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!

How a Workplace Taboo Can Increase Employee Engagement and Productivity

“This is not the time nor the place to laugh.” “Why are you laughing when you should be working?” “Work is work. You’ll have time to play when you’re done.”

These should sound familiar to many of us, especially coming from the mouths of our managers and executives as a hearty guffaw is stifled before it can breathe life into the otherwise routine, stressful, and mundane workday.

Comedy and productivity are two things you probably don’t associate with one another, but believe it or not, the evidence is overwhelming:

Comedy (humor, to be more precise) in the workplace increases productivity, counteracts stress, builds trust, strengthens relationships, improves performance, builds leadership skills, engages employees, reduces sick days, enhances learning and memory, provides needed perspective in the face of failure, opens lines of communication, attracts great people, drives creativity, strengthens confidence, and transforms workplace culture into one centered around the well-being of others, making work meaningful, and a breeding ground for happiness.

So sure, make your work environment “humor free,” but eliminating light-heartedness from work is no laughing matter.

We have been entrenched in a culture of work focused on appeasing shareholders, reaching quotas, and meeting deadlines for as long as the humans on this planet have been alive – and even longer than that – so the “work-is-work” mentality is ingrained in our DNA. It’s no wonder a majority of workplaces don’t place very high value on the power of laughter – they have no idea of the benefits. It’s not like we learn about the numerous benefits of humor in the workplace, in college, or even at work trainings, so what I’m writing here might be news to you.

And that’s okay… but now, it’s time to do something.

Now, we’re entering an age where information is readily available at the click of a button, and study after study, poll after poll, and case after case show that positive laughter in the workplace is transformative. Now, we can find companies who have instituted humor programs, see the positive results, and figure out what works for our company. Now, we can finally feel great about letting loose and laughing a little, because even though our bosses don’t seem to value humor at work… well actually… they do:

  • A survey of 730 CEOs by Hodge Cronin and Associates found that 98% would rather hire someone with a good sense of humor than someone with a more serious demeanor.
  • 91% of executives in a Robert Hath International survey agreed that humor is important for career advancement, while 84% believe that people with a good sense of humor do a better job than their counterparts.

There are far too many positive side effects to continue to list, so I’ll let the following articles, books, and studies do the talking.

https://hbr.org/2018/11/the-benefits-of-laughing-in-the-office

https://hbr.org/2014/05/leading-with-humor

https://wol.iza.org/articles/are-happy-workers-more-productive/long

http://mentalfloss.com/article/564511/laughter-at-work-can-boost-productivity

https://www.marketwatch.com/story/laughing-at-work-can-actually-make-people-take-your-career-more-seriously-2018-11-20

http://www.hbs.edu/faculty/Publication%20Files/Bitterly%20Brooks%20Schweitzer%20JPSP%202016_54efbab5-2561-4408-b008-38d958e0ad50.pdf

http://apps.prsa.org/Intelligence/Tactics/Articles/view/11933/1143/Play_at_Work_Increasing_Communication_and_Producti#.XKG6dutKjOS

Improv:http://time.com/4357241/improv-lessons-success/

TED Talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6iFCm5ZokBI

Ha! The Science of When We Laugh and Why – Scott Weems

The Humor Advantage: Why Some Businesses Are Laughing All the Way To the Bank – Michael Kerr

Work Rules!: Insights From Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live and Lead – Laszlo Bock

What are some ways you can infuse humor into your work?

Work isn’t the time or place to laugh, eh? Knowing what we know now, that’s damn funny.

I Was Going to Post to My Blog, But…

…There’s a cat on my lap, and when there’s a cat on my lap, nothing gets done.

It’s not that like the cat pins me down and forbids me from typing, I just choose not to work when there’s a cat on my lap.

Then I blame it on the cat.

It’s definitely the cat’s fault that I didn’t type my 1,000 words today.

It’s not like I can type over him.

Every time I try to type, he attacks my fingers.

I’ve had to delete and re-type this line seven times for that reason.

There’s nothing I can do about this cat on my lap.

This is all on the cat.

I couldn’t go to the comedy show because of the cat.

I know I said I was going to come, and I know you were counting on me to perform, but when I sat down for seven seconds to check my email on my way out the door, guess what happened?

Cat. Lap.

And you can’t stand when there’s a cat on your lap because he needs to be pet.

Calm down! I know I ruined your show, and I’m sorry

I get that you’re mad. – I’d be mad too – but you didn’t have a cat on your lap.

If you did, that means you’d probably be at my house, which means you wouldn’t have gone to the show either, which means you have no room to talk.

And I couldn’t even answer the emails anyway!

There was a cat on my lap.

