6 Lessons You Can Learn From Ellen’s Apology

Pictured: Ellen in what I like to call her “Sorry Suit”

Toxic workplaces: we’ve all worked somewhere that seemed to drain our happiness, but when the place is a nationally televised talk show featuring a personality with a message of “Be kind,” it hits different.

For those who weren’t aware of the workplace toxicity reports on Ellen, here’s a quick refresher:

One current employee and 10 former staffers claimed they endured a culture of racism, fear and intimidation. They blamed senior managers on the show for allowing the behavior.

The allegations in the Buzzfeed report included former employees saying they were fired for taking time off for medical leave or bereavement. — Source: Today.com

36 former employees of the show reported “handsy” behavior, asking for sexual favors, and groping by multiple producers and higher-ups at “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.” — Source: Insider.com

This coupled with comedian Kevin T. Porter’s viral tweet thread requesting stories about Ellen being mean, it seemed as though the world was piling on Ellen DeGeneres, and rightfully so. It’s one thing to run a toxic workplace environment, it’s quite another to run a toxic workplace environment while asking your audience to be kind, which is why the stories got so much traction and #cancelellen was trending.

Here are six (plus one) lessons I learned while watching Ellen apologize.

Lesson 1: When confronted with reports of a toxic work environment, address it immediately

When Ellen returned today, she was expected to address the elephant in the room, and she did, but the Buzzfeed report was released in July, it’s now two months later. Imagine your workplace’s environment being so negative that employees reported it to your local news organization, then you disappear into your office for two months before addressing it publicly. Whether you’re the culprit of the mistreatment of others or not, it’s your job to address criticisms and complaints as though you’re the perpetrator. You set the tone. Even if you don’t have all of the answers, other people are counting on you to say admit that, and assure them with your words and actions that you’re actively pursuing a solution. I live by the quote, “This wasn’t my fault, but it’s my responsibility now,” and if you’re a leader, you should too. It gives you power, shows you’re willing to shoulder the burden of responsibility, and gives people the courage to come to you if something is stopping them from doing their jobs to their best of their abilities. During her statement, Ellen admitted to fumbling the responsibility that comes with her power — a step in the right direction.

Lesson 2: Be open to vulnerability

“Being known as ‘The Be Kind Lady’ is a tricky position to be in. So let me give you some advice out there: if anybody’s thinking of changing their title or giving yourself a nickname, do not go with ‘The Be Kind Lady.’” — Ellen DeGeneres

In a position of power, it is easy to take ourselves too seriously in order to maintain an air of confidence and control. If you make a mistake and you’re looking for forgiveness from your team, your customers, or your community, it is incredibly helpful to show your human side. We all make mistakes, and admitting that is a huge step in winning back the trust of others. By admitting that she’s not always kind, that she gets sad, mad, anxious, frustrated, and impatient, and that she’s a work in progress, Ellen delivers the message that at least she has some self-awareness — a fantastic starting point.

Lesson 3: Use humor without minimizing the situation

To open her monologue, Ellen broke the ice with a little bit of humor:

“How was everybody’s summer? Good? Mine was great!”

Then, when accepting responsibility, she did it again:

“This is the Ellen DeGeneres show, I am Ellen DeGeneres. My name is there. My name is there. My name is… on underwear.”

Some may assert that this is minimizing some of these serious allegations, but the humor is well-placed, and is mostly targeted toward herself. Though not all apologies and course corrections need a dose of humor, be sure to use it to point out your own flaws, mistakes, and vulnerabilities, but also be sure to use it as a springboard or stepping stone toward making changes.

Lesson 4: Offer gratitude openly

Though I wish she would’ve spent more time showing gratitude toward her employees, Ellen at least made mention of the people who allow her to do what she does best: make people laugh. As a leader, we need to do this every day and as much as possible, hence the italics for emphasis. We cannot reach our full potential without the contributions of others, and to help them reach their potential, be vocal about pointing out the positive impacts they have on your day, whether in public, or 1-on-1.

Lesson 5: Communicate a vision

When offering regret, admitting to mistakes, and asking for forgiveness, be sure to communicate that you’re committed to your original why. If you are mistreating employees, putting profits over people, and allowing hate in your workplace, you’ve lost your vision. When you ask yourself why your organization exists, the answer is always to serve people, and those people especially include your employees.

