Part of the Humourology series
Season 3, Episode 60
Steve Richards – The Potent Political Weapon of Wit
Prominent Political Journalist and host of Rock n Roll Politics, Steve Richards joins Paul Boross to talk about leaders who laugh. Richards breaks down how different political powerhouses used a punchline to captivate crowds and win over audiences. Join us to hear how humour holds its own on the political battle ground only on The Humourology Podcast.
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“If you can use humour, you’ve got an audience with you.”
Join Paul Boross and Steve Richards as they take a deep dive into prominent politicians and their use of humour. Learn how to balance your message with your mirth and captivate crowds across the country only on The Humourology Podcast.
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– We need to bring the mighty down to size by mocking them. Whereas I think the hilarity is, actually, the mighty are nowhere near as mighty as they feel obliged to appear to be. And that’s what I find is right for humour and tragedy.
– Welcome to the “Humourology Podcast” with me, Paul Boross, and my glittering lineup of guests from the world’s of business, politics, sport, 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 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. My guest on this edition of the “Humourology Podcast” is a powerful and punchy presenter, podcaster, and political columnist. He’s best known as the presenter of Radio 4’s Week in Westminster, but he has established himself as one of the most pointed and prominent political journalists publishing in the Guardian, the Independent, the New Statesman and the Spectator, just to name a few. When he isn’t presenting powerful radio or publishing political columns, you can find him performing and podcasting his compelling show, “Rock N Roll Politics.” His television career goes back decades as both a political correspondent and a presenter. His series of reflections, from prime ministers to political turning points, looks at the country’s most important people and political moments. The only thing that matches his political expertise is his ability to present politics in a cool and captivating way. Steve Richards, welcome to the “Humourology Podcast.”
– Thank you very much.
– Oh, it’s real pleasure to have you here. I am a huge fan of, “Rock N Roll Politics, which we will come back and talk about at length, I hope, but I wanted to go back to the young Steve Richards, the Jesuits say, “Give me a child of seven and I will give you the man”, was the seven-year-old Steve Richards humourous, or already interested in politics?
– I wasn’t interested in politics at seven. I’ve always, certainly by seven, I was interested in performance. I loved performing. I kind of regret it really, There were certain key turning points where maybe I could have gone into performance as a full time vocation, although journalism is really, as is politics. But I didn’t, I went into journalism. But yeah. As a kid, I was fascinated by performance and I was drawn to politics very early because of its performing dimension, the theatre of it. And shall I tell you where I learned about the importance of humour in this context?
– I think I was 11 and it was 1974. And in that year, there were two general elections. In February, ’74, there was an election and Harold Wilson, the then Labour leader, just won it, but only just. So he held another one in October ’74. Now as a kid, I was really, I was just watching from a distance and was fascinated by Wilson because I heard my parents say, “Oh, Wilson’s old and knackered and mad and stuff.” And I thought, “Well, how can he be prime minister if he’s old and knackered and mad?” Anyway, I noticed he was on near where we lived and you could just turn up in those days. And I seem to remember some other, I think it was in the first year of secondary school, some other friends were off to see David Bowie at the Rainbow. And they said, “Do you want to come and see Bowie?”, I said, “No, I’m off to see Harold Wilson in North London.” But I’m really pleased that I did because Wilson arrived at this forum, and this is a classic lesson about humour. He arrived at this town hall, I think it was Camden Town Hall or something, and as I was very, very young and he did look old and knackered. When I look back, he was relatively young still, but he looked, He looked 75, maybe 80, he was still in his 50s. And sure enough, the first bit of the speech was really boring, but then something really dramatic happened. And this is how you use humour in politics and in business and everything else. It was the era when it was still, anyone could turn up, and Wilson was talking quite boringly, and someone threw an egg at him, as quite often happened in those days, and it went all over this, already crumpled suit, and Wilson looked up on, I’ve never, ever forgotten it, and, well, learnt so much from it, and Wilson looked up and said this, “You know, I’ll tell you something very, very interesting. In the 1970 election, after six years of a Labour government, somebody threw an egg at me, like the man being escorted from the town hall has just done. In February, six months ago, in the election then, after three and a half years of Conservative government, nobody threw an egg at me. I think in, I think it was an egg free election campaign. And now somebody has thrown an egg at me again.” And then he paused, dusted the yoke down and said, “Which goes to show, you could only afford to throw eggs under a Labour government.” The whole hall cheered. And the mood changed. Wilson looked 30 years younger. He danced around the stage. The crowd were cheering him on. And it’s a moment that has stayed with me. When I speak to politicians. It was very interesting. I spoke to one of Wilson’s allies, many, many decades later, And I told him this thing. It’s only time I saw him live. He said, “Oh, yeah. Wilson, he learned to have a sense of humour. He didn’t really have one, but by the end he was like a standup comic.” He was hilarious. He could tell a good kind of joke and he learnt it. Whether he learnt it or could do it, I think if you want to ask why he won, He used to go around saying, “You know, I won four elections out of five. A record, I think, you’ll find.” Now, I think humour really helped him. A lot of politicians underestimate the power of humour as a political weapon. And so do business leaders, and so do some in the media, who do talks and speeches with tedious slides and stuff. If you can use humour, you’ve got an audience with you. And I learned that. I’m quite pleased I didn’t go to David Bowie. I learned then a lot about the power of humour, certainly in politics, but elsewhere too.
