Making jokes

Released: Monday 6 December 2021

I think I should start with a joke. But should you, and who will have the last laugh?

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Alex MacLaren: Hello, and welcome to You Can Talk To Anyone, the podcast in which we open the bonnet on our communications engine. I’m Alex.

Tom Salinsky: And I’m Tom.

Alex MacLaren: And this week, we are talking about jokes. Now this is… let me give you some background here. Very often, when Tom and I are working with people in big skyscrapers in the City of London and elsewhere, occasionally, some shy person, often a man, a middle-aged guy, will come up to us afterwards, in the coffee break and say, “Can I ask you about jokes? I mean, I feel like I want to start with a joke.” When they’re giving some kind of address. I think what’s happened is that they’ve seen other people charm and delight an audience with remarks or stories that make them laugh, and they definitely want some of that themselves. But there is also this anxiety that some people have funny bones, and some people don’t. And they’re fretful about whether or not they should risk it or attempt it. Have you had that experience?

Tom Salinsky: Oh, yeah, all the time. And I think one of the things that happens is people misunderstand the role of laughter. Because we’re used to seeing stand up comedians, or sitcom performers elicit gales of laughter from an audience. And this actually is a sort of distortion of the function of laughter in social situations. It’s almost like taking something which has been useful to bond us together in social groups and weaponizing. It. There was a study done, quite a famous study, many years ago, in which social conversations were recorded and analyzed. What they were looking for was what was it that made the group laugh. And these remarks which elicited laughter in a social group, were very hard to categorize. But they had one thing overwhelmingly in common. They weren’t funny. The thing to notice about laughter is, first of all, it’s involuntary. And secondly, it’s hard to fake. So that makes it a very reliable social cue. And when a whole group laughs together, what they’re saying is, we all feel the same way about this, this is something we agree on. Because it’s generated this completely authentic reaction in all of us at the same time. So a stand up comedian is, first of all, taking advantage of the fact that when we’re in groups, we react differently than when we are on our own. If you’re sitting in rows in a theater, and everyone around you is doing the same thing, you’ll do it too. So the curve becomes very steep. It’s much easier to get a big group of people to laugh together than it is to get one person to laugh on their own. But in social situations, we’ll often laugh just to kind of be reassuring. And it’s very common, for example, for somebody telling a joke socially, to laugh at their own joke. Which is the thing that most comedians don’t do. And in fact, it;s one of these you’re told not to do.

Alex MacLaren: Yes, absolutely not. It’s a funny thing, that that I’ve often thought of laughter in social situations, as a sort of, is a signal to say, “Yes, I recognize you.” And so that dimension of polite laughter, I think, is part of the anxiety of those people coming up to us, in that what they don’t want to do is to be the person telling jokes, and everybody’s laughing, because they ought to, because they’ve been that person and they know that that it’s a kind of duty call rather than… it makes them feel fake. It suppose those best man speeches, when you’re kind of going ha ha, because that’s what you got to do. And it’s not about you. And it’s not really about the best man. It’s basically about the bride and groom. And everybody sort of enjoys it, but in inverted commas, and so that this area becomes fraught with those issues. It’s funny, we also have a history with jokes. I mean, my son’s 11. And obviously, we all make each other laugh all the time. But he also is interested in what a joke is because he reads them in the back pages of his comic…

Tom Salinsky: Or on lolly sticks? Did I just expose myself as a terribly old man?

Alex MacLaren: But it’s true. Well, I mean, when I was a kid, we had joke books, I mean, did you have those? 1001 Jokes

Tom Salinsky: Oh, yeah, absolutely.

Alex MacLaren: I used to have them. Page after page after page of them…

Tom Salinsky: Of drivel.

Alex MacLaren: Yes. And I would read these joke books. And I suppose what I was thinking was – is there material here, which I can then use? And kids do, they share jokes with each other, and they come back and tell them to their parents. And if you’re telling them to me and Zoe, and we’re both performance by trade, it must be incredibly difficult because we sit there and we go “Mm. Yeah.” We think about it. And occasionally we sort of laugh, but it’s the things he does that makes us laugh rather than the jokes he tells us that make us laugh. And that I think is very often the case with our closest social relations. And that I think is where we start with that place of authenticity.

Tom Salinsky: Somebody saying to me, “I think I should start with a joke” is almost always somebody who is beginning something which they have rehearsed. In an earlier podcast, we talked about broadcasting to a group as opposed to interacting with another person. And so there’s a sense of contrivance about this. Now, think back to a time when you were at work, and the whole room laughed together. I would bet a substantial sum that most of the events that you’re thinking of are things that were spontaneous and unplanned. Something went wrong, or somebody had to improvise. Somebody had to react very quickly to a changing situation. And it was an off-the-cuff remark that was said, without thinking. And it’s the very fact that it’s spontaneous, which can often elicit that absolutely genuine laughter, which is not anybody trying to be polite or reassure you. It’s just how we feel in that moment.