Lesson 6: Commit to change

“I still want to be the one hour a day that people can go to escape and laugh. I want to continue to help all the people that we help every day.” — Ellen DeGeneres

From this quote, for example, Ellen and her employees will know if she is actually committed to her vision because if they don’t feel going to work is an escape. If they don’t laugh while they’re at work, then it’s much harder to bring those things to their viewers. If your vision at your organization is to help your community, that should be the first thing on your mind when an employee is falling short of your expectations. If your actions don’t match your words, then your apology means nothing and you’ve learned nothing. We all make mistakes, but the only way to regain trust and show that you’ve grown is to act on your words.

Bonus Lesson: Follow up

I would love to see Ellen deliver a follow-up monologue stating all of the ways the working conditions have improved. Transparency is key here. If you want to mean what you say, push yourself to give updates on all of the changes you’ve made and ask for honest feedback. When people come to you with ideas, even if it seems like they’re attacking or complaining, keep in mind that they’re doing it because they want you to be better, which makes them better too. Be open to asking for help if you need it and you feel you aren’t keeping your word. Ellen’s latest stand-up special is called Relatable, and one of the most relatable things she, and you, can do as a leader is to be a vulnerable and flawed human being who needs reminders to “be kind.”

We could all use that reminder nowadays.

What If COVID-19 Isn’t A Bad Thing?

Source: Discoversociety.org

That title makes me sound like someone going into a downward spiral to madness. Don’t worry, I won’t be formulating some diabolical scheme to replace the flu vaccine with vials of COVID, but I do think this is a question we have to ask ourselves.

Sure, the effects of the virus are less than desirable, and this has shown us we have a lot of growing to do in terms of virology, our political and economic systems, and, you know, being better humans. But in calling this virus as simply “bad,” or “negative,” or a “disaster,” we limit our potential to grow beyond it. ” I’m not a lunatic — I swear — I’m not going to label this pandemic as “good” either. You see, this unexpected worldwide disruption that threw a sense of stasis into chaos is neither good nor bad. The virus doesn’t pick and choose who to infect, who to kill, and what side to take in a political debate, but our need to answer the definitive question of “good vs. bad” has skewed how we view it, feel about it, and deal with it. It also impacts people’s perceptions of other people. Somehow, a “common enemy” has created more of an “us vs. them” dynamic than the “we’re in this together” narrative nearly every marketing campaign adopted at the beginning of it all.

Nice try, Southwest Airlines — looks like we aren’t free to move around the country.

Binary thinking destroys nuance, and when dealing with a never-before-seen health crisis, nuance is needed in order for us to generate creative solutions more than ever. One of my favorite Shakespeare quotes sums it up pretty succinctly:

“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

Our brain absorbs so much data every day, we categorize it subconsciously based upon our conditioning, so when we decide that something is either good or bad, right or wrong, or Republican or Democrat, our brains search for the details that support our position, and we act on that information. This severely limits possibilities, so that if someone is arguing on behalf of a conflicting opinion, it becomes nearly impossible to see logic in their perspective. At the same time, they have no idea how you can be so daft.

What’s the solution?

When you hear yourself shove an obstacle, another person, or some opinion into the good or bad categories, stop yourself. Instead, for example, say COVID-19 is an opportunity. If you have the time, make a list of as many ways your situation can be an opportunity, and benefit from an expanded, nuanced perspective that wasn’t even a possibility moments before. Good and bad create a limited perception of the problem, but by labeling it as an opportunity, it opens our minds up to waaaaay more possibilities.

For example, COVID-19 has opened up opportunities to:

  1. Learn to be comfortable being uncomfortable
  2. Practice adapting to sudden adversity
  3. Lean into new technologies that have the power to connect people from across the globe
  4. Develop more of a sense of meaning in people’s work
  5. Work remotely, reducing commuting time that can add unnecessary stressors to people’s days
  6. Educate people on disseminating the truth of online content
  7. Start new conversations about new problems that need addressed
  8. Empathize with and be kind to others — we’re all going through this
  9. Adapt new leadership strategies that emphasize the creativity of the people around you
  10. Discover new mediums for producing content

See what I mean? This list could keep going and going and…

Except we’re so focused on outcomes, being right, and forcing abstract events into categories, that most of us aren’t even discussing how many opportunities exist right in front of our eyes. We’re just choosing not to see them.

Without adversity, there can be no growth, but if we spend all of our time cementing our own opinions with reasons why the current crisis is bad, we miss out. Take some time and ask yourself, “How is my situation an opportunity to be kind, to connect with people unlike me, to be open to new ideas, to address this obstacle differently, and to try something new?” This changes what you see, how you feel, what you do, and what you get. Like those early marketing campaigns said, “We’re all in this together.” It’s time to act like it.