– That is fascinating because we had Matt Forde on the podcast who you know Who’s a comedian and a political interviewer as well. And we were talking about, because we both grew up in, “The Comedy Store.” The power of it, accepting the heckle and you become, in inverted commas, “godlike”.
– If you, You have a superpower at that point, if you can turn that adversity around. But I’m interested to follow up on, you said that Wilson learnt humour. Do you think it’s something that can be learnt or the comedy instincts have to be there first?
– Well, I was fascinated when someone told me that about Wilson because he did learn it. But I think, on the whole, you can’t. It can be a bit embarrassing. And I can think of politicians who’ve tried humour when they haven’t really got it. And it’s, on the whole, embarrassing. Now, I argue, generally, that you have to use it if you want to be an election winner, but as we all know, Thatcher was an election winner and had no sense of humour. And when she’d try to deliver lines, which have been written for her, it was just embarrassing because she clearly didn’t get the joke. And if you don’t get the joke, there’s no chance the audience are going to get the joke. So I think on the whole, you have to have it, but if you haven’t got it, you better try and learn it if you want to into any public arena. Because, it’s interesting you used that word, “power”. It is empowering. It turns everything on its head, so, for a second, to go back to heckling, it looks if the heckler has the power, but you turn it round and suddenly you are godlike in dealing with the situation. To take the current situation, Kier Starmer, I think, needs to learn to use humour a lot more. He can be quite funny, privately. He is very, When he’s relaxed, but he needs to find a way of deploying it to expose and ridicule Johnson and others. And when you do, it not only has people with you, because they are laughing with you and not at you, it makes opponents uncomfortable as well. But it is an interesting point about whether you can actually acquire it. I think most people have it instinctively, if they’ve got it.
– Well, in your brilliant book, “The Prime Ministers We Never Had”, you actually talk about imposter syndrome stalking the corridors of power and crippling people’s campaigns. And you said it’s best to acquire your charisma after winning with modesty as Thatcher and Blair did. I think you talk about the ebullience of people like Ken Clarke, that actually got in the way of people connecting to him. And I wonder because we now live in the era of Boris Johnson. Has that shifted now, whereby people see it as an advantage again?
– I’ll come to Johnson in a minute, but the example I use most in, “The Prime Ministers We Never Had”, was Michael Portillo. Now, he didn’t actually have humour, but he did have charisma. And there was a feverish excitement about Portillo in the mid 1990s, when a lot of people thought he was about to be prime minister, Thatcher wanted him to be prime minister, all her followers wanted him to be, and he had an aura. And I remember thinking then, “This is going to finish him off.” There’s too much excitement around him. It’s much better to have the excitement once you’ve won because people don’t trust you, people are jealous, your colleagues and so on. With Portillo, he went through so many metamorphosis as a public figure it always felt uncomfortable. Now, Johnson is interesting because he makes people laugh and I’ve got absolutely no doubt when people say, “Why do people forgive him so much?” It’s because he makes people laugh. That is empowering for him. And you’re right. Yeah, it helped him rise to the top, but it wasn’t the key thing. Brexit propelled him to the top, and the fear that the Brexit party was going to destroy the Tory party. And there he was, “We’re out. Come what mate, we’re out.” Not true, by the way, like most things he says. When he was really popular, they won that Hartlepool by-election last year, gained it from Labour. Very unusual. I watched people watching him and they were smiling, and that was his power. I think it’s gone, quite a lot, with all the stuff that has emerged. That has helped him, massively, rise to the top because when you think about it, what were the other qualifications? Peripheral foreign secretary, with all kinds of gaffs associated with that period and so on, but he makes people laugh, and that is empowering.
– Yes. But do you think that Labour, because you mentioned Kier Starmer and we had Yasmin Alibhai-Brown on the show, who was desperate for him to show his charisma, show his funny side. But do you think that there’s a danger with Labour and the attitude towards Boris Johnson of, “Oh, it’s all jokes and no judgement .”, like Labour did all those years ago? You end up looking a bit po-faced and the public doesn’t like that, you want to at least recognise Boris Johnson’s humour because, I mean, I’m not a fan, but he can be funny.
– Now that’s a really good example. You see, there was William Hague, Tory leader, in a very difficult period, 1997 onwards. But one thing that sustained him was he was funny. He could be hilarious in the House of Commons. It was quite a sort of rehearsed wit, but he, actually, and it was a bit like Harold Wilson, was a Yorkshire style of telling a joke, and he was hilarious. But it was dealt with brilliantly by Blair, Alastair Campbell and others to come. And others, they thought, “How the hell are we going to deal with this? He’s winning over the whole House of Commons. He’s got a whole House of Commons laughing.”, and they did it cleverly by saying, “He might be good at the jokes but where’s the policy?” Now that is an obvious attack line for Johnson. Even more than Hague, who was quite a substantial figure in terms of policy and politics. You could apply it to Johnson. You do apply it exactly. That’s the problem. You don’t want to appear some po-faced, humourless, hair-shirted politician, where, “Let’s all be miserable and not laugh.” That’s why I think it’s even more important for Kier Starmer to use wit, preferably his own, but if someone’s got to write it, but still use it. Every Prime Minster’s Questions, there should be a joke in there, ridiculing, exposing the absurdity of the Johnson regime. It is so powerful, and it is deeply disturbing for the victim of the joke if you have Tory MPs laughing. Now, that did happen at times when Blair was leader of the opposition. He used humour well against John Major. And he, sometimes, had Tory MPs laughing with him as he mocked John Major. And Cameron did it when Gordon Brown was very vulnerable. Do you remember when Gordon Brown didn’t call the early election, and Gordon Brown denied it was anything to do with the fact the opinion polls were turning, which he shouldn’t have done because that was the reason why he didn’t call it. And Cameron got up and said, “He must be the only prime minister not to call an early election because he’s frightened of winning it.” And it got, Labour MPs were laughing as well as Tory MPs and that, to use your very perceptive word, so empowering and so diminishing of the person who’s being mocked.