Alex MacLaren: Yes, we laugh because we recognize something true just happened. So it really goes to the heart of this authenticity question, which often comes up – and in fact, I tell you something, it drives me crazy when you see in pantomimes, particularly when they are faking that they’ve lost their lines or something. Or you go back to see a show, and the same mistake happens that happened the previous night. The sense of betrayal in that circumstance!

Tom Salinsky: Oh, people went crazy when they discovered that James Corden always found an audience member who had been eating a hummus sandwich in One Man Two Guvnors. You’re right, people felt absolutely robbed, but it’s a testament to – you know, he’s somebody who divides opinions – but it’s a testament to his skill as a performer that so many audiences were completely hoodwinked.

Alex MacLaren: Yeah, absolutely true and my opinions are divided as well, I absolutely love him as an actor and have no time for him as a personality. But it’s definitely the case that I think one reason why there’s an appeal to laughter and jokes in people’s communication is there is an understanding that it connects to something completely authentic. And then it also is treacherous, because it also is involved with all of these other elements, which can be much less authentic.

Tom Salinsky: So even saying to somebody like me and Alex, “I think I should start with a joke,” I think is slightly misunderstanding, the role of laughter in these situations. But I’ve seen people who will double down on that misunderstanding, by putting the joke on the PowerPoint slide. Now, there is no possible way that the joke of the PowerPoint slide can be anything other than preordained. And what that does is it just kind of raises the bar, okay. The joke that’s totally off the cuff does not have to be as funny as the joke, which is clearly contrived. And the joke which is clearly contrived, which you say out loud, does not have to be as funny as the joke you put on the PowerPoint slide. So if you’re going to put a joke at the beginning of your PowerPoint, you’ve gotta make sure that what you’ve got on your hands is the funniest joke in the world.

Alex MacLaren: And I think it also can do with your relationship to the audience. Because if you know the people that you’re talking to very, very well, it’s much more difficult, I’d say, to contrive something which is going to connect with them in the way that maybe people at work really want to. And I think this actually goes back to something in our families. I don’t know about you, but there are some stories of my father’s that I have heard many times. And he’s a humane gentleman, and so he stopped telling them to us again and again and again. But if there are new people there, sometimes stories we’ve all heard will come back out. And of course, we have now a different meaning to those jokes and stories than he associates with them, because he’s got a bunch of people who are laughing along politely, and a new audience that might be delighted by it.

Tom Salinsky: But I think we do re-enjoy comedy from time to time. Yes, it doesn’t have the same impact that it has when you see it for the first time because a big element of comedy is surprise. But there are people who will watch and rewatch the same old comedy movies or old episodes of sitcoms and get a renewed pleasure from seeing them again, and sometimes the anticipation of the funny thing that’s coming is just as delicious as the thing itself. And I think it’s important therefore, not to worry too much about that. If you’ve got a standard speech that you do – as you and I have standard workshop material, which we deliver to different groups – there may be things which either by contrivance or by accident you’ve got, which are funny. A lot of the funniest thing they say to groups were once ad libs, and I’ve kept them in. And I had to figure out how to make them work now I know what’s coming, which is a different state for me, than somebody who’s just inventing something for the first time. But I can remember, for example, doing the same workshop, let’s say, three times in a row, with three different groups of people – but having the same organizer there all three times, the first time I do it, everything is fresh. And as far as that organizer knows, this is all off the top of my head, and I’m this inspirational, comedy genius. And the second time, because I don’t have a script that I’m reciting, but there will be certain things which are going to come out more as the same every time. Other bits, which are looser, that occasionally something brand new will come out. But something which caused that first group of people to have a wonderful time and fall about laughing, might have been something I’m going to say, again, the second time around, I could feel that anxiety about that. But I know if I’ve got a group of 30 people in front of me, my allegiance is to them. And it therefore, behoves me not to try and frantically rewrite my script on the fly, in order not to give the game away to one organizer. What I should do is say the thing which I think is going to work for this group of people,

Alex MacLaren: That’s really interesting. When something happens off the cuff in a moment when you’re at work, and the response tells you “Oh, yeah, that works, because it’s true.” I think one way which we can then use it, again, is when we understand precisely what it was that was true about that, because then we can apply that general truth to lots of other groups. The danger, of course, is actually it worked for that specific group, it was true for those people, and if we then use it on other groups, as if they are the previous audience, we’re not really recognizing who they are, we’re not really looking for the truth of that interaction. And I think that’s one of the problems of, say, a rehearsed piece of material, as opposed to being open to – not the jokes we tell, but maybe the jokes that we make. Because we’re all part of the joke making process, even if the punchline was delivered by you, the setup has been delivered by the people in the room. And I think that’s one of the reasons that those off the cuff magic moments. That I think is what people are hungry for when they come to us and they say, I want to use a joke. They want that feeling of something real happening. And they think they can rehearse it.