Question The System, Solve The Symptoms

The world is desperate for a coronavirus cure — we want life to get back to normal, but I can’t help but feel like we haven’t exhausted all options.

Has no one tried leeches?

If you think that sounds absurd, you’re right: leeches would only alleviate the symptoms of COVID, and not address the cause.

Many of the solutions to problems that our government, medical professionals, and workplace leadership propose involve treating symptoms of problems, rather than addressing the causes. This is just as effective as using leeches to cure, well, anything.

Addressing symptoms creates short-term results, and it can serve as a stopgap to solving the actual cause of the problem, but it won’t actually solve the problem.

When I was in college, I smashed the transmission of my Saturn driving over a curb on a night of bad decisions, causing a massive fluid leak. Instead of paying for a whole new transmission, I decided to pay a mechanic to weld it back together, which stopped the leak, but a few months later, the transmission completely blew and I had to get a new car altogether. Because I wasted my resources on a short-term fix, I ended up paying more in the long run.

Now, I don’t know what “getting to the core” of our world’s health crisis is, but I do know the long-term solution to most societal problems is to overhaul our education system. Did that solution come out of left field? Maybe in terms of this post, but our current education system as it stands is hampering our human potential. We can ban guns, offer universal basic income, and elect different representatives all we want, but these are addressing the symptoms of an even greater problem.

Why?

Our education system is designed to meet the needs of the Industrial Revolution, a time when humans took on the role of robots in factories to complete specialized tasks, so schools taught students how to be compliant and fit into those roles. Now, we’re entering the automation revolution, where actual robots are taking those jobs and creating a more efficient production process. In the short-term, this may seem like a bad thing: “THEY’RE TAKING OUR JOBS!” But in the long-term, this can be an amazing development in human history because it frees up millions of people from doing repetitive, simple tasks that numbs their brains, allowing them the chance to engage the natural human inclination to do creative work. But if schools keep producing compliant humans, the only solution humans will see is, “WE NEED TO GET OUR JOBS BACK!” This outcome is nothing more than addressing a symptom created by the obsoleteness of our education system.

Humans aren’t meant to work in factories. We operate at our best when we’re working together to find novel ways to solve problems, but today’s education is a one-size-fits-all system that emphasizes output over creativity, and the importance of the individual over the group.

If you work in a factory, and an employee has a creative idea to make work more fun, the manager is bound to shoot that idea down because it means a shift in roles, and perhaps short-term losses. In fact, that employee may be viewed as a troublemaker. Our society questions the innovative individual, rather than the system that stifles their potential.

We’ve confined ourselves to a system that works against us in a 21st century economy.

We’ve confined ourselves to a system that demeans anyone who dare question that system.

We’ve confined ourselves to a system that steers people away from doing jobs that are mentally and spiritually engaging to jobs that are mentally and spiritually draining.

And this isn’t even an issue in this year’s presidential election.

Image for post
Me when I came to the above realization

Billions of people around the world don’t think they’re talented, intelligent, or creative, not because they aren’t, but because they’ve been shoved into a system that tells them they’re not.

The world is changing so rapidly that, if there isn’t a fundamental revolution in how we educate ourselves over the next decade, problems like climate change, equality, and pandemics will make today’s problems seem like child’s play. This isn’t meant to be foreboding and apocalyptic, it’s meant to be a call to action.

Education reform begins with learning how human beings think and behave, then leaning into our natural inclinations and creativity to address the problem with an actual solution: teach students how to think, howto work together, and how to engage their creativity. Once we do that, there’s no limit to our potential.

Until then, we’re stuck in a system that emphasized job titles, individualism, and output as metrics for success, while we argue over which symptoms to solve by throwing stupid amounts of money at them… we might as well be using leeches.

You’re Being Conditioned Out Of Being Human

Sir Ken Robinson: We don’t grow into creativity, we grow out of it. Or rather, we get educated out of it.

What’s the world going to look like in 50 years? Will the entire world, from continent to continent, be connected to free, unlimited wifi? Will formerly barren landscapes burst with lush, sustainably farmed crops, reducing world hunger to zero? Will there be fully green cities, running on renewable energy with carbon emissions at zero? Will there be access to healthcare for anyone who needs it, regardless of socioeconomic status, to lower mortality rates, and nearly eradicate infectious disease? Will a 94-year old Tom Brady break his own record for oldest player to win a Super Bowl MVP?

Many of you are probably thinking, “Those things are impossible,” but before you click out of this article, let me remind you that we’re in the 21st century at the dawn of the Automation Revolution, while the system in which we work and are educated is a 19th century system from the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. So, yes, in our current system, those things are impossible, but that isn’t inevitable. Our system is costing us the contribution of millions of people who spend their days driving trucks, making sales, and micromanaging their subordinates, instead of exploring their creativity to discover their true potential.

