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

Rejection is Feedback and Feedback is an Opportunity

“[We are] going to rescind our request to have you speak to [us].”
I stared blankly at the text of the email, mouth agape.
“This has never happened to me,” I thought aloud. “What did I do?”
I kept reading.
“Eight members of our chapter were in attendance and all were offended by your presentation,” the email continued.
“Offended? I was trying to make you laugh!” My fight-or-flight response had kicked in, but before I found myself going off on a tangent, I decided to continue reading to learn more.
“Specifically, you told a ‘dick’ joke.”
Ah… that’s fair. Using my character, Perspective Detective Dick Ransom’s first name strategically for laughs is admittedly juvenile, but it’s something that people remember. The premise of the bit is based around the fact that when we blame the circumstances or other people when we fall short of our goals, so we should “become a Dick” because “we all have a little Dick inside of us.”

Later in the email, he writes “I won’t comment on the rest of your presentation.” This is what hurt me most, not because they didn’t enjoy my presentation, but because once the Dick joke was on the table, they missed out on the message of the rest of the presentation.

That’s on me.

My talks aren’t your standard HR presentation because the current business climate is mired in complacency, so I take some risks – some pay off and some don’t, which I live with. The key, though is to analyze where I am and ask, “Is where I am better than where I was before this?” To get a more accurate answer, it’s vital to consider all feedback from other perspectives. I only have one way of looking at my reality – my own – so I admittedly have a bit of a bias. However, when other people say to me, “We were offended by your presentation,” that’s a sign that, instead of resisting their POV and getting hostile, I have an opportunity to consider another perspective.

I can’t possibly follow through on all feedback given to me, but I can at least listen, appreciate the fact that someone is willing to take a risk to even give me the feedback, and consider what to do next. My aim is to always improve in some way after every presentation I give, and in order to do that, it’s important to listen. This is as true for me as it is for all of you – even if no one approaches you and says, “Hey, here’s my feedback,” if you listen to the world around you by
-evaluating where you are vs. where you want to be
-paying close attention to the nonverbal clues of others
-considering the perspectives of those who do offer explicit feedback
you’ll learn more than you ever would simply looking through your own eyes.

Though another group approached me after the presentation about speaking at one of their upcoming meetings because they enjoyed the presentation and felt motivated (proof that multiple people can see the exact same thing but get something completely different out of it), my aim is to leave everyone feeling better when they see one of my talks. I don’t expect everyone to leap out of their seats and change the world when they leave, but at the very least, I want people to have laughed and felt good. To have not been able to do that for one group leaves me in a state of self-examination where I realize that “I too have a little Detective Dick in me,” now it’s up to me to figure out how I can do better next time, and it’s all thanks to feedback.

“Rejection is just feedback designed to show you how to be better.”

Check Your Privilege, Kermit

EVERY. YEAR.

Every damned year, Al Roker/Matt Lauer and whatever physically appealing female co-anchor that happens to be working for NBC go flipping crazy when that Kermit balloon appears in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. All we hear about is how everyone loves him, how he’s one of the main attractions, and then there’s some obligatory joke about Miss Piggy. The heaps of praise and unwavering love for this frog isn’t equal to the love for many of the other balloons and I say, “No more!”

Where’s the praise for cartoon characters? Corporate mascots? And there’s not even a Caitlyn Jenner balloon; it’s blatant disrespect.

Check your privilege at the door, Al Roker. There’s more to this parade than just Muppets.

What about Sonic the Hedgehog? “There’s Sonic. He’s making his 6th appearance in the parade.” That’s it!? That’s all you got!? No mention of his rings or the fact that he SAVED THE WORLD FROM DR. ROBOTNIK!?

Hello Kitty? They’re just like, “Hello, Kitty. So anyway, how’s your turkey coming, Hoda?”

When Bart Simpson appears, it’s a bullying slugfest. “What trouble will he get into this year?” “He’s probably been up to some mischief.” What, because he’s yellow that automatically means he’s been doing something mischievous?  Get off your high horse, NBC.

