“Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the purely scientific mind.”
– E.B. White and his wife, Katharine S. White
Rach: My driving instructor was a lovely Chinese man who grew increasingly frustrated with my questions about how exactly a clutch worked.
I couldn’t get my head around the biting point if I couldn’t see what I was biting.
How does the engine work, how does the clutch work, what are we doing here in a car park in Mitcham at 10 o’clock in the morning?
Mr. Yeo placed his head in his hands and sighed quietly.
Since learning how to perform stand up comedy, I’ve been struck with similar confusion about how jokes work. I need to know why something is funny to be able to write and perform it with confidence.
The frog is dying, but I can’t help myself.
Take the rule of three for example. Every comedy course in the world will tell you that the rule of three is funny.
And it is. There’s no question about that. The age-old mechanism of establish, reinforce, subvert is as tried and tested as ‘See it, Say it, Sorted’ isn’t.
But why are three things funnier than two? Why don’t four things work so well? And above all, why do some third-thing punchlines work better than others?
To help me with this, I consulted Clare Jonas from That Thinking Feeling.
Clare, why is a comedic triple funnier than a double or quadruple?
Clare: Good question! I don’t think anyone’s actually tried to figure out this exact thing with an experiment… so I cobbled together an answer from my psychology knowledge.
First, let’s tackle the number element. In order to make this kind of joke work, you need to establish a category and then flout or subvert it in some way.
It should be obvious why one item in the list won’t work: you usually can’t establish a clear category from just one thing, and you certainly can’t subvert the category. Because a lot of words have multiple meanings, you need the second item in the list to solidify the category, which means it also shouldn’t be the funny thing.
Here’s an example first item: boxers. This could belong to a number of categories…
Underwear: Boxers, Y-fronts
Sportspeople: Boxers, rowers
Dog breeds: Boxers, spaniels
Words that end in -oxers: Boxers, foxers
So, why not establish the category even more solidly with a third or fourth or fifth item before subverting? Because humans have limited attention spans. We usually use working memory (a sort of temporary store for information) to keep track of things that we need to keep in mind right now. When you’re reading or listening to someone tell a story, a lot of your working memory is taken up with what’s going on in the story – events, characters, how things relate to each other. If I ask you to remember a long list while you’re listening to a story, either you’ll forget the list or you’ll lose track of the story. A two-item list is a balance between the need to establish the category and the need to keep your audience’s attention.
A different use of this kind of three-part list is an age-old rhetorical device called hendiatris, which gave us such classics as friends, Romans, countrymen and reduce, reuse, recycle. We have a powerful cultural expectation that the third item in a list will complete it in an emotionally or aesthetically pleasing way. The subversion of that expectation is funny – but why?
I’ve written before about how humour works, and the honest answer is that there’s no one theory which can explain all of it. In many cases, it’s probably about mild tension being resolved. In something like stand-up comedy, this tension might come from a variety of sources, say the topic is mildly taboo or emotionally difficult, or the narrative is gripping and you don’t know what to expect, or even that you’re worried whether the comedian is going to land the joke. If the tension is resolved, you’re relieved – but add a silly or incongruous subversion to that and you are likely to express relief by laughing.
Let’s talk a bit more about incongruity, because you can’t just whack any old incongruous thing on the end of a list to make a funny. Returning to one of the earlier examples…
Boxers, Y-fronts, briefs -> Congruous, not funny
Boxers, Y-fronts, cathedrals -> Incongruous, not funny
I like to think of this as a series of concentric circles. The trick is to find something that’s slightly outside the category you’ve established, but not so far that you can’t see any connection between the first two items and the final one (Only Ross Noble and Eddie Izzard can make this funny – Rach.) Underwear and pubic wigs are reasonably closely related, underwear and large buildings not so much.
In this case, merkin is also good because it’s slightly rude (another type of subversion, this time about social norms of what we ‘should’ talk about in public) and it’s one of those words that sounds funny even if you don’t know what it means, like spatula.
