Do you find this funny?

Like the picture? Thought so. Let me tell you what happened last night on board the Serenade of the Seas. Who put that there?

I'd just finished my show. The band was playing, everyone was on their feet shouting for more and I was blowing kisses. In my moment of glory, just as I was leaving the stage (floating on a scented bed of self satisfaction, actually) I walked in to my microphone stand and tripped over. There might as well have been a bunch of bananas on the stage. Of course the audience screamed with laughter as I limped off thoroughly humbled. I'd blown one kiss too many.

So, how did you react to that story? Did you laugh at my misfortune or feel sorry for me? Your reaction will almost certainly give you away as a typical American or Brit. I say typical because what I'm about to say will irritate the exceptions.

I told that story to an American lady right after my show. I just wanted to make her laugh. She didn't. "Oh my goodness," she was concerned, "are you all right?" Not the reaction I was expecting. "Yes, I'm fine, it was just funny," I assured her but she wasn't convinced.

I went outside for some air and told the same story to a British passenger. He burst out laughing and ran off to tell his wife.

These reactions are typical and good examples of the differences in American and British humour. It's important for anyone performing to international audiences to understand what makes different nations tick. And by tick I mean laugh.

Here's another example. This happened just last week.

I've been telling (a true) story for years about a time a passenger inadvertently insulted me right to my face. The night after performing my Sinatra show I was sitting in the audience waiting for the next show to start. I started chatting to the guy sitting next to me and said, “Have you noticed how people always seem to sit on the end of the rows first when they come in to the theatre, and then spend the next 15 minutes having to let people squeeze in past them?” “Yes,” he said, “my wife and I were just talking about that.” “You know why they do it don't you?” I said, “Because it the show's rubbish they can just get up and leave!” “Oh yes,” he said, “we did that last night for that Sinatra bloke.”

I always tell this story in my show. It's true and gets a nice laugh. A week ago I was outside the theatre chatting to guests after my show and two young women came up to say how they had enjoyed the show. They seemed very earnest. One of them put her hand on my arm in a reassuring way, "You are wonderful," she said, "we felt just awful about what that man said to you." I was lost. "Which man?" "The man who said he walked out of your show. So rude and really, you're not awful." They'd completely missed the point. I tell the story because it's funny, self-effacing and as it happens, true. They thought I'd told it as a plea for sympathy. As if I'd do that in the middle of a show! Bless there hearts, but no.

A final example. When I work to British audiences I like to close with a quote from Dr Johnson:

"Taking a voyage is like being in prison. With the added risk of drowning."

Brits love this kind of dry, dark wit. Not Americans. "Did he say drowning? Why would he say that when we're on a cruise ship?" They simply do not get it and actually, with this particular line, they do not like it. It makes them feel uncomfortable.

Many comics revel in making their audience feel uncomfortable (listen to my Podcasts with Anthony Davis and Harry The Piano) but I'm not a comic. I sing nice songs punctuated with pleasant humour. Unless it makes everyone feel good I've no business doing it.

Lesson: Understand your audience; if it doesn't work cut it; and always, always remember where you left your microphone stand.

So what do you think? Do Americans different find different things funny to the British or is it just my imagination? Leave a comment and let me know.

"Berkhamsted Living" meets Gary Williams, singer, artist and HP4 fan.

Much of this edition of Berkhamsted Living celebrates the artistic side of the town. There are other artists, though, for whom Berkhamsted is a retreat from the demands of performance and a place to rest and recharge. One such is singer and actor Gary Williams. Gary starred as Frank Sinatra in The Rot Pack in the West End and he's been compared to Michael Buble. A regular with big bands and orchestras, he has performed all over the world - on land and sea. Whatever the world has to offer, Gary gives the clear impression that having time to spend and enjoy in Berkhamsted has become his yardstick of success.

Born and raised in Yorkshire, he and his American husband Mark moved to Berkhamsted from Islington when the need for a London base diminished in the face of recession.

