The Guardian asks, “Is Joanna Lumley the worst BAFTAs host of all time?”
Accepting its own challenge, the paper performs a post-mortem of her speech as the host of the 2019 Awards – a speech that appears to have flat-lined as soon as it began.
So where did Joanna Lumley’s BAFTA speech go wrong?
Most of her jokes simply were not very funny. But the structure and style of her monologue didn’t help.
Below, I offer some suggestions about how Lumley could have prompted more laughter from the audience. I don’t mean to imply that I can write better jokes than Lumley and her team. Instead, this is a speechwriter’s perspective on how to mitigate the risk of humour in public speaking.
Is it a pun or a punchline?
To Steve Coogan, star of a film about Laurel and Hardy, Lumley labours a set-up that culminates with, “That’s another fine dress you’ve got me into.”
“Ah,” we think to ourselves, “That sounds like Oliver Hardy’s catchphrase. Clever.”
But it’s not laugh-out-loud funny. It’s a pun, rather than a punchline. Puns might elicit a smirk – or a groan – but rarely a genuine chuckle. Don’t base the joke around a pun.
Steady ripple rather than sudden gush
The Guardian holds up Billy Connolly as an example of a Bafta speech done well.
Coincidentally, I recently watched his deeply moving Made in Scotland shows. At one point, Connolly describes his transition from comedy folk music to stand-up. He observes that he preferred to make a series of funny observations, which were met with a steady ripple of laughter, rather than discrete punchline-based jokes.
This is an important lesson when speechwriting.
Joanna Lumley’s BAFTA speech, instead, focused on individual guests in turn, and allocated one joke to each. This presents two difficulties.
First, the jokes come out of nowhere, and the audience hasn’t been primed with a few light-hearted comments to get them ready to laugh. Second, if the sole joke doesn’t land, the section falls flat. Spread the risk across a few funny moments.
Do you need to go there?
The Guardian also points to the silence that met various speakers’ Brexit jokes.
Andy Serkis got some laughs for his comparison of “a film without music” to “Laurel without Hardy, Queen without Freddie Mercury, Britain without Europe.” Eddie Marsan didn’t do so well with his claim that historical accuracy in film-making has become difficult as Britain has “reinvented its past to justify Brexit.”
Ok, maybe Marsan wasn’t playing for laughs, but imagine how greater his impact would have been if he had made people laugh, especially those who might not agree with him. I’m thinking of Jess Phillips MP and her recent speech in Parliament on the relationship between salary and skills: her point was made through humour.
However, I’ve posted previously on “risk-averse humour,” and I maintain that Brexit is an issue too contentious for jokes – partisan ones, anyway.
If you can do non-partisan Brexit jokes, go for it. My favourite was an after-dinner joke which I often heard over Christmas dinners in 2017. “I hope you enjoyed your vegetables,” the speaker would say, “Because next year there’ll be no more Brussels.”