British Comedy Award-winning writer Paul Kerensa is not a household name. But he’s written for many things that are: BBC’s Miranda, Not Going Out, Top Gear, ITV’s Royal Variety Performance, C4’s TFI Friday, plus he’s script-edited various sitcoms, sketch shows and written for radio shows including The Now Show, The News Quiz and Dead Ringers. Elsewhere on radio, he’s a regular broadcaster on the Radio 2 Breakfast Show Pause For Thought slot. He’s written several books including Amazon Top 100 bestseller Hark! The Biography of Christmas, and as a result of this is a sought-after Xmas xpert/Santologist. As a comedian, he won ITV’s Take The Mike show and was a BBC New Comedy Award finalist.
Can you describe something that has recently amazed you? How did it make you feel?
David Attenborough’s Seven Worlds, One Planet. Yes, the natural world. Always impressive. But the way they film it. The patience the crew must have. The long game they play to bring it to our screens. They must be starting now on the nature documentary we’ll see in ten years’ time. It’s like Christmas trees – they’re planting now the saplings that will grow into the Christmas trees we’ll have in our living-rooms in ten years’ time. Same with David Attenborough documentaries (oh yes he’ll still be hosting them at age 105…)
Where do curiosity and wonder fit into joke writing? Do you have a particular creative process for joke writing?
I suppose you have to pique an audience’s interest with the setup. I’m struggling to write new material at the minute – not because I’m lacking in punchlines – I can think of 1000 jokes – it’s just that to work in a comedy club, they need to be jokes that aren’t groaners, are sellable, and have some element of curiosity for an audience. If I start a joke with “So I was doing my tax return…”, it had better have one heck of a punchline. Whereas if I start with “I’ve got no bellybutton” (which is true), instantly I’ve grabbed their attention. I save my bellybuttonless routine for 3/4 of the way through the act, to wake the audience up again. There’s always that dip of attention, so anything you can do to pull something weird and wonderful out of the bag then, the collective audience attention span will thank you for it, even if it means exposing my navelless torso.
What are the qualities of a good joke? And do curiosity and wonder feature?
Surprise is the biggie. If it’s a play on words, it can’t be guessable. All jokes should be new. My kids have starting telling jokes, but of course in 99% of cases, they’re ones I’ve heard before, so yes, sorry to say the fake laugh comes out (I HAVE to encourage them – to pass the wonder on!). In that 1% of cases where it’s something new or surprising, the laugh’s genuine. It’s why veteran comedians don’t laugh much at the standard act of other comedians any more – heard it, and heard that one too – but if something goes wrong, that’s when you hear the lone laugh at the back of the room, of the comedian who’s on next laughing at how surprising/awkward/unusual it is. We laugh at different things to the audience then. We all want to know what’s next. That curiosity, I suppose. In life, we don’t know what’s up ahead. We wonder what’s around the corner. Jokes play with what that might be – in this weird cartoon version of what the world might be… before we get back to reality and realise it’s not like that.
Do you have a favourite joke you can share?
I like Tim Vine’s. Short but very sweet. “How do you kill a circus? Go straight for the juggler.” If that’s not one of his, it should be.
You’re both a stand up comic and TV script writer. Was there one programme that stood out in terms of being a joy to work on?
To be honest, Buble at the BBC was a total joy – because there was very little work to do. I had two jobs: help plan/improvise/execute a hidden-camera prank involving Michael in prosthetics surprising fans (the ruse was that he was working in John Lewis’ hi-fi department, demo-ing a new karaoke machine with a ‘Buble’ button to make you sound like the man himself). So that was great fun just working that closely with Mickey Bubbles. Then a fortnight later in the studio, it was just writing links for Claudia Winkleman to intro songs and interview him. The producer would say to me: “We need a link into the next song. Something that says ‘Here’s another song.’” “Oh,” I said. “Do you want something funny in there?” “No. Keep it moving.” “How about: ‘And now with another song from the album, here’s Michael Buble…’?” “Great! Well done. Put that on the autocue.” It was around that time I wondered why they’d got a comedy writer in for this job – but meanwhile I had great fun just watching him, his band and the BBC Concert Orchestra do a show seemingly just for me.
How does it feel to see your jokes on TV but someone else is getting the laughs?
Back in sitcom-land, it’s great when the jokes make the final cut – I never know till I see it go out on telly. But it’s never quite the same watching Lee Mack or Miranda Hart get the laugh. It was worse still the once or twice I’ve loaned jokes from my own stand-up set. So for me, it’s the perfect mix that I do a few days a week writing, and a few evenings a week gigging. The feeling of making a roomful of people laugh – even if it’s a hundred compared with a million on TV – is much more rewarding.
You’ve recently written “Hark! The biography of Christmas”. What surprised you when doing the research for the book? Can you give me some examples of curious or quirky things you’ve learnt about Christmas?
