Part of the Humourology series
Season 3, Episode 55
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown – Declaring Freedom through Laughter
Ground-breaking Journalist and author Yasmin Alibhai-Brown joins The Humourology Podcast to discuss with Paul Boross how humour and human rights go hand in hand. Learn how humour can help humans hear the hard messages and deal with the difficult times.
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Journalist, author, and avid anti-racist anti-sexist activist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown joins Paul Boross to discuss how humour can help people be resilient to their difficult situations. Alibhai-Brown discusses her history and how she has used humour to communicate the messages that are often hard to hear.
“What else is there? If we don’t laugh, we die.”
Join us this week to hear Yasmin’s scintillating stories of humour, humanitarian activism, and handling the hard moments in life only on The Humourology Podcast.
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Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (00:00):
In our cultures, Asian women want to get old because most of them suffer horribly through their teen years often through marriages, you know, their mothers-in-law awful to them often. They are powerless. But once they hit that age of 40, they become matriarchs and they become powerful. So they all want to get old.
Paul Boross (00:27):
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (00:27):
Before their time
Paul Boross (00:29):
Isn’t that remarkable.
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (00:32):
It’s so interesting.
Paul Boross (00:39):
Welcome to the Humourology podcast with me. Paul Boross, and my glittering line up of guests from the world’s of business sport and entertainment who are here to share their wisdom and their use of humour with you. Humourologyis 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.
Paul Boross (01:16):
My guest on this edition of the Humourology podcast is a multi-award-winning journalist and author. She was the first regular columnist of colour on a national newspaper in the UK, – the first female Muslim too. She has written for The Guardian, The Observer, The New York Times, Time magazine, Newsweek, The Evening Standard, The Mail, and was a weekly columnist on The Independent for 18 years. She now writes a weekly column for The i Newspaper. Self described as a lefty liberal, anti-racist, feminist, Muslim person. Her work is highly regarded for its stance on immigration, race, diversity, and multiculturalism. Her political pieces are pointed and punchy and her books bring a new light to the British empire in a world where multiculturalism is here to stay. When she’s not writing captivating coverage of the country filled with inspiring and amusing insights. You can catch her as a regular on the BBC’s Any Questions and the Jeremy Vine Show plus Channel 4 News. Yasin, Alibhai-Brown, welcome to The Humourology podcast.
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (02:34):
Good to be here, Paul.
Paul Boross (02:36):
Well, it’s lovely to have you now you grew up in Kampala in Uganda under the rule of Idi Amin in what was a very divided society. Was there much humour around it? If so, how did it manifest itself?
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (02:52):
Humour is what got, got the people of that country through some of the most… well, a really tragic history, really. They’re incredibly benign gentle folk Ugandans. The indigenous Ugandans and happy and merry and always laughing. And I think and when we were divided off from each other, because the empire had these racial divisions and class divisions, but laughter brought us together. And I had a very dear friend called Sophie who was the funniest woman I ever knew. She was black. She lost her husband, her father to the violence in the country, to the political violence, three siblings to AIDS, a daughter to AIDS. And the son was stabbed to death here by his girlfriend and she laughed. And last year I lost her. And I just used to say to her, how are you like this? She said, what else is there? If we don’t laugh, we die.
Paul Boross (04:10):
It’s so true. And it’s, I suppose the one thing that everybody’s got left, and under their control, is the ability to laugh because tragedy is going to happen to everyone. And it sounds like your friend had more tragedy than was fair, but wonderful. Was humour valued in your family?
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (04:39):
No, I can came from a really ugly. My mother was very funny. My mother had a very hard life, incredibly hard life. You know, bad marriage from day one. My father was 16 years older. He should never have married anyone. Very smart and not a malevolent man, just quite useless. And it was my mother who raised the three children and she would talk about her life and she would kind of giggle and roll with laughter telling you about how, you know, the first week of marriage, he took her to the cinema and forgot he was married,; forgot she was there, went home to bed. Left this girl in a cinema and she would laugh about it, you know? So she was the one who would laugh, but the rest were pretty you know, my father hardly ever laughed. My brother was very damaged. My sister had her own problems, so it was, wasn’t a fun family, but my mother was fun and people in the mosque still remember her laughing
Paul Boross (05:52):
So you’ve taken that from her, have you? I mean, that was what… I mean, she sounds like an incredibly strong woman to have brought up three children. And one of the things about, I think about strength and the whole Humourology project is built around this is that strength does come from seeing the funny side.