“We both spend a lot of time away and Islington was becoming expensive,” Gary says. “Berkhamsted seemed perfect at the time and now we're here I see it as an idyll. It's close to London, not as expensive, but it's also absolutely beautiful; it's the kind of place you would go on vacation.”

Getting a kick out of you

“We had friends who lived nearby and we had visited them so we knew the town. It feels like a village - it's almost in the country but it has a buzz that we like, and I get a kick out of being able to go out with a list of things I want to buy and get them all in Berkhamsted. We love the Rex, of course; it's startling that it should be in Berkhamsted. And we're fortunate enough to live on the canal, in a really beautiful spot.”

Someone in the Hertfordshire tourism office should sign him up. The way Gary articulates his affection for the town is highly evocative: “Our lives away are very hectic,” he says. "We travel a lot and don't spend much time in one place. This is a beautiful place to come home to. When you've been for a night out in London you come back to this: a warm, quiet evening, the canal perfectly still, the atmosphere calm and serene.”

Gary started out in Immingham. a town best known for docks and petrochemicals near Grimsby. He knew from a young age that he wanted to be a musician. “I can't read a note,” he admits. “At the age of 19 I had a regular job, in admin - but I always loved music. I could sit at a keyboard for hours, just enjoying the notes. When I was at school I put on small shows for school friends; later I found my voice in amateur dramatics and did some of the pubs and clubs. “I loved it, dragging my PA around and getting paid for it. And I got lucky. In Hull, someone heard me in a club, and he knew a man with restaurants In Hull who wanted live music.” Gary found a mentor and, to a certain extent, a patron. With the “fearlessness of youth” he took the chance with both hands and has not looked back.


It's easy to see why he's popular. He's an engaging, thoughtful speaker who must make the gaps between songs entertaining - is this a Yorkshire compulsion? He sees his role in a particular way. “For me, there's the material, there's singing in tune and having good musicians, but so much of what is involved in a performance is about what you say and how you carry yourself: the links, your rapport with the audience, the arrangements.

Even in a room of 1,500 people I still want people to regard it as an intimate experience - it's like a conversation, in music or in words. The best in any kind of art is something that leaves you with a little more than you began with, a little enriched.

It ain’t what you say

“Songs can be very powerful and evocative. Quite often people will speak to me after a performance and they have been crying. A song is so much more than a collection of notes and words. The way you introduce a song has an impact. You might say: “This is a song from the early 60s” or you might sketch a picture: “Take yourself back to 1964... etc.” It can be very powerful.

Gary's website contains a blog that is worth a look for samples of his humour:

After a show in the middle of the Baltic the other night, a nice couple from Grimsby stopped me and said they first saw me performing when I started out about 20 years ago in a social club there. ‘Oh wow’, I said, ‘what was I singing bock then?’ ‘Exactly the some as you are now,’ she replied. Crushed.

A sense of humour is necessary. “This business, you never know how long it is going to last,” Gary says.

Back in Lahti for "Swingin' on Broadway" (and a refreshing dip!)

Gary with Emma KershawAs I type this we are about to go back to Sibelius Hall for our third and final concert of Swingin' on Broadway with the Lahti Sinfonia and Big Band in Finland. I think this is my fifth time here with the wonderful orchestra and it's great to be with conductor Rod Dunk and singer Emma Kershaw for this concert - the orchestral version of the album I recorded a couple of years ago. It's a real treat to hear some of those arrangements on the CD expanded for full orchestra, like Always Look on the Bright Side of Life and Surrey With A Fringe On Top. You can watch and listen to the whole concert from 17th February till 10th March - just click here. The last few times I've been here I've indulged in the local pastime of ice swimming. The temperature was a little lower this time, minus 13 outside and the water was zero (or minus zero as the sign said!). It was bloody cold as you can see for yourself on this little video clip.[youtube][/youtube]

Gary outside Sibelius Hall

Gary on stage

Outside Sibelius Hall

Emma Kershaw with Rod Dunk