of the Humourology project is that you can shift people’s states by bringing a bit of levity rather than gravity into the world. And so that kind of thing I love, just sending something like that out of the blue, is beautiful. I’ve seen you speak and you are very, very witty on stage. I just asked you what makes you laugh? Have you ever considered, like trying stand up or something like that because it’s something you have a natural talent for?
– No, I don’t, thank you for that. That’s nice of you to suggest another career for me. And no, I mean, I’ve always enjoyed doing after dinner speeches which is probably what you’ve heard me do which I started up when I was in my twenties I would do that, for a charity event in South Yorkshire. So I got into the habit of doing that. And then I used to do that sort of thing a lot around my constituency at whatever the local rotary club and charity dinners and things. I never imagined I would end up getting paid for that. Eventually when I left government, yes, people used to hire me to speak at their dinners, sometimes serious and sometimes humourous. And I enjoyed all of that, but I’ve always, I’m lucky, I’ve got lots of, I’ve always had tons of other things to do in life. So I don’t need to set myself up as a professional comedian. Also I’m not sure I would be good enough to do that. I think you need a constant stream of new humour to be a real stand-up comedian. And for me, most of my stories are about, they’re bad things that have happened to me. Some of the things we’ve just been talking about as a member of parliament or as Foreign Secretary. But they’re not sort of a great joke, they’re not here’s a new up-to-date joke about something happening in society now, they’re recollections, they’re anecdotes. And so I don’t think I could make a whole life’s activity out of those.
– Are there any stand-ups you particularly admire?
– Oh, there’s some that I know who I really admire. I did a few sessions on “Have I Got News for You” a few years ago and I’ve such admiration for Paul Merton on there, so I take my hats off to people like that. It’s quite a few of the people who are on quiz shows, now actually like David Mitchell. And so I’m quite a fan of those people.
– Absolutely. I mean, Paul Merton is a great friend of mine and we sort of grew up in the comedy world together at the Comedy Store and everything. And I still think that Paul is one of the most naturally funny, naturally gifted. And there’s lots of people who think that, they get writers in for “Have I Got News For You”, but that is all Paul’s mind. And you’ve been there, you’ve seen it.
– There are writers in there who help with the host and so on and prepare the programme. But yeah, then the most of that programme is spontaneous repartee and you have to be really careful about… you have to really be on your wits when you go in with those people.
– Well, you’re playing in the big leagues, aren’t you really? Is everyone funny, potentially?
– Well, I dunno about potential, not everybody is funny in the daily dealings. If I think of politics, Margaret Thatcher was not funny. That was not her approach. She was in my view, extremely impressive, brilliant person in so many ways and everybody would, whatever their political views would say, she was a very major figure in history and an important leader, but she wasn’t funny. She didn’t react very well to humour ’cause she didn’t really get it. And she would enjoy having an argument, she’d enjoy having a discussion. But whereas many people, as we’ve just been discussing would inject some humour into it to help it along, that just wasn’t her approach at all. So you can be successful without humour. But it does create a pretty serious atmosphere around you. And you’d better have some other massive attributes if you’re going to do without it.
– But they did actually bring in writers for her when she did the big set pieces at the Conservative Party conference. And she somehow did manage to get laughs as well. Didn’t she, in set pieces?
– She did, but she didn’t really, she delivered the lines and explained about that. There was one I can’t quite remember the details, but it was a Monty Python illusion and one of her speeches. And then apparently she said, well, let’s go, we must get this Monty Python into give us some more ideas. So she hadn’t really understood what it was all about. So yes, she could be persuaded to use some humour, but she just wasn’t a naturally humourous person and maybe it show you can’t have everything. But she would have been an even more impressive, she would have got her way even more often probably, if she’d also been able to carry people along with a bit of humour.
– Well, yeah, I just got this image of her going get me that Monty Python on the phone. It’s brilliant. Do you find yourself funny?
