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!

4 Reasons Why The Office Clown Is Important To The Workplace

In school, I took more than my fair share of trips to detention and, as a result, received a fair share of admonishment from my parents after coming home with notes from teachers.

“You don’t want to be the class clown, do you?”

“You don’t need to talk out in class – you have a D in math.”

“Stop trying to be funny all the time. It’s not going to get you anywhere”

They also used to tell me that I couldn’t possibly make a living playing video games while 176 gamers are out there mashing buttons for six figure salaries (esportsearnings.com).

Now that I’ve fully embraced my role as class clown, I’m here to spread the good news: if you’re the class clown, KEEP GOING.

And if you’re a manager who has a class clown on your hands, LEAN INTO IT.

I’m not saying to head to your local open mic and try your hand at stand-up comedy (unless you really want to), but I am saying that there are benefits to being the class clown in the workplace. Whether you’re the class clown or you’re in a leadership position and trying to figure out what to do about the class clown in your workplace, lean into the laughs. Don’t worry, there are ways to utilize it as a tool to improve your culture. According to a study reported in The International Journal of Humor Research, office jokers were considered invaluable team members by coworkers and managers. Here are 4 reasons why:

1. They provide stress relief

Have you ever had a stressful day at work where it seemed like everything was going wrong when suddenly, a beautiful angel came swooping into your office and made you laugh so hard you forgot you were having a terrible day? Sometimes, it’s just what the doctor ordered, and stifling your resident joker’s ability to do this can be harmful for office morale. A quick shot of dopamine in the form of a joke making light of the day can offset some of the demoralizing effects of stress and give us a jolt of perspective.

2. They’re integral in building a strong culture

So you say you want to attract and retain the best and brightest applicants. In various surveys and polls, millennials would rather work somewhere where their work carries meaning and allows room for creativity over a company that just pays well. In a world where companies are competing with, not only their competitors down the street, but on the other side of the country to hire the best talent, culture plays a vital role. If potential hires can see that you not only allow your people to showcase their creativity and humor, but you embrace it, they’re more likely to be excited about your potential partnership. As an added bonus, office jokers naturally put fun twists into stories about the company, thus playing a key role in keeping the corporate history alive.

3. They question authority without subverting it

As a manager, life becomes easier when you give someone a task and they respond, “Yes, right away!” But sometimes, believe it or not, your employees may have a better idea for how things could be done since they have a different perspective of their jobs than you. For many managers, the thought of employees not being subservient to every request and demand can be scary, but fear not, because questions can often bring better answers and ideas than your people blindly nodding along with everything you say. You don’t want blatant insubordination, but there’s a difference between that and your office joker poking holes in the legitimacy of your commands. Along with this openness, you must be vigilant about being open to new ideas. If you’re going to be open to your authority being questioned, you better make it clear that:

  • those who question you damn sure better have a new idea that improves upon yours
  • you have a forum for employees and coworkers to come to you with ideas and you LISTEN and try to improve upon them when necessary

otherwise, people will have trouble taking you seriously.

4. They push boundaries

Bringing humor into a professional setting carries with it many risks, but in today’s world of rapid and continuous expansion, taking risks is one of the most important actions for keeping your organization ahead of the curve. When you embrace office jokers, especially when you’re comfortable with their challenges, this signals to the rest of the office that you’ve got an open mind when they try new things, which is a natural human tendency. With risks come failure, which is where your leadership is most important. When your people fall short with their new ideas, it’s up to you to help them discover new ways to course correct by utilizing objective facts – not subjective emotions –  from which they can learn. Human beings learn more from messing up than from everything always going to plan. Allowing the office joker more freedom in itself is a risk, but if the strategy initially doesn’t work out, it gives you the wisdom to respond in a new way, which communicates the important act of showing, not telling. By course correcting yourself, you serve as an example for how your people should respond when their ideas don’t work. After all, this is a team effort – no matter if your role is manager, clown, or both.