I Read the News Today, Oh Boy
...Humour, Timing and the Truth
You’re the editor of Private Eye, Britain’s leading satirical magazine. You’re sitting at your desk in Soho, Central London. It’s the afternoon of September 8th, 2022. There’s a sudden knock at the door. One of your colleagues appears in the doorway.
“The Queen’s died.”
Her death was followed by several days of official mourning, huge media coverage and widespread public grief. More than that, as each day wore on, there was a tangible sense that people’s reactions were complicated — and not just in the UK. For example, some people admired the Queen but not the institution of a hereditary monarchy; other people felt that her loss was incalculable to the world, not just the UK.
So let’s return to our scene above. You’re editing a satirical magazine: you’re paid to be funny. But given a) there is no other news story of this magnitude and b) the reactions to this event are so nuanced, how do you try to be funny? Do you even try to be funny at all?
I mention all this because it taps into one of people’s biggest fears about using humour: how it responds to tragedy or grief. Back in 2006 I did a six-month comedy writing course at Amused Moose comedy club in London1 and exactly this question came up. There were about 20 of us on the course, many of them stand-up comedians, doing frequent gigs in and around London. To them, it was a real concern: a major news event could easily change not only the content of their show but even if they could perform at all.
The tutor was herself a stand-up. Her answer came in the form of a story, which is worth re-telling here.
In the summer of 2005, she said, she had been booked to perform at a comedy club in London. On 7th July, a few days before she was due to appear, a number of terrorist attacks shook the city, killing 52 and injuring over 700 people. Comedians all over London — indeed the UK — were rightly wondering if humour can, or should, in any way respond to such horror.
The answer, she said, came in looking at things from a very unusual angle. One stand-up comedian, a few nights after the attacks, didn’t mention the bombs directly but instead talked about the way people used their mobiles before, during and after the attacks. He compared different types of phone. He talked about wrong numbers. He talked about ringtones. He did it all in a very low-key, sensitive way. It felt related to the events — in the immediate aftermath of the bombings, phone networks went down as hundreds of thousands of people called or texted their loved ones — but not so directly that it felt insensitive. There weren’t belly-laughs in his set, far from it, but humour brought a warmth to his audience that night.
And this is the key: to find an angle.
Let’s get back to our Private Eye editor. This was the cover that was chosen and appeared after the Queen’s death.
The focus? Not the Queen, but the immense queues that formed to see her lying in state.
The contents inside do the same: the almost-simultaneous announcement of a new (now old) Prime Minister:
…The supposed tensions between William, Harry and their wives:
…And even the fact that Charles is no friend of the magazine:
What do you notice about all the images above? There’s no mention of Queen Elizabeth II at all.
Now you might well be reading this and thinking, “OK, Gilmore, this is all very well, cheers, but this newsletter is called Brands & Humour. So, er, how does all this apply to brands?”
A fair point! My answer would be there’s a lesson here to using humour on social. This is because social, when at its best, is both responsive and needs to find an angle to stand out. And if that angle refers tangentially to the brand, and what the brand does, then so much the better.
A lovely example: on the evening of 19th April this year, Manchester United were pummelled 4-0 by their arch-enemies, Liverpool. Specsavers is a chain of British opticians. They tweeted that evening:
Tapping into what Specsavers do? Yes, yes.
Funny? Yes, yes, yes.
Knowing the bigger story that was on everyone’s lips, they found a great angle. Of course, a football score is utterly trivial compared to a terrorist attack, but the same lesson applies.
“Humour is the instinct for taking pain playfully,” said Max Eastman, the American writer. Many Manchester United fans, that dismal April night, would have very probably agreed.
Many thanks for reading,