Rather than lament what isn’t, it’s vital to begin from what is, which is where the work of thinkers such as Sir Ken Robinson come into play. Though Sir Ken unfortunately passed away last week, that doesn’t mean his calls for an education revolution have to pass away with him.

His work is painfully relevant today, because many of the worlds problems stem, not from inequality, systemic racism, or capitalism (though those don’t help), but from receiving an education that doesn’t allow children to explore, play, or embrace their differences. In an industrial world, people are conditioned to be compliant, to memorize facts, and to meet quotas, but human beings are at our best when allowed to explore our creativity. Because we’re taught to not question the way things have always been done, it costs us the opportunity to find ways to make things better.

Remember the embarrassment of answering a question incorrectly in front of the class? Or when you thought you had a great idea, and you were laughed at? Think about how it felt to receive a bad grade on a test or project. In the current system, failure, being wrong, and making mistakes are the worst things a person can do. This conditions the creativity out of children, and we become a world where only 15% of people are engaged at work (Gallup) — a world where over 3 million teens have experienced a depressive episode in the last year (SAMHSA). A world where only 14% of American adults say they’re very happy (University of Chicago).

By conditioning the creativity out of people, people are becoming like the robots that will be taking human jobs, and ironically, to prepare for the incoming wave of automation, people need to be creative. As Sir Ken said in his prophetic first TED Talk from 2007,

“If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original. By the time they get to be adults, most kids have lost that capacity. They’ve become frightened of being wrong, and we run our companies like this — we stigmatize mistakes — and we’re now running national education systems where mistakes are the worst thing you can make. The result is that we’re educating people out of their creative capacities.

We don’t grow into creativity, we grow out of it. Or rather, we get educated out of it.”

Sir Ken Robinson

Most of you reading this aren’t kids (if you are, go outside and play, you psychopath), but that doesn’t mean you can’t take something away from this: it’s okay to be wrong. It’s okay to think outside of the box and get your ideas shot down. It’s okay to be laughed at because you think or do things differently. If we want to leave future generations a world we can be proud of, we’re going make a lot of mistakes, but with each mistake, we’ll be one step closer to a world where children are taught that it’s okay to be themselves, take risks, and make mistakes. If we don’t start taking action now, the world in 50 years won’t feel much different than the world today, and that’s not something we can be proud of.

Don’t Cancel, Question

If everyone had the same beliefs and the same things made everyone happy, what would the world look like?

It would decidedly not look anything like today’s world — in fact, I would argue that if everyone shared the same perspective, this planet would be painfully boring. No diversity of thought means the first idea would always be the best idea, which, without any form of challenge from others, could actually end up being the idea that kills everyone.

Nowadays, with everyone being so connected through the internet and social media, we have an opportunity to explore the incredibly diverse perspectives of people across the globe. Yet, it seems that whenever someone shares their ideology, those with other ideologies instinctively attack.

I’m guilty of it too.

From comedians making insensitive jokes, to far-right purists, to Black Lives Matter activists, to opinionated lesbian feminists, there is something to learn from each of these ideologies, but the moment we say “I disagree,” we miss out on the opportunity to make a connection. Each of these people experienced their own unique upbringing and have reasons for why they behave the way they do, but our basic human nature requires us to be social and work together with the group.

The way we’re nurtured drives us away from our human nature.

It’s in our nature to explore, try new things, and work together, but we’re conditioned to stay in our lanes, hold steadfast beliefs, and value individuality. It’s like our school system taught us how to be less human.

When I see an opinion that is unlike my own, I ask, “Why?” The other person must have a reason for why they see the world differently, so instead of insulting, disparaging, or ignoring them, I’m more interested in seeing from their point of view. At worst, learning from those who don’t believe like me will expand my worldview and help me build a stronger argument in favor of my ideology. In fact, one of the best ways to make our point is to be able to argue effectively from the opposite perspective. At the very least, it will put us on similar footing, which gives us a starting point upon which we can all agree.

For example, freedom of speech is a value held dearly by most Americans, from BLM protesters to right wing militias. But when BLM protesters are being arrested, gassed, and beaten by law enforcement for exercising their right to free speech, the “Don’t Tread On Me” folks are nowhere to be found. Freedom of speech doesn’t just refer to the opinions you agree with. Perhaps, with a shared agreement that all speech much be protected, these ideologically opposed groups can come together and start a dialogue with one another.