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (06:15):
Yes. And it made her… you know, it kind of made people realise not only was she strong, but that she was not going to burden them with… make them cry. And in a funny way, she evoked more empathy when she told her stories in the way she told them rather than weep. But she was emotionally so awake. I miss her to this day. We were very close and my siblings didn’t survive this family. My brother died an alcoholic. My sister died last year of COVID, but she was severely mentally ill. I’m the only survivor. And I’m like my mother.
Paul Boross (07:04):
And do you think that that strain of having humour is the thing that actually made you survive?
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (07:11):
I mean, I don’t think, I don’t think everything should be funny. Let me tell you this story very quickly. So when I became a journalist, which was very late in life, I was the 37 and I woke up one morning and became a journalist. Literally I wrote an article. I couldn’t type – a week later, it was published in The Guardian. I was ridiculous. And very soon after that, you know, I had a very rapid, I was very lucky, had a rapid ladder I went up and at one point an editor from a liberal, shall we say, ‘left persuasion’ got a bit, drunk at a media party. And he kind of lurched over to me and he said, oh, you really done well. Of course it was the Brown that made the difference. You wouldn’t have got this far with that foreign name, would you? So I looked at him with my glass in my hand and smiled and said, yeah, I know, I know I was so lucky to find him, but imagine where I’d be, if I’d married a Mr. White! And there was a group of people all around us and they just fell about, and there was a lesson in racism that he e will never forget.
Paul Boross (08:35):
That’s a beautiful, and the perfect put down. We had, we had the lovely Joe Brand on, on the show. And she said that one of her pieces of advice, which I thought was very good, is that women who do get bullied in the workplace or wolf whistled, should have a few put-downs, a few heckle put- downs in their back pocket because they’re very useful. And usually those people who are so called brave back off when actually somebody comes back with something quickly, do you agree with that?
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (09:16):
Yes, absolutely. Absolutely. But I think either you can do, and I have been angry too. I’m often when people say appalling stuff to me, I mean, apparently I’m amongst the most abused people on social media. And it’s always about, you’re an immigrant, you’re a Muslim. You’re a, Remainer, go back where you came from, just go back where you came from. That’s the thing. And so I do kind of come back at them quite hard. But sometimes, you know, you can have fun with that. So they’ll say, where do you come from? I’ll say, you know, west London. No, where do you really come from? I say yeah, west London. Where do you come from? Oh, Yorkshire. No, but where do you really come from? And with the echo, suddenly the penny drops, you know? But it’s, often it’s really interesting people say to me, we didn’t know you were funny. And, and that’s interesting cause I, maybe I do come across as too serious, too much of the time. So I need to change that.
Paul Boross (10:23):
Well, I think that, because I really want to be on the show, because I’ve met you before. And I always found that you were wonderfully funny and light and, and had a wonderful joie de vivre about you, which I don’t think that the public perceive because I think they put everybody in little silos, don’t they, that if you are serious about anti-racism anti-sexism, whatever, you have to be a serious person. But do you think actually having a sense of humour about these things actually is a great tool to actually move the conversation forward.
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (11:09):
Yes. And it’s also makes people feel at ease. So you can sometimes say quite tough things to them. If you are not say them in a desperately serious way, do you know what I mean? That they might listen a bit more if you kind of say it lightly.
Paul Boross (11:29):
So it’s easier to say the truth, isn’t it?
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (11:31):
It’s a great skill. I mean, Jo Brand is amazing at it. Some of these comedians who, and not just comedians, some, I wish more politicians, this is what you should do. Teach politicians how to use humour. They’re always so dire. I mean, Kier Starmer oh, lighten up, man.
Paul Boross (11:55):
I hear that in person, he can be light but he… it’s some people when they… when, you and I do a lot of conferences, when people at conferences, they go, I must be the boss. I must be clear and I must have this serious demeanour. And I don’t think that people realise that a lightness of touch and a humour actually is a power position as well.
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (12:25):
But this is how… I think Jess Phillips really uses that.
Paul Boross (12:29):
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (12:29):
She’s really witty. She’s funny. And she’s very powerful for that reason, but yes, I think humour, as long as I’m not one of those who would ever say we can laugh at everything – we can’t . Because when there’s so much pain involved I wouldn’t find go it jokes aimed at people who’ve lost family members funny, but it is important to remember that humour is one of the tools you have as a human being. There isn’t a group in the world past or present where laughter hasn’t been the bond, the release, the link between people.