– I don’t think so. I hope you, I think humour is most effective when you don’t actually assume that you are necessarily a humourous person. Because otherwise you can get carried away with it and actually have the fault of taking yourself too seriously for the arena. It’s very important not to assume that just because you’re intending to be humourous that other people are all going to find it humourous. So I think as with anything in life, you have to cast a very self-critical eye over anything and preferably test things out sometimes with humour. Of course, if people are doing stand-up comedy or if they’re doing after dinner speeches that I used to do, you do test things out, you do it. And then you, you use it again a few weeks later if it’s been successful. So, no, I don’t sit there thinking, oh I’m a really funny guy, I can make humour out of anything. You have to work at it. Actually you have to work at it for public humour. And it’s, if you’re going to be humourous in private and enjoying jokes together, it’s best if you’re in a group of people who are all feeding off each other, it can’t rely on one person’s humour.
– Yeah. It’s interesting, isn’t it? Because you obviously use humour a lot to great effect in speeches. And I get brought in as a psychologist and former comedian to help leaders, CEOs and business people to deliver their speeches. And one of the things I have to do is I have to stop people wanting to do humour when they don’t have the ability to do it. So what would your advice be for people who are making business speeches for instance?
– Well, I think my advice for a business or any sort of speech is, the main thing to decide is what is the message of your speech, the serious message of it. And to have a clear structure of your speech so that people can follow the argument. And then you put the words around that. It’s only like, it’s like building a building. You need the foundations, you need the structure, then you put the bricks on that, those are the words. Well, then when you’re that stage, it might be appropriate to decorate it with flourishes or it might be appropriate to draw particular attention to some parts of your structure with something that turns out to be quite humourous. But it has to be built on it. It’s not like, okay, we’ve got a speech and now we’ve got a joke that we happen to know. So we’ll stick this joke into the speech. Well, no, no, the humour has to arise from the speech. And so it’s not just that you happen to know something humourous. So my advice is to think of it that way. So the humour should develop out of the serious situation and there will be some situations that are so serious, they’re not appropriate for humour. I mentioned being Foreign Secretary, you deal with so many situations of life and death. People wouldn’t like it if you’re humourous, it’s not appropriate. There will be business situations like that. But in the majority of day-to-day situations, it can draw people’s attention to something, help them to remember something, break the ice in a meeting, get people to relax, if you do bring in appropriate humour. So one example, sorry, this is a long answer to your question but one of the things that, I once gave a speech in the House of Commons when they were discussing having a permanent president of Europe about how horrified Gordon Brown would be as Prime Minister if Tony Blair became president of Europe. And it was a description of, Brown biting his fingernails as Blair sweeps into Downing Street as president and so on. And the point of that, it a serious speech about the dangers of having a permanent president. And then the humour arose from imagine if it was Tony Blair. Now people, that’s still on YouTube or whatever… people still tell me that they still watch that and laugh at it but they would never have heard about my speech on the president of Europe, or remember it if it hadn’t had that humour. Equally the humour is not just a joke about Gordon Brown. It works because it’s connected to the arguments that I was making.
– But it takes it to the next level, doesn’t it? It makes it memorable. And also I would argue from a psychological standpoint. I’d kind of go to the Maya Angelou, people don’t remember what you said to them, they remember how you made them feel. And if you’ve made somebody laugh, you’ve actually made them feel joyous for want of another word. So you’ve shifted their state. Do you think that’s true?
– Well, yes. I think that’s right, you’ve putting it, you’ve studied this much more than I have so I hadn’t really thought about it like that, I think you’re right. Yes, the way I think about it is that if you want to hold an audience’s attention, you have to get them to do things because of course faced with somebody talking, one person talking continuously, people’s minds drift off. The human brain wasn’t really, didn’t evolve for that to just sit around the campfire listening to the same person for an hour. So therefore, if you’re going to impose on that brain this long monologue, you do have to liven it up for them to keep them engaged. Now that can be, from getting them to applaud or to cheer or to cry. But it very often the best way of doing that, is to get them to laugh, that reengages them. Give them some connection with the speaker and it gets their attention back. And so I often tell people if they’re going up to be selected as a parliamentary candidate, for instance, and they’ve just got 10 minutes to give a speech to a group of people they’ve never seen before, to get them to vote for them, I say, well, you make sure that every 90 seconds you get that audience to do something. It might be to laugh, it might be to clap, but they will remember you, they’ve got to try to remember 10 different people who appeared before them for 10 minutes. And if you get them to do something every 90 seconds, they will remember you. So that’s my thing, that’s my way of saying what you were just saying.