If everyone had the same beliefs, the world would have far less dialogue and way more monologue. We learn way more when we listen to others than when we parrot our own opinions, so if you disagree with this post, feel free to contact me and ask, “Why?” because I’d love to hear your perspective too.

Empathy: The Starting Point To Building A Better World

“You’ve gotta watch Breaking Bad. Watch a few episodes and it’s going to hook you.”

“What’s it about?”

“Walter White, a brilliant scientist turned chemistry teacher, gets diagnosed with cancer and starts cooking meth to pay for his treatment and support his pregnant wife and disabled son.”

“That’s not really my speed.”

My friend Scott recommends shows for me to watch all the time, and they’re usually great, so I decided to give Breaking Bad a go, even though the premise didn’t really appeal to me, but he was right: I sped through the first four seasons in about two weeks, and what really struck me was the fact that I was rooting for a man who would kill someone — even an innocent person — to “protect his family.” Why was I cheering on someone to ruin people’s lives with a drug that led to violence, greed, and the thirst for power? Why was I rooting against a well-intentioned DEA agent driven by justice to save people’s lives and get a dangerous drug off the streets? The answer: I saw myself in Walter White — not because I wanted to cook meth or murder my rivals (I like my rivals) — but because I, too, have had my back against the wall. I, too, have been doubted by even the people closest to me. So when Walter made the decision to end someone else’s life, I found myself conflicted internally because, even though I would never consider murder, I could understand what motivated Walter to do it.

And that’s something the world needs more of — not murder, but empathy. Being able to see the world through the eyes of people unlike yourself is the key to understanding why they do what they do. That’s why we love stories: we get to see the protagonist’s world through his or her eyes while rooting for them to overcome their adversities; and the well-written shows like Breaking Bad, Mad Men, or Dexter will have us rooting for the protagonist, even though he or she is willing to do some unsavory deeds to get ahead.

Now these are all fictional stories, but our capacity to empathize with the people in these shows and judge them based on why they do what they do, rather than what they do, is a skill we can use with people in the real world who are unlike us. To be able to see through the eyes of another, even if he is a diametric opposite, can help you communicate better, reach agreement, build a relationship, and even make you happier. Though you may not be willing to do what someone else has done, to be able to connect with why he does it is the first step to bringing unlike people together — a must in an increasingly connected world.

Whether you agree with me or not, chances are we both want to live better lives in a better world, and that is a great starting point for coming together and creating it.

Create Your New Normal

The status quo has already been disrupted, so now is the PERFECT time to disrupt YOUR status quo too.

“Crazy times we’re living in.”

At any point in human history, people have uttered those words, but now, that statement seems more real than ever. As news reports continue to pile on the negativity, managers demand increased production from their people, and everyone else has to figure out how to work within the new normal presented by the coronavirus, I have some good news:
This is going to make the world a better place.
More specifically:
This is going to make your world a better place.

Though it may not seem like it at the moment, it’s how we deal with the uncertainty of a crisis like this that defines who we are and what we can accomplish.
During a life-disrupting event such as this, we need each other more than ever. Now is the time to connect with that difficult coworker and offer assistance or support if he or she needs it. Now is the time to reach out to your employees to see if they have any ideas to improve the quality of their work and the quality of the culture in the workplace. Now is the time to reach out to your customers, clients, and communities to learn how you can offer your services to ease some of the burden on their everyday lives. Now is the time to have that conversation with your spouse, children, parents, or friends telling them that you care about them, sharing your gratitude with them, or simply letting them know that you’re there.

Though the media is promoting social distancing, the last thing we can afford to be is socially distant from others. Sure, keep physically distant where you can, but remember that what you do matters in the lives of others.
In a time like this, sometimes remembering that is exactly what you need to put a smile on your face, and more importantly, on the face of someone else.
Though we don’t have control over what’s going on in the world, we do have control over how we respond. Let’s use this as an opportunity to create a new and improved normal; a normal that is more human and less transactional.
A normal where we collaborate to create a better world, better communities, and better workplaces.
This disruption of the status quo is an opportunity for each of us to disrupt our own status quo with something new and positive.
What’s one thing you can do today?

Coping With Quarantine: Be Happy Now

Being stuck inside during this quarantine has been trying on my patience because I’m so used to getting out and working at the restaurant, speaking, and doing comedy, I’m ready to pull out the few hairs I have left on my head… but I’m not going to do that – it’s going to be awhile before I can get a haircut.

