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“Stinkbombs can make you more right wing.” | Alex Kealy on finding humour in political turmoil for Rationale

Tell us about your show, Rationale.

It’s about the emotional roots of our rational thoughts. It’s a critique of a purely rationalist worldview. With lots of great jokes!

What inspired you to write a show about the relationship between emotions and rationality in political decisions?

I read a lot of fantastic books on the subject, especially William Davies’ Nervous States, which argues that over the past 100 years or so two binaries (that between reason & emotion, and between war & peace) that characterised enlightenment thinking have now collapsed due to societal and technological change, and a more developed understanding of how the mind works. My friend is currently borrowing my copy, otherwise I’d have given you some real fire emoji direct quotations.

What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever noticed influence someone’s political choices?

Boris Johnson, amirite!? *taps microphone* *looks to audience for encouragement* 

Seriously, I read of a study which said that bad smells, like stinkbombs, could make you answer questions in a more right-wing fashion than you would have otherwise.

Has writing this show taught you anything about how people can better balance their emotions with rationality?

I think mainly it’s taught me that the left and centre need to be significantly better at presenting their politics in an engaging emotional context. And try to work out how to make left-wing policies appeal to those whose emotional makeup prioritises traditionally conservative values, which isn’t easy.

What drew you to discussing politics in your comedy?

Politics and news has been a passion of mine for years / the comforting blanket of blaming the audience and ideology for a joke not landing, rather than its inherent quality.

What is your trick to finding the funny side of fierce political discussions?

I think the tools are silliness, specificity and refocusing. By refocusing, I mean trying to tackle a political situation (like a referendum) which doesn’t necessarily criticise those who voted the other way and reframes the issue as an attack on particular politicians or tangible consequences that might have occurred; there’s more of a chance that people who disagree with you will give your act more of a chance. By specificity, I mean lasering in on funny or stupid incidents amidst the political turmoil.

In terms of particular comic devices, I pride myself on my analogies. I think they’re very good and can map a complex political issue onto something more relatable and observational, bringing more than just the hyper politically aware segments of the audience with me.

What do you think of the impact comedy can have on conversations about politics in broader society?

I’m not massively optimistic about this. I think comedy is inherently quite a reactionary form. It requires the audience to essentially already think what you think. Laughter is a shared moment of recognition or surprise, after all. It’s very difficult to lead people to something they don’t already think.

What do you hope people take away from your show?

That it was funny. And that if you want your politics to succeed your political communication must be geared towards satisfying people’s core emotional concerns.

Do you have any advice for anyone looking to break into comedy?

Generally, it’s a long old slog. It can take ten or more years to really find your voice. I don’t know if I’ve yet properly found mine. If you’re prepared for that, gig loads. Consciously iterate and change the way you say jokes when you first start them – the rhythm that you used first go may have got a laugh, but there might be another way of doing it that could get a bigger one*. 

Record all your gigs. Listen back to as many as you can bear**. Trust what you find funny – if something doesn’t initially work, the core premise may well be excellent but you haven’t found the thing that makes it digestible so try it a few more times with different mechanics and approaches (I don’t believe in 1 or 2 initial failures being proof that something doesn’t work). 

Don’t beat yourself up beyond 11am the day after a bad gig*** (Sarah Milican’s Rule).

*I’m bad at doing this.

**I’m bad at doing this.

***I’m very bad at doing this.


Alex is performing Rationale at Vault Festival on 15th February, then touring around the country.

Book your Vault Festival ticket here.

Find out more about Vault Festival here.

See Alex’s other tour dates here.

You can keep up with Alex’s other work by checking out his website and following him on Facebook and Twitter.

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