– If you are witty or off the cuff, there is the danger that you will say something that will be blown up in the press as, When it’s written down, a joke can seem incendiary, can it not? Is that why they’re holding back, you think?
– I don’t think they’ve quite realised that, if we talk about Starmer and his team, the potency of wit. I suspect he too personally, might be uncomfortable with it because as a director of public prosecution, there is a lawyerly way of dealing with debate. You forensically analyse in a rather mannered way in a court and you don’t use humour because, And I think he’s only slowly realising that politics and the House of Commons is a wholly different arena. So I think that might be a bit of it. And then, as I say, I use the argument so often that wit is a potent political weapon. I’m sure I’ve mentioned him and others, but I don’t think they’ve quite clocked how important it is to make an argument, deflate the opposition, to humanise you because when you’ve got voters laughing with you, you have got them. I mean, Wilson, I would say, is a really good example because, obviously I wasn’t around to witness this, but when Harold Macmillan was going through real problems as prime minister and Wilson was the leader of the opposition, for example, there was a famous occasion when Wilson, When Macmillan sacked half his cabinet, the Night of the Long Knives it was called, and Wilson just popped up. And what about this for a perfect soundbite, before that word was invented?, “I see the prime minister has sacked half his cabinet, the wrong half.” And immediately it’s, Get him completely. Whereas there have been chaotic reshuffles in recent times, I can’t remember anything a leader of the opposition has said. And I only remember it because I saw it on YouTube or somewhere, that Wilson soundbite, but I won’t forget it because it’s hilarious. When he mocks, “Oh, he’s got the wrong bloody, He’s chaotic anyway and he got the wrong bloody half.” So all the rubbish ones are still in there. I mean, it’s very clever. It takes 20 seconds, but it’s funny.
– It’s what we call, in comedy, a zinger. But in order to do a zinger, you have to be able to actually deliver it. And I don’t, Here’s my belief, is I don’t think Keir Starmer does it with belief
– and gusto. You can’t halfheartedly go for it because the gag will fall flat on its arse.
– Yeah. Yeah. There’s a musicality to humour and gags, as there are to speeches. They’ve got to be symphonic, and if there’s a discordant moment, it is totally counterproductive. So you’re right. You’ve got to deliver it with belief, “This is going to be bloody hilarious.” And if you’re unsure, it’s going to be embarrassing. But the stakes are so high in that public arena, if you haven’t got it naturally, to try and learn it, in the way that, say, Wilson did, I think Blair sort of learnt it, I mean, he could be very funny, privately, as well. Both Blair and Brown had a sense of the ridiculous. Brown, while his public demeanour was so serious and Calvinistic ruler, he could guffaw with laughter when he was in a good mood, privately. Fairly rare, but he had a sense of the absurdity of it all.
– And that’s the thing, is, I think they need to work on, in fact because I understand that you’ve met him, and other people I know who have met him, that he is witty and charming in private, Keir Starmer, it probably takes somebody like me, who trains people to do this, to come in and go, “If you’re going to do it, do it completely.” You can’t sit on the fence with humour.
– Yeah. No, exactly. Yeah. I’ve done some media training, and you can, I think, to go back to your original point, is it instinctive? I think you can train people to project more effectively but it’s no good. You see? I’ve heard people in his office say, “When people meet Keir, they really like him.” Now, that’s been said about a lot of people, who, I’m afraid, have then lost elections because you have to project more widely than, You’re not going to meet all the voters personally and sit around, having a coffee and a bit of a laugh with them. So you have to find a way. One of the things they need to learn, is the art of, almost like instead of over rehearsing for some interview, say the, whatever the replacement is to Andrew Marr. You spend two weeks rehearsing every possible question. You go in basically terrified, too stiff with rehearsed answers. You’ve got to be in a constant conversation with voters and see it as a constant conversation. And very few of them do. They’re so terrified by it all, frankly. That is the way to do it because once you regard TV or radio as a conversation, you can then put in the jokes as you, Or try and say something funny as you would in a conversation. But if it’s, “Oh, my God. What if they asked that, and that question about tax?”, and, “Oh, I better not say that.”, and suddenly you’re, this was the Gordon Brown problem, terrified by everything. I remember once when John Humphreys asked Gordon Brown, when he was a prime minister, the height of all the pressures, are you enjoying, “Do you enjoy being prime minister?”, and Brown, because he had a journalists mind, for if he said yes, which is what you should have said, and it’s a perfectly valid answer. All the headlines would be, “Brown, enjoying himself as the country collapses.” So his answer was unbelievable. “I’d wake up at 5:30, feel a deep sense of duty.” “No, but are you enjoying yourself?” “I wake up at 5:30, feel a deep sense of duty and responsibility.” It just sounded absurd. And you say, “Yeah. Look, of course. But that’s not the issue. I wouldn’t be doing this job if it wasn’t satisfying, and on, as you put it, enjoyable, but it’s because I have this deep sense of responsibility that I find it fulfilling.” There are ways around it, but if you’re too nervous, forget about humour, it just becomes ponderous. And then you turn voters off, of course, and whatever world we’re talking about. Piss off public, audiences of public events or whatever, because it’s too stilted and formulaic, etc., then it’s a disaster.