Being cooped up at home, I decided, “Why not do something to help others who are cooped up?” so I decided to go through some old notebooks and I found notes from the book The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor. It’s an easy and interesting read about positive psychology – the science of happiness – and it’s the book that got me interested in becoming a speaker in the first place. (For a general idea of the topic of the book, check out Achor’s 12-minute TED Talk here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GXy__kBVq1M)

The book begins by talking about how most people follow a formula that we learn when we’re kids, and we keep learning it in school, the media, and our workplaces.

That formula: if we work hard, we’ll become successful, and when we become successful, then we can be happy.

This formula is broken.

If you say, “If I’m successful, then I’ll be happy,” that keeps pushing our happiness further and further out when happiness and optimism actually fuel our performance and achievement. Think about it: do you do better when you’re feeling good, or when you’re stressed out, pissed off, or have coronavirus?

The formula we’re conditioned to believe is actually backwards because, it turns out, it’s happiness that leads to success. If we keep telling ourselves “I’ll be happy when…” then our happiness will always lie in the future because our brains only understand right now, which is why it’s so important to ask ourselves, “How can I be happy now?”

When I first read this, it blew my mind because it made too much sense.

What is positive psychology?

Positive psychology breaks from traditional psychology’s focus on what makes people unhappy and returning them to “normal,” while positive psychology focuses on what makes people thrive and excel. Achor refers to this as “escaping the cult of the average” because typical psychology sees average as the goal for those who fall below that curve instead of looking at those above the curve and asking:

  • “How can we raise the average?”
  • “What makes those above the average so happy and how can more people achieve    that?”
  • “How do their brains work? How do they talk to themselves?”

This spoke to me, man.

Okay, so what are the benefits?

In one study, doctors that were put in a positive mood before making a diagnosis showed almost three times more intelligence and almost three times more creativity than doctors in a neutral state. The positive doctors even made accurate diagnoses 19% faster. Who needs coronavirus tests when you have happy doctors?

Optimistic salespeople outsell their pessimistic counterparts by 56% – that’s pretty good.

Our brains are hardwired to perform at their best when they’re positive, and that’s because of the dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphins that counteract the cortisol (the stress chemical) that limits our perspective.

The moral of the story

“Once I get out of the house, I’ll be happy.”

“When I get back to work, I’ll be happy.”

Cool, but right now, you’re not out of the house. You’re not working. Saying the above is going to make this quarantine feel like forever. Instead, move that happiness into the present and start looking for even just one thing that makes you happy right now. For example, I have food in my refrigerator, I’m grateful for that, and that gratitude makes me feel good. Saying, “I’ll be happy when…” is like saying, “I’ll be full once I eat,” when you have food right in front of you.

Take a few minutes a day and make a list of things that make you happy, so that when you do get back to work, you’ve got a mental edge and you can help bring others into that frame of mind.

Choose to be happy NOW, so start by finding things that make you happy NOW.

Comment, reach out if you have questions, and share with people you think may benefit from a happiness injection.

When it Comes to Jokes, How Soon is Too Soon?

Life is full of ups and downs. Without the ebbs, we wouldn’t appreciate the flows, and when things are down, they can seem really down. In the face of tragedy and trauma, sometimes the last thing we want to do is laugh, but sometimes, that’s the jolt we need to shake ourselves out of a slump. At the end of the opening monologue for the first episode of Saturday Night Live after 9/11, executive producer Lorne Michaels asked Rudy Giuliani, “Can we be funny?” Giuliani quipped back, “Why start now?” which immediately broke the tension and heaviness that hung in the air. Collectively, it seemed as though America breathed a sigh of relief.

In the age of social media, when tragedy strikes, comedians, wannabe comedians, and basically anyone with access to a smart phone take to Twitter to joke about it. Many are in poor taste, many are cringeworthy, and very few actually do what the Giuliani did on that night in 2001. As he was flanked by first responders, he cut the tension with one punchline (whereas now, he creates tension every time he appears on a TV screen).

Which begs the question: how soon is too soon to joke about something?

The answer to this question has been debated for forever, and it can’t measured in days, months, or years. Whether a joke is too soon is determined on a case-by-case basis.

Too soon can be better measured by combination of the teller’s intent, the target audience, the trust built with that audience, the framing of the joke, and the target of the punch line. Whether you’re a comedian on stage, a random person tweeting about a tragedy, or searching for a way to console a friend or coworker, these are the questions you should ask yourself:

What is the intent of your joke?

A comedian’s job is to make people laugh. Even though sometimes it may seem to be to shock, offend, or gross out an audience, the goal of these jokes is always laughter, and through a trial and error process at open mics and bar shows with very few laughs, the goal of funny is either reached, or the joke is abandoned. For me, the biggest reward of getting a laugh is the fact that I have succeeded in making a connection with others. I’ve shown them that funny does exist, even in the darkest corners of life, and that from that darkness can come release. If the goal is simply to offend, shock, or disgust, think twice about opening your mouth or hitting “send.”