Paul Boross (13:24):
I, I couldn’t agree more but sometimes humour, when you grew up under the rule of Idi Amin, and he thought he was funny, didn’t he, I remember a quote from me. I mean, where he said there is freedom of speech, but I cannot guarantee freedom after speech. And I’m going, that’s really quite uncompromising and horrible really.
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (13:54):
He was very funny. And in a way we can see the danger of funny politicians, charming people, not suggesting that our present Prime Minister is Idi Amin, but people see him as funny and he’s used that very effectively. And Idi amin. I remember once I met Idi Amin
Paul Boross (14:15):
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (14:15):
When I was 16 years old and let he was again, he thought he would. So there was this very peculiar thing that happened, but he was the General then. And a group of us student leaders ended up staying with the president for our summer holidays. We were ordered to do this and we were to meet all the ministers and find out how politics worked. This was during 68 when they were getting worried by student revolts in Europe. And I met Idi Amin and ever kind of careless. I said, and you know, he was kind of up there and I was down here and I said, why are they no Asians in the Ugandan army? And he kind of looked down at me and he said he he he with that laugh from his belly. And he said, because we do not eat choroko . choroko means lentils. And he said, we Africans eat red blood meat. You are not Africans. That was his reply.
Paul Boross (15:25):
I’m interested to this thing that you say, you’d like Kier Starmer to have more humour can also be misdirecting can’t it? So people don’t see the bad things that lurk underneath.
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (15:45):
No, I think what would be nice if Kier Starmer wasn’t so buttoned up and allowed himself to smile, to have some wit, to laugh, to laugh out loud. Sometimes we need to see that side of him. I think that you know, I’ve met him – in some ways I respect him – not all, but I just wish he’d let go a little bit because people relate to that. Otherwise politics becomes too distant. I think
Paul Boross (16:21):
I mean, I absolutely agree. And I just wonder if it is seen now as a weakness that is going to be that if you do that, you are going to possibly make a faux pas that you can’t come back from and in such a hostile environment where the press and the media will jump on anything that the desperation not to show any weakness supersedes the real person and the connection. But I completely agree. It’s very, it’s, it’s interesting. I was interested because you are such an advocate for feminism and I heard you in an interview say that women were raised to be liked. And and I wondered, do you think that sometimes women perceive that in order to be liked, they need to suppress their own sense of humour?
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (17:30):
Yes. There are all these unwritten rulesaren’t there? And categories. I remember how, what a hard time they gave Jo Brand when she first started,
Paul Boross (17:42):
I worked with Jo in those days and I love Jo to bits, but the abuse she was given. Yeah. Not only at the Comedy Store where we worked together, but in the press. And it was, I mean, it was vitriolic and horrible.
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (17:57):
Yes. And over and over again, you find women comedians, or even, you know, writing for various publications. I’ve seen how the posse has been attacking Laura Kuenssberg. I mean, it’s a whole posse and that’s not because she’s done anything wrong, but they just want to get her for a fallen word, a slight pause. And so she’s become totally humourless.Before she got this job, she used to do reports and I remember walking up to her once at a Tory party conference saying, you know, Laura, you’re so good at what you do, because you’re so sparkling and you smile and all this. All that stopped because the posse went after her. So I think…and you see it with Emily Maitlis you see it with all these women, they have to be absolutely careful. And laughter… you know, one of the interesting things is the one thing Taliban and ISIS, and some of the horrible Saudi influenced Imams in this country say, a woman must not be allowed to laugh too loudly in public. And if she does, she must be stopped. They’d tell the husbands that the women should not be laughing too loudly. They see the threat of it. Isn’t that awful?
Paul Boross (19:41):
It is awful. But it would seem to me that all totalitarian regimes are scared of humour because it can prick the bubble of pomposity. And so they, they close it down early because they, they worry that they’re, they’re going to be humiliated or something,
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (20:05):
But this is very specifically targeting the women. Saying a woman has to be invisible, has to be silent, has to be obedient, has to be obliging. And laughter is a kind of declaration of freedom and they don’t like it.
Paul Boross (20:05):
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (20:23):
My many rainbow of enemies. There are these Islamists too, because they say I’m just not the right kind of woman to be out here.
Paul Boross (20:35):
I love the fact that that you’ve expressed it so beautifully and it’ll probably end up in the book. I’ll give you a credit obviously, but that laughter is an expression of freedom. Yes. And, and I really think that that is, and I also think on a personal level that men’s egos get very damaged by funnier women. And that’s why I wondered when you said, you know, raised to be liked and some times men want to be the funny one.
