Boris Johnson, reconsidered as a hack comic
How did Boris get a reputation for being "witty" and a "legend"? Because 'Boris' doesn't exist
As I write this, it seems like Boris Johnson isn’t going to be Prime Minister for much longer.
It’s ridiculous that he became Prime Minister at all. There’s plenty of articles you can read about his shortcomings as Mayor of London, Foreign Secretary and then PM - but to summarise: if you value policy outcomes over reputation, he was terrible at all of those jobs, wasting huge amounts of money on vanity projects like badly-designed new buses, the pointless Garden Bridge, and an impossible plan to build a bridge between Scotland and Northern Ireland; not to mention failing to take the Covid pandemic seriously, braying about how he went round a hospital shaking hands with everyone, as if a virus could be deterred by a show of bravado.
But in this post I’m going to talk about how he became popular with a large section of the public (until just recently), and I’m going to tie it in to hack stand-up comedy.
The general public image of Boris (one promoted in the right-wing British media, which is to say, almost all British media) is that he’s very witty and intelligent. In this carefully-manufactured fictional persona, his occasional bumbling or lack of preparation is offset by his innate brilliance.
Everyone knows that Boris is posh and had a privileged upbringing, which could be an electoral liability to the extent that a feeble flame of class consciousness still burns in the hearts of the British public. The ‘blundering brilliance’ persona softens his poshness with two-fold effect:
even though he’s a posho, he still ducks and dives and blags his way through things, which makes him ‘relatable’ to us low achievers who have all at one time or another left some educational or work assignment until the last minute, and then been forced to wing it
the fact that he managed to have a successful career despite a frequent apparent lack of effort or preparation convinces us that he must in fact have some sort of innate ability that enables him to rely on his off-the-cuff genius
But to be clear, the ‘bumbling brilliant Boris’ character is a carefully cultivated persona, an act, which bears as much relation to the real man as a comic’s persona on stage bears to their real personality - which is to say that it’s a caricature of himself, with some elements of truth, but highly exaggerated and edited for public consumption. Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson’s family don’t even call him Boris. They call him ‘Al’. Boris is a stage name.
My Boris Story by Jeremy Vine is the clearest possible demonstration that the BBB persona is fake: (I’ve linked to an archived version of the article to avoid giving The Spectator any ad money or having you run into a paywall; original for reference).
I recommend reading the whole article, but to summarise, Jeremy Vine was presenting an award and Boris was scheduled to give a speech beforehand. Boris showed up in the nick of time, and seemed to know nothing about the event he was at. After asking a few questions he scribbled some rudimentary notes and then gave a brilliant, extemporised speech:
'SHEEP,' he began. He started a story about his uncle’s farm and how OUTRAGEOUS it was that they couldn’t bury animals that had JUST died, as they used to do back in the sixties, seventies and eighties. No, he said, EU regulations meant an abattoir had to be involved. 'One died today. A SHEEP. And my uncle had to RING a fellow at an abattoir fifty MILES away. His name was Mick – no, it was Jim – no, sorry, MARGARET, that was it, MARGARET...”
People were now, not just roaring with laughter, but listening. He continued.
'Which is why my political hero is the Mayor from JAWS.'
'Yes. Because he KEPT THE BEACHES OPEN.'
More guffawing around me. He spoke as if every sentence had only just occurred to him, and each new thought came as a surprise.
'Yes, he REPUDIATED, he FORESWORE and he ABROGATED all these silly regulations on health and safety and declared that the people should SWIM! SWIM!'
'Now, I accept,' he went on in an uncertain tone, 'that as a result some small children were eaten by a shark. But how much more pleasure did the MAJORITY get from those beaches as a result of the boldness of the Mayor in Jaws?'
Brilliant. The whole room is hooting and cheering. It no longer matters that Boris has no script, no plan, no idea of what event he is attending, and that he seems to be taking the whole thing off the top of his head.
I realise that I am in the presence of genius.
Boris goes on to tell a well-known political anecdote and hilariously apologise for forgetting the ending. The crowd loves the whole performance.
Something about the chaos of it – the reality, I suppose – was utterly joyful. The idea that this was the opposite of a politician, that suddenly we had an MP in front of us who was utterly real, who had come without a script or an agenda and then forgotten, not just the name of the event but his whole speech and the punchline to his funniest story. I watched in awe.
But the kicker is that, 18 months later, Vine was once again at an event where Boris was speaking, and Boris repeated the exact same shtick: scribbling some last minute notes (or in stand-up terms, his set list), forgetting the name of the event, doing the sheep bit and the Mayor in Jaws bit, forgetting the punchline of a famous anecdote…
Watching Boris at that second event, in the middle of a crowd of dinner-jacketed businesspeople all laughing and hooting, I was momentarily apart from the proceedings. I would have touched the ends of my moustache if I had one. People who speak after dinner don’t usually get to observe each other because no one books us in pairs. So when we do accidentally come together, we watch with close fascination. Now, I thought, now I understand everything.
A big part of stand-up is the illusion of spontaneity.