The cat found the cursor on my computer screen and I discovered that I’m distracted by cats chasing computer cursors.

I know there was a deadline, but I have a disease where I physically cannot focus on sending emails when there’s a cat on my lap.

It isn’t diagnosed.

I don’t have a doctor’s note.

Because I couldn’t get to the doctor’s office, since there was a cat on my lap, but that proves that it’s a real thing.

And it’s why I’m just now sending a time-sensitive email, three days too late.

Again, not my fault.

Blame Wright Catterson.

That’s not my cat’s name.

Or maybe it is.

I never asked.

I just gave him an arbitrary name without asking him what his actual name is.

I’ve actually been wanting to adopt a cat for forever because I have an overwhelming mice infestation, but I never got around to it.

There was a cat on my lap.

When there’s a cat on your lap, it makes it hard to adopt a cat in the first place.

Especially a cat who would rather chase a computer mouse instead of actual mice.

YOU try to get a cat when there’s a cat on your lap being hilarious.

You can’t, so as a result, you get mice.

This is how the world works when you have a cat on your lap.

Wait a minute…

If I need to get a cat, then how is there even a cat on my lap in the first place?

There is no cat.

…I don’t have a cat.

I’ve never even owned a cat.

I’m not even sure how to pronounce “cat.”

The only reason I know how to spell it is because Microsoft Word didn’t give it the red underline.

The only reason I know that cats even exist is from cat videos on Facebook.

Which means, it was never the cat at all… it was me the whole time.

What a twist!

But wait a minute… that means…

I was the one attacking my own fingers.

I wasn’t petting a cat, I was petting myself

I was the one spending hours chasing the cursor.

I’m the one named Wright Catterson!

IT WAS ME THE WHOLE TIME!

And I was making excuses instead of doing what I needed to do to get what I want!

Oh man, what a waste of three months.

…And I blamed it all on that stupid cat that I made up…

That means I have reframe this with some new self-talk:

“What do I want?

What does it look like?

What am I telling myself that’s stopping me?

How is it stopping me?

What’s something new I can do?

What’s 1 action I can take to move me closer to what I want?

Now go do it, Wright Catterson!”

Do the same thing when you have a “cat” on your lap.

Because excuses don’t exist.

…And neither does my cat.

 

Let Loss Propel You Forward

In our lives, we experience love and loss – it’s inevitable. What isn’t inevitable is the growth that can come from even the worst of times. It isn’t about suppressing our emotions when something unexpected happens, it’s about leaning into those emotions and using the momentum to find ways to learn and grow from the loss. I’ve recently experienced loss, and I thought I would share what I’ve had to go through to become a better person because of it.

My JBL Bluetooth speaker is gone.
It wasn’t by my choice, although I suppose my choices led up to the moment it was taken from me.
And now I can’t get over this feeling of loss…
Of despair…
Of regret…
Sure, I could’ve left it locked away in the trunk of my car, but a speaker with that depth of sound quality deserves to be free, to experience the world as it was meant to be experienced.
It deserved to left on top of my car to experience the feeling of wind, the warmth of the sun, the chill of the rain.
Something that beautiful should never be locked away.
You were small, but your sound… your sound was enough to fill a room.
And you played it all without question… because music was your life.
I want to hear you sing again.
To tell jokes again.
Hell, I want you to turn off on your own when I need you during a presentation again – you had a real habit of doing that.
But you can’t.
I just… I just want to feel your cylindrical  shape in my hand again.
I want to be in one end of my house with you in the other, singing away, making it feel like you’re right beside me.
I want to see “JBL Flip 2” appear on my list of Bluetooth options and know that my Macbook will connect to you since you’re within range.
You were unlike any Bluetooth speaker I had ever owned, because I had never owned another Bluetooth speaker.
You were the one – it wasn’t supposed to end like this.
But you were taken.
Stolen.
Who knows where you are now, or if you’ll even get this, but I miss you.
I stopped listening to music altogether.
When I hear other speakers, they just make me think about what we had, and I weep.
Dad says I’ll be okay.
He says you were “just a speaker.”
To some, sure.
But to me, you were more than “just a speaker.”
You were a part of my life.
And you know you never forget your first.
It’ll take time.
I’m not ready to get out there and try other speakers, so I just ordered a cheap Chinese replacement.
My mail order speaker should be arriving soon, but it won’t be the same.
I hope I’ll learn to listen again – and soon.
Listen, I know I’m better because of you and I should focus on that.
What you taught me in all of those audiobooks and podcasts… you’ve made me grow.
I learned so goddamn much from you, and for that, I’m incredibly grateful.
You’ll live on through me.
And together, with my new Chinese partner, our story will be told, and the world will be better because you were in it.

I’ll make sure of it.