– Absolutely. And with my psychological hat on, I would say the first chapter in my first book, “The Pitching Bible”, was called, “It’s all about them.” And you have just perfectly described of how it should be if you’re in a media interview. It is a conversation and you are listening to the other person. If you are in your head, going, “I must make a point about the fact that we reduced VAT in the last parliament”, your head is so full of that stuff, you can’t actually just flow.
– Yeah. Yeah. You see, what happened in the ’80s and ’90s as Peter Mandelson rightly said to Labour politicians, “They’ll interview you for 20 minutes and take one clip, so just give the same answer every time, the clip you want.” But the problem with that, is with longer interviews, it looks ridiculous because it means you appear demented, that whatever is being asked, you just say, “I pledge to cut the cost of living by 10%, and if you’ll vote for us, we’ll do it.” And then they say, “Yeah, but what about defence spending?” “I pledge to cut the cost living.” You’ve got to engage as a conversation. I mean, politics is partly an art form. It’s many other things, but it is artistry. You have to convince people you have a vision and the policies that accompany the vision and the values that shape the vision. And it is artistry. It is communication. It is language that does it. And, as we’ve been discussing, humour is absolutely part of it.
– Well, I couldn’t agree more, and it’s lovely to hear from somebody who, actually, is in the heart of politics and has been for many years, but that whole sense of humour is a part of the whole wider thing of showing people that you have a level of emotional intelligence. I mean, humour, surely, is the quickest way to do that. Politicians who I don’t like or agree with do that. I mean, Farage understood that. William Hague, as we discussed, was on this show as well. He proved it in person. And definitely Boris Johnson understands that. I’m wondering why Labour wouldn’t fight fire with fire and actually put somebody with a natural sense of humour up to be a leader because they seem to push people away who are, I’m saying the word, perceived as frivolous.
– Well, let’s explore that a bit because say there are many layers to politics, and I don’t think, to put it crudely, “Vote for me, I’m funny.”, is going to fly. But it is an interesting point that when Labour have these, how many leadership contests have they have recently? Loads. It tends to be people who emerge, who are quite scared by the prospect of public performance, interestingly, because in opposition, all you’ve got is public performance. You can’t be judged by policy implementation, got no power to implement them. If you look at recent leaders and indeed other candidates, I mean, Jeremy Corbyn emerged and he had never been at the centre of the political stage. He had all always been in the background. Now, actually, he is quite a convivial person to have a cup of coffee with, but he could never quite work out what the hell you do at the centre of the state. Ed Miliband, the same. He was never sure of his public persona, and therefore he tried to, although he was to the left of Blair, he tried to adopt Blair’s mannerisms. Very revealing. So did his brother, David, because they weren’t sure who they were as public figures. They were more academics, really, I think. And so who have we, And then we’ve talked about Keir Starmer. I think it’s harder for Labour because the media is more hostile to Labour and that generates a much greater sense of defensiveness and caution. Even when Labor were winning those landslides, they would spend hours, “What if I say this, what will happen?”, and, “Oh, my God.” I remember seeing Blair for a coffee just after the ’97 election. And he was about 40 points ahead of the polls. The Tory’s in complete disarray. And we were just talking. He used to invite a journalist in every now and again, and we were having this coffee and then suddenly Alastair Campbell and Anji Hunter rushed into the room where we were having this coffee, and they said, “William Hague has changed the Tory’s policy on rural post offices. He said, “Christ, what hell are we going to do? Are we going to, Do we agree with him, should we put out a press release?” There’s this constant, having lost four elections in a row, there was this constant fear that the Tories would leap ahead and win again. And I think that does, Someone like Johnson, who has the power of the Telegraph and on the whole, the Mail and all these papers backing him, it’s easier to do this stuff, and to out outrageously link Ukraine with Brexit because he knows he’s not going to be slaughtered in the same way that Labour leader or prime minister would be. So there’s more space for Tories. But, remember, Theresa May emerged and had no humour as a public person. Now, I’m told, privately she could be quite humorous, although it’s quite how hard to imagine, but there weren’t many laughs when she spoke. I mean, Cameron sort of copied Blair and could do humour. And I think that helped him, hugely actually.
– Going back to the Labour, would it be a complete disaster? I, personally, think it was Jess Phillips, for instance, just plucking a name from the sky, has a good sense of humour. Is it too dangerous? Because, A, she’s a woman, B she’s quite funny and that will get a backlash in the media. Would that be a disaster in your opinion?