Who is the audience?

If you want to make your audience laugh, you first have to know who your audience is, whether you’re speaking to a room full of people, or saying something in jest to one person.

One of my first speaking gigs was for a group in Richmond, Indiana. In that presentation, I had a joke about the negative spirals our brains can take us down when we’re stressed, and the joke ends with me joining a cult because “I can never turn down free Kool Aid,” which almost always gets a laugh. In this case, the audience stared back with nary a smile, and I had no idea why until we reached the Q&A portion of the program. A woman’s hand shot up in the air, and with a quiver of subdued anger in her voice, she scolded me: “Jim Jones is from Richmond. Some of us in this room lost loved ones in the Jonestown Massacre.” I had no idea. My face turned fruit punch red;

Since then, you better believe I read the room and adjust my material accordingly before I get on stage. A few weeks ago, I spoke at a luncheon, and as the meeting was about to start, the meeting planner made me aware of a table of nuns seated in the front of the room. Instead of powering through the program, I switched out a few of the more PG-13 punchlines and had a great presentation without alienating anyone. I even snuck in a double entendre at the end that made the table of nuns double over in laughter. Why? Because before I told the joke, I asked the question:

Have you built trust with the audience?

I could spend 1000 words talking about how building trust with someone is more important than the content of your funny line, but I’ll boil it down to just a couple of points.

  • Communicate that you empathize with your audience. See where they’re coming from before you share where you’re coming from. This is vital whether you’re performing at a comedy show, or just having a 1-on-1 interaction.
  • Be sure to approach them from equal footing – if you make it seem like you’re preaching or talking down, it makes it harder for the two of you to see from the same angle.
  • Do they know you’re funny? If I’m in front of an audience, I never start with the edgy material until we’ve all shared a laugh at my own expense or at the absurdity of everyday life, so we’re now on the same page. If you barely know someone and you find out they’re going through a rough patch, even if you want to make them laugh, it’s abrasive to just introduce yourself, then go right into your jokes.

How are you framing the joke?

Again, your goal is to make your audience laugh, but the tragedy or trauma in itself isn’t funny. It rarely is, even if there is humor to be found. For example, Giuliani’s joke wouldn’t have worked if it weren’t for such a heavy tragedy. Without explicitly mentioning 9/11 in the setup or punchline, though it was implied, that way, when the punch came at the expense of Michaels and SNL, everyone exhaled deeply. More recently, Kobe Bryant was killed in a helicopter crash along with eight others. Since then, I’ve been using that tragedy as the vehicle of a joke about my mom always calling me to deliver bad news. The joke isn’t framed to make light of the tragedy, the tragedy is framed to make light of my experience of it.

Who is the target of the punchline?

The intent of the above Kobe joke is to make people laugh, I perform it in front of audiences who want to laugh, I place the joke at the end of my set so that the audience already trusts that I’m funny, I use the tragedy as a vehicle to get to the punchline, and the punchline never comes at the expense of the victim. It takes the tension and releases it in a way that makes the audience feel better for having laughed. After my Aunt Kristie was killed in 2009, I was able to make light of the situation, not by making light of the tragedy or by poking fun at her, but by making light of the weird ceremonies we have to mourn the dead, by making light of the idiocy of her murderers, and about how I don’t have the tact to make people laugh in the face of tough times.

You don’t have to be a comedian to practice these tips. The next time you want to break the tension after a tough meeting, someone’s hard day, or after a tragedy, ask yourself the above questions and help make the world a better place by making one person smile at a time.

Hear more on the topic and listen to the above Kobe joke in this bonus episode of “You Can’t Laugh At That” on Spotify. If you enjoy, follow the podcast on Spotify – we post new episodes every Monday.

Thanks for reading and enjoy!

You Can’t Laugh at That Recap: Comedy and the Power of Words

Episode 2 of You Can’t Laugh at That was released yesterday, and it’s a topic that has both inspired and infuriated me for years: the power of words. Growing up, I was confused by the fact that certain words hurt others, but didn’t hurt me, and that other words have hurt me, but didn’t hurt others. Comedy legend George Carlin said it best when communicating his confusion with an arbitrary list of “bad” words: You never know what’s on the list because it’s always somebody else’s list… People’s lists even change day-to-day. 