Not every minor subversion is funny, of course. Some minor subversions might be offensive or confusing, in the general sense or in the specific context of what you are saying and who you are saying it to.
As with all comedy, the key is keeping in mind who you’re talking to.
Perhaps your audience is entirely comprised of Conservative women over the age of 80. Will they know what a merkin is? If they do know, will they think it’s too rude?
Perhaps your audience is made up of curators at the Amsterdam Sex Museum. Will they be so used to merkins that they find them boring? Is it not rude enough?
Rach: So, the category circles might change size, depending on your audience. If your ‘third thing’ is in the central established category circle, it won’t be a surprise, so it won’t be funny – though if you’re lucky you might have made a hendiatris. If it’s in the ‘TOO FAR’ circle, it doesn’t make any sense.
If it’s in the offensive section, it could be funny, but a stand-up audience might be nervous to laugh out loud. It’s certainly not going to get you booked for the Royal Variety Performance.
In conclusion, establish, reinforce, subvert by the correct amount and you have yourself a punchline.
Postscript: Rach eventually overcame her clutch based confusion, and nailed her driving test on the fourth attempt.
In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, it is revealed that the Earth is a supercomputer designed by Deep Thought, the supercomputer that came before it.
“DEEP THOUGHT: I speak of none but the computer that is to come after me. A computer whose merest operational parameters I am not worthy to calculate – and yet I will design it for you. A computer which can calculate the question to the Ultimate answer, a computer of such infinite and subtle complexity that organic life itself will form part of its operational matrix. And it shall be called The Earth.”
Good is responding to the commonly held view that a machine could never be as intelligent as a human.
He argues that humans have limitations in intelligence. Ultimately, a machine could be constructed that would match or even exceed a human’s capability.
Good fundamentally believed that computers and their ultra-intelligent machine successors would deliver a benefit to humanity. The opening line of this seminal paper reads:
“The survival of man depends on the early construction of an ultra-intelligent machine.”
In it, he also originated the idea of an “intelligence explosion”:
“Let an ultra-intelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man, however clever.
Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultra-intelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an ‘intelligence explosion,’ and the intelligence of man would be left far behind.
Thus the first ultra-intelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make, provided that the machine is docile enough to tell us how to keep it under control.”
So is The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy supercomputer Earth docile? According to Ford Prefect it is, “Mostly Harmless.”
If you enjoyed this article, and know where your towel is, you might like this episode of The End of the World by Josh Clark:
Sally wants selective ovulation, James wants a skull flap. There’s a suggestion from the audience for One Massive Ear and Simon is borrowing from the opossums which could hold the key to saving snakebite victims.
You can playback the sentence you’re reading to correct errors, and it’s possible to download the results as a .vtt file for YouTube.
But I think I’ve just found something better.
The Otter service uses AI to transcribe voice notes. It’s also possible to upload audio files to the program.
The user interface is so much nicer to use.
The playback feature is better, and the accuracy is superior to Google speech to text in the experiments I’ve done so far.
You have to check this out.
If you’re a performer, you might also enjoy the ability to riff into your phone and have an app transcribe the results for future reference.
I’ve just uploaded the voice memo recording of a gig I did in July last year, and Otter has transcribed it for me, for a performance on Friday. Having not thought about the show for six months, I now have a script!
If you’re on zoom calls at the moment, Otter will transcribe your meeting notes, with fully searchable results.
Which apps do you use every week to make your show?
So you’ve spoken to everyone you personally know in your niche. Where do we go from here?
The good news is that the guests you’ve already spoken to can be the keys to your future guests.
It’s a good idea to stay in touch with them, and nurture the relationship you extended by inviting them onto your show.
Help them to share the ideas they’re excited about, and ask them one key question.
“Who in your field of expertise should be famous, but isn’t?”
If they can give you a few names, these are the people it might be worth investigating next.
Use online book sites to research the market
Who’s written a book in your niche? Many online book sites have ‘Customers also viewed/bought’ sections. Start with a book in your niche that you know, and then see what else has been published in the area.
You can go down some fascinating rabbit holes doing this research!