– I don’t think it would be a disaster. And I agree with you. She’s the same when you see her privately as she is in a public arena. So she gets it, this need. I mean, I hate, because it’s so overused, but it’s overused for a reason, this thing about authenticity. Now there is a sort of, There’s almost a sort of laugh in authenticity because you can learn to appear authentic because it is still partly an act. To go back to my 10-year-old self, it’s performance, but she can perform while looking wholly natural. And that would make her, in many ways, a good leader. But with Labour, especially, there are many other things. You have to be a master of economic policy. You have to navigate this hell of tax and spend in any general election where Tories will claim there are all kinds of hidden tax bombshells about to erupt if you vote Labour. And it’s very, very difficult. You have to have many other qualities. Actually, that’s reminded me of quite a funny anecdote. When Roy Hattersley, in the 1987 election with Shadow Chancellor, and, as ever, Labour were navigating the bombshells of tax and spend. And he was live on the main, most watched bulletin of the week, the weekend, Saturday night, 10 o’clock bulletin, Hattersley, Shadow Chancellor. He had just left a rapturous rally, because a lot of people thought Labour were fighting a very slick campaign in ’87. And he went to do this interview as Shadow Chancellor and the presenter, I think Martin Lewis, or somebody said, “So, Mr Hattersley, you reject the idea that under Labour, the tax for middle income earners will go up by half a p in the Pound?”. And he said, “That’s an absolutely preposterous idea. I can’t think of anyone who’s economically literate who would propose that at the moment.” And Martin Lewis, said, “That’s what your leader, Neil Kinnock, said three hours ago.” And Hattersley has written since, “I did the only thing available to a politician in such circumstances, I attacked the interviewer.” And then he said he went back to his hotel room and he phoned his best friend in politics, John Smith, and he said to Smith on the phone, “Was it as bad as I think it was?” And John Smith said to Hattersley, “Much, much worse.” And that is the hell Labour get into often with tax and spend. So you need, To go back to Jess Phillips, I don’t know the answer. Maybe she’s got it. You need to have absolute mastery of how you, not only develop economic policy, but project it. You have to have a credibility and seriousness because newspapers, otherwise, like they did with Neil Kinnock, said, “You’re not prime ministerial.” There are many, many things. But I think you’re onto something, that they need to push much higher up the list of criteria, this capacity, just to engage and explain. In a book I did on prime ministers, and not, “The Prime Ministers We Never Had.”
– Yeah. No, the first one was a great one.
– The election winners, the big election winners were all kind of political teachers, which means they could explain why they were arguing, what they were doing. And it could be absolute bollocks, if we’re allowed to say that on this.
– [Paul] Of course.
– So, Thatcher, she was an instinctive teacher. In the late ’70s, when she was developing this monetarist economic policy, which could have been really unpopular because it involved deep spending cuts and all kinds of things. But she used to go around and say, “My father, in his shop in Grantham, never, ever spent more than he earned, and a country cannot spend more than it earns.” Now, that’s rubbish because a country can print money and do all kinds of things, but it kind of makes sense. You’re going to think, “Oh, yeah. This Labor government spending like it’s going out of fashion, and it’s reckless, and here’s someone who’s going to put us on the straight and narrow, like George Osborn, “Don’t trust those who maxed out the credit card.”, as if the whole global financial crash was done. But they’re using language as teachers, and they are the winners. Blair did it. Wilson did it. You’ve got to be communicators. So I think you’re right, Labour shouldn’t, at the very least, they shouldn’t elect someone without that skill. There are other things required, but that’s one of them.
– Yeah. I completely agree. I’m really interested in the whole communication, obviously, because this is my passion, and the psychology of it. But the whole thing about that, what the conservative party do really well is they come up with great little soundbites and slogans. It’s so cynical that you and I can see it coming a mile off but it works.
– Yep. Yep. And if Labour doesn’t find a way of countering it, they will carry on losing most elections. I’ve been thinking today about that word freedom, Thatcher seized it and said, “My proposition? I’m going to free people from the state.” Now, actually the state can free people, because the state, if you need a operation, the state will free you from the fear of being ill. For example, if you want, If you want a good job, the state will free you from where you are by training you to get the good job. But she made the state the stifling enemy and freedom was what she was offering. And it’s, to this very day very interesting. The crisis over the sacking of the P&O workers recently was very interesting because most of the time, the government hails this lightly regulated Labour market, freedom. Frees up people to employ, to sack, but it means it’s a thriving economy. Then these workers are sacked live on a video, which goes on Twitter, and everyone panics. “Oh, maybe we want more regulation so people are free to feel secure, free.” So the way that language is used is very, The phrase, “tax burden”, has always interested me. Well, if tax is spent on the NHS, is it a burden? Because you can then get an operation, so language and communication, I share your passion for it, It is, absolutely the heart of so many spheres and certainly politics.
– I genuinely think that until Labour puts their attention there, they are going to be in permanent opposition because-
– I agree.
– And by the way, I don’t think it takes that much. I don’t think, They could just ring you and me, and it would already go up 50%. He says-
– Yeah. I think it is one of the easier things a politician has to master, in opposition. So it’s how you do it.
– Well, it’s linguistics. It’s who owns, You started the thing, who owns the word freedom? And if you suddenly go, “The Tories own the word freedom.”
– They’ll win election after election.
