Featuring historians such as Suzannah Lipscomb, Michael Scott and Helen Castor, plus comedians including Sara Pascoe, Richard Herring and Desiree Burch, every episode of BBC Radio 4’s You’re Dead To Me sees Greg joined by guests from the worlds of history and comedy to learn and laugh about the past.
Here, writing for History Extra, Greg takes us behind the scenes of the chart-topping podcast and explains why he believes comedy is one of the best techniques for communicating the complexities of the past…
In 2015, I received one of the most extraordinary emails of my career. My light-hearted book, A Million Years in a Day, was being translated into various foreign languages, and one of the translators was not best pleased about it. He decided to contact me directly to charge me with the crime of not taking history seriously enough: “How dare I use humour when writing about the past? History is a serious subject and shouldn’t be tarnished with jokes.” I’m not quoting him directly, but that was the gist of it.
Here’s the thing. I do take history incredibly seriously, and I’ve dedicated half my life to arguing for its importance. But it’s precisely because history is such a vital subject that I usually adopt a humorous stance. For me, using comedy doesn’t belittle history’s stature, instead it’s one of our best techniques for communicating the complexities of the past to a general public who might have found the subject to be bewildering, boring, or irrelevant.
For the past decade, I’ve mostly worked in children’s comedy, making the historically-accurate CBBC sketch-show Horrible Histories, and it’s been the most wonderful privilege to watch those young kids grow into university history students who now sit in my lectures [Greg is an occasional guest lecturer at the University of York and also Royal Holloway, University of London, where he is an Honorary Research Associate. He also teaches on Holloway’s MA Public History courses and gives a lecture to undergraduates on how TV history works]. But increasingly I’ve turned my attention to adult audiences, and that’s why I’m delighted to be the host of a new BBC Radio 4 podcast, You’re Dead To Me.
There are loads of great history podcasts out there already, not least the History Extra podcast, but what makes You’re Dead To Me different is its ambition to make academic knowledge accessible to all by making it fun. In each 45-minute episode, my guests and I tackle a big historical subject that people should know more about, but rather than make a comedy show with a few facts sprinkled on top, this is a history programme with jokes – and that’s a fundamental difference.
The onus from the outset is to communicate to the listener the complexity, doubt, nuance, and frustration of history, but to do so in a way that is inviting, inclusive, and makes the listener giggle. It’s a history podcast for people who don’t like history, or who hated it at school. But it’s also a great listen for dedicated history lovers. As it turns out, you can cater to both audiences simultaneously.
The format is simple. I’m the host, and in every episode I’m joined by an expert historian who holds a PhD in their specialist field and knows where all the bodies are buried. And across from them, in Comedy Corner, sits a funny and curious comedian who knows very little about the subject, but is open to discovering more. Often, we might try to find a connection between our guest and the subject – whether they’re from the same city, or share the same cultural heritage – as a way to get them to start connecting with the subject. But ultimately it always broadens out into something much more universal.
The episode structure is always the same, too. You’re Dead To Me starts with me summarising the popular culture reputation of the subject, then we have a long rummage through all the juicy bits, which offers plenty of laughs, then the historian is allowed a 2-minute ‘Nuance Window’ during which they can launch into a highbrow historiographical argument, and then the comedian is quizzed to see what they’ve learned. It’s remarkable how much ground gets covered in that short space of time, and sometimes – as in the Boudica episode – we spend the last 10 minutes dismantling everything we’ve just said because we don’t trust our sources!
Dr Emma Southon (left) and comedian Sara Pascoe prepare to discuss Boudica with Greg Jenner on his new BBC Radio 4 podcast ‘You’re Dead To Me’. (Photo by Dan Morelle)
So, why comedy? Why not just interview the historian myself? The thing about comedy, besides the obvious fact that it’s fun to laugh, is that it’s a form of creative expression which forms neural anchors that hook into the brain. As I’ve learned from my work on Horrible Histories, and from a lifetime of quoting bits of Monty Python, Eddie Izzard, and Blackadder, jokes and songs are infinitely more memorable than straight dialogue. There’s something slightly magical about the power of laughter to lodge an idea in our memory banks for years to come. The same, apparently, is true of fear, but I’m too much of a scaredy-cat to work in the horror industry.
Comedy is also reassuring; it feels like the opposite of hard work. When I tell people that they’re going to learn loads of stuff, but while having a great laugh, I can see the relief in their faces. So many of us who read BBC History Magazine never had that sensation of cold dread at being forced to open a textbook; we are the history buffs who rejoice in 500-page tomes with massive bibliographies. But, to millions of people, our beloved subject was torturously dull at school, and they couldn’t wait to drop it.
The power and joy of harnessing comedy is in its ability to bring those people back to the subject, and help them to understand that developing one’s knowledge for its own sake can be hugely rewarding. These people don’t hate learning new things, but they hated how they were taught before. Using jokes disarms them of their worries.
The first five episodes tackle Boudica (with Sara Pascoe and Dr Emma Southon); the Spartans (with Joel Dommett and Professor Michael Scott); Blackbeard the Pirate (with Stu Goldsmith and Dr Rebecca Simon); the history of men’s and women’s football (with Tom Parry and Professor Jean Williams); and Harriet Tubman (with Desiree Burch and Dr Michell Chresfield). Plus, there are 10 more episodes due to follow on: Stonehenge, Joan of Arc, the Aztecs, Mansa Musa, LGBTQ history, Saladin, Young Napoleon, Lord Byron, the European witch craze, and Justinian & Theodora.