Apps like Blinkist can help you get the gist of entire books in around 10 minutes, so you can make a shortlist of which authors to contact.
Do some market analysis of everyone talking about your niche. Writers, podcasters and YouTubers might be good to invite onto your show, or they may have a laundry list of episodes with relevant guests guesting for you to explore.
You don’t want the exact same guest list as everyone else, but if you do book a guest from another podcast, listen to the episode. Work out what angles haven’t been covered.
Contacting authors, and other experts in your field
Having used up all the personal connections you can, it is sometimes useful to contact an author, or another expert in your field who you have not yet met.
But how to do this? What do you say to entice them onto your show?
Advice from my co-host on Level Up Human, Simon Watt, is:
“Everyone has a website nowadays. Make first contacts friendly but very brief. Be up front about time and budget if you have one.”
Your email or DM, or whatever you deem the most appropriate way to contact the potential guest, should get straight to the point.
Hi [their name],
I’m [your name] from [podcast name]. I’d love to get you on the show for a chat about [topic]. I think it would be really beneficial for our audience who are interested in [subject].
[Let them know where you discovered them.] I just read your book [Name of book] and it helped me personally to understand more about [angle].
If you’d be interested, here’s a Calendly link where you can book a slot that works for you.
Calendly is great, because it eliminates all that back and forth you can get with guests for arranging dates.
Make an email signature with your podcast details and a link to your show for these emails, so your guest can click through and have a look at the work you’ve already done.
Contacting high profile guests
I listened to a podcast episode called ‘How to Get Super High Profile Guests’, with Jordan Harbinger on the Pat Flynn podcast, Smart Passive Income. Here are the key tips.
Be prepared to build your show before you can get a guest to say yes
Seth Godin reportedly says yes to podcast appearances, once the podcast has published its 100th episode. So it’s worth proving to your prospective guests that you’re in this for the long haul. And that you yourself have committed to your show.
Maintain relationships with publicists
If a publicist offers you a guest, chances are that guest won’t be a great fit for your podcast.
But Jordan usually replies to them to say that this guest isn’t great right now, but that he is interested in speaking to… and then he’ll outline the guests he wants for his show.
He says he generally gets a surprised response from the publicists, who I guess are used to getting nothing back from 80% of people they contact.
He’s been offered some guests by publicists who actively try to find people on their books who might suit him better using this method.
“I’m making myself easier to work with, which publicists love, because most people just delete their emails and never reply.
So when you’re polite to them, and you make it easier for them to pitch you, you get more pitches. And yes, you end up passing on more stuff… but you also end up with the occasional Malcolm Gladwell, Kobe Bryant, Chelsea Handler.
Because they like you, they know you’re going to respond, and they know you respond quickly.”
“I’m making myself easier to work with, which publicists love, because most people just delete their emails and never reply.”
And one final tip:
Be polite and persistent
The ‘father of advertising’, David Ogilvy, has this to say on persistence:
“The good salesman combines the tenacity of a bull dog with the manners of a spaniel.”
If you’ve made initial contact and they can’t do it, keep in touch with them, it might be possible to ask again later on, perhaps when they’ve a project to plug.
Send them an email every once in a while. Interact with them on social media. Keep asking. Within reason, obv.
You never know when your request might coincide with something they’ve got coming up to talk about. And in the meantime, your audience will have grown.
What have you found particularly helpful for finding guests for your podcast? Drop me a comment and let me know.
One of the questions podcasters ask themselves is, ‘how do I reach more listeners?’
We check stats and tell everyone we know about our podcast. We post every episode to Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, and risk burnout as our reservoir of creative ways to say the same thing rapidly diminishes.
We investigate social media scheduling apps, and read about content calendars, and gradually lose the will to live.
But maybe there’s a smarter way to do this. In order to reach more listeners, it helps to think about how podcasts are found.
How do people who listen to podcasts find podcasts?
They ask for recommendations (this is why you should tell everyone you know about your show) and they search for podcasts on their favourite subjects.
