Susie Dent

Susie Dent

“How innuendo causes Countdown gigglefests”

Our columnist reveals why she and her Countdown colleagues often dissolve into fits of laughter

It’s always struck me that ‘corpsing’ is a curious choice of word for an episode of uncontrollable giggling while performing. Dead bodies generally don’t go in for that sort of thing, although of course the whole idea is of an actor who’s meant to be playing dead, but who is suddenly overtaken by laughter. It’s not confined to the stage – as I know to my cost.  

In my case, it involves a level of chortling that is impossible to control.

In the course of my 30 years on Countdown, I’ve resorted to hiding behind my dictionary, hair, and even a fellow guest in a vain attempt to conceal my guffaws. I’ve tried to turn a sudden snort into a sneeze and, as a last resort, pretended to drop something so that I can let the laughter explode beneath the desk. I always tell people that I should really put It’ll be Alright on the Night on my IMDb page.  

Laughter, just like yawning, is infectious.

If I begin to go, then it’s likely that Rachel Riley to my right will also start, whereupon we need only to look at our host Colin Murray to ensure the three of us are struggling to maintain any level of composure.

It often happens when we’re all feeling a little tired. Countdown is recorded in blocks of three days, and on each day we film five shows.

By show 15 we are all feeling it a little, and it’s then that little sparkles of humour can erupt into full-blown hysterics.  

Of course it’s usually innuendo that causes the greatest corpsing. Some of my sentences, however innocently delivered, are just too rude to report here.

One notorious blooper involved the magician and regular Countdown guest Paul Zenon. At the top of the show, the programme’s host at the time, Jeff Stelling, asked me whether I was looking forward to being Paul’s magic assistant again. Without a beat I replied, “I am a bit nervous, but I’ve had a sneak preview of what’s under the desk, and it’s impressive!” Cue a prolonged silence followed by splutters across the studio, accompanied by the sound of my head hitting said desk.  

On another occasion, it was not my voice doing the talking but my stomach, which decided to enjoy an episode of rumbling (I love the word ‘borborygmus’). I tried in vain to get through my Origin of Words but my intestinal accompaniment was so loud I had to pause and drink several glasses of water in order to stifle my laughter. I’ll never know if our viewers thought I had a grumpy sea lion sitting on my lap that day.  

There have been countless more episodes. Unconscious hand gestures are often my downfall. I never notice that my hands are trying to enact the word I’m defining – the ‘bogie’ that is a train’s undercarriage, for example, has me moving my upturned palms back and forth, while ‘erumpent’ (the bursting forth of a flower’s bud in spring) has me doing a curious explosive gesture.

But these pale next to my explanation of an ‘areola’ (a frequent flyer on Countdown that is soberly defined in the dictionary as ‘the ring of skin surrounding a nipple’), where I find myself making distinctly circular motions over my chest to the sound of hefty chuckles from Rachel to my right.  

Each of these gigglefests occurred during filming of the regular Countdown rather than the comedy version [8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown] that has spawned a whole host of others, but I’ll leave them to another time.

Meanwhile, an actor friend once told me that one tactic to prevent corpsing on stage involves putting an ice cube down your jumper and letting it slowly melt. At this point, anything is worth a try.

Susie Dent

Written by Susie Dent