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (21:10):
Paul Boross (21:11):
And the women cocks her head to the side and laughs at the man’s jokes.
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (21:17):
Yes. And we must always laugh at their bad jokes and cheer them on little things. Look, I love men. You know, II’ve loved men all my life and men have loved me, which some of my detractors find quite hard to understand. But one of the things is that there are too many fragile male egos – males who only see the world in terms of who’s up and who’s down. The best thing about living in our times is that it’s finally, in some parts of the world, possible for us men and women to be equals.
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (22:00):
There’s never been a historical period like this. So the burden, for example, for men having to be the breadwinner and raise the money to bring up… that can be shared. And in my book, Ladies Who Punch, I have quoted my absolute heroine. Who’s Mary Walstoncraft, who said to women, don’t kind of perform and be coy and play up to what men want you to be and earn your own living. Because if you don’t both men and women lose their dignity. So I think, you know, it’s such a wonderful period we are living through. And yet you look on social media and the way they treat women and the way they describe perfectly harmless women, I just, you know…
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (23:03):
I feel quite sad for them really
Paul Boross (23:05):
Well. it’s a bizarre thing when, when having a sense of humour and, and make jokes could be deemed getting above your station, isn’t it?
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (23:15):
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (23:18):
They love the trope. They love the trope of the angry woman, which is how they describe me. And they love the trope of angry black woman and anything that makes them question that – and laughter is one way – makes them even more angry. It’s really interesting to me.
Paul Boross (23:38):
It is interesting the psyche that goes, hold on, you are not allowed to be fun or funny. We need to put you in this box, which is the angry woman with the rolling pin.
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (23:53):
Exactly. Exactly. I remember when I was young, do you remember Andy Capp?
Paul Boross (24:00):
I do. Yes, the cartoon,
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (24:01):
Do you remember that was the trope. Flo, I think her name was or something, you know, curlers in her hair. Rolling pin in her hand, poor little Andy put upon – that still persists.
Paul Boross (24:15):
It is strange. You, you mentioned Ladies Who Punch, which is one of my particular favourites of your books, and I advise everybody to read it. And you highlight 50 courageous women who have changed history and remoulded our culture. I was intrigued that you chose the women that you didn’t particularly like for instance, Margaret Thatcher because you felt it was important to be impartial. One of the things that we do with the Humourology project is we, we ignore people’s politics. We’re impartial to that and just see what we can learn from their humour. Do you think that humour can be a useful bonding tool across the political divide?
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (25:05):
Yes. One of my closest friends is Iain Dale and we couldn’t disagree more. He’s a Tory, I loath tories. He’s, a Brexiter, I’m a Remainer blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. But we make each other laugh. We’ve been friends for the longest time and actually, he has done more for me than most other people in my career, and we laugh a lot together. And when I’m on the preprogramme and they ask.. They do get in touch with him. How can you stand that woman? But, you know, it’s, it’s, it’s really good. We, we really love… and the reason for having Margaret Thatcher or Penny Mordant, and Joan Collins in the book is because my criteria was women who never knew their place. That was my criteria. And these women do not, or did not know their place. It wasn’t about politics or feminism in the political sense. It was just any woman who said, no, thank you. I’m not going to be what you… exactly what you said. I’m not gonna go into that box. I don’t want that label. I’m not going to be in my place. And anybody who, you know, I could have done 10 volumes. There are so many women who say no.
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (26:33):
And some in the nicest and funniest sort of, Shazia Mirza is in the book, the comedian, and she is utterly brilliant, utterly brilliant not only because she was, I think the first standup Muslim comic, comedian in this country, but the subjects she takes, she did a whole show on the ISIS brides, for example, who went off – the school girls. And I remember going to the show and it was full of Muslim, quite traditional looking Muslims. And she said, well, of course, they went for sex. They went looking for their Tom Cruise and there was this, oh my God, what has she just said? And then everybody started laughing saying, yeah, probably cause they had very restricted lives.
Paul Boross (27:25):
Yeah, well, and actually is the best humour tapping into truth because that’s a truth that nobody wants to actually think about. This is still a teenage girl with the hormones going crazy.