Oh man. I could give you a hundred. I’ve never written a history book before – and may never write another one, until I can find something I’m as fascinated by as Christmas. What hooked me in wasn’t the centuries of big history, but the small coincidental moments – the right person, right place, right time factors that sparked customs we now take for granted. For example…
- Dickens’ first eight Christmases were white Christmases, thanks to the end of the Mini Ice Age. After that, the Thames never froze again. So when he wrote about Christmas, he wrote of the snowy Christmas, even though A Christmas Carol was released during one of the mildest Decembers on record. His readers remembered those snowy Christmases of their youth, and that’s partly why we think of a white Christmas today.
- King Herod had a wife named Doris. The Bible didn’t mention her, but the history books do.
- St Nicholas was one of the first to use an automatic door – if you believe the legend that he was so holy, when he visited the Church of the Last Supper in Jerusalem, the doors flew open to greet him. Nice bit of tech that – might catch on.
- Before Cromwell banned the mince pie, they were coffin-shaped, and only became round to flout the ban, so home bakers could pretend they were making something else.
- Daphne Du Maurier’s dad played the first Captain Hook, and was so scary that kids fainted and had to be carried out of the theatre.
I could go on. I won’t. Buy the book. Or listen to the Audible Original podcast ‘Christmas: What The Falalalala’ that I’m recording with Grace Dent.
Has writing the book ruined or enhanced Christmas for you?
Bit of both. The year I wrote it, having been reading Christmas books year-round, and throwing out festive facts to my family all year, my kids said to me in November: “Daddy – you’ve ruined Christmas.” Whoops. But they were half-joking. I hope. The other day (in October), my six-year-old asked me over breakfast, “Daddy? When did Christmas start?” My wife just left the table muttering, “Oh dear, there goes the day…”
I can’t see or hear of a Christmas custom now without mentally pulling on its thread before unravelling the entire Christmas jumper. Everything comes from somewhere, and with a good reason behind it. Christmas has changed massively over the years, but equally it’s always been bawdy and a bit commercial – with the church co-opting an existent crazy festivity. So in that sense, what do you expect?
For you personally, what is the Wonder of Christmas? Has that changed over the years?
Behind all the wrapping paper we’ve added, the wonder of Christmas is still in that manger – that’s the literal beating heart of it. The rest is flesh and bones and clothes and layers and jumpers and scarves we’ve thrown over it over the years. There’s wonder in that first Nativity, if you believe that (and I do). And if you don’t, there’s also wonder in the Dickensian Christmas, that refocused a drunken riotous occasion into something charity- and family-focused. To paraphrase Doc Brown in Back To The Future, Christmas is what you make of it, so make it a good one, all of you…
You’re a massive fan of the Back to the Future trilogy (including a couple of Edinburgh shows on the films). What’s the big appeal for you?
All good films (and books, and most things) are just a great story, well told. Back to the Future is the best: a great story, and it’s told magnificently. Entertaining, funny, speedily plotted. Just perfect. And embedded in the idea of it is that wondrous pondering of what we’d do if we could go back – see our parents when they were our age, live that life, appreciated things from their point of view. The film(s) move so fast, they hardly even get onto the whole ‘what would you do if you could go anywhere in time’ question, apart from Doc getting to live out his Wild West fantasies (mostly off-screen). The screen-time is spent righting those wrongs – which normally occur just because Marty shows up. There’s no ‘stopping Hitler’ or ‘vengeance against Biff’. It’s just Marty fixing the problems that Marty created by turning up and wrecking things. I don’t know what that says about us. Makes you think about the weight of responsibility on every encounter, perhaps? We impact each other’s lives all the time – making those interactions count is I suppose what it’s all about. Or it’s just a great film…
You’re a regular contributor to Radio 2’s Pause For Thought. How did that come about? Why do you feel Pause For Thought is an important part of the radio programming?
I wonder often why I’m there. Like I’ve walked through the wrong door. The travel reporter has asked a few times, “Where’s your parish?” They assume I’m a vicar. I was asked in one Comic Relief week, when they wanted comedians with a faith to do the Pause For Thought. Like everything in life, though it wasn’t an audition, if it goes well enough, it’s kind of an audition. So I stayed, and I’ve been doing it about six years now. It’s fun and stretches a different muscle to the other writing and speaking I do. It took me some time to realise I don’t have to try and go for the joke in there all the time. But humour can help reach people – if they’re laughing, they’re listening.
When a few voices tried to kick Radio 2’s Pause For Thought/Radio 4’s Thought For The Day off the airwaves a few years ago (John Humphrys, I’m looking at you), the listeners defended it. It’s bizarrely popular, even among those with decidedly no faith. For two minutes, we can stop the music and ponder something anew. It’s not preachy, it’s not ranty, and two minutes later we can get back to the music. But anything that prompts us to think a little differently for a moment, seeing the world in a new way, I’m all for.
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