– But that’s brilliant. And that’s going in the book, basically that is really is. You’ll get a credit, don’t worry, but that is because funnily enough, when I speak, I do exactly the same but I hadn’t actually verbalised it in that sense of getting people to actually do something. So it becomes kinesthetic and then they internalise it on that basis. And I think that’s absolutely brilliant. It’s funny ’cause I was doing a little bit of research from you and you made a wonderful speech for Hillary Clinton. And you said that actually, when she was secretary of state and you were in the foreign office, she said, I don’t think we have enough fun around here. How do we get more fun? And I’m very interested that businesses need to be more fun. So we even at the level of state negotiations, how important is fun in that?
– It was a NATO meeting. I think we’d been about eight hours sitting at the same table. NATO like the EU, NATO has nearly 30 countries, 29 is the latest number. So when you have a meeting of foreign ministers, they all want to say something. Well, imagine if you have four or five different topics and 29 people all want to say something and they’re all very serious subjects in a military alliance. Well then you get, when you’ve been there about eight hours and you’re all jet lagged and in an strange country, of course you feel like it is a human thing to think, we need to relax a bit. We need to look at the world in a slightly different way. The United Kingdom always sits next to the United States, alphabetical for alphabetical ratings at such meetings. So yes, Hillary Clinton, I remember her leaning across to me and saying William, we need to have some fun because we’ve been here eight hours and so on. And she said, why don’t we go out for dinner? And we’ll just have a more social time. So we did and we did that several times and I enjoyed a couple of glasses of red wine at the end of the day and she would enjoy a couple of glasses of red wine. And of course, when you do that, just like in the business world, you talk about a lot of the business you’ve been doing, but you also ask about each other’s families. And you also tell them a story about something you were doing the previous week, some funny recollections of previous meetings, and that is part of diplomacy. Actually, that’s an important part of that, but you sort of have to artificially create it these days in all these serious meetings.
– For all business people, or for any business, whether you run a cafe or you actually run a multinational, I think it’s absolutely crucial that there’s more fun. So if I asked you to write a business case for humour, what would you include?
– Well, I would include, I’d include the need for creativity. I think we’ve discussed that or I gave an example from Prime Minister’s Questions, that serious creativity is often assisted by humourous creativity, as long as it’s led and in the right way. Secondly, I would say humour is important for creating a bond, mutually supportive bonds between people or people who will go and do something extra to support their colleague. Often people who have shared a good time, they’ve had a drink together, they’ve had their dinner together or they’ve exchanged stories together. This is how the human brain works. So it’s important for creativity, it’s important for the bonds between people. And I would say, it’s also important if you take it away, you can then see that something is missing. And sometimes it’s easier to notice something by the effect of its absence. And I think we’re seeing a bit of that now in the pandemic, some of the organisations I’ve worked with, I’ve really noticed what the staff of them are missing now, is humour, is they’re missing their fun. Like just like Hillary Clinton said, I want to have fun. After a year of doing everything on Zoom, all that interaction that you would have around your workplace, telling each other stories, so, you’ll never guess what happened to me on the way home last night or you’ll never guess what my dog just did, all these sorts of things, we’ve lost a lot of that. And people have started to say in recent weeks, we need to put some fun back into our work. So they’ve noticed the absence of it. And it’s when you say it’s like, when you’re suddenly missing the important food from your diet or something like that or you’re missing sunshine from your holidays. You really notice it when it’s not there. So I think that’s part of the business case.
– Yes. It’s the Joni Mitchell factor, isn’t it? “Big Yellow Taxi”, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.
– Exactly like that.
– That’s for our older listeners to be honest with you. No, but I completely agree that you work a lot with big businesses all over the world. So you really understand this. How do we make this clear to the people, ‘the bean counters’ who actually.. that there is a need for humour and how do we tell them that there will be a return on investment?
