BY Russell Wardrop

DATE: 18 JUL 2014


Juxtaposition is an apt description of how humour works. It's a great word, aesthetically pleasing to the eye and ear, craving attention on a page or in a speech. Humour needs juxtaposition, the set-up and the denouement, to be successful. Then it needs effective delivery, known as timing (which is confidence when saying it, then more confidence to shut up and wait...). Juxtaposition is not a shy word; it's the Shard, or the Gherkin, or Lloyds of London not the Prince Charles inspired extension to the National Gallery.

When you walk off the street into New York's Grand Central the raising of the hairs on the back of your neck and your inability to take in the cathedral in front of you is juxtaposition. The contrast between inside and out delivering a zinger.

Delivering a series of seven four hour gigs in the same room to audiences of 100 in June has me reflecting on the big audience event and the essential part humour plays. Never open with it (trying too hard); don't tell jokes (they will have heard them); deliver with confidence (if they smell fear... well). I'll come back to the notion you should never open with humour (spoiler alert, on one occasion I did).

A simple Chick Murray joke explains juxtaposition and the anatomy of humour:

A man walks into the doctors and the doctor says, "Take all your clothes off."

The man says, "Don't you think you should ask me out first?"

(That's the set up. It always raises a murmur, Nothing more. Or if you prefer your humour Frankie Howerd, a titter.)

The doctor replies, "Don't be silly. I am a doctor. You are a patient. You have made an appointment, so there must be something wrong with you. I need to examine you. Now please take all your clothes off."

"Okay," says the man, "But where will I put them."

"Just over there on top of mine."

(Denouement. Naked doctor, clothed patient. And of course, unless your doctor's surgery is different to mine, juxtaposition.)

That joke works pretty much everywhere as a way of explaining how to create  a reaction through humour, but there is one more aspect needing aired: the knowledge of your audience. To laugh at the naked doctor you need to know why the set-up is a bit naughty and out of context. If you don't you are only laughing at a naked doctor (which some might, but it does not mean they get the joke.)

If humour is about self knowledge - letting your audience know how clever they are - then it's more than just making people laugh. That is the immediate, spontaneous intention and essential objective (If they don't laugh, it wasn't funny). Winston Churchill said that a joke is a very serious thing. He illustrated this when raising a laugh from US Congress as he persuaded them to join the Allies in WW2,  implying that, with an American mother, in other circumstances he might have got there without an invite, by his own efforts. There are not many who could say to Congress they were talented enough to be elected had they lived in America, but he got the reaction he wanted, and eventually the result.

Perhaps the biggest mistake we make with humour is not knowing who we are aiming at: you need to know how clever they are so you can show them how clever they are because that is why they are laughing. The self-knowledge of your own intelligence demonstrated publicly through laughter, with an audience of peers, is a powerful concoction. Remember how it felt as a teenager, all spots and flares, being out of the loop when the salacious jokes went round the classroom?

So now you are nearly sorted and just need to come up with the material. You can know all about set up, denouement and juxtapo-thingummy but can you find the gags? Charles Rennie Mackintosh made the news a few months back when Glasgow School of Art was set ablaze by some aerosols. I was on my way to lunch at the House For An Art Lover and shed a tear when the news broke. The good news is that there are enough drawings and the like to allow its reconstruction. Here's what Mackintosh had to say about architects:

"The power the artist possesses in representing objects to himself, and their tendency towards symbolism, illustrates the hallucinatory character of his work and their tendency towards symbolism. But it is the creative imagination that is much more important. The artist cannot attain mastery of his art unless he is endowed, to the highest degree, with the faculty of invention."

The faculty of invention. Mackintosh is saying that the drawings are merely a vehicle to allow others to get on with enclosing the space the architect desires. This applies to humour, too. You can know the rules of set up and denouement and delivery and the like, but at some point the faculty of invention needs to make an appearance. It's easier to talk about creativity than to actually deliver it. (But have a go: what's the worst that can happen?).

And finally: are you a risk taker? Humour is always risky, even if you know your audience and your muse gave you, for a few hours, the faculty of invention. I said never open with humour and that's good advice, but after having delivered a few sessions in the same room I decided to make 'em laugh at 8.43am one Tuesday. It was the day of the vital England v Uruguay World Cup match and I opened with...

"I know what you are all thinking. Okay, I know what at least 90% of you are thinking right now..."

(Wait for it... Wait for it...)

"Will Hodgson play Rooney through the middle..."

They laughed, of course. But they're not laughing now.


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about the author

Russell Wardrop is our Chief Executive. If you would like to know more about this subject, drop him an email and we will be in touch.

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