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (27:47):
Yeah. It tapped into a truth. Nobody was even thinking, let alone saying and I’ve just done a whole huge research project where I raised the money myself, and it’s called The Inner Lives of Troubled Young Muslims. And they weren’t all terrorists. And some, you know, we did look into the mindset of wanna be terrorists, but what is so clear is sexuality is a deep issue that the families and communities just don’t want to address that we want to pretend that you don’t think about sex when our hormones are raving and or that we have no gay people. Gayness is a Western thing, you know, and it’s just crazy because there was a time… it’s the British who outlawed homosexuality in the Arab lands and India
Paul Boross (28:44):
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (28:44):
Did you know that? Until then homosexuality was free and open and writers like EM Forster went to the Arab countries because there, they could live openly and freely as gay men.
Paul Boross (29:00):
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (29:01):
Which they couldn’t do in Victorian England. And look where we are now. So you have to kind of of think about these things.
Paul Boross (29:11):
Yeah. that’s extraordinary. Oh, that’s blown my mind. What makes you laugh Yasmin?
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (29:21):
What makes me laugh? My husband’s the funniest man I’ve ever known. He does make me laugh a lot. I’m not, I’m not sure. I’m always telling him, you know, he laughs at people falling down and things like that. He’s always on his phone looking. I don’t find all of that funny. I find real wit funny. I mean, people like Ned Sherrin, Coren. What was his name?
Paul Boross (29:53):
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (29:54):
Alan Coren. I’m Sorry. I Haven’t A Clue. I mean that British humour. I absolutely love it. Have I Got News For You will have me rolling around. When I was younger, I used to love all the Carry On films. You know, Ugandans loved the Carry On films. We loved them, but now I don’t find so funny. Yeah, wit more than straight jokes. The comedians I find funny… I used to love Linda Smith and Jeremy Hardy.
Paul Boross (30:35):
Oh god rest both their souls. Yeah, I was lucky enough to work with both of them.
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (30:42):
Yeah, they were good. What funny programmes do I watch now? Frankie and Grace. which has got Jane Fonda. That fantastic. her names escapes me anyway. Two actresses in there later years looking and just making you laugh every minute. I’m hooked on it. So whenever I’ve had a hard day or I’m down, that’s where I’ll go. It’s great.
Paul Boross (31:18):
That’s interesting. Cuz you go whenever you’ve had a hard day, that’s where you go, where you go is to humour. You also said that that your husband makes you laugh. That that’s kind of isn’t the whole Humourology project is about seeing what makes us so attractive to other people, whether that’s in a business sense or in a personal sense. Why do you think that we are so drawn to people who amuse us? What is it about the human psyche?
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (31:50):
It must be so deep in what it means to be human. I don’t know if animals laugh. I don’t know that. Um, but there
Paul Boross (32:03):
Are some animals that laugh,
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (32:05):
But you know, this idea of a shared humour. Certainly I think ,you know, the Indian movies, which I mean, Shakespeare saw that in the most tragic of plays, he’ll bring in the clowns as if to make it bearable almost the light and shade. You have to have the clowns even in the deeper tragedy. I think in Indian movies, it was the same you always had – in the old Indian movies – whatever was going on. There were these comic characters that would be injected sometimes willynilly into the plot to lift the spirits of the audience and those were quite unforgetable movies. It’s like, there is a need to release whatever. It’s almost like a valve, isn’t it?
Paul Boross (33:03):
When it’s done properly laughter is registering shock really. And that is the release. And so that enormous release comes with the shock. I was interested that you mentioned Shakespeare because you, and the great Maya Angelou, said your first white love was Shakespeare. So did you fall in love with that Shakespeare humour as well as the dramatic nature?
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (33:35):
Yes. All of it, all of it. We were made in, in Uganda to memorise entire plays. And I’m really grateful for that. I’m really grateful because it made me absolutely love and know Shakespeare and actually I think about six, seven years ago, no longer ago than that The Royal Shakespeare Company heard how much I loved Shakespeare and asked me to do a one woman show. And they gave me a fantastic director and I did a hundred shows for them here and abroad. And part of the show was very tragic. It’s about my love of Shakespeare, my relationship with my father and some incredibly funny comic scenes and all kinds of people came to see it. Emma Thompson, I think Juliet Stevenson, Colin Firth they all came to see it. And they thought it an extraordinary piece of theatre, but they all said, God, that those funny scenes you did when I act my teacher, Mr. Bhattacharya, who very disapproved of Romeo and Juliet, because it encouraged the young to fall in love. And so he would do these lessons saying now girls and boys think about that. What happened to them – to Romeo and Juliet? Silly children? What happened? They died Shakespeare, very clever, man. He kills them to show you love is not allowed. You die. I did this on stage. I
Paul Boross (35:15):
That is hilarious
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (35:15):
I did this on stage. The proudest thing of my life, actually, that was
Paul Boross (35:20):
Do, do you think that everyone can be funny or is it a gift given to the few?
