About 25 years ago, I was giving a speech at my father’s 65th birthday party. There were seventy or eighty people at the dinner and, as Dad was a playwright, most of them were theatricals.
I’m a comedian, it was a fun occasion, so I wanted the speech to be funny. There were a few entertainment VIPs in the room, so there were professional as well as personal reasons to make sure my speech was as good as possible.
But it was also a very personal occasion - a landmark in my dad’s life - so there was no way I was going to crowbar in bits from my act. I wanted the speech to be special: I love my Dad very much and I wanted to say so publicly. But I also didn't want the speech to descend into an embarrassing, gushing, sentimental affair. It was by no means the hardest speech I've ever had to give, but there was still a balance that I had to get right, and I felt a bit of pressure because there were so many professional performers in the room who were way more experienced than me.
As I was speaking, and I guess I was feeling a little nervous, I noticed someone looking at me. Of course, the whole room was looking at me, but this was the only person I noticed. He had friendly blue eyes, narrowed in a frown of intense concentration, and he seemed deeply interested in what I had to say, and very sympathetic to the difficulties I was having making such a speech. I don't know if I was projecting my own imagination, but there was a wise, kindly look to him. I’d never noticed anybody listen like that before.
It was a few moments before I realised it was the actor, Timothy West.
Thinking about it later, it made sense to me why Timothy West had been such a popular actor with his peers. He listened so well. In a room of eighty people all doing the same thing– his was the listening I noticed.
(Any aspiring actors reading this: work on your listening. It’s a crucial, yet underrated skill and one that is rarely taught. Teaching is concentrated around the bits when you are doing the talking. Watch what wonderful listeners many great actors are.)
Fast forward a couple of years and I was doing a set on the Radio 4 show, Loose Ends.
This was around 1999 and, in those days, the show was recorded live, but the only audience you would have were the four or five other guests on the show who would be sitting in the studio with you, along with the host, Ned Sherrin.
You got some real VIPs on that show - I used to do it quite a bit. Off the top of my head, I remember appearing with Jackie Collins, Danni Minogue, Divine Comedy, Mariella Frostrup, Sir Humphrey Burton, The Proclaimers, and many more besides. But most of them would be thinking about their own bits, so doing comedy in that little studio to four or five people who weren’t that interested could be a bit like doing comedy into the void. Comedy is hard without an audience - even if by the time it made it out of the radio, it seemed to work.
I think it was the first time I had done the show, so I was nervous. There I was, doing my Ludwig The Bavarian act, all dressed up in my lederhosen costume, with all sorts of nerves rushing through my head as I did my act to no audience, when there it was again. The look. The kindly, listening, I-know-what-you’re-going-through-and-I’m-on-your-side look.
This time it was Michael Parkinson, one of the guests on the show. While all the other guests, and, to an extent, Ned, were wrapped up in their own stuff, Parkinson took time out to listen to me. Straight away I understood why he had been such a successful chat show host.
The Today Programme
We move on over ten years to 2012 and my first book, Life After the State, which, as the title suggests, makes the case for a lot less government in our lives. On the day it was published I was invited onto Radio 4's Today programme to talk about the role of the state. My publisher, Dan Kieran of Unbound, told me 'getting on the Today programme is the Holy Grail for an author. You’re very lucky. You’re on at the best time, peak listening time, just before 9. Everybody will be listening. The prime minister will be listening.”
To say I was nervous is an understatement. 'This is the Today programme,' I told myself. 'For really clever people. It’s not for comedians who’ve decided they want to write about economics. It’s the BBC, the Ministry of Media. The last thing they’ll suffer is some non-economist comedian calling for a smaller state. You are so going to be found out.’
In the Green Room beforehand, I could barely speak.
'Would you like a cup of coffee?'
'Oh, no thanks. Actually, yes please. Er no, no. Actually, yes. Erm, not sure.'
I was to be interviewed by James Naughtie and there was a nice chap by the name of Neal Lawson from left-wing think tank, Compass, who would take the opposing side of the debate.
There were various other people in the studio, all deep in notes and preparation for their next slot. None of them looked up as we came in.
