Fools speak truth to power

My talk at Google Firestarters on the 25th November 2019. How can comedians help marketers to reveal better insights? Please share.


At the start of King Lear, the old king, the mad king is dishing out his land to his three daughters. In return for land and power, he asks each to make a declaration of their love for him.

The first gives a great, dramatic, false, declaration of her love. And is rewarded with a third of the kingdom. The second follows suit. With another great, dramatic, false, declaration of love. And she too is rewarded with a third.

Then the king comes to the final daughter. His favourite daughter. But she refuses. She says she loves him as any daughter should love their father. Nothing more, nothing less. But she won’t flatter him for land and power.

The king is furious. He strips her of her inheritance. And what’s worse, he banishes her to the most terrible place that he can think of. France.

Lear’s oldest, wisest and most loyal friend tries to stop him. He tells Lear that he is not thinking straight. For this honesty, he too is banished to France.

Nobody can tell the truth to power. Nobody can speak freely. Nobody is immune to the threats of France. Except for one person. One person is immune to the threats of France. One person can speak freely. One person can tell the truth to power.


The fool.

The jester. The clown. The comedian.

I’m suggesting that we no longer position ourselves as the wise. But as the fools.


Because Haha is far closer to Aha than you think. For a long time incongruity was the dominant theory of humour. Things that are odd make us laugh. Things that violate our expectations. Except there are things that are odd, that violate our expectations, that don’t make us laugh. Give a monster a baby’s voice and it is funny. Give a baby a monster’s voice and it is scary.


Peter McGraw, Psychology professor in Colorado Boulder, called this a benign violation. The funny is something that is odd, but simultaneously okay. It violates our expectations but doesn’t pose a threat.


The aha, the insight, meanwhile is found in acceptable oppositions. Liam Fahey, an Irish marketing professor, gave a brilliant definition of an insight. A new marketplace understanding that makes a difference. So a new understanding has to oppose the old one. It has to attack the taken for granted. But it has to do it acceptably. It has to make a difference.


So that’s the link. Both insights (acceptable oppositions) and the funny (benign violations) are incongruous combinations. Things going together that don’t usually go together. Humans can tell both how things are, and how they should be. Incongruous combinations show that how things are, is not how they should be. They provide the spark of recognition that interests an audience. Incongruous combinations are interesting.


The problem is many insights aren’t interesting. Some aren’t acceptable. Making them absurd. Most aren’t oppositional. Making them boring. Insight is becoming synonymous with data.  We are forced to repeat observations. To do as everyone else does. But, the interesting is found in the interpretation of the observation. Not the observation itself.

This is where comedians come in. If we can understand how they reveal the funny, the benign violations. We can perhaps reveal better insights, better acceptable oppositions.

So the comedian’s job is to reveal benign violations. This largely comes down to violating the benign and vice versa. Making the odd okay and the okay odd. There are a number of ways that comedians do this. They can create a character, an exaggerated version of themselves and their life experience. They can reframe the truth. And they can control the context.


The lives they lead shape their character. And having a character gives them distance. Distance makes things benign. Think about it. You’d pay for your neighbour to get the surgery they need to save their life. But if some hippie comes up to you in the street, moaning about malaria in Malawi, You’d tell him to sod off.

Often their voice, their character, is developed amongst the desperately dark. Both Robin Ince and Stewart Goldsmith were involved in traumatic car crashes as young children. Leaving them with PTSD and hypervigilance. Their hypervigilance makes them acutely aware of the world’s violations. Through comedy, they can make them benign.

Jo Brand, prior to being a comedian, was a Psychiatric nurse. She worked on ward where she often feared that she would be seriously hurt, or worse. She had to hide her fear. She had to make these dangerous situations benign.


But their voice can also grow out of the desperately dull. Romesh Ranganathan was a Maths teacher. He had to get kids excited by Pythagoras. He had to make the uninteresting, interesting. In fact, quite a lot of comedians used to be teachers. All trained in making the uninteresting, interesting.

So think about developing your voice. Can you create an exaggerated version of yourself that creates distance? Can you get involved in the dark and the dull?


From their character, their voice, their perspective they reframe the truth. And there are many ways they do this. The simplest is combinations. Many jokes are just two things going together that shouldn’t go together. Like Donald Trump and the President of the United States. Although this is less funny when you realise the threat is real. So combine observations that don’t usually go together?

Comedians exaggerate and understate the truth. Mark Steel jokes about all the fear of eastern Europeans swarming into the UK. Coming down stairs and finding one stuck in the cat flat. “This is Dimitri. You must feed him now”. Romesh Ranganathan as a British Asian man, was worried that if he bumped into someone and acted a bit of a tosser. He might push them over-the-edge if they were considering racism. So exaggerate and understate your observations.


Comedians tweak and test their jokes until they pack a punch. They practice their material continuously at different clubs for months. Testing their observations of the audience, on the audience. How often do you go back to the focus group with the insights your drew from them?


But most importantly of all. Context is king. Comedians focus as much on how the jokes is delivered as what joke is delivered. They work really hard to be liked by the audience. You’re much more likely to laugh at someone you like. Its why so many comedians look like losers. You’re more likely to laugh if you think they live with their mum.

Now I’m not saying you should go live with your mums. But think about how you appear. Try to appear as a servant, not a master.


And not just how to tell a joke, but when. They leave the darkest until the end. It’s best not to start with cancer. They have to warm the audience up. Perhaps we should do the same? Tease the clients and creatives with easy to chew insights. Finishing off with insights that are harder to swallow.


Use the room. Comedians on tour often go to art centres. Which are bright, white and shite for comedy. Darker dirtier jokes are best served in darker dirtier rooms. Yet, the best conversations happen when you can barely see the other person. Most meeting rooms are bright, white and shite. Find darker dirtier rooms, for your darker dirtier insights.


Think about the fool in King Lear. Nobody can speak the truth to power without getting banished or killed. Except the fool. How can he get away with what others cannot? His character gives him distance. He actually wears a hat that shows people he is a fool. A coxcomb. He reframes the truth. Using a combination method to call Lear an idiot for banishing his daughter. By offering him his hat, the symbol of a fool. But he does it in within a cultivated context. As he’s doing it, he’s singing songs. Poking fun at people. And farting. Creating an atmosphere ready to hear powerful truths under the guise of humour.

So if you want to speak truth to power.

Be a fool.

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