I’m sick of the puppet privilege this amphibious ass gets every. single. stinkin year! Enough is enough!

When you see that smug son of a salamander snake his way onto your screen, switch off the set and watch something that DOESN’T rub puppet privilege in our faces. Like football.

Big Bird too! Such an avian a-hole.

Just watch and see what I mean. How do you think the other balloons feel about all of the attention these Muppets get? It’s time to take a stand. I, for one, won’t be watching the parade and will be watching Home Shopping reruns. I won’t be shopping at Macy’s anymore either because I can’t, in good faith, give my money to a corporation who obviously doesn’t care about equality. Join me in my defiance and let’s tell the man that we won’t stand for this inflatable injustice any longer!

Krush Kermit

The Real Reason You Should Boycott Starbucks

“Welcome to Starbucks, what can I get for you?”

“Grandé soy milk latté. No whip.”

The familiar gurgly whir (that’s the noise it makes, right? A gurguly whir?) of milk being steamed commenced as I waited in anxious anticipation for my beverage, served in the familiar, festive cup I’ve come to expect this time of year.

“David?”

Finally.

But I stopped when I saw it sitting on the counter. Something was amiss. “Oh… I’m sorry but my cup is red.”

“Yeah. It’s our holiday cup this year.”

Holiday cup?” I could feel the blood rising to my face. How dare they call my blank red cup a “holiday” cup. There was nothing holiday about it. “To which holiday do you refer?”

“Christmas.”

There it was. I went from irritated to infuriated.

“Christmas? Christmas!? What about your brown Thanksgiving cups!? What happened to those?”

“We’ve never had-”

“Oh, you’re a liar now? You’ve never had my ass! Every year, come November, I look forward to coming into Starbucks, ordering a coffee, and getting it in a brown paper cup. What is wrong with the world!?”

The barista had no answers for me. Neither did the police officers who removed me from the premises. That’s why I’m boycotting Starbucks. That’s why you should boycott Starbucks too. It’s an absolute outrage.

Last time I checked, Thanksgiving was a holiday. Last time I checked, Thanksgiving falls in November and Christmas in December. Last time I checked, no pilgrims died to celebrate Christmas. The pilgrims came to this country just to share a meal with the Native Americans and you, Starbucks, have the nerve to call these red cups “holiday” cups!? The real holiday is Thanksgiving!

I said nothing two years ago when Starbucks removed the black pilgrim hat lids from their Thanksgiving cups. Last year, when they did away with the Indian headdress cup accessory, I did nothing. But this? This is too far! They’re not even allowed to say, “Happy Thanksgiving!” They told me to “Have a nice day.” Tell me, Starbucks, if the pilgrims were alive today and came into one of your stores, how do you think they would feel if you handed them a red cup instead of a brown one? Let that sink in.

The cornucopia decorations have been replaced by holly, faux snow, and snowmen. I’m hearing “Deck the Halls,” “Carol of the Bells,” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” instead of the cheery melodies of Thanksgiving carol classics such as “Away in a Mayflower,” “The Little Injun Boy,” and “The Pilgrim Who Died of Hypothermia.” The festive flavors of mashed potato mochas, green bean lattés and turkey hot chocolates have gone missing in favor of peppermint, gingerbread, and eggnog. Something is very wrong with this picture, so here is my call to action:

BOYCOTT STARBUCKS

And if you do go to Starbucks, tell them your name is Happy Thanksgiving. They have to write it on your cup. That’ll show them! How dare they belittle my pilgrim ancestors! How dare they minimize the reason for the season! How dare they take the Thanksgiving out of Thanksgiving! Join me in starting a movement! Tweet out #happythanksgivingstarbucks. Wear your buckle hats and bring your bows and arrows into Starbucks to offend them. Don’t be politically correct, just be correct.

Oh yeah, and HAPPY THANKSGIVING