If I had my life again I’d answer one key question about collectivism differently - and I still get cross with myself about it - but overall I guess I did ok. However, mid-interview, while I was talking, I could feel somebody looking at me. I looked to my left, away from the people I was talking to, Naughtie and Lawson, and there, staring at me intently, was John Humphrys. He’d looked up from me his notes and, with his eyes narrowed slightly, now seemed to be deeply interested in what I was saying, even though he was nothing to do with this segment. His listening carried that same mixture of interest, intense focus, kindness and understanding that Timothy West’s did all those years ago.
Just as with West, I felt I gained some understanding as to why John Humphrys has been so successful in his extremely competitive profession.
Afterwards I went and gave him a copy of the book.
“Have a read and see what you think,” I said. “But I doubt you’ll be on board with all this anti-state stuff.”
“You’d be surprised,” he replied.
Just a few months later I was speaking about gold at an investor’s show. Tom Winnifrith, the organizer, had managed to get Nigel Farage as his keynote speaker. This was years before the Brexit vote, but, thanks to the internet, his speeches at the EU Parliament were already starting to go viral.
Afterwards, he and I sat down and started talking. All sorts of people were bombarding him for photos and signatures, and he was very gracious to everybody who pestered him, but at the same time he managed to convey the impression that he was really interested in talking to me. And, as I talked, there was that same look again – eyes narrowed slightly, kind, wise, interested, focused on you and you alone.
If you say the names John Humphrys or Nigel Farage, kindness is not the first word that springs to mind with either. But that was what I saw. Nor is Farage known as great listener, but my experience was that he is. I’m sure it’s his listening to people as he travelled up and down the country that made him so popular at grass roots level and helped him build such a following.
Farage in person, as his GB News show, especially Talking Pints, is proving, is a far cry from the monster many of his opponents, especially the Centrist Trots who write for the Guardian, have made him out to be.
My dinner with Jordan Peterson
A few days ago I was lucky enough to be invited to dinner with Jordan Peterson.
It’s funny. Peterson is one of the biggest stars on the internet. He is adored by so many yet there are still quite a few people who have no idea who he is. My manager thought I was going to dinner with Jordan Henderson.
Andrews Doyle and Shaw, the organisers of Comedy Unleashed, comedian Simon Evans and author Jeremy Hildreth were there as well as Peterson’s minder (who took the photo below).
It was amazing how quickly we got through the niceties and moved on to the interesting stuff. Within a few minutes of sitting down, we were talking about lucid dreams - these are dreams that you know are dreams while you dream them.
I had a lucid dream last year, in which I met my father (who died in 2020) at a house party and, in the kitchen, started updating him on the progress I had made with Kisses on a Postcard, the new songs I’d written, the edits and so on.
After a while I said, “This is a dream, isn’t it?” Dad smiled and nodded.
So I mentioned at the table that I had had this lucid dream last year in which I had had this conversation with my dead father. Peterson’s head flashed round and he looked at me as I spoke. And there was that look again. That same Timothy West, Michael Parkinson, John Humphrys, Nigel Farage, slightly squinting, focused look of kindness, sympathy, empathy and genuine interest.
Never mind how articulate he is, I’ll bet one reason Peterson is so popular is because he listens. In fact, one reason he is so articulate is because he listens. He replies to what people actually say, rather than what he thinks they’ve said, and that centres him in the moment and thus in the truth.
So there we are: people who have the look. What’s the moral of all this? Listen, I guess. Don’t talk. Listen.
I saw just how popular and loved Jordan Peterson was only an hour or two later. Over dinner somebody suggested that he do a set at Comedy Unleashed later that evening, and he agreed to read a comic poem he’d written.
I was MCing, and I introduced him as the open spot, saying something like “we like to bring on new talent at Comedy Unleashed, so we give people short spots and if they’re any good, they can progress to a full spot, please welcome Jordan Peterson”. The audience at first couldn’t believe what they had heard. Then, as he came to the stage, they rose to their feet and gave him a standing ovation.
I might have ended up compering what may be Jordan Peterson’s only ever comedy spot.
If you are in London on September 28 or 29, my lecture with funny bits, How Heavy?, about the history of weights and measures is coming to the Museum of Comedy. It’s a 7-8pm show so you can come along and go out for dinner after. The lecture will give your evening a strong intellectual foundation. You can buy tickets here. This is a very interesting subject - effectively how you perceive the world. Hope to see you there.
The Flying Frisby is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.