Brian Edwards Media

I say, I say, I say: What is the secret of successful comedy?

“Common sense and a sense of humour are the same thing moving at different speeds. A sense of humour is just common sense dancing. Those who lack humour lack common sense and should be trusted with nothing.”

Clive James penned that glorious truth. Examples of the correlation between humourlessness and lack of common sense are all around us in present-day New Zealand. They proliferate like weeds. No doubt some will occur to you as you read these lines, but it may be wiser not to name them, to keep your counsel. The humourless weed is prickly and cannot see the joke.

I was reminded of Clive James’ words by the current race for the Labour Party leadership. If James is right  – and everything I have observed about my fellow man in more than seven decades persuades me that he is –  if those who lack humour should indeed “be trusted with nothing”, then we would be wise to include evidence of the presence of a sense of humour among our criteria for electing those who seek to govern us.   

I’ve known quite a few senior New Zealand politicians and advised three or four who got to sit behind the big desk on the ninth floor. I have my own view on which of them had “a sense of humour”  as I suspect James would have defined it: combining a joyful sense of the ridiculous not just in others but in oneself with that grounded understanding of what is socially acceptable and what not, which we commonly call ‘perspective’. Taking oneself too seriously is probably incompatible with a sense of humour.

For the moment I’ll  keep to myself my views on the sense of humour, or lack of it, of past and present-day New Zealand political leaders. I’d prefer to get your opinion. And it might be particularly interesting to consider which of the current contenders for the Labour Party leadership have shown evidence of a sense of humour or should be “trusted with nothing”. Lest you’ve forgotten, they are, in no particular order, Grant Robertson, Nanaia Mahuta, David Parker and Andrew Little.

Now here’s an old music hall routine:

A: I say, I say, I say, what is the secret of successful comedy?

B: I don’t know. What is the secr..

A: Timing!

Maybe you had to be there.

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  1. Perceptive, Brian. I certainly don’t know the candidates well enough to judge their sense of humour – most of them seem pretty dour in public as portrayed by TV but you need personal engagement to judge.

    However I suspect the sense of humour qualification is a necessary but insufficient attribute for leadership. E.g. Lange was outstanding wrt the former but poor at the latter. In her public persona at least Helen Clark was the opposite.

    • Agreed on all points. I’m not of course suggesting that having a sense of humour should be the sole prerequisite for high political office, but lack of it should be a warning – to the politician’s party and to the electorate.

  2. Those with a clearly demonstrable sense of humour which was part of their public persona: –

    Muldoon, although apparently he had no capacity for small talk. His sense of humour could be cruel, but also impish.

    Lange, who defeated Muldoon with humour.


    There is also a David Frost interview of Norman Kirk, where Big Norm uses an understated sense of irony to good effect.

    • I encountered Norm Kirk’s humour one boozy evening when he offered to read my palm. He was Leader of the Opposition at the time. His predictions turned out to be surprisingly accurate. In my view, not shared by his biographer, Kirk was paranoid and trusted almost no-one. I’m not sure that paranoia is compatible with a sense of humour. On the other hand, as someone observed, ‘Just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.”

    • Ah, someone else prepared to acknowledge Muldoon had a sense of humour! And indeed it was impish.

      As a callow youth venturing into journalism he was one of my first interviewees, for a Radio New Zealand program on the SIS. It happened to win an award, which led to a Listener profile. The reporter put down her pad and pen and asked “So, what was it *really* like?”

      Being less cynical of my colleagues at that stage, I duly launched into a breathless confession of how I’d tried to memorise all the number plates in the SIS carpark (through which I entered the building) and how Muldoon had simply got up at the end of the interview and walked back to his desk, leaving me to blunder into a storage closet before finding the door. I described this as “unbelievably rude”. Invariably, it was all published – boxed in the middle of the page.

      Months later, somehow I’d completely forgotten all this in the excitement of pursuing another story. I duly rang his PPS, the affable Gray Nelson, to arrange an interview and offered to forward my credentials. “No need,” he said, “it’s not likely we’ll forget *you*”

      I completed my second interview with the great man in a state approaching panic. After all, here was someone who’d savaged the great and respected Tom Scott, and I was nobody. Surely he had greeted me politely and answered my questions calmly as a precursor to having me taken to the Tower and beheaded?