Tom Salinsky: And there’s a status component here as well. And again, I think this is where sometimes people misunderstand what they see happening in stand up comedy clubs. If you go to a stand up comedy club, very often what you’ll see on the stage is somebody with a lot of status. They have status anyway, because they’re on the stage and they have the mic. And they’ll say something funny, and they have this kind of power over the audience. As I said already, laughter is involuntary. So as the comedian, what I’m saying is, I’m going to make you react in a way that you can’t control. It’s a high status maneuver. But the person who comes to us saying I feel I should start with a joke often is someone who doesn’t have a lot of status within the organization. And they imagine that by starting with a joke, they’ll get the same kind of status that professional comedian gets. And I don’t think that’s true. I think a much more successful way of deploying a joke in that kind of situation would be somebody very senior, making a joke at their own expense, and being self deprecating to lower their status and make themselves more approachable. I think somebody more junior, feeling more anxious, should just be confident and authoritative. And that will tend to reassure them, which in turn will reassure the people they’re speaking to.

Alex MacLaren: Yeah, it’s funny. The status game dimension of jokes is really important. I was considering this earlier when I was asking myself: what actually is a joke? So this is something I do a lot at the moment. I occasionally – actually some people when they’re beginning some kind of speech or pitch or whatever, they’ll say, I looked up the dictionary definition of something. And I always think, oh never might what the dictionary says – what do people mean?

Tom Salinsky: Speaking of jokes, in professional joke-writing circles, like people who write comedy scripts for film and television, there’s the concept of a clam. A clam is a joke that’s gone-off. It’s a joke that’s too old, and we’ve seen too many versions of it. And not only is beginning with dictionary definition a clam, actually now using that in a script to indicate the person making this speech is doing it badly has itself become a clam. We’ve seen that too many times.

Alex MacLaren: Okay, well I now know that I am a clam. But what I was trying to work out was what my definition would be and I basically say that a joke is some sort of sort of structure, possibly a story structure, or possibly a kind of connected series of interactions, which allow us to process fear and uncertainty, safely and agreeing and whooping and recognizing that and laughing together.

Tom Salinsky: Yeah, a lot of drugs deal with dark or taboo subject matter. And it’s very striking to me that there are two films about the possibility of nuclear armageddon released the same year by different studios. Fail Safe, directed by Sidney Lumet and Dr. Strangelove directed by Stanley Kubrick. The Kubrick one is a comedy. It’s quite absurd in places and all the characters have ridiculous name, the president is called Merkin Muffley, for example, and there are three parts played by Peter Sellers. And – spoiler for Dr. Strangelove – it has a completely devastating ending in which the brinksmanship between America and Russia ends with the end of the world. And it can do that because it’s a comedy. Fail Safe is a straight drama, with basically the same premise. But I don’t believe the ending which is a kind of half assed happy ending, finally, snatching some kind of victory from the jaws of defeat. And it doesn’t feel true, even though it’s a much more realistic presentation of the material.

Alex MacLaren: It’s a joke about something so fundamentally terrifying. And yet that I think is what so much comedy is about. It’s all about sex and death and busting taboos. I think this explains a couple of things. One is why people are anxious about using it, and also why people are sometimes baffled by – how can that person get away with it, and this person can’t? Or why does that joke work and that not? It’ss because within jokes are often quite important sort of the statements about these fundamental matters, and I think people often don’t necessarily understand what’s underneath the joke. And that’s why sometimes jokes can go wrong, rather than right.

Tom Salinsky: Have you heard of dad jokes?

Alex MacLaren: Yes, I was going to raise dad jokes. You go first.

Tom Salinsky: There’s a theory that as we grow up, we get more and more used to telling jokes about sex and death, and other such things. And that becomes a staple of our job telling and our humorous interactions with each other. And then suddenly, there’s a five-year-old in the room. And now that entire avenue of joke-telling is closed off. So all you can do is puns and deliberate misunderstandings, and you’re stuck in dad jokes.

Alex MacLaren: Well, that’s true. And I think actually, I was just thinking about puns specifically. So I was thinking about that there’s an old, a dadI knew when I was a kid, who was just an absolute inveterate punster. But he was so unbelievably charming, he managed to get people on board with them. But I think that puns make people feel safe, because what they’re exploring is the uncertainty just about something straightforward, like the meaning of a word. So it’s actually very, very low stakes. But there’s still that risk in a pun about a word meaning one thing or another thing, or maybe even a third thing.

Tom Salinsky: Have you heard this one before? According to Freud, what comes between fear and sex?

Alex MacLaren: Go on.

Tom Salinsky: Fünf.