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (35:27):
I think everyone, like I said, it is what it is to be human, but I think whatever it is, life experiences, parenting, kind of beats it out of you or doesn’t allow it to flower. And it’s really interesting seeing my three grandchildren, the youngest one is going to be a standup comedian. I’m sure about that. He’s just irrepressible and the oldest boy, so serious, so serious and just wants to win, wants to win everything. And I often want him to lighten up and kind of take life a little bit more likely and find things funny. And the youngest one thinks everything’s a laugh. She’s so interesting.
Paul Boross (36:19):
It is. It is interesting, which is why I asked the question. If, if there is, you know, a comedy gene, a humorous gene that, that flows through people and just comes out in certain people, because I think everyone can learn to be funnier, but I’m not sure everyone hears the rhythm of how to be funny.
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (36:42):
Yes. Well, it’s an instinct, isn’t it? It’s an instinct. Somebody says something and you just think it comes out almost before you think about it. If you’ve got that facility.
Paul Boross (36:55):
And if you’ve got that facility, I think you, through your life, through circumstances you give pleasure to people by creating it.
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (37:08):
I have to tell you this because it’s a very, very funny moment. So a few years ago when Boris Johnson was foreign secretary, I think, and we were all going to go on to the Andrew Neil show. And we were in the chairs outside at the studios in Millbank and another sex scandal had just broken wwith him, you know, how many, so I, and there were all these people or ministers. And I said to him, Mr. Johnson, I’m really upset with you. And he said, he knew me because we’d been on a couple of foreign trips and things. He said, yeah, well, what, what? And I said, I’m the only woman itt seems, who’s not been asked by you to have an affair with you. And I’m incredibly upset! Everybody fell about, and he went red with anger. He was not pleased. He was not pleased. He didn’t laugh along with it.
Paul Boross (38:13):
Well, but isn’t that interesting that also he didn’t want a woman to be funnier than him, perhaps. Yes. You know? So we go back to our earlier points. So about that that’s, you know, seen as his place. Yes. To be ‘the amsuing one’.
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (38:30):
That’s one of my proudest moments.
Paul Boross (38:33):
It’s a great put down. I love it. I love it. So, so what would the world be like without humour?
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (38:43):
Well, there are places out there. I mean, there’s underground humour in a lot of… in countries where repression is terrible, but you know, somebody was telling me who is an asylum seeker from Eritrea who got in touch with me because a lot of refugees get in touch with me. And he said, when he was in the cells in – Eritrea is hell on earth like Yemen is as well. He said the one thing he noticed, nobody laughed. And I’ve always thought, you know, Nelson Mandela in prison for all those years. He always said they laughed. They kept their spirits up by laughing at the system and this guy from Eritrea said, nobody laughs. isn’t that tragic?
Paul Boross (39:38):
That is tragic. And it’s indicative, isn’t it of a broken society.
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (39:43):
And you know, Donald Trump had no sense of humour.
Paul Boross (39:47):
That’s interesting. Isn’t it
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (39:49):
Isn’t that interesting. There was nothing that came out of his mouth that was funny or witty. And, and it told you something about the guy’s psychology, I think,
Paul Boross (40:01):
Whereas Barack Obama, he could have chosen to be a standup. You know, he had all the skills to be able to do that.
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (40:13):
I was born without any fear of position. Right. So, I can laugh. And at the Queen and I can laugh at anyone who’s got power because to me they’re the same as anyone else. I don’t believe in the hierarchy of human beings. I don’t believe some people are born to be, you know, given such respect that we may not laugh at them. And if you are a believer in equality, then you absolutely should be able to bring down or laugh at everyone, including yourself. So whenever I make fun of the Royal family and the people who worship the Royal family, people get very angry saying they’re the Royal family. And I say, so what, there is human as you, me, you know, as my mother used to say, just imagine them sitting on the toilet and then you won’t be affraid.
Paul Boross (41:10):
I don’t really want to, to be honest with you!
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (41:15):
But it is very important that equality and humour are connected.
Paul Boross (41:21):
So do you think there’s something cuz obviously your book is Ladies Who Punch, do you think there’s something about punching up being okay, but punching down, not being okay. Cause that becomes bullying.