– Doesn’t need anything. No one’s going to say in a vox pop in, a marginal seat like Basildon, Nah, I against this freedom, “I don’t want to be free.” Everyone will say, “Oh, yeah. We want this.” I mean, it’s so obvious. As you say, it’s not difficult, but, and it’s one of the reasons why Labour loses so many elections.
– Well, somebody said once said to me when I was doing a lecture, and they meant this in a good way but it came across in a way, They said, “Isn’t a lot of what you are saying just common sense?” And I said, “Unfortunately, it’s uncommon sense.”
– Exactly. Exactly. Yeah.
– Because this is what, We can see this, but people don’t know it until they’re shown it.
– You are absolutely right. These really intelligent people, much more intelligent than me, don’t see it.
– I’m a huge fan of your podcast, Rock N Roll Politics, which you also do live around the country, which is just fantastic. For all our listeners, download Rock N Roll Politics now. It takes a weekly behind the scenes look at UK politics and the media and how that shapes the way we view epic political dramas. Do you think that humour has, in any way, shaped the political landscape of the last few years? And I’m thinking all the things that have happened, Trump, Johnson, Zelensky, Rees-Mogg, all those things. How has that affected the political landscape?
– Well, certainly events and characters lend themselves to humour. I don’t do satire, this, “Old Prescott, he’s fat and stupid. Isn’t that hilarious?”, kind of thing. But when you step back and try and make sense, as you say, of Johnson, Trump, and so on, there is dark humour to be had from it. Now, what I call my stuff is more a columnist on stage. When I started doing the Edinburgh festival, the first year I was just in comedy. But it’s more a column on stage, but it’s amazing how much humour creeps into it because when you are exploring these characters and their flaws and the dramas that erupt around them, of which they have to pretend to be control, but they are not, you have humour, because on one level it is absurd. And that is the fundamental absurdity, by the way, that in our media culture, certainly the government have to pretend to be in control of everything when they’re not in control of very much at all. China has an economic issue. Britain’s economy is in trouble. And yet, you have to have a chancellor coming on, Rishi Sunak has to do it now, and he does it quite, He’s a sort of semi-natural performer, but he’s not in control. Now that is both deadly serious and hilarious. Because the contrast with, “What I plan to do is this. What I would do is this.” and then they go away and keep their fingers crossed because they don’t know whether they can do it or not. So there are ways of exploring it, but the live shows with me started, I did one of these cruises quite a few years ago, where you give talks. And I did one where the other two speakers were Esther Rantzen, talking about television and her glittering TV career, and Martin Bell, talking about his time as a war correspondent, and I thought, “Bloody hell. No one’s going to come to hear about whatever was going on at politics at the time.” And, actually, I found they loved it, the talks about the dramas of the current time, because it’s a myth that people aren’t interested in politics, but you’ve got to draw them in. It goes back to this thing of communication. It is as, If you follow, say, if people are passionate about football, I can get them passionate about politics, because it’s the same reasons for being interested. You don’t quite know what’s going to happen next to your team. You don’t know what’s going to happen next in politics. There are the ups and downs and personal dramas. There’s much more to it than that, but you could easily do live shows about current politics, and, in a way, seismic events have helped the show, really, because there’s always epic stuff going on.
– No, it’s a, Yeah, well, it’s a great show and it’s compelling. It’s like you have the drama built in. Every week there’s something new-
– Built in drama? Well, you think, “Yeah. It’s just that, what shall I choose to reflect on and try and make sense of?” There’s always going to be humour in politics, but the satire thing is very interesting. Peter Cook and others were brilliant in the early ’60s in doing it, but it became so fashionable to portray them all as a bunch of stupid crooks. I think on one level it became quite dangerous. That you thought, “Oh, blimey. They’re all should be in jail.”, or, certainly locked up for one reason or another. And so I, So I don’t, I don’t do satire but some do. Who does satire well now? I’m trying to think. Can you think of good, I suppose, “Have I Got News for You” at its peak, could be hilarious.
– It’s funny you talk about, “Have I Got News for You.”, because we recently had John O’Farrell on the podcast, who, obviously, was head writer on, “Have I Got News for You.” and on, “Spitting image”, and he came up with a premise, which I hadn’t thought of before, that he was worried, and from a psychological perspective, that it makes people switch off. Once they’ve laughed at something, they think the job is done and therefore they’re not out on the streets. We’ve done a meme about Boris Johnson or Rees-Mogg and that’s enough, and it seems to then pass it quicker, so it might actually have the opposite effect.
– Yeah. That’s very interesting. I think satire, inevitably, is not going to, necessarily, generate interest in politics because, say, once you’ve had a laugh at these people and mock them, you don’t want to spend the rest of your life following these absurdities. I don’t think the likes of, “Have I got News for You” will be a trigger for a wider interest in politics, in fact, possibly, the opposite. But there’s definitely a role for satire, but, you see, the the dynamic of satire is a false one, which is, and I’ve heard Ian Hislop and others talk about it, which is, we need to bring the mighty down to size by mocking them, whereas I think the hilarity is, actually, the mighty are nowhere near as mighty as they feel obliged to appear to be. And that’s what I find is right for humour and tragedy. I’ve known politicians in despair about something or other. I remember Alastair Campbell saying when you used to go to these G8 summits or ones bigger, and all the newspaper reports, “The most powerful people in the world had gathered in this cocooned arena.” And he said they were all terrified. Some were about to face the electorate and lose an election. They knew they were about to be out. Others, some economic nightmare that they could do nothing about. And yet the perception is you got to cut them down to size. It’s another reason why Johnson is like, Because he makes people laugh, there’s no grandeur about him. So that gives him space to screw things up and people still like him because he doesn’t go around grandly saying, “Well, I’ll do this.” Instead, he’s sort of, “Where am I?” Say, “Oh, yeah.” But that means, when everything goes wrong, people are almost ready for it with him because he’s never grandly claimed that things would go right. I mean, he does lie about the Brexit thing, but it’s given him more space, really, because he doesn’t appear grand or strong.