      The interview eventually finished. The moment had come. Muldoon again got up and walked off. Only this time he opened the door, and held it open. As I went to exit, trying to merge into the door jamb lest he reach out to grab my lapels, he bowed theatrically, almost to the floor, and said “So *nice* of you to have come”.


      • In the mid seventies I was a morning talk-back host on the fledgling Radio Windy. Every day I got stuck into Muldoon, the contemptible bully. I retained this view for two decades. It took me that long to recognise that the man was really a socialist in disguise, that his concern for the ‘ordinary person’ was genuine. Some time after he had been unceremoniously and cruelly dumped by his National Party colleagues, Judy and I invited him to take part in a pilot programme with David Lange. ‘For the Right, for the Left’, that sort of thing. Muldoon was a broken man and it fell to the Labour leader to look after him during the session. We thought it might be tense between the two. But the tension was broken when David quietly pulled over a cup, poured Muldoon some tea and gently inquired if he’d like some milk. And yes, Muldoon could be cruel to his opponents. But I felt genuinely sorry for him in those last days. And he did have those saving graces of wit and a great sense of humour.


          Yes, I was flying to and from Wellington every week and saw Muldoon at the Koru Club frequently after he was deposed. He was a lonely and forlorn figure there that no-one talked to. His menacing power became an isolating prison. Maybe it always was.

      • Now that is a great story, beautifully told. Well done.

    • I can’t agree that Key has a sense of humour. His put downs are achieved by managing to shout and sneer at the same time and he has a small list of childish words such as “loopy”. Unless, of course, you count his appalling NuZild accent as humour.

      • fair enough, John. Yah pays yer monay and yah takes yer pick. But then you are a guy who thinks that Key is plotting to roll the tanks into Prague.

        As for me, I’m backing this version from the invariably perceptive and amusing Steve Braunias (1/4/14): –

        It’s a political truism that when you’re up you’re up, so none of your stumbles knock you off your feet. And when you’re down, every little misstep takes you closer to your grave. Prime Minister John Key is so up, he’s dancing on air. How did this happen?

        I blame his critics — his political opponents especially, but also independent commentators. As spectacular mis­judgments go, it’s hard to think of anything greater than the nature of their complaints, especially in the early years of his leadership. He was, they said repeatedly, gauchely inept in his speech patterns and his vocabulary, embarrassingly off kilter in his sense of humour, insultingly dismissive of real concerns about various policies.

        The result was profound. Key connected to a whole range of New Zealanders who did not see the world the same way as those critics. Their mockery both reinforced his popularity and discredited the people who engaged in it. And, perhaps because the critics did not change their line of attack, that discrediting came to define them.

        It has been clear for at least five years now that when Key is mocked, a large part of the electorate reads the very existence of the ridicule as further evidence that he is the right guy for us and the jokers are irrelevant fools. Labour, in particular, while obviously having had its own problems finding the right leader, has added immeasurably to its malaise by misreading the nature of Key’s popularity.

        Key himself has always understood this and has exploited it very adroitly. His speech is as lazy as ever, by design, because it is part of his appeal. “Or look,” he slyly reminds us as often as he can, “in New Ziln we dun wirry much abut thad stuff.”

        And the crowd roars. Key’s speech is a symbol of his appeal.

        Over those same years, complaints about him have ranged from the vitally important to the exceedingly trivial, but the difference often doesn’t matter. It’s not that his supporters have stopped listening to the complaints; rather, that they hear them as silly liberal scolding and that reinforces their resolve.

        And nor is it that New Zealanders are illiberal — on the contrary, we live in one of the most tolerant, diverse and unbigoted societies in the world. But we really don’t like being lectured, or being told there’s something wrong with having a bit of fun, or people who sneer.

        • While in the USA in 2008 I remember listening to an American political commentator similarly describing George W Bush. In most points with Key you are spot on.


          Unfortunately, I pay my money and take your choice choice, Kimbo.
          I don’t believe Key is plotting to roll the tanks into Prague. The Middle East perhaps,despite what he said before the election.
          The article you quote says nothing about Key having a sense of humour. It describes the effect of having a charisma which blinds followers to his faults and causes them credit him with virtues he does not possess: in your case, a sense of humour. Many leaders possessed such charisma, Churchill and Hitler spring immediately to mind. Some of them lead their countries to success, others, unhappily, to disaster.
          As the article suggests, Key’s charisma allows him to say something along the lines of, “I’m not very clever. Follow me.” and many do.

