Jeremy Clarkson – Why The Laughs?

There only two ways to get a laugh, my old improv teacher said to us.

One is status drop*.

Imagine the scene. Jeeves (a valet) and Wooster (his boss) are in a room. Jeeves acts deferentially (verbally and non-verbally), tidying up after Wooster, hanging on his every word.

Wooster acts regally. Fluid, deliberate movements. He doesn’t even make eye-contact with Jeeves, to signal how in control of his own space he is, as he holds forth on some Society enemy.

Jeeves (respectfully, in an effort to please) breaks into Wooster’s monologue and offers some valuable information about Wooster’s enemy, and hints there is more.

Wooster now changes his physical behaviour. His movements and speech patterns are less fluid, he makes eye contact, maybe deigns to touch Jeeves on the arm. His confidence is gone. Wooster has something he wants.

I was taught this is called “status”. We were taught to think of the two players in the scene as being on a see-saw. One’s up, the other’s down.

When the arrangement is reversed, and the see-saw tips, there’s a laugh to be had. The high-status person has dropped and the low-status person is elevated.

Famous people are high-status. If they make themselves humble or contribute in way people like, it’s harder to drop their status.

If they bang on about “eco-mentalists”, or suggest we should shoot striking public-sector workers in front of their families, or put nuclear waste on the Rainbow Warrior, some people are going to enjoy a laugh at their expense.

This might be why people are enjoying the occasional Jeremy Clarkson joke today.

*I’ll talk about the other one tomorrow


Red Face Day And Joke Writing

Happy Red Face Day! It’s a day I set aside to celebrate being exactly one month early for Red Nose Day. I hope more of you will join me next year.

I look forward to all the comedy on telly later (in a month’s time), but until then, here’s a tip for the jokers out there…

I came across a book once that had one piece of advice that stuck. It’s this acronym:


If a joke isn’t working or could be better, does it have these elements?

TARGET. All jokes need a target. Could be person, or an idea, or anything.

HOSTILITY. Is it a target people can get behind, and build up hostility toward?

REALITY. Is the joke based in reality? Of course you can still be surreal…

EXAGGERATION. Exaggerate/heighten (even go surreal) the reality in your joke as much as you can without breaking it, so you can heighten the…

EMOTION. If the target is something or someone the audience can build up hostility toward, go for it! Make your Greedy Banker a maniacally laughing, top hat-wearing baby-eater…

SURPRISE. If they can see the punchline coming, it just won’t work.

Bear in mind, as I said earlier, there is only one piece of advice worth anything in this game, so feel free to disregard/improve the above.

Also, this is not a formula for synthesising jokes from the ground up, it’s just an idea to throw at stuff you’ve already created to see if you can improve it.

Form is there to guide, formula is just too proscriptive and probably unhelpful wherever it rears its ugly head.

And finally, they say the secret to comedy is timing. A month early is probably not right.

*(I want to credit Mervyn Helzer for this, but can’t find him anywhere on the internet.)


The Only Advice Worth Anything

If you’re starting out in comedy, or having a crisis of confidence, there’s a lot of advice out there. The only 100% objectively useful piece of advice is this:


I’ll just flesh this out a bit.

If you’ve been doing the same thing on stage for five years and it’s the first five minutes you wrote and it’s not connecting with people, you should probably vary what you do. I don’t think anybody persisted their way to success by sticking with the first five minutes they ever wrote.

But! If you vary what you do too much, you won’t get a handle on what works and doesn’t work (for you). Remember, other variables are changing from gig to gig (the audience, their level of sobriety, the type of performance space, the community the event is in, the lighting, the height of the ceiling, your position in the running order, the tone set by the MC and the preceding acts…). It will be your journey to develop intuition about what the feedback from each gig means given these variables, and the ones you’re adding in by changing your act.

Also, I’d set a time-limited goal if I were you. Mine was, “If I’m not making a living at this after five years, I’ll try something else”. Five years was just a guess, based on more traditional models of personal development (three years of college, two years of practice).

The UK circuit has changed since I began, but it seemed to me that people who were making a living were able to perform a rock-solid twenty-minute set in a variety of settings. Having this time-constrained goal helped me get focussed, but I must stress that the world has changed; the goal I set myself might not be the right way to go about thinking about your work anymore.

Your goal might not have anything to do with money (in fact, there’s a solid case for keeping money out of it), but it probably should involve a thing changing by a certain date, and real consequences if it doesn’t happen. My first target was set when Jeff Green said to me, “Stop trying material out on me! Just book a gig and tell some people that it’s booked, so you’ll look like an idiot if you back out – then you’ll have to come up with the material.” He said this was the same advice that started his career.

Finally, every piece of advice anyone gives (including mine) can be disregarded. Listen to it all, but if you try to take it all on board (“topic (x) is hack”, “you should wear a suit”,”you should talk more about your passion for rollerskating, nobody’s doing that…”) you will do nothing.

The only piece of advice that you must take on board is the one I wrote at the top in capital letters.

Good luck!


How To Be An Informed Person In Less Than 20 (!) Seconds.

Here’s me adding to my treasure trove of time-saving tips when it comes to understanding the “news”. Sorry for not posting this earlier. When I wrote “How To Be An Informed Person In Less Than 30 Seconds” on Friday, I thought I did you a bit of a disservice, so here’s how to take an extra 10 seconds of your life back.

Depending on how far into your life you are, I’ve just added about two to three days to it with this last tip. Why not give this gift to someone else, by sharing the video?

How can you repay me for this? You can’t. It’s my gift to you.

I only ask that you spend those two days I just gave you wisely. For instance, you could come to my Leicester Comedy Festival show and still have the majority of the two days I just gave you left over. Call it a tithe. If Leicester is too far for you to travel, but you’d still like to feel the joy I can bring, my new album is free to download.

Have a great rest of the day. Remember, stay away from the news!


The Wisest Dog In The World vs The Greatest Card Trick In The World

One of my favourite Bill Hicks lines goes like this:

“You’re looking at me like a dog that’s just been shown a card trick.”

I guess he used it when he felt like the audience didn’t get him. Ha ha! Stupid dog, doesn’t even know what cards or numbers or spades or diamonds are. You could draw symbols of cats or bones on the cards in a vain attempt to connect, but it’s just not relevant to the dog.

But let’s unpack the idea a little bit. What does the dog feel when the cards are held out for him? Probably the blissful ignorance I feel most of the time. Holy cow, if we’re not being shown the biggest card trick of all time, every waking moment!

Okay, maybe we’ve figured out what that ball of fire in the sky is, and we can use words like “singularity”, but these ideas are probably the human equivalent of a dog sniffing at playing cards, thinking: “can I eat these?”

The universe is the card trick, we don’t know what the cards are or why we’re being shown them. “Why?” is probably not the point, or even the appropriate language for the trick. Maybe when you are stirred by art, or experience things that can’t be explained by science yet, you get a glimpse into the meaning of the trick, then the door slams shut and the cards lose their meaning as soon as you start trying to construct one.

So let’s all try to be The Wisest Dog In The World; but unlike the dog who doesn’t even know to be baffled by Bill Hicks’ card trick, maybe we can at least have the insight to know that we’re dogs and being baffled is probably the right jumping-off point.

I found this Onion op-ed by a dog most informative.

Here’s a song featuring religion. It’s not an anti-people-with-faith song, it’s an anti-concentrating-unaccountable-power-in-the-hands-of-a-few-people song.