Genius? It's all about taking risks

Sally Holloway on what makes a great comic

At Christmas, like everyone else, we get out our Christmas crackers and offer them to our guests. Once pulled and snapped, the paper hat and plastic present are tossed aside and we grab for the little scrap of paper with the rubbish joke on it. Why such excitement? I’ve already admitted the joke is rubbish. Because in our house of comedy the Christmas cracker joke is a participation sport. The game is, not just who can guess the punchline, but who can top it? Who’s got something better?

‘Okay, I’ve got one,’ shouts my partner.

‘What do you get if you cross Santa with a duck?’

Ooooh. Thinking, thinking, thinking.

‘A duck with Claus?’ I say.


‘A bill from Father Christmas?’ says someone else.

This gets an ‘Ooh, that’s good,’ from the rest of the table.

‘Nope,’ he says again. Finally he has to tell us.

‘A Christmas quacker.’

‘Ahh,’ we all say in unison.

This is a fun Christmas game, and obviously we’re just looking for a few old puns but the truth is that the same joke that gets a groan if read out from a cracker can get a huge cheer or clap if someone round the table guesses it or tops it.

What we are clapping is the excitement of seeing someone come up with jokes on the spot or at the ‘speed of thought’ as I like to think of it. On Have I Got News For You Paul Merton often gets huge laughs for wordplay that he has come up with on the spot. The same joke laboured over by a new act with a forced setup would probably not raise a smile.

I was thinking about this while watching a programme about Bob Monkhouse recently. Rather than train himself to go off on tangents and ad-lib, his skill was remembering and reciting thousands of gags. The audience could tell this and many thought he was a cold, smarmy performer (many did like him though, as he topped both the most loved and most hated celebrity poll in the same year.) Watching him, he does lack the warmth and lovability of someone like Paul Merton and I personally wouldn’t call Bob Monkhouse a genius.

Yet the main difference between the two is that while Bob Monkhouse’s brain was looking or the perfect stored joke. Paul Merton’s mind looks for ways to play off the words and sentences that are actually being said to him.

Recent theories on why peoples lives flash before their eyes when they are drowning is that they are that they searching for the answer to their predicament. Both Merton’s and Monkhouse’s brain’s are searching, but for different things.

Also, Bob Monkhouse isn’t taking a risk when he tells his joke, it’s a stored joke known to be funny – which perhaps he’s considered smarmy . When Paul Merton starts saying something he doesn’t know whether it’s going to work. That could be a huge risk but his safety net is that if he does say something unfunny he has the skills to get out of it. Watch Merton mug to the audience if they groan at one of his jokes. Immediately they start laughing again. That’s a powerful comedic package.

Eddie Izzard also falls into this category. When he was a full-time touring stand-up he had a way of working the fact that he was going into the unknown into his act. He simply used to tell audience that he’d reached the end of the road with an idea by standing on stage staring into the distance saying, ‘No, no there’s nothing more there.’

Usually the audience would clap, yes clap, not because there was nothing more there but because of the joy of watching a performer take an idea to the limit in front of them (and perhaps his ability to know where to stop). All people who write comedy do this to some extent in their own home. Izzard made the most mundane thing seem magical because he was creating right in front of them rather than relying solely on written material.

Basically, people love a risk-taker (in comedy anyway, not so much in banking) So how can we start to learn this process? The first step is a willingness to walk into the unknown. When I was learning to compere I used to write jokes on the major news stories of the day using my formulae. But once on stage I tried to loosen it up by asking the audience what they thought of a subject first, safe in the knowledge that I had my joke to fall back on.

I would also rehearse the joke in a ‘chat style’ and work out ways to bring it in naturally so the audience didn’t see the gear change between adlibbing and telling jokes. This didn’t always work, I have to admit, but by then acknowledging it – ‘I wrote that earlier, it seemed good in my lounge’- I was back to being real with the audience. What I noticed over the years was that the more real I was, the more I could risk because the audience sensed it.

The second way of starting to walk into the unknown on stage is to learn to deal with hecklers. When I was a stand-up and I got a heckled I would immediately repeat the heckle back to the person. This bought me thinking time, to twist their words, to decide whether to riff on it or to match it to a previous situation or to go with a standard put down.

When you are on stage with the adrenaline flowing and the audience shouting, your brain reacts so much faster anyway. What’s more ,if you don’t deal with the heckler, the audience won’t like it anyway, so really you have nothing to lose.

These are very first steps towards learning to be a spontaneous performer. To be a joke writer you need to train your mind to come at subjects from every angle. If you want a chance at being called a comic genius you need to be able to do this at the speed of thought in front of an audience and crucially to trust yourself to do it and to know when to stop.

You can’t do this overnight but you can take your first steps and when you achieve it, it is wonderful for both the performer and the audience.

  • Sally Holloway is the author of The Serious Guide To Joke Writing, out now priced £12. Buy from Amazon. Her Twitter is @Sallycatz

Published: 22 Feb 2011

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