          • “The article you quote says nothing about Key having a sense of humour.”

            As I’ve long since concluded, the same lack of perspective that skewed the traditional tribal Labour supporters’ understanding of Rob Muldoon is simply manifesting itself anew in Key-derangement-syndrome.

            Two items. They may be a bit corny, but they confirm Key most certainly has a good sense of comic timing and a healthy dose of the absurd:



            I seem to remember Brian Edwards pointing out to me earlier that Helen Clark had more dignity/gravitas about her as PM. Undoubtedly. But then that isn’t really a prerequiste when you are auditioning for Letterman. Plus Clark maybe never felt the freedom to let her guard down in public and readily display her undoubted sense of humour due to the obstacles she perceived she had overcome winning the office of PM.


              That first cringeworthy clip is the sort of thing I’d expect to see in a primary school playground and as for the second, read from cue cards, I ask again, “How many of those “jokes” came from his speech writers?”
              Which goes to prove my point that he has a “charisma which blinds followers to his faults and causes them credit him with virtues he does not possess.”

      • You cannot credibly claim that John Key has no sense of humour. Don’t get me wrong, he’s not funny enough to quit his day job and join the stand-up circuit, but it is absolutely clear to anyone not blinded by zealotry that the man has a decent, functional, average to good sense of humour.

        I could quote dozens of examples, you’re not going to split your sides with any of them but a fair person will smile at least, eg;

        Sure he shouts, he can sneer at time, he does put downs. He’s a politician, what do you expect. And he’s flawed human being, just like everyone else. But claiming these are his defining characteristics is ridiculous. I haven’t heard anyone who has spent time with him claim he’s not a friendly and affable fellow.


          How many of those “jokes” came from his speech writers? I’ve noticed, during interviews which get difficult, he resorts to a grimace and shrug and during one he walked away. Muldoon and Lange always had answers.
          I’m not making a comparison but a friend of mine used to drink with the Kray twins and reckoned they were pretty friendly however he wasn’t part of their “business”.

          • You’re not defending the proposition that Key’s sense of humour is a match for Lange or Muldoon. You’re trying to defend the proposition that Key has no sense of humour. Your words.

            His basic, blokeish sense of humour is readily apparent when he is operating impromptu, on-the-hoof. Something he does readily, with enthusiasm. It’s one of his defining characteristics.

            I am honestly mystified that you’d seriously suggest this obvious, protruding, tangible thing is actually absent. I’m not asking you to like or admire the man, just to acknowledge a simple and self-evident reality. Go on, admit you’re wrong, everybody makes mistakes and admitting one always make one better.

            • sorry, should be “makes one feel better”.


              Your entire comment proves my point that he has a “charisma which blinds followers to his faults and causes them credit him with virtues he does not possess.”


                …but neither Bill Forster or I are arguing on this occasion that Key necessarily has charisma, nor even virtues. Rather that you are mistaken in saying he is devoid of a sense of humour. No, he didn’t write the cue cards for the Letterman massage, but you still need some sense of timing and the absurd to pull it off.

                However, as has been argued on other threads on this site, it would appear Key, no doubt like Clark before him, is a human Rorschach test for uncovering illogical but nonetheless deep-seated ideologically motivated prejudices…


                  “a human Rorschach test for uncovering illogical but nonetheless deep-seated ideologically motivated prejudices…”
                  Indeed he is. Prejudice against fairness, Prejudice against compassion. Prejudice for further enriching the rich. Prejudice . . .
                  Further proof of the power of his charisma.

              • In your world John Key doesn’t have any sense of humour. None. You think the only people who could possibly see a sense of humour are “followers” blinded by “charisma”.

                Sorry this just makes no sense at all. For a start it would mean that I am a “follower” when in reality I am just an interested observer with a mild tendency to vote for the party of farmers and shopkeepers in preference to the party of teachers and trade unionists. And I’d have to be blinded by “charisma”, which I don’t see much of from John Key. To have charisma, he’d need to be a much better speaker than he actually is. I don’t see much charisma. I do see a pragmatist, with centrist steady-as-she-goes instincts, a shrewd political brain, a grasp of policy detail that often surprises his opponents, an (unattractive to me) streak of ruthlessness, and yes an obvious (as in sticks out like the proverbial canine testicles) basic sense of humour.