– Well, it’s hard to measure the return on investment, isn’t it? You can do that if you’re a professional comedian or if like you had a time giving after dinner speeches, you can literally measure by the fee you receive, the return on the investment for humour, but that is not normally possible. And it’s just part of a healthy organisation. And just as so many things are, of an organisation encouraging good physical health among its staff, of providing good terms and conditions and facilities, and ensuring that there are proper complaints procedures and all of this sort of thing. It’s also part of having a healthy organisation, that people are encouraged to do the things we were just talking about to be creative, to have social bonds and to get the human brain working in the right way. So I don’t know how we persuade people, I think there’s, I think it’s just a very strong argument. So you will have to go around in your work, working out how to persuade them all. Otherwise the best thing the rest of us can do, is set an example. And when we’re at our serious business meetings, there is a role for some of the time. There’s a role for humour and there’s certainly a role for having a human interaction, an atmosphere in which appropriate humour is part of it and is encouraging people to converse and to give their views and to react to each other. This is part of being a successful organisation.
– I think you actually touched on the return on investment when you said the word healthy, we encourage people to be healthy. So automatically if we encourage people to be healthy in body and mind, humour helps the health, you have less absenteeism for instance which is a straight return on investment, isn’t it?
– Yes, it is. And health, is that mental and physical connection of course, there’s another part of what I was saying about getting an audience to do something physically that is in order to keep their brains engaged even though it’s their hands clapping or their mouth laughing, that’s what they’re doing. But really that’s then connected to their brains and it’s keeping them engaged. So if you have an organisation where everybody has to sit head down at their desks and pretend to be utterly serious, as opposed to one where they feel free to congregate together to have their breaks together, to go out for a walk together, situations in which they will naturally tell each other stories. Well, you will find that’s a healthier organisation. That’s a, it’s a physical difference but it leads to a mental difference.
– Have you ever taken a joke too far and crossed the line or are you very good at holding yourself back and being in control?
– I think, I bet I’m actually a very controlled person so I don’t, thankfully I’ve not had too many gaffes with humour and I don’t think so, anyway, I’m just trying to think, but I think you do, we all have to recognise that what is humourous in one decade, isn’t necessarily humourous in the next one. And, you know, 20 years ago, a story about Englishman, Scotsman, Welshman, Irishman, would have been humourous and now that’s not really acceptable anymore. And we just have to go with it, society changes and our own view of what is acceptable humour changes along with that, of course, if we’re sensitive people. So it’s important to flow with that. I think not to not to fight against them.
– So, I mean, do you think these are natural cycles? Are we ever going to go back to a time that William Wilberforce’s time or William Pitt the Younger’s time whereby it is anything goes in sense of humour again? Or do you think that’s, it’s getting whittled out?
– Hmm, I think there is a cycle to it. That doesn’t mean it goes right round back to where it was before. But I imagine there is a cyclical aspect to it. So people might think slowly the humour is being drained out of everything. But it isn’t actually, I would be more optimistic than that about humour because it’s so innate to the healthy human condition that we were talking about. And it’s just a case of respecting people’s sensitivities but there are still, well, all the things we’ve just been talking about in parliament and government interaction and speeches and so on, humour is still entirely appropriate. So it will survive and it will continue to play a big role in our lives, hopefully.
– From your mouth to God’s ears. Have you ever gotten yourself out of trouble by using your humour?
– I’ve seen, it’s not so much getting out of the trouble, but I’ve seen diplomatic situations where a bit of humour makes a dramatic difference to a tense situation. I remember on a visit to Brazil as foreign secretary, I sat down to a big lunch with the governor of one of the states, of Rio State, I think in Brazil. Lots of people and the governor said, well, before we even have our meal, we have to discuss with you the Falklands war and Britain’s attitude. And so, and I thought, oh no, we’re in for, you know, the Brazilians are going to say, the Argentinians were correct and give us a hard time and so on. And then the governor said, so just when we all looked, the governor of Rio State said, “why did you stop? My quarrel with you is you should have kept going in the Falklands war” and immediately all the ice broke that you could suddenly see, the Brazilians were really saying, well, we’re kindred spirits, we know that sometimes, our neighbours have misbehaved and everybody relax here. And so it was a very successful diffusing of the situation. My apologies to anybody in Argentina who’s sensitive about that.
