Hari Patience-Davies analyses one of the best political analogies ever written.
American comedian John Mulaney is one of my favourite stand ups. I first came across his Salt and Pepper Diner routine, but he is at his best in his 2018 Netflix special, Kid Gorgeous at Radio City. Like most stand-ups he’s a great storyteller, but in this four minute section of Kid Gorgeous where he talks about Trump, Kim Jong-un and the Mueller investigation – all without ever mentioning any of them by name, is truly sublime.
But don’t just take my word for it:
What makes it work is the central analogy: President Trump is like “a horse loose in a hospital.”
At first glance it doesn’t seem like this analogy should work – it’s buffoonish and almost juvenile. But that’s the beauty of it – not only is Mulaney’s analogy ridiculous, so is the politician he’s talking about. The analogy works on both a basic level (“X is like Y”) but also on a meta level, (“X as ridiculous as Y, and we can say so because the whole situation is ridiculous”). The analogy is a perfect fit.
Mulaney repeats the phrase “a horse loose in a hospital” five times in one minute, clearly relishing both the alliteration of the Hs as well as extending the double-vowel sound in “loose”. He performs the phrase with the exact same intonation each time, coaxing the audience into increasing fits of laughter.
He also commits to the analogy completely – making “clip clop” hoof noises and reframing Trump’s Twitter narcissism into “I got nice hooves and a long tail. I’m a horse.”
The metaphor extends well – from the horse to the hippo to the horse catcher. That news networks don’t have the right experts to comment, calling instead on “a guy who saw a bird in the airport” – a much more standard occurrence, and certainly more likely than the comedy horror of a horse loose in a hospital.
So what can we as business storytellers learn from this?
- Analogies work on multiple levels. There is the basic version (“X is like Y”) but you can add depth and meaning if you choose a topic for your analogy which resonates thematically with your audience. If you’re presenting to only one key person, do they have any areas of interest (cycling, sports, cooking) that you could draw your analogy from in order to make a stronger connection with them.
- Don’t be afraid of repetition – perhaps not the 5 times in 60 seconds Mulaney did, but if you’ve got a good analogy that’s landing well with your audience, don’t be afraid to flaunt it a little. Repetition prompts an audience to remember, so it can also be a good way to make an idea or concept sticky.
- Not everything has to be explained – Mulaney didn’t reference Twitter by name, he just used the syntax familiar to anyone who has read Trump’s social media to show that the horse was Tweeting. He used body language to show typing on a phone, and increased the speed of his walk to show the increasing intensity of the skit.
With the election and inauguration of President Biden, this sketch is now something to be consigned to the past, but I can easily imagine future cultural studies classes spending seminars discussing it in the decades to come – it did so perfectly reflect the uncertainty and incredulity we all lived through from 2016 to 2020.