– Yeah. Well, it’s wiggle room, isn’t it? It’s comedy wiggle room.
– It’s comedy wiggle room. I haven’t thought about that before, but when people say, “What is it about this guy that gets away with-” and that’s part of it.
– Okay. We’ve coined a phrase now between us. That’s one of our new books anyway.
– Very quickly, can humour, because I was listening to what you said, and you were saying about satire not changing anything. And I think I agree with you. But can humour change perception in politics? because I’m specifically thinking of, We had Rick Wilson on from the Lincoln Project, and there was a perception, at least, in America, that they somewhat did for Trump. Do you think it has some kind of effect as Led By Donkeys have an effect?
– I wonder even about the Trump example. I mean, Trump did alarmingly well in terms of votes cast and that last, I know he lost, but he got a hell of a lot of votes. I still think, even in the case of Trump, who was widely satirised and, in some cases, hilariously so, I don’t think, to be honest, it did have much impact. You see, look at “Spitting Image” in the ’80s with Thatcher and, I mean, she won landslides. They portrayed her as an absurd tyrant. Everyone was terrified of her and yet she still won. So I think, I think it gives people a lot of comfort to laugh about these figures. But no. To be honest, I don’t think it changes the course very much.
– Yeah. Sadly, I think you’re right.
– I think what we were talking about earlier, the way all communicators should use humour changes the course of things. I don’t think satire does, actually. Us saying, “Oh, look at this hilarious idiot.” It doesn’t seem to change election outcomes.
– Oh, yes. Sadly. God we’ve rushed through this. We’ve come to the part of the show that we like to call “Quick Fire Questions”, Steve. ♪ Quick fire question. ♪ Who is the funniest business person or politician that you’ve ever met?
– I think it’s two. I’ve quoted two where I’ve laughed loud is Wilson and Blair. They’ve made me laugh out loud, being funny.
– Wow. I mean, there’s two names I wouldn’t have picked as being the funniest. Why, particularly?
– Well, they’ve said things that have been, I’ve quoted a couple of the Wilson lines, which are genuinely good jokes, actually. And every now and again, Blair would have a line. It might well have been written for him. That made me laugh out loud. And he was very good at mocking John Major in the divisions of that government when he was a young Labour leader. And he often used humour. You see, Boris Johnson, who you probably thought would be he one I would say of the politicians. It’s quite funny. He is funny in demeanour. When he arrives, you want to start laughing. But I remember Michael Parkinson saying, “When Tommy Cooper just walked onto a set people were laughing.” And it’s the same with Johnson. “Where am I?” You smile. But he’s not witty if you know what I mean. It just shows different ways of humour. So those two.
– What book makes you laugh?
– Yeah. I still laugh at P. G. Wodehouse. I still laugh at some of Philip Roth’s books. I laughed, quite a bit, I know this is taboo these days, at a memoir Woody Allen wrote. That Jewish humour makes me laugh. I really just love it. In fact, somebody said to me that what Woody Allen wrote, he wrote a very controversial memoir, which didn’t get published until subsequently because of all the furore around him. But he’s funny, I’m afraid.
– [Paul] Yes.
– And so is Roth, and they make me, They make me laugh. I love, love, love Jewish humour.
– What film makes you laugh, Steve?
– Hey, what made me laugh? It’s just reminded me. You’ll have to remind what it was called. It came out recently. Meryl Streep was president of the United States. DiCaprio was in it. It was a wonderful,
– All the critics slagged it off and I watched it, and I thought it was hilarious. And I laughed, but I can’t remember its title because I’ve only just thought about it. I don’t watch that many films to be honest, which why I couldn’t think of a funny one, but whatever it was, it was very, very funny.
– “Don’t Look Up”
– “Don’t Look Up”
– “Don’t Look Up” I couldn’t believe it. It got two stars in all the film reviews. I thought, “God, this going to be so clunky and terrible.”, it was hilarious. And there was some laugh out loud moments in it.
– In your opinion, what is not funny?
– Yeah. Well, I think most things are acceptable. So for example, Larry David takes it as far as you can Most of the time, also, incidentally, with stuff about being Jewish and so on, I mean, he is, himself, Jewish, so he can do it, but he was, in the most recent series, was making jokes about the pandemic and all kinds of things. So I think most stuff is fine until it comes to a point where you are going to offend millions of people. And by that, I mean with some sort of justification. So I’m not one, the crusader for pure free speech where you can say anything, but to be hugely controversial for a moment, you know that row about Jimmy Carr telling a joke about gypsies? Now, it was appalling, but I wouldn’t have stopped him from saying it if he wants to say it, so I go quite wide in what is accepted in humour, and some pretty outrageous things can still make me laugh and I don’t get all censorious, saying “It was appalling that we’re laughing at that.” I mean, if it’s funny, I think there’s quite a range. But, obviously, we were talking about the power of humour. If it’s being used to, I don’t know, attack an ethnic minority or something, you got to bloody, bloody careful. But I go, I’m pretty accepting of humour.
