Some of our best memories of family life, whether as parents or remembering being a child, are times of laughter. I was lucky to have been brought up in a family that treasured hilarity. My parents and brother had a knack for turning everyday events, or the things people said, into anecdotes and retellings that made us all laugh. Stories in books, and performances on television and radio, intermingled with our own family sagas, near-calamities and odd encounters.
On one occasion, my brother left our campsite on the North York Moors to go home, en route for France. Just after we had waved him goodbye, my mother realised that he hadn’t taken the door key to our house. No problem, said my father, we can race the train in the car across the moors to Pickering and hand it over to him.
We did just that, with my father handing the key over to my brother through the train window at the station. My father turned this into a 39 Steps-type saga, full of details about animals flying out of our way as we dashed across the moors ending up with him running down the platform, shouting: “Stop the train!” He did no such thing, but it was a lesson for me in family comedy.
I guess this is the wellspring that set me on the road to writing funny poems and stories, learning how to perform them in ways that make children laugh, while collecting jokes and funny songs to make up a menu I can draw on when I visit schools and libraries.
Being funny, helping people have a good time, is not just something that a professional, or even an amateur who sometimes does a bit of entertaining at parties, can do. It’s something that anyone – parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, older siblings – can do to make holidays fun. Here are my tips for upping your game:
Do a bit of study. Whether it’s performers and writers now, or those you loved as a child, cast your mind over what exactly it is that makes you laugh. What can you beg, borrow or steal? Even if you imitate you’ll put your own stamp on it, so no need to worry about plagiarising!
Collect gags, funny poems and songs. Try them out and listen to how your audience is responding. If they don’t work, is that because of how you told it, or was it the material? If it works, ask why. What was it that caused the tickle?
A key ingredient for producing a laugh is surprise – verbal or physical. Pretending to be fast asleep and waking up with a funny noise, can be hilarious if you do it right. Why? Because it upsets expectations, and if the waking up is undignified, you play to another key aspect of comedy for children: the undermining of authority (see next point).
Children are less powerful than grown-ups. Anything that upsets this fact of life can be a source of humour
Bear in mind that children are nearly always less powerful than grown-ups. Anything that upsets this fact of life can be a source of humour: being pompous or seemingly in charge but talking nonsense; saying something wrong; being in charge but doing something undignified, from falling over to putting your face in a cake. Or you can do that dangerous but funny thing of picking moments on a holiday when the children run the show.
Anything a child is not allowed to do, is afraid of, or fears being mocked for, is a source of anxiety. If you act out something that relieves those worries, it may well cause laughter. Any situation where you are in an official capacity but – let’s say – dying for a wee, or doing something you’re not meant to do but can’t resist, or where you’re in authority but end up saying the wrong thing, are all great sources of comedy. Finally, practise voices, faces, body language, gestures... sometimes that’s enough because of who you are and what you look like. Use it! The great thing about holidays is we can break from the routine of home life, escape from our usual inhibitions and find the inner clown!
Michael Rosen’s latest book, How to Make Children Laugh, is available from Quercus, £9.99