– It’s just, it’s actually what I call teasing and chiding, really which I think should never be lost in humour because I think it actually bonds people when you tease and chide with them in a nice way. So I think that should a ways be acceptable but that’s my personal opinion. We come to the end part of the show-it’s called in a flash- This part of the show is called Quickfire Questions, William. ♪ Quickfire questions ♪ So question number one, who is the funniest business person that you’ve met?
– Well, there may be a quickfire but they’re not going to be very quick answer.
– Doesn’t matter.
– The funniest business person than I met, I’m trying to think of someone, who would be the, let me come back to that one.
– Okay, let’s take it another way. Who’s the funniest political person that you’ve met?
– Well, the one who inspired me with humour was the late John Smith. Now that’s not to say that it was funny every minute of the day, but that’s, understanding what we’ve been discussing. He could use humour very effectively in the House of Commons to undermine the other side, my side. And I learned a lot from him. So in the political world, he was effectively funny.
– What book makes you laugh?
– Oh, what book makes me laugh. Well, do you know “1066 and all that”? The fake history of, I mean, this I’m going back 50 years in reading.
– Not really.
– That’s a book that makes out. There are only two dates in the whole of British history. And one of them is 1066 and the other one people have mainly forgotten and it describes history in that way. And okay, I know it doesn’t sound very funny, but when I was a child, I used to really, I used to find this quite funny but there were only two dates in the whole of history that were worth remembering.
– What word makes you laugh?
– I think, Umptybuggerous Which is a Yorkshire word, really. I think it’s a Yorkshire word, which just conveys the idea, you can almost think what it just, if you’ve never heard of it before, what it might mean, Umptybuggerous – it’s just somebody who is going to be a bit awkward, a bit cantankerous, and is just trying to make things, a slightly wicked approach to something. And it was just going to muck it up slightly for the sake of it. And it’s quite an appealing Yorkshire idea. And it’s a word it’s a very expressive word, Umptybuggerous. Umptybuggerous Could you use Umptybuggerous in a sentence, please, William.
– Well you say, well, the reason you are not agreeing to my idea is that you’re just being Umptybuggerous.
– Perfect. I love the word. And I’m going to be using that now all the time. Taking a shift to the other side. What is not funny?
– This is related to what we were talking about. It’s all about appropriate humour and that something that is understood to be racist or sexist is not funny. Even if many people would have found it funny some time ago. So yeah, there are a lot of things that are not funny but particularly things in those are areas.
– Yeah and I know that you have a marvellous initiative, the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative and jokes about that, I would balk cut anything that involves that. It’s an extraordinary initiative and people should look it up and support it. Would you rather it be considered clever or funny, William?
– Well, there isn’t a contradiction between the two, the two largely go together, I would say. But the, so in a way I’m refusing it’s politicians answer I’m refusing to make the choice but I think it’s pretty important to be clever but you will get much further if you’re funny as well.
– Well, my belief as a psychologist is that in order to be funny, you have to be clever.
– Right, yeah, yeah yeah. Which is not true the other way around.
– That is absolutely true. So you’re going for clever with a hint of funny on the side.
– I think so, yeah.
– Yeah, that’s right. And finally, William, Desert Island Gags. I know you’ve already done Desert Island Discs. So Desert Island Gags you can only take one joke with you to a desert island. What is it?
– It’s my story of going up over, going to see a farmer in my constituency up a long drive. Then over a cattle grid. Long Drive. More cattle grids. Finally getting there and saying to the farmer at the gate, “you’ve got a long drive, haven’t you?” just to make conversation. And he said, “well if it were any shorter, it wouldn’t reach.” That’s just my little one line story. I’ve always enjoyed telling it.
– And it’s lovely. And it’s going with you to the desert island. William Hague, you’ve been an entertaining, wonderful guest. Thank you so much for being on the Humourology podcast.
– Thank you. Great pleasure. Thanks a lot.
– [Announcer] The Humourology podcast was hosted by Paul Boross and produced by Simon Banks. Music by Steve Haworth, creative direction by Les Hughes and additional research by Helen Sykes. Please remember to subscribe, like and leave a review wherever you get your podcasts. This has been a Big Sky Production.