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (41:36):
Yes. But you know, even so I think what I remember before during the awful Brexit years, I used to go and meet with readers
Speaker 4 (41:47):
Who all wanted to have an argument with me
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (41:49):
And I’d go to places I don’t normally go to outside London and we’d meet in a pub or a cafe and they’d have a real go and then after about an hour we would all be laughing and talking together. And they’d inevitably say at the end of it, I didn’t know you were like this.
Paul Boross (42:10):
Do you think that laughter is actually the lifeblood of any good relationship?
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (42:17):
Yes, yes, yes, absolutely. How do you live with somebody without laughing with them?
Paul Boross (42:27):
It’s true. Isn’t it? But that’s true on the macro and the micro isn’t it? So you were talking about Eritrea and nobody laughing or in a flat in Scunthorpe, if there’s no laughter in that microcosm of society or whole society, It makes things very hard or impossible.
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (42:52):
Yes. And when laughter dies, I think the society is dying. I really do. like I said, you know, in Idi Amin’s time, Ugandans still laughed, but Eritreans are not laughing today in those cells that they’re kept in which I find… I wonder what Terry Waite and the others did. They laugh when they were there? I must look it up. Cause
Paul Boross (43:20):
It’s very interesting,
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (43:21):
It was an absolute, shocking period of time of incarceration. And I wonder if laughter helped them?
Paul Boross (43:31):
Now, this is an interesting question for me, because I ask it of quite a lot of guests and, and I’m very interested to hear your answer that, have you ever taken a joke too far or crossed the line?
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (43:43):
No, I’m very politically correct. I’m very committed to PC. I even wrote a book In Defensive Political Correctness
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (43:51):
Cause I do think words matter. So no, I don’t think… I must have over the years hurt somebody by laughing, but I can’t honestly recall.
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (44:04):
And if I did I just don’t think people have the right to make any old joke.
Paul Boross (44:10):
Well, it’s interesting. And I actually recommend everybody to read In Defensive of Political Correctness because now racism, sexism, homophobia, you know, xenophobia seem now to be proudly expressed in the world and there seems to be a movement. You know, probably Steve Bannon started it of, of like people holding it up as a badge of pride.
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (44:44):
And yet they’re the same people who are so sensitive when it comes to their politics and their side of the, the divide. They give it, but they can’t take it. So I feel, I often feel, you know, the same people who say let’s have freedom of speech, our country is being destroyed blah blah. They want us to repeat their platitudes. They want us not to laugh at them. I mean, you know, I would love to sit Dominic Cummings down in a room and have five comedians laugh at him by making jokes about him. I bet he would find that intolerable. He takes himself far too seriously. I think in a way Jeremy Corbyn doesn’t laugh as much as he should,
Paul Boross (45:38):
But we’ve got to the point of the show now, Yasmin, which we like to call Quick Fire Questions,
Quick Fire Questions *musical sting* (45:45):
Quick Fire Questions.
Paul Boross (45:49):
Who’s the funniest business person that you’ve met?
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (45:53):
I had a very good friend – who sadly died a couple of years ago- A Ugandan Asian called Moez Versanji. And he was very funny. He was an extraordinarily successful businessman, but he had the most brilliant sense of humour and he’d have a laughing all the time and he used to call me his little socialist and he’d invite me to dinner with all his multimillionaire friends saying, I have a little socialist for you at the table. So he was, and he was so successful. He was one of the… he kind of totally transformed Jordans the serial company from sinking to becoming huge but he was very good.
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (46:44):
And his workers loved him.
Paul Boross (46:48):
Well, that’s a sign of a good leader as I think that that leadership involves a lot of laughter, to be honest with you, if you want to get people on your side, What book makes you laugh?
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (47:01):
How To Be An Alien. Have you ever read this?
Paul Boross (47:06):
I do. Because I’m half Hungarian it’s by George Mikes.
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (47:11):
I love it. I still, I still frequently go back to it and it’s just so funny. English don’t have sex. They have a hot water bottle. It’s so accurate. So yeah, it’s one of my favourite.
Paul Boross (47:28):
That is so bizarre because I was brought up with that book in the house because my father was a Hungarian refugee. I don’t if you knew that, but and everybody used to call it George Mikes, especially in America and my father was because my father, when he came to this country in 56, after the uprising, he had to escape my father, uh, when he came to England, couldn’t believe how peopl behave because he used to walk up to people and, and go hello. Hello, my name’s Laszlo. How much do you earn? And he used to say, people went ashen. They used to go, it’s like, they’d been stabbed through the heart with a bread knife.