So the first thing is to make sure that your podcast looks like a podcast about your subject.
The second thing is to make sure you’re listed by places where listeners get their podcasts.
I moved Level Up Human to Acast in June 2018, and I really like the platform.
Their interface is easy to use, they moved all our episodes from Soundcloud for us, and their stats are pretty comprehensive.
I discovered when I looked into it that 80% of Level Up Human listeners listen via Apple Podcasts.
This means that 80% of our listeners are listening on iPhones. The number of listeners we get through podcatcher services is next to nothing.
Maybe it’s because I haven’t sent our RSS feed to any of them.
So, if you’re in the same boat, here’s a list of podcatcher services to submit your RSS feed to.
SEO has got to be one of the most uninspiring acronyms of all time.
It conjours images of slumping over a keyboard for TOO LONG.
Too technical, boring, boring.
SEO is for dudes.
But, it’s just possible that paying attention to how search engines index podcasts might help with discoverability.
After all, since an update last year, Google search results return podcasts now, and one of the ways they do this is by transcribing each episode using AI and machine learning, and picking out keywords.
We discuss enhanced vision, limb regeneration, gecko hands, super kidneys and re-breathing.
Extracts from the episode, edited for readability are available here.
In the news…
Kate is tickled and baffled by a news story about Microsoft. They have patented to generate cryptocurrency by monitoring people’s brain activity.
Steve’s news story is entitled, ‘Venomous Frogs use Heads as Weapons.’
And Rach’s levelled up human is Bertolt Meyer, a DJ, producer and Professor of Organisational Psychology from Technische Universität Chemnitz who has hacked his prosthetic hand to hook it up to his synth.
Steve wants to borrow the abilities of the Iberian sharp-ribbed newt, a type of salamander which can regenerate limbs and organs.
Kate, on the other hands, thinks the human body should be able to see the polarisation of light
From the audience, we have suggestions including souped up kidneys and gecko hands.
Finally Simon has a suggestion from nature.
Which of our suggestions will make Rachel’s shortlist? Which will win? Listen to find out.
Podcast quality is widely variable. There are some shows I would listen to over watching a multi-billion dollar film. Others are almost unlistenable.
When I start listening to an episode of a new show, there’s a chance it will be on one of the unlistenables.
I’m nervous. I don’t want it it to be that.
There’s an equal chance I’m going to disappear down a rabbit hole listening to everything they’ve published for the last six months, and see a new episode dropping as my personal equivalent of Christmas morning. I’m a bit weird like that.
The point is, it could go either way.
Here’s where show notes can help.
As I stand in my kitchen, speculatively listening to an episode of a podcast I haven’t heard before, I’m looking at the show notes.
Hoping they’ll shed some light on what exactly I’m listening to.
Good show notes can hold the hand of your listener, introducing yourself, sitting them down in a comfy chair, making them a cup of tea.
And it’s worth remembering that whilst podcast listeners likely have an auditory learning style, most people learn visually as well. Your podcast show notes can tell them what your vision for your show is in one sentence.
That’s why our show notes start like this: ‘Level Up Human is a podcast panel show on a mission to redesign the human body.’
Hook new listeners. Your show notes can provide as much of a hook as the first 60 seconds of your show. Tell us in the first sentence why this episode is worth our time.
Help your fans. Podcast listeners multi-task. They’re not going to take their hands out of the washing up to write down the name of the book you just mentioned. Link to it for them.
Help yourself. It’s much easier to search your back catalogue for a quote or a clip when your show notes tell you what’s in each episode.
Call to action. At the end of every episode, you can ask your listener to support you on Patreon, write a review or join your mailing list. Why not put handy links to these things in the show notes?
Show notes don’t need to be lengthy.
You don’t need to transcribe the whole programme, although there are some podcasters who do this.
If you’re interested in transcription, I highly recommend auphonic’s transcription editor, the smartest way to create podcast transcripts I’ve found so far (drop me a comment if you’ve discovered better.)
It’s important to find a balance between the benefit to you and your listener vs the time it takes to write them.