Friday, March 24, 2006


Getting a Laugh at Conference

I was chatting to a lovely Lib Dem about Conference speeches earlier today, and I noted how difficult it is to get a laugh (and there must be a reason other than me not being all that funny, obviously). So I came up with three rules to guarantee getting a laugh, assuming it’s a session where there are more than half a dozen people in the hall:

1 - Mention John Prescott
2 - Be really funny
3 - Be Party Leader

Many members of the government inspire derision, but Mr Prescott's unique brand of ostentatious incompetence means he’s the only one that almost everyone just laughs at. I’m not too proud to admit that, preparing to speak against ID cards in Blackpool last September, I had several lines I thought were witty (each of which went down like lead balloons) and one about Mr Prescott that wasn’t. Richard liked the others, but suggested I drop it for time, and I argued that it would probably get the only laugh. It did, of course.

I suspect most of us who make speeches at conferences are never going to make it as stand-ups. Intermittent flashes of wit are very different to busking it in front of a crowd that want nothing other than to be entertained. No, I wouldn’t last two minutes, but good luck to anyone who’s actually talented. I fondly imagine that Conference-goers like a bit of content as well as to be amused, though, so that’s my excuse for not shutting up.

And we all laugh at jokes in Leader’s speeches, though I’ll not judge whether it’s because they’ve got better speechwriters, out of duty, or out of sheer relief that it’s going all right under the weight of expectation piled onto them.

The biggest laugh I ever got in a speech, incidentally, was when I pounded a lectern, the glass on it jumped, and a miniature fountain splashed across my notes. So I stopped, turned to one side and shared that with the Conference; witty remarks are one thing, but spontaneous slapstick is what people really want. The chair of the debate was less amused, and told me she’d nearly switched to the red light before I demolished the set. So you can’t please everyone.

In other news, I’m leaving my lovely Richard at home to go off to my parents for a few days for Mother’s Day (and, less happily, to go to the dentist). As my parents are high on my list of things not to blog about – though not as high on the list as Richard’s parents – and as they don’t have an Internet connection, and as I’m not really awake enough to engage with serious thoughts right now, I won’t be able to respond to the comments on my last couple of posts until some way into next week. Sorry about that, but I have read them…

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Funny you should say that.

Biggest laugh I ever got at Conference was during a speech about railways.

The joke involved The Fat Controller.

Can you guess who I mentioned next ...
In my five main speeches to party conference (Harrogate conference just gone was the first I've been to where I didn't speak), I think the only actual joke I put in - and the only laugh I got - was for a remark about the price of drinks in the conference hotel during a debate on the TV licence.

My funniest speech was in 2001 for an uncontested election at NUS conference (the audience took some time adjust to the humour), one line of which influenced the title of my blog.
I almost invariably manage to raise a smile if I make reference to the hon member for Yardley. This can normally be done anywhere in the WMids, but its getting to be a more national thing. Even when the opposition refer to him in committees we all join in.
I'd scripted some humour into my maiden conference speech, and it went down OK. But as it was the day of the dodgy dossier, and the conference hall was just about quorate (broadcasting future) I'm not sure it counts.
That sounds curiously familiar, Neil! And John Hemming even worked at the Policy Committee, from what I remember.

Ooh, go on, Will, tell us your memoirs. What was the NUS election? I remember your speech, too, Dave. It was good ;-)

Thanks Anders, and I remember your notoriety, too... ((HUGS))

Oh, and I've tracked down that Prescott gag - only the second time I ever quoted Doctor Who in a Conference speech, strangely enough:

"You probably saw Doctor Who earlier this year, when the Acting Prime Minister used the chips built into cards to electrocute his opponents with the immortal words, “Thank you for wearing your ID cards – they’ll help to identify the bodies.” Chip and pain is not yet part of this Government’s proposals, but you have to admit, if John Prescott really was an alien in disguise it’d explain his syntax."
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