                I think the relentless demonisation of John Key is not only senseless it’s been an ongoing political mistake. The NZ public sees through it and rejects it. Because they have common sense, and most of them have a sense of humour too – which is common sense dancing remember.

                As much as I like trying to make someone who is wrong on the internet see sense – I am tired of this discussion. If you want to have the last word (and it strikes me that like me usually you’re the kind of person who does) go ahead.

                My final word is that my main point was always simply that your claim that John Key has no sense of humour is absurd – all your subsequent wriggling and obfuscation could have been avoided by simply admitting you were wrong on that one simple point.


            Lange had long-practiced “fat boy”‘s defences using his wit. Muldoon used his to counter-attack ferociously.

            Key comes across as a normal guy who just gets fed up with media nonsense. I think the public see that.


          You say, “he’s not funny enough to quit his day job and join the stand-up circuit.”
          Look! I’ll admit he had me laughing ’til the tears ran down my legs if that’ll make him quit his day job. I’ll even go to his first stand-up gig and applaud. Satisfied?

  3. Grant Robertson comes across as a friendly and engaging chap with a sense of humour. He’s my local MP and I’ve met him a couple of times and been impressed. The first of those times involved a little impromptu humour. Spotting the local MP a couple of seats ahead of my wife and I on a near empty bus, I decided to have a little fun and raised my voice deliberately hoping he would rise to the bait. I continued my conversation with my wife as follows; “I don’t understand why anyone in this day and age would ever join the Catholic Church – it’s an organisation whose fundamental precepts have been conclusively refuted – goodness me it would be like joining the New Zealand Labour Party”.

    This had just the desired result – Grant reared up turned around, showing a big friendly smile and engaged us in a nice conversation full of humour. In the end Grant and my dear wife agreed that come election day it would be best to chain me up so that I couldn’t perform my normal role of cancelling out my wife’s vote. As it happens I voted early, cunningly defeating this otherwise subtle and nuanced plan. Incidentally this whole incident, starting with meeting the local politician on the bus, was one of those little things that reinforces my love for this country. I wish all political discussion was more like this and I decry the trend towards toxic tribalism instead.

    As for the other candidates I am not sure. I do remember Nanaia Mahuta repeatedly chanting “one law for all dogs” in Parliament as if it was some kind of profound mantra (during the microchipping debate). That at least serves as unintentional humour, but presumably that doesn’t count.

  4. Hi Brian

    I’m aware the Robertson boys look alike but not sure Grant’s brother Craig is in for the ‘race’ !

  5. You’d have to be desperate to go see this taxpayer-funded traveling troupe of vagabonds and no-hopers — together with their hanger-ons — vying to jettison their party into oblivion.

    Seriously, it’s like paying good money to hear a Rachmaninoff concerto being played on a mouth organ.

    Please, anyone, throw some paraquat or diesel into the trough where these leadership-aspirants’ snouts are buried in.

    • As an accomplished and some time semi-professional harmonica player, I take strong exception to your slur on the mouth organ!

      • Fair enough, I stand chastened (my dad was a very accomplished player on the mouth organ, too), so replace it with ‘Casio keyboard’. And mouth organ retains its hallowed status as a musical instrument of reverential repute — and “hanger-ons” is ‘hangers-on’.

  6. Humour is an invaluable asset to a politician. Essential? No. Labour supporters have needed a substantial supply of their own good humour to survive the last few years of decline in fortunes. While finding a leader, hopefully with a touch of charisma, is their first priority, it is not the only one.

    In many ways the world has moved on from a lot of Labour fundamentals. The name Labour is outdated {National is only slightly better}. Trade unions have largely been replaced with more precise and fairer workplace agreements. Socialism sounds worthy but has often meant slowing the convoy to that of the slowest ship. This is not aspirational.

    As a result Labour is splintered and any new leader will have only minority support. Meanwhile National inherit long term governing by default. It is not healthy having a weak opposition. Time for a new centrist party free of out of date baggage and vendettas, and I’m not joking.

