Updated: Dec 3, 2021
Mark, a stand-up student of mine on my intermediate new material course, asked me to say more about what he termed ‘comedy metaphors’, where a comic finds a pleasing analogy for something they are talking about. So I will! For example, here’s one from from Phil Nichol:
“If you can’t go into an Irish bar and get into a conversation that’s like being a special needs kid going to summer holiday camp and not getting a hug.”
This is an ‘analogy’ or as I often say an ‘is like’. Notice that in Phil Nichol’s case he makes it an attacking statement which gives it more comic energy. It’s often the case that these analogy jokes have a bit of venom to them. Frankie Boyle is brilliant at venomous ‘is likes’. Even against himself. (And of course attacking yourself gives you more licence to attack others.) When I saw him in Edinburgh last year he’d clearly put on some weight. He said:
“I’m very old now and I’ve got a body like a dropped lasagne. Women now look at my naked body in the same fearful way that pensioners look at snow.”
First up, we could imagine a first step in arriving at the lasagne line could be to liken your body to a wobbly jelly. This takes you to food analogies. From there it’s a case of trying other adjectives and foods. So note, the first step is being clear what it is you want to say. Then you can find an obvious analogy. Then work from there to push it somewhere more surprising.The second part if a wonderful leap. The point he’s making is: women have this expression of horror and trepidation on their face when they see my body. Then he’s asking the question: where else have I seen this expression? And coming up with the answer: when old ladies look at snow. This is a brilliant leap.
So in coming up with the analogy the first step is to be clear what you’re saying. This might seem obvious, but in my coaching and directing it’s often the case that when comics are struggling with analogies it’s because they’re not really clear in their own mind what the point is they’re making. Actually arriving at “dropped lasagne” and “old ladies looking at snow” is the mysterious part – it’s the inspired leap that emerges from your prepared personal creative unconscious. What makes someone like Frankie Boyle exceptional is his creative mind takes him to vivid and surprising places. You can’t learn to do that, but you can practice. And as we have seen it can help to give yourself the stepping stone of initially coming up with an obvious or unfunny one to give yourself something to tinker with.
These kinds of comic analogies are very often applied to people in the public eye. Frankie Boyle is particularly brilliant at these kinds of comic analogies. He says of Theresa May that she is:“The worst person at controlling a party since Michael Barrymore.”He’s observed that May is bad at controlling her party. Then he asks himself: who else is bad at controlling parties? An obvious answer would be John Major. But you need to make the comic leap. Here it’s jumping to a different kind of party. This leap to a different meaning of the word ‘party’ is a classic joke strategy. Here’s one about Boris Johnson:
"He's just there to divert us from the horrific things the government is planning, like a nodding dog stuck to a serial killer's dashboard".
There are really two comic ideas here. The first is in answer to the question: why is he even in the government? So as is often the case the beginnings of a comic idea are found in a question. There are plenty of more straightforwardly political ways of answering that question, but as a stand-up you are answering questions in a playful, stupid or subversive way. This gives him a comic (but horribly plausible) opinion: he’s there as a distraction.Then he finds the analogy – an ‘is like’. In this case asking: what other things are there that are absurd but might be a distraction from something horrific. Again, you might start with a more obvious one: “like a clown mask on a serial killer”. This would give you the elements to then play around with, arriving at: “like a nodding dog stuck to a serial killer's dashboard". In another example,
Matt Kirshen talking to an American audience about Brexit discusses how shell-shocked Gove and Johnson looked the morning after the referendum when they’d won. He observes they don’t look like winners, they look like people who’ve got something they didn’t really expect or want. He then illustrates this with an analogy. He says (to his American audience) that they looked like construction workers who’d shouted out to a passing woman ‘get your titties out’… and she did. He then pulls a startled face.
When I interviewed Ahir Shah for my Director’s Guide book he said of these kinds of political comic analogies: “Just the brass neck of even offering to make the comparison I think will lend something to the humour. Also, I think when we’re talking about macro issues, they tend to be too big for us even to comprehend. Any way in which you can humanize large issues is a way of making it more immediate to the audience’s experience of the world.”
You leave an Ahir Shah show in no doubt of his opinions. Whether you’re talking about a politician or baked beans, you need to be clear in your mind what you’re saying and from there you can build the analogy that will express that to the audience. And as we have seen it can help to initially come up with a simple or obvious one to use as a stepping-stone to something more inspired. As my student Mark said to me, “I realise my problem was I wasn't initially being specific enough. I was hunting around for things to compare something or someone with, without knowing what exactly I wanted to say. It seems obvious now, but a week ago I thought metaphors sort of fell into your lap fully-formed.“
For homework, let’s do a visual one. Pick someone whose appearance you want to make a comic analogy around. For example, Frankie Boyle had a great one about Donald Trump in the show I saw in Edinburgh: “he looks like someone playing the president in a porn film”. Here he’s saying he doesn’t look believable as a president and he is lecherous. Once you’ve decided what you you want to say you can then think about striking ways to say it. Here’s another Trump one from Frankie Boyle: “He’s sort of like a pumpkin having a nervous breakdown. He’s like a sort of corrupt tele-evangelist that Columbo would have as a baddie or something.” Here we see him piling on the detail and putting two analogies in one. He makes out he is trying to put his finger on the exact image which justifies putting two together. Piling up detail can add to the funniness as with this one about Corbyn: “Corbyn sounds like a dreadful town, dresses like a catalogue model for the Sue Ryder shop and won't look significantly different when he's been dead for a week.”