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

Taking Short-Term Risks for Long-Term Reward

When competing in a comedy competition, it’s wise to use safe material, that is, material that you KNOW works with crowds of all shapes and sizes. But as a performer, sometimes hitting the same laugh lines over and over can get exhausting and feel less rewarding.

I was in a comedy competition in New York City last week, and the rules stated that if you advance to the next round, you can’t use any of the material you had already used. I have three ten-minute sets that have historically held up in front of all kinds of crowds, so I initially planned on using these three sets. But once I moved on from the first round to the semifinals and was prepared to use my second killer set, I called an audible at the last second.

I had thought of some new jokes a few days prior and was itching to try them out in front of a live audience. Sure, I knew set number two was going to work, but I had been milking that set for so long (see what I did there?), my itch to be creative won out.

I tried an entire new set in the semifinals and failed to move on to the finals.

You’re probably thinking, “What’s the point of writing a post about taking risks when the risk you took didn’t pay off?”

The point is that, sure, I suffered a short-term setback.

Sure, after opening up my set strong, the next two minutes fell painfully flat, with little to no laughter from the audience. But after lightheartedly drawing attention to this elephant in the room, the rest of the set concluded strong.

The moment I got off stage, I knew I wasn’t moving on in the contest, but it felt liberating to try out something new.

The next day, I listened back to my set, took notes, made adjustments, then worked out the material at three open mics. By the time the third one rolled around, I had a fully functional, laugh-worthy set ready to go.

It killed.

Even though I fell flat during the second round of the competition, I now have a brand new ten minute set that I can confidently take to the stage, knowing I can get laughs.

When we play it safe, eventually it becomes rote, routine, and incredibly boring, even if at one point it was rewarding. When we take risks, life becomes much more exciting, it’s just important to remember that when we fall short of our goals the first time, it isn’t the end of the world. There’s always a chance to learn, improve, and achieve that internal (and external) reward by adjusting and adapting. Don’t let taking a risk stop you when the reward can be that much greater.

What’s one risk you can take that makes you feel uncomfortable? What’s the potential long-term reward if you see it through?

Humor and Grief: Putting the ‘FUN’ in Funerals

When a close relative of yours gets murdered, it shakes the foundation of your existence; it can send you on a downward spiral of depression, dependency, and regret. One of the toughest moments of my life was learning of the passing of my aunt, Kristie, at the hands of her own daughter – my cousin Taylor. I was lying in bed around 7 AM after a late night of shock and questioning reality – we had already known Kristie had been killed, but when we went to bed, we didn’t know the culprit – when my dad burst into my room with hate in his voice, declaring, “Taylor did it.”

My first thought was, “Christmas is going to be awkward this year.” I stopped myself from laughing: “This isn’t the time to make jokes.” The next few weeks were miserable – every day we learned more and more gruesome details about the murder. If you were to drive by our house, it would’ve been the one with the black cloud hovering above it. You always hear people say things like, “That kind of stuff happens on the news, it doesn’t happen to us,” so none of us really knew how to cope. We spend a lot of time together, consoling and comforting one another. In college at the time, I confronted my vulnerability by skipping two straight weeks of class – the only percentage I got was the .09 I blew into a breathalyzer. Needless to say, none of the family could find a way out of the black hole we were stuck in… until the funeral. That’s when I finally gave in to the humor of the whole situation.

During the eulogy, the minister said, “This is a celebration of life!” I don’t know about you, but when I hear the word “celebration,” I think “party,” and not one person was partying. Besides, if you were to invite me to a party, then inform me it’s at a church, everyone would be crying, and the DJ would be bagpipes, I’d politely decline. And one more thing: he called it a “celebration of life…” with a dead body in the middle of the room – you couldn’t get more contradictory. That’s like having an open bar at a sobriety party. I had to laugh – and the moment I did, it was like a weight was lifted off of my chest. I began to notice even more incongruities: the first three letters in ‘funeral’ are ‘F-U-N,’ Kristie found joy in the happiness of others and, ironically enough, EVERYONE THERE WAS CRYING, and a stranger no one there had ever met sobbed uncontrollably into the microphone for five minutes, blubbering on about how he wished more people had known Kristie, while we wondered who the hell knew who that guy was.

In the face of tragedy was the moment I realized the power laughter has over our fears, stress, and sadness. But it shouldn’t come as such a shock: science has known this for some time now

A study from the University of Berkeley, bereaved widows and widowers able to laugh about their loss were observed to be happier, better equipped to deal with distress, and better socially adapted.

A study done at Kent State and reported in the American Journal of Hospice and Palliative Care revealed that humor was present in 85 percent of 132 observed nurse based visits. Amazingly, they found that 70 percent of the humor was initiated by the patient.

Humor provides us with relief, not by washing away bad feelings, but by activating them, along with positive ones, so that we can enjoy a complex emotional experience. Tragic circumstances are an effective breeding ground for humor because they provide the same release as horror movies, allowing the participants to confront their emotions head-on.       –Scott Weems (author of Ha! The Science of When We Laugh and Why)

How have you used humor in the face of tragedy? How have you helped others experiencing tragedy, trauma, or even just a bad day smile?