– And then we get into the political realm of that, is who’s going to police that?
– Right. Yeah. Yeah. “You’re not allowed to find that funny, I’m afraid.” And some of the daring stuff, it is so outrageous that it is funny, I’m afraid.
– And isn’t it the job of comedians to push those boundaries because one of the things is that you don’t know where the boundary is until you step over it. In defence of the Jimmy Carr joke, nobody actually said a word when it was in context in the whole routine. And it was only when it was clipped on its own that the furore kicked off.
– Yeah. Yeah. That’s a very interesting example about news as well, because it had been on that Netflix for ages, hadn’t it? It was plucked out, but it became a front page news story. And there are quite a few examples of, actually, things that have been out for a long time, but then, in inverted commas “shock” weeks or months later. You’ve still got to watch it with humour because it is so powerful and it can affect the way people see you and others. Those ’70s comedians who were, You couldn’t even play half the set of some of those people, who were racist and all the rest of it. So it can, It can get into some very dangerous places. But as you say, even that raises the question, who polices what is acceptable or not? So, yeah. Yeah. Fairly free about humour.
– No, I get it. What word makes you laugh?
– What word makes me laugh? Happy because it’s so absurd. When anyone says to me, “I’m happy”, I become furious because it implies a ignorance and insensitivity about the world. And this is where I become, that Jewish humour, how can you be happy when there’s all this misery around? The word happy is a bit like some of the political stuff we’ve been talking about, is both hilarious and very dark because I say, “No, no. Oh, hold on, you can’t be happy. You’ve got to be miserable.” And that gets us into quite funny terrain. And I keep on bumping into people who tell me they’re happy. So it gives me a chance to engage with them, to show how miserable I am. And then they start laughing, which makes them even happier. So I think the word happy is hilarious, because it’s just absurd.
– Well, no. It’s a very interesting concept, isn’t it? I mean, because what does it mean? From a psychological perspective, I would go, “Well, ” I want to be more happy. If somebody comes to me and I go, “I want to be .”
– Are you 100% happy about everything? But a lot, I’m taken by the number of people who say it to me. And I always challenge. I said, “You can’t be, or else you’re stupid.” You can’t because happiness is such a pure, unqualified term. I find it quite funny.
– And it’s fleeting as well.
– You bet. Yeah. Yeah. Like a shadow.
– Well, I’m very happy at the moment. So that’s, What sound makes you laugh, Steve?
– The sound of drivers hooting in a traffic jam, which happens sometimes. And it’s so hilarious because it exposes all the follies of driving and cars because, as if hooting makes everyone else start going at 70 miles an hour, when no one can move. And it’s also very funny because they’re often in cars that cost about 50,000 pounds and stuck in the same traffic jam as someone in a little mini that cost 500 quid 10 years ago. I just think the sort of anger that that sound makes is hilarious because you can’t do anything. You’re impotent when you’re hooting. “Oh, go on. Get going you bastard.”, and all that. So there’s a silly sound.
– Yeah. God. Well, you must laugh a lot when you’re in New York.
– Yeah. I’m not there enough. I should have more laughs. “Come on. Come on.”
– “Come on.”
– No one moves. So it’s completely irrational but it appears assertive, a bit like politicians, but, actually, got no power at all to move the traffic by, “Go on, you bastard.”
– And the more they hoot, the more likely they are to, No.
– Move. Yeah. It’s just silly. It’s just silly.
– It is. But I love it. I Love it. Great answer. Would you rather be considered clever or funny?
– Funny. By miles. By miles.
– I just think it is the ultimate thing, having a laugh. And, yeah. By miles. And to be honest, it disappoints me, I think because I used to write columns a lot, political columns, two or three a week, I think people, some people think, “Oh yeah, he is very intellectual. He must read loads of books by Karl Marx, Nietzsche and all this. And I just want to have a laugh. So I’m absolutely sure about that answer.
– Oh, fantastic. And finally, Steve, and I know you might be reticent to do this, but we’re going to do it anyway. Desert island gags. If you could only take one joke with you to a desert island, what would it be?
– Well, I don’t tell jokes, but I will. I’ve already mentioned Woody Allen, I think it’s the opening of Annie Hall, where he described this relationship as being like two people in a restaurant and one of them complaining about the food and the other saying, “Yeah. And the portions are so small.” That makes me laugh every time I think about it. So that’s one, I think, I’ll take to the desert island and just laugh because, again, it conjures up all kinds of themes. I don’t tell, I don’t tell jokes, but there are some that I, Oh, God. The joy of laughter makes it worth enjoying a few jokes.
– Oh, you have to.
– You’ve got to. You’ve got to.
– You have absolutely proved the potency of wit today. Steve Richards, thank you so much for being a guest on the Humourology Podcast.
– Thank you very much for inviting me. Thank you.
– [Paul] 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.