Alex MacLaren: Yes, there’s a pun for you German speakers out. So that’s interesting. So there’s a joke, which has a very particular and quite risky purpose, in that it can flatter your listeners, and it can also exclude those listeners that don’t get it. And I think that’s another kind of risk with kind of joke-joke structures is that they do achieve that social divider. And one could argue that that joke is about finding out who your who your people are – do you speak German or not? T hanks for putting up with my German accent. But one element of people’s joke telling with each other in social situations, and this happens at work as well and is fraught with risk, is the bit about making jokes about each other. Now, when we’re safe with each other, and we know each other, and most importantly, we know that we are friends, and we love the qualities about each other that make us friends, it gives us a certain amount of permission then to notice and mock slightly, each other’s failings. And for me, that’s actually very comforting thing when I get into that place with people who are my friends. But if it isn’t absolutely clear that we have that permission, that is a fraught with risk, and a joke for one person can end up being a humiliation for another.

Tom Salinsky: Yes. There’s a another saying or way of thinking about this from comedians, which is are you punching up, or are you punching down? If you’re punching up, you are mocking, making fun of, using jokes to lower the status of some authority figures. Think of Monty Python and Dave Allen making fun of the Pope and people like that – showing my age a bit there. But if you’re punching down, that is a slightly kind of queasier area to be in, because now you’re picking on the weak. Now you’re identifying somebody who would find it much harder to defend themselves and making fun of them. So in a toxic workplace, everyone will gang up and haze the new recruit. And in a more benevolent workplace, as we said already, it will be the person who is the most senior who lowers their own status, who makes a joke at their own expense. And will take it if people make jokes at their expense.

Alex MacLaren: Yeah, I think that if there was one really clear rule I would offer to people who are telling jokes or telling kind of funny stories in the workplace, it would be: lower your own status rather than other people’s. Because firstly, it will enable people to identify with you more strongly because when bad things happen to you, it reminds me of the bad things that happened to me. And they’re the ones that I remember. And they’re much funnier. But also, you’re taking away that risk that you might be pointing the finger at somebody who doesn’t feel so comfortable about it. And when those joke moments happen in public, then it will feel slightly, I guess, amplified. I mean, I’m sure that everyone’s had this experience, when you’re quite happy to be teased by people that you love. But as soon as other people are there, they can’t really say that thing. Because you’re comfortable to have your status go up and down within a very, very strong and comfortable relationship. But with new people there, then having your status lowered in front of strangers can often feel really humiliating and difficult.

Tom Salinsky: But just to re-emphasize this point, you should lower your status, when it needs lowering. Lower your status to bring it down to the level of the people you’re talking to. If you’re talking to an audience, and they have more status than you, then it’s much more appropriate to bring your status up. And it’s much harder to do that in the form of a joke. The oldest joke in the world, almost certainly, is somebody slipping on a banana skin. But it’s a much funnier joke. If it’s somebody who’s very senior, an authority figure.

Alex MacLaren: If it’s Michael Gove. Please, please Michael Gove.

Tom Salinsky: If it’s Michael Gove, if it’s a world leader, particularly a world leader, who’s generally you know, not liked. If a little old lady slips on a banana skin and can’t get up again, that’s just sort of awful. There’s nothing funny about that at all. So if you’re in a junior position and having to present to the board, lowering your own status is not required. No matter how funny the joke is,

Alex MacLaren: Yes, you may have your favorite taboo-busting remark, but ask yourself, Is this a situation in which that is just a useless and destructive taboo? Or is this a situation in which that what bothers you in one context is actually a very useful rule for the way that group functions and ask yourself if you’re pointing the finger in the right direction. So for your homework this week, when you’re thinking about using a joke in some kind of formal context. Here’s a question for you to think about, which is actually what is your joke about? This relates to Tom’s words about the status lowering, status raising, punching up, punching down dimension of your joke. They’re often about fears to do with important matters, like belonging, or power, or sex and death. And they’re often lowering the status of a personal thing that makes us feel powerless. Consider the context you’re in. If you’re planning to use the story, in any specific address, ask yourself, is it really the right story with the right meaning for your relationship to that specific group? And if you want to run your joke by us, get in touch, and we’ll give you our considered opinion.

Tom Salinsky: We run workshops on all of these topics on a very regular basis, we do them both in person and on Zoom. So if you’re interested in doing some work with us, please get in touch, drop us an email, give us a call. And let’s have a chat about your communication needs and how we could come into your company and help you.

Alex MacLaren: We’re hoping that this becomes a conversation with listeners. So please do get in touch with your results from today’s homework, how you got on. And if there’s anything you hope that we’re going to talk about that we haven’t spoken about yet, please do get in touch, send us an email or record your thoughts in a voice memo. And we may play it on a future show. Until next time, I’m Alex.

Tom Salinsky: And I’m Tom.

Alex MacLaren: Thank you very much for listening and goodbye.