Paul Boross (48:21):
It was like, cause nobody ever said that. But the good thing about my father is that he knew because he was Hungarian how to tease and how to play, which when he arrived in Britain, everybody you were talking about, people being buttoned up was very buttoned up. And so women all loved my father because he would just say nice things to them. That shirt really suits. That’s a beautiful outfit and nobody ever said this stuff, you know? And so he was very popular with the ladies, including my girlfriends as I was growing up.
Paul Boross (49:03):
Anyway, it’s an aside. What film makes you laugh?
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (49:08):
I mean, I do thinkRichard Curtis films, I adore them
Paul Boross (49:15):
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (49:16):
Four weddings, which we watch every year because our daughter’s crazy about them.
Paul Boross (49:22):
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (49:22):
Notting Hill. I love Notting Hill. I just think it’s gently humour. And I like that a lot. I don’t find these kind of , some of these American comedies, you know, the Airplane and all them. They’re very witty. The script is fantastic, but not warm, whereas Richard Curtis does warm comedy and I love that.
Paul Boross (49:51):
Lovely. Yeah. So we’ve touched upon it already, but what is not funny,
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (50:00):
Anything that disregards the inequalities of influence in power and money and picks on those who are disempowered, which was what was so wrong with the Jimmy Carr joke, you know, gypsies are amongst the most persecuted people in Europe. And it’s not funny when you pick on them. So I think it’s always being aware that there are some people who are still living impossibly difficult lives and to laugh at their expense. I think it’s different if they’re laughing with you, but if you’re laughing at them, that’s not on for me.
Paul Boross (50:56):
What word makes you laugh? Yasmin,
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (51:00):
What word makes me laugh? BORIS! How did this happen? This man with such a name, you know, I wouldn’t buy a melon from him in a market and he’s here. So, yeah, that word makes me laugh
Paul Boross (51:24):
I wouldn’t buy a melon from him in a market. I just love that phrase. Right. What sound makes you laugh?
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (51:38):
Sounds, oh, I love the sounds of little children and babies. I mean, I will always break out into a smile or a laugh. I think there’s so, so compelling when you see a little or hear a little child laughing in that way that they do. Um, yeah.
Paul Boross (52:02):
Yeah. It’s wonderful. It’s it is my favourite sound as well. You went to Oxford, would you rather be considered clever or funny?
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (52:17):
Probably clever. Yeah, probably clever. If I’m honest, because it’s very hard for someone like me to end up in a place like that and you had to be smart. And, and I like the fact that I got there and, and got out alive, it was a horrible place. so yes, I don’t want to be a fun, I am funny, but I am smart. I like to be, to think I’m smart, because nothing was given to me ever in life, nothing
Paul Boross (53:02):
Wonderful. And finally, Yasmin Desert Island Gags, you can only take one joke with you to a desert island. What is that joke?
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (53:18):
Uh, ha ha. I love the limericks. One of the limericks that have been produced as we speak on Prince Andrew, I think they would have me. Oh, you know, the Grand Old Duke of York, all these new, very witty things would make me laugh. I think that would be it at the moment. Currently I’m laughing at Prince Andrew And he really does make me laugh.
Paul Boross (53:50):
There’s no actual joke that you’d like to actual,
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (53:53):
I’m not into actual jokes. I only know one and it’s not very good.
Paul Boross (53:58):
Oh, well tell us it anyway.
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (54:01):
Okay. Hang on. Let me think. okay. How did Batman Batman call Robin to come in and eat dinner, dinner, dinner, dinner, dinner, dinner, dinner, dinner, Batman, Not good.
Paul Boross (54:19):
No, but it did make me laugh. And I can imagine your grandchildren loving that
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (54:27):
I think I got it the wrong way wrong. Uh, so Robin calling Batman dinner, dinner, dinner, dinner, dinner, dinner, dinner, dinner, Batman.
Paul Boross (54:40):
Wonderful. Absolutely wonderful. And you’ve been wonderful and enlightening. Thank you so much for being a guest on The Humourology Podcast.
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (54:48):
Thank you, Paul. It’s been such fun.
Paul Boross (54:51):
The Humourology podcast was hosted by Paul Boross produced by David Rose music by Steve Haworth, creative direction by Les Hughes and additional research by EHelen Sykes. Please remember to subscribe, like leave a review wherever you get your podcasts. This has been a Big Sky production.