Each of us has had a “Christmas is going to be awkward this year,” lean into it and let yourself laugh.

 

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.

Comedy Creates Connection

Comedy: it’s more than just making people laugh – there are real life lessons that can be learned, and I just learned an important one this past weekend that I felt compelled to share: it doesn’t matter how funny you are, if you don’t make a connection with your audience (your customers), they can’t be invested in you.

I learned this the hard (fun) way this past weekend.

Last Friday and Saturday, I was hosting a comedy show featuring a musical comedian at a comedy club in Akron. As the host, it’s my job to set the tone for the show, so I had spent the week at open mics both working on my material and riffing with audiences. Then Friday night came around… I was instructed by the club owner to promote upcoming shows, so that’s how I kicked off the show.
“Give it up for yourselves for coming out!”
They cheer.
“Now, coming up next week is Jim Florentine from VH1’s That Metal Show! The following week is Dave Landau who has been a special guest on The Bob and Tom Show! Anyone here listed to Bob and Tom?”
Crickets.
“Well you should. They’re hilarious.”
Crickets.
Side note: I don’t even listen to Bob and Tom.
That was me trying to force a connection, but still not listening to the crowd. That’s not how you connect with people.
Now what? Do I stand up here and keep trying crowd work? I’m 0 for 1, that can only mean it’s going to get worse. I know! I’ll perform my set for them.
Before the show I went through all of my jokes and decided on the ones that would tie into the narrative of humans being too comfortable with the status quo to make meaningful change. For example, we call a peanut a nut when it’s actually a legume, Gettysburg will never be a progressive town because they can’t stop reminiscing over the glory days – you know, The Civil War – and the Cleveland Indians calling themselves Indians when their logo is clearly Native American – two distinct races.
It turns out the audience wasn’t there to laugh at thought-provoking humor. The headlining comedian used crude acoustic parodies of well-known songs, including Christmas carols, and the audience ate it up. I couldn’t believe it! What was I doing wrong??
“But I do smart comedy!” I reasoned to myself, “I challenge the status quo!”
If you went to see Bruce Springsteen in concert, but a world yo-yo champion was his opening act, you’d be like, “I’m not here to see this guy walk the dog, I want to hear about the glory days.”
So sure, I got some laughs, including one big laugh at my Indians joke (appropriate since the team was in the playoffs at the time), but I never fully connected with the people in the room, and it was a little disheartening to begin the show on a dud.

I approached one of the other, more experienced comedians for pointers on how to more effectively open a show and get the audience riled up.
“Ask if anyone has a Birthday or anniversary and comment on that… and listen for the blender at the bar. Someone always orders a frozen margarita during the opening act. Commenting on that always gets a laugh.”
Noted.
Back on stage again: “Anyone celebrating anything?”
No one. Oh, great. Time to go into my routine – surely the first audience just didn’t get it and the second audience would be much better.
Nope.
Again, I got some laughs, but I was missing that ever-important connection… then the blender went off.
“If anyone needs a root canal, they’re doing them for cheap at the bar.”
Everyone laughed!
“This place has it all: comedy, cocktails, and clean teeth!”
Another laugh.
This was it! Time to ride the momentum train into the rest of my set!
“Did you realize human beings are the only animal to drink the milk of another animal?”
Just as quickly as I got them back, I lost them again, and it deflated me. What was happening?
Lightbulb: I wasn’t listening to them! They came to hear jokes about balls, and here I am telling them about the potential of Gettysburg before the Civil War.
Connection begins when you listen, and I forgot this vital rule of human interaction because I was so focused on getting laughs, rather than working together with the room to create an experience.
The first show the next night got off to a promising start – there was a Birthday and it was at a front table full of women – perfect – they’re probably wasted and I can have some fun at their expense.
“Do any pre-gaming at the Red Fox next door?”
They didn’t, so I asked what they were drinking.
“Vodka cranberries!”
“Ah, the vodka cranberry: the vodka cranberry of cocktails.”
I’m not proud to admit that that got a much bigger laugh than I expected, but hey, a laugh’s a laugh, right?
“Pam’s drinking beer!” Another woman at the table chimed in.
“I like beer,” Pam added. The second she said that, the next few words slipped out of my mouth and into an abyss of silence:
“So does Brett Cavanaugh.”
I didn’t read the room… this was a conservative audience, and that could be construed as a liberal joke.
That wasn’t my intention at all, but it’s how the audience read the joke, and just like that, I lost them. The rest of the set went okay, but I never felt a true connection with the people in the room.

One more show, one more chance.
“Anyone celebrating anything?”
“17th anniversary!”
“17! Give em a round of applause, everyone!” Applause break.
“I can’t make it past two years, but I just got into a relationship. If I’m lucky, in 17 years we’ll be catching a show at this comedy club together too.”
That got a laugh – off to a good start