When my best lines fall resoundingly flat

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 February, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 February, 2010, 12:00am

Stand-up comedian must be the hardest job in the world. I don't mean it's the worst job in the world - that would be the position of Admiral on the Death Star. But stand-up comedian would be the hardest job to do well.

I have come to this conclusion on the basis of how hard my own job is. Part of my role is to entertain clients. It's an unspoken fact of business life that most decisions to hire advisers or anyone else is made on the basis of subjective rather than objective criteria. If I can make the client like me, for whatever reason, it's going to make his decision to hire me that much easier. It's an inescapable fact that, all other things being equal, good looking, funny, or just plain interesting people get hired more often than their ugly, humourless and dull counterparts.

The way to make clients like me is to take them to lunch, play golf with them, or invite them to other sorts of social events at which I can put on my interesting and funny act. I can't do good looking unfortunately, but I do at least try by wearing nice suits and fashionable ties to distract attention from my ordinary physical features. Trying to be interesting or funny can be very difficult if you're not in the mood, but failing to entertain some executive, painful as it is, can't be anything like bombing onstage.

Some clients unfortunately have worked this out. They know that it is my job to entertain them, so they don't feel any obligation to be entertaining themselves. So they can be as dull or as passive as they like and simply sit back and siphon off my energy like a big black hole. At least that's the charitable interpretation. I do of course leave open the more likely possibility that a lot of these folks are just dull.

I recently recognised this phenomenon at a lunch I had with the representative of a very large multilateral lending agency.

'Did you have a good flight?' I asked as we sat down, she having just arrived from Europe.

'Yes, I was able to catch up on some reading,' she said.

'Harry Potter or the Twilight Saga?' I asked in a gentle attempt at levity. Rather than smiling Helen looked completely confused.

'No, actually I was reviewing some of our recent policy papers. I also had the opportunity to watch Meet the Parents again; I really enjoy that film.'

Now it was my turn to wonder if she was joking, as this has got to be one of the most overrated comedies ever made. It's very popular among my comedy-challenged brethren in the business world. You could almost work out who to talk to at a cocktail party by asking the crowd to raise their hands if they thought Meet the Parents was hilariously funny and then go stand with the people with their hands in their pockets. I decide not to speak my mind and avoid this topic out of politeness.

'Is that because it reminded you of your own marriage?' I ask, smiling politely to indicate once again that this is an effort at humour.

'No, I'm unmarried.'

'Oh I see. Well be careful, it can happen to the best of us,' I say in a last attempt at light-heartedness.

'No, my partner and I do not believe in the institution of marriage,' she says, and then turning to the waiter, 'Do you have a vegetarian menu?'

I gave up at that point trying to be funny and settled in for a long slow discussion of the lending policies of her employer. I felt myself gradually deflating with every attempt to fill the uncomfortable silences with new talking points. Thankfully she didn't believe in dessert either and I escaped earlier than I expected.

It was a tough hour, but I have the luxury of blaming Helen's lack of the humour gene for my inability to entertain her. If I were standing on a stage with a crowd of people in front of me who were not entertained, well that would make it a lot easier to think that there was something wrong with me and not with them. Which there may well be, but I'm happier not knowing about it.

Alan Alanson is an investment banker who writes under a pseudonym. Alan is still collecting predictions for 2010 from readers. Send them to alan@alanalanson.com