Laughter & Politics

In Britain the party conference season has just ended, while in the US the Presidential election is approaching its climax. Consequently the airwaves have of late been thick with political rhetoric, speechifying and bullshit.

It might be interesting to speculate briefly on the relationship between laughter and politics, so I am going to – but I wouldn’t trust what I say, since I did a gig at a fringe meeting of the recent Labour Party Conference (not, may I add, as a member of the Labour Party) and failed to change the expression on the face of even one of the grim-faced journos who made up my audience.

Having a great sense of humour is not high on the list of attributes necessary to be a politician. Of last century’s prime ministers, probably only Winston Churchill could have got a booking at Balham’s Banana Cabaret and Tony Blair being witty is very hard to imagine. My guess is his favourite form of entertainment is watching himself in the mirror doing air guitar.

Although having no sense of humour need not impede a political career, it can be useful in demonstrating the humanity of the candidate. Ho ho, I can laugh at myself. It is rarely convincing, mind, since politicians do not believe they could be wrong about anything – self-deprecation is just a learned trick.

They are better using humour on others. “Being attacked by Geoffrey Howe is like being mauled by a dead sheep,” was Dennis Healey’s favourite line. Last week John Kerry tried, “Being lectured by the President on fiscal responsibility is like Tony Soprano talking to me about law and order.”

For a sophisticate like myself, the really funny bits come unintentionally – who did not snigger at Tory MPs’ recent attempt to humanise themselves by stating the last CD they bought – “Phillip went for Enya, Charles chose Eminem?” I also enjoyed the moment in the presidential debate when Kerry effectively said, “Yeah? Well your mate’s daughter’s a lesbo, so there.” Still, rather Kerry than Bush, who seems too unevolved to get humour. There are many reasons to hope Bush doesn’t get in and one of them is that if he does, all the Americans I meet for the next four years will feel obliged to start every meeting by saying, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I didn’t vote for him.”

Sod it, I’m bored with that and I want to record a gig I did recently at the National Film Theatre. I was introducing two episodes of that curious, original and funny series Ripping Yarns and then interviewing its begetters Michael Palin and Terry Jones.

The nine yarns have been released on DVD and the NFT took the opportunity to stage the event in front of an appreciative and slightly nerdy audience.
Michael had spent the entire day autographing copies of his book about the Himalayas, while Terry Jones had flown in from Morocco where he was filming a TV show or something. As a man who had spent the afternoon dreaming on Wandsworth Common, I was impressed by their energy. At the end I said: “You are important figures in the history of comedy, you both have large and impressive bodies of work behind you. Do you ever sit back and think, ‘Well I’ve not done too bad’?”

They both gave me a firm “No.”

Complacency is a dangerous characteristic but I am very, very important and need not worry about it. Look, look, the leaves are falling.