    • Fair enough, though we’re clearly not talking here about being good at telling jokes. Joke-tellers can often be people with very little real sense of humour and sometimes quite unpleasant. The ‘sense of humour’ which James had in mind and which I’m trying, perhaps not very successfully, to convey, is at heart an expression of delight at the absurdity, incongruity and silliness of the world around us. Here’s my favourite joke, which really needs to be delivered rather than written down.

      A man goes into a library.

      Man (loudly): Two pieces of fish and a scoop of chips please.

      Librarian: For heaven’s sake, this isn’t a fish and chip shop, it’s a library.

      Man: (whispering): Oh sorry. Two pieces of fish and a scoop of chips please.

      • “perhaps not very successfully” – I disagree with this, you cannot help how people choose to interpret your words. Thanks for this post, I really enjoyed it. I particularly enjoyed being reminded of the Clive James quote, it really is such an elegant yet extraordinary insight. I could never in a million lifetimes conjure such a thing from nothing, yet the essential truth it conveys is immediately apparent. Clive James is of course facing up to his own mortality at the moment. I hope he gets great comfort from being able to look back at moments of creative magic like that.

    • “Trade unions have largely been replaced with more precise and fairer workplace agreements.”
      Take out “and fairer” and I’d agree with you.

    • This is not aspirational.

      You say that as if it is a bad thing.

  7. I’ve always felt the same about Muldoon(a socialist in disguise).The media created a character that wasn’t that accurate.Robs Rocky Horror performance shouldn’t be overlooked.

    • Or Count Robula!

      Honestly the prissy intellectual left (just chanelling Alan Wilkinson here for a miunute) acted like he was Pinochet rounding up dissidents. Instead, he was a grounded and practical guy with clear values, an incredible brain and a healthy aversion to the pompous who initially only began to play politics hard when others got personal first.

      And then there was that laugh!

      • 7.1.1

        Sorry, but I had no time for Muldoon. However as his then political opponents (Values Party) we never attacked him personally nor did he us. The bitter attacks on him from the Left did result in equally vitriolic responses and in my view his regime was the Dark Age of NZ politics.

        • Yes, I know you had no time for Muldoon’s economic policies.

          As Brian Edwards astutely noted his policies (the economic ones, anyway) were socialist. He saw himself as a custodian of the welfare state/command economy bequeathed by the first Labour Government, although he role-model was the paternalist and pragmatic Liberal R J Seddon.

          But socially Muldoon was a middle-of-the-road man of his times, but was painted by his increasingly shrill opponents as some sort of evil reactionary tyrant in a time of rapid social change.

          Muldoon was more amenable than Norman Kirk, for example, to abortion and homosexual law reform (Kirk never discarded his Salvation Army upbringing, even though he rejected the formal theology and organisation of Protestant revivalism).

          But Muldoon, the uber-practical politician despised fashionable social causes like the anti-Apartheid Movement that had little real or practical effect in confronting racism in South Africa. For good reason he rightly suspected Jimmy Carter’s “Humane Foreign Policy” would end in disaster.


            Labour was stuffed full of reactionary Catholics more socially conservative than the Nats. Muldoon had his own too in Brill and Birch who engineered the hypocritical abortion law compromise that was formally conservative but practically liberal. I don’t think Muldoon cared about that so long as he ran the economy and no-one else but Birch got a say.


            Oh, and I disagree about the anti-Apartheid movement. It did have an effect – in both countries.

  8. My favourite puerile joke;

    Martian with ray gun to petrol pump.

    “Enough of your stupid insolence, Earthman, take me to your leader”.

    Muldoon, with the benefit of twenty twenty hindsight was an insult to our collective intelligence. He always played the man and not the ball,e.g Tom Scott, Colin Moyle. In later post politics years he probably had the time to reflect and realise he was actually a human being after all. And I voted for him which I can’t explain or justify.

    • “And I voted for him which I can’t explain or justify”.

      Does that make you one of the 47.04% that just voted Key back in?

      • I say Kat. Only 29% of those eligible to vote did so for the Key lot. 71% did not do so.
        Those with a sense of humour are never spiteful.
        So that dismisses Key from the humour qualification.

  9. The party is tearing itself up. Effecting a cohesive transition to a new leader is pretty much a case of Last Chance Salon for Laour.

  10. 10

    It is salon, because the hair is always mussed up.