Laughter can have an electrifying life force but is not linked to our day-to-day survival. Photo: Bim Hjortronsteen/Millennium Images
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What makes us human? Our innate curiosity and our ability to laugh

People have been wondering what stuff is made of since the beginning of time. Antelopes, by contrast, haven’t, writes John Lloyd. 

This is a big question, but one answer covers it all: we ask questions. There are quite a few human languages – Latin and Irish among them – that don’t have words for “yes” or “no” – but every language on earth has a word for “why”.

Why is this? Why are we the only species on earth that is concerned about things that don’t directly concern our survival or that of our offspring? Porcupines do not look up at the night sky and wonder what all the sparkly bits are; weasels don’t worry about what other weasels think of them; lobsters really don’t enjoy pub quizzes.

When my son was about 14 I was trying to explain what a hydrogen atom is like. The fact that we have any idea at all is, in itself, an extraordinary testament to human curiosity. People have been wondering what stuff is made of since the beginning of time. Antelopes, by contrast, haven’t. And no antelope has ever expressed what Harry said next: “Dad, why is there something and not nothing?” This is a question first posed by the German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz, often said to be the last man in history who knew everything that could then be known. But he didn’t know that, it seems.

Stephen Hawking recently asked the question in a different way: “Why does the universe go to all the bother of existing?” He happens to be a friend of Jimmy Carr and it’s the most wonderfully moving thing to see Jimmy make him laugh. Laughter, I would say, is another thing that makes us human, and being able to make people laugh is a high calling. Watching Bill Bailey live on stage always makes me proud to be a member of the same species.

But why do we laugh? I’ve been in comedy for 40 years and I still don’t know. It’s the simple things that don’t have answers. What is life? No one knows: biologists can’t tell the difference between a live hamster and a dead one. “What is the meaning of life?” is even more difficult. Scientists can’t agree on the meaning of the word “meaning”.

Where do ideas come from? What is consciousness? Where is last Thursday? Do they artificially sweeten the delicious glue on the back of envelopes? Once you start asking questions, you become like a five-year-old child. You can’t stop. And you become very annoying. When I was that age, I asked my father: “Daddy, what is the Holy Ghost?” “M’boy,” he replied, “St Francis of Assisi struggled with that question for 40 years in the wilderness – I cannot help you.”

Andrew Billen, the TV critic of the Times, once asked me: “Why do you think the universe is interesting?” To my surprise I found myself answering without thinking: “First, to lead us to ask the questions that really matter, and second, to distract us from ever finding them.” As Niels Bohr, the great Danish physicist, used to say: “At last, gentlemen, we have encountered a paradox – now we have some hope of making progress!” Bohr was a bit of a paradox himself. He kept a lucky horseshoe over his door. When asked: “Surely you don’t believe in that nonsense?” he said: “Of course I don’t believe in it, but I understand it works whether you believe in it or not.”

What do you believe in? What questions really matter? I think there are only two: “Why are we here?” and “What should we do about it while we are?”

The question of what it means to be human is central to all science fiction, and one of the greatest writers in the genre, Robert Heinlein, had this to say: “A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, co-operate, act alone, solve equations, analyse a new problem, pitch manure, programme a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialisation is for insects.”

We must get on, there’s a lot to do. 

The “What Makes Us Human?” series runs on the Jeremy Vine show (Radio 2)

John Lloyd is the creator and producer of “QI” (BBC2) and the co-creator and presenter of “The Museum of Curiosity” (Radio 4)

This article first appeared in the 23 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double 2014

Don't Tell the Bride YouTube screengrab
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How did Don’t Tell the Bride lose its spark?

Falling out of the love with reality TV’s wedding planning hit.

Steph, 23, from Nottinghamshire, is standing in a drizzly field wearing a wedding dress. Her betrothed, Billy, is running around in a tweed flat cap trying to make some pigs walk in “a continuous parade”. A man from Guinness World Records is watching with a clipboard, shaking his head. Bridesmaids gaze sorrowfully into the middle distance, each in a damp pig onesie.

Thus ends the second wedding in E4’s new series of Don’t Tell the Bride – and the programme’s integrity with it.

When the classic programme, which follows grooms attempting to plan their wedding (punchline: human males doing some organising), began a decade ago on BBC Three, it had the raw spark of unpredictability. For eight years, the show did nothing fancy with the format, and stuck with pretty ordinary couples who had few eccentric aspirations for their wedding day.

This usually resulted in run-of-the-mill, mildly disappointing weddings where the worst thing that happened would be a reception at the nearest motorway pub, or an ill-fitting New Look low heel.

It sounds dull, but anyone who has religiously watched it knows that the more low-key weddings expose what is truly intriguing about this programme: the unconditional commitment – or doomed nature – of a relationship. As one of the show’s superfans told the Radio Times a couple of years ago:

“It’s perfect, and not in an ironic or post-ironic or snarky way. The format has the solemn weight of a ceremony . . . Don’t Tell the Bride is not about ruined weddings, it’s about hope. Every wedding is a demonstration of how our ambitions curve away from our abilities. It’s a show about striving to deserve love and how that’s rarely enough.”

It also meant that when there were bombshells, they were stand-out episodes. High drama like Series 4’s notorious Las Vegas wedding almost resulting in a no-show bride. Or heart-warming surprises like the geezer Luke in Series 3 playing Fifa and guzzling a tinny on his wedding morning, who incongruously pulls off a stonking wedding day (complete with special permission from the Catholic Church).

For its eight years on BBC Three, a few wildcard weddings were thrown into the mix of each series. Then the show had a brief affair with BBC One, a flirt with Sky, and is now on its tenth year, 13th series and in a brand new relationship – with the more outrageous E4.

During its journey from BBC Three, the show has been losing its way. Tedious relationship preamble has been used to beef up each episode. Some of the grooms are cruel rather than clueless, or seem more pathetic and vulnerable than naïve. And wackier weddings have become the norm.

The programme has now fully split from its understated roots. Since it kicked off at the end of July, every wedding has been a publicity stunt. The pig farm nuptials are sandwiched between a Costa del Sol-based parasail monstrosity and an Eighties Neighbours-themed ceremony, for example. All facilitated by producers clearly handing the groom and best men karaoke booth-style props (sombreros! Inflatable guitars! Wigs!) to soup up the living room planning process.

Such hamminess doesn’t give us the same fly-on-the-wall flavour of a relationship as the older episodes. But maybe this level of artifice is appropriate. As one groom revealed to enraged fans in The Sun this week, the ceremonies filmed are not actually legally binding. “It makes a bit of a mockery of the process that the bride and groom go through this huge ordeal for a ceremony which isn’t even legal,” he said. Perhaps we should’ve predicted it would all eventually end in divorce – from reality.

Don’t Tell the Bride is on E4 at 9pm

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.