I’ll never forget discovering my first swear words as I marched into my parents’ kitchen after a rigorous day in kindergarten. They had some friends over and I wanted to share my new vocabulary with an audience, so I put my bag on the floor, proudly proclaimed, “Fart penis!” and was whisked into the bathroom to learn what soap tasted like. Though those words aren’t considered bad by most people, that was the day I discovered there are “curse words” that you can get in trouble for saying, but also that these words aren’t cursed by everyone.

In this episode, fellow comedian Steve Mers and I invite the outspoken Dave Flynt onto the show to ask and answer the questions:

  • What even are words?
  • Why are some words offensive to some and not to others?
  • As artists and entertainers with the ability to influence, do we have a responsibility to avoid offending others?
  • How can we lessen the power of these words so that they don’t hurt anymore?

Words are…

  • Literally just noises out of your mouth that creates emotions and actions in others through their subjective understandings and interpretations of them.  Because the interpretations are subjective, a word doesn’t have the same effect on one person as it would another person hearing or seeing that word. Society is based on shared stories that bring people together, and we’re a social species, so we needed a shared method of communication, so we decided certain sounds would mean certain things, and language was formed. This caused the exponential growth of the human race, but the subjectivity of meanings can also cause disagreements and conflict.
  • Tools you can use to do whatever you want, from asking someone to grab you a beer from the fridge, to starting a movement, it all depends on who’s using the tools and what their intention is.

Some words are offensive to some and not to others because…

  • When it comes to the words we use, we have to remember that others have different life experiences, and that certain words will cause them pain when they mean nothing to the person who uses them. To paraphrase the eloquence of Flynt:”Some people have emotional stuff that makes them feel a certain way. You could be listening to a rap song called “I Fucked Your Bitch,” and if your girl cheated on you 2 weeks ago, that hurts. If you could be the dude who fucked his bitch and you listen to that song, you’re like, “I feel good.”
  • When we have a conversation, tell a joke, or write a tweet, we have to remember that other people’s feelings are at play and that we don’t share the same experiences and aren’t riding the same emotional wave they are.

As artists and entertainers with the ability to influence…

  • We have to realize that a comedy set is a roller coaster ride for the audience. If each line has the audience in stitches, those laughs will diminish as the set progresses – there has to be a natural ebb and flow.
  • We have to realize that the show can be an emotional experience for some. I once did five minutes of funeral jokes and was approached after the show by the woman who booked me that I wasn’t welcome back to present to the group because they had recently lost a member to cancer. At another presentation, I did the funeral bit with rewritten material, and afterwards, an older man who had just lost his wife to cancer shook my hand and thanked me for making it okay for him to laugh. Being wary of the potential sensitivity of the audience pushed me to be more creative in expressing myself.

We can lessen the power of words by…

  • Realizing that much of the offense comes from societal inequalities. Steve hypothesizes that if we treated everyone equally, there’s less of a reason to feel offended about something because they don’t feel like they’re being subjugated.
  • Changing the narrative behind the words to dilute their power. Since language is a manmade concept, changing language to move us forward is also a manmade process. If there’s a word that brings people pain, the question isn’t, “How can we stop using the word?” It’s going to be difficult to convince ignorant people to stop using “retarded” negatively, so changing the meaning of the word or creating a new word to describe someone who is developmentally disabled may be a better option.
  • Stopping the prohibition of certain words. Steve asks an incredibly intriguing question: “Are words like drugs where if you make them legal, they lose their power?” When we dwell on something “offensive,” we give the culprit power over our emotions. It’s not the words that cause the emotion from the listener, it’s the listener’s thoughts about what is said. In eighth grade English class, I used the word “dingus” in a sentence and the teacher and I got two completely meanings out of the word. The word “dingus” is used to refer to something whose name the speaker cannot remember, is unsure of, or is humorously or euphemistically omitting. Even after showing her this definition, she was still furious because she assumed I was referring to a penis and I was given two detentions.
  • I was totally referring to a penis.

As a comedian, your sole job above all else is to make people laugh. If you’re trying to shock, offend, or subjugate, you’re not doing your job. Remember that certain words trigger certain people, and that you can still make your point – and probably in a much more creative way – if you find a better way to communicate your ideas and what’s funny to you. As Steve puts it, “If you’re not an asshole, convince people you’re not an asshole before you say something that makes people think you’re an asshole.”

This goes for comedy and everyday life.

Listen, comment, follow, and share on Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/episode/0uivwpcpfokYkTBsOKepz5?si=8CA86iyAST6Nj86Whc5T1g

or Apple Podcasts: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/episode-2-the-power-of-words/id1495600197?i=1000463781993