One of the first live comedy gigs I went to was Bill Bailey at the Cambridge Corn Exchange. As soon as he came on, he was hilarious. He mispoke somehow, then corrected himself, and improvised a whole bit about it…
Later I saw the DVD of the same tour, filmed on a different night at a different venue. Of course the whole ‘improvised’ bit was there, pretty much word for word. Probably at one point, he had genuinely flubbed the opening line and got a laugh from the correction, and then he’d elaborated on that in subsequent dates.
Making the riff seem spontaneous made it funnier, just as a stock crowd work response to someone with a boring job seems funnier if it’s presented as an off-the-cuff quip.
Of course, for Boris, pretending to improvise a speech is about more than making his bit about Jaws funnier. It makes him seem quick-witted and intelligent; Vine was convinced that he was “in the presence of genius”.
An added bonus is that doing this shtick means he doesn’t have to bother writing a speech relevant to the occasion; he can just do this shtick every time, pretending his ignorance of the event is due to his last minute arrival rather than laziness and indifference, knowing that the anti-regulation sentiment of the Jaws bit will meet with approval with a crowd of hooting dinner-jacketed businesspeople. (The bit doesn’t seem as funny when you realise that Boris has used it as a guide to actual policy, including opposing lockdown measures in response to the second UK wave of coronavirus that killed tens of thousands of people).
Boris Johnson first came to widespread public attention through his appearances on Have I Got News For You. The conventional wisdom is that this exposure is what made the British public embrace him.
When you look back at the actual footage, though, it’s clear that the ‘bumbling brilliant Boris’ (BBB) persona wasn’t fully developed yet. In fact, at least in the earlier episodes, he comes across as a rather nasty, thick, posh twat. Check this out:
I can’t find a clip of it, but I distinctly remember that on one appearance, he tried to get the audience to agree that nobody liked the dangerous lefty radical Ian Hislop. Paul Merton had to explain that the crowd had showed up because they liked Ian Hislop, not Boris Johnson.
Even when he got an undeserved promotion (one of many in his career) from panellist to host, he was consistently outwitted and mocked by the panellists, as this clip compilation shows.
Remember I talked about the illusion of spontaneity? After his early appearances, Boris, a ‘journalist’ at the time (a hack in another sense) used his platform to complain that Have I Got News For You was ‘scripted and rehearsed’.
Now it’s true that TV panel shows aren’t as spontaneous as they appear. The panellists certainly have the questions in advance and probably get jokes suggested for them by a team of writers. But it’s also wrong to claim that the whole thing is fully scripted. The panellists outwit Boris in those clips above and make him look foolish because they’re much smarter than he is.
Some commentators would say that his HIGNFY appearances are what launched his career as a popular candidate - popular at least within the Conservative party membership and core voters, although he’s never been especially popular with the public as a whole.
Whatever the impact on his actual popularity, I would contend that HIGNFY is what taught Boris the value of the illusion of spontaneity.
In an episode of HIGNFY with Boris as host that I can’t find online (and I believe I actually saw recorded live, although maybe that is a false memory), Boris was interrupted during filming by a mobile phone call; his phone wasn’t on silent, so the ringtone disrupted everything. He answered it and said something like “I can’t talk now, I’m on the television”, bringing the house down.
I can’t prove it, but I bet that moment was planned and scripted, not by the show’s production team, but by Boris. This was relatively early in the adoption of mobile phones, when the etiquette wasn’t so well established, but surely someone reminds you to turn off your mobile phone when you’re filming a TV show. I bet he deliberately left his phone turned on and had someone call him. Leaving your phone on is bumbling; coming back from it with a hilariously phlegmatic response is brilliant.
It’s a technique I suspect he has used many times since. Remember when, as Mayor, he got ‘stuck’ on a zipline, while conveniently waving a couple of Union Jacks? His recital of Homer in ancient Greek impressed gullible centrists but of course memorising and reciting some poetry doesn’t mean you’re actually fluent in the language, and in fact Johnson wasn’t even doing a good job of recitation:
Others attacked not only what Johnson was doing, but how he was doing it, pointing out flaws in his Greek accent, his poor meter, and, indeed, the fact that he skips whole lines of the piece, which starts off as a pretty good run at the opening of the Iliad.
A dodgy recital of Homer is a party piece, or in a comedy terms a ‘bit’. It seems superficially impressive, like a comedian who asks an audience member what their job is and then has a witty quick-fire response… but only because he’s been in that situation many times before and has already written responses for common jobs, or is maybe even using a well-worn stock response copied from other comedians:
Now in comedy, what exactly what counts as ‘hack’ is a matter of taste, and there’s nothing wrong with being a bit hack if the crowd is enjoying it. There’s nothing wrong with Bill Bailey repeating and elaborating on a mistake night after night.
But Boris was in charge of the country through a deadly crisis, and his reputation for brilliance was built on hack bits and elite privilege.
When it came to actually thinking on his feet and formulating a response, he fell very short. Because he’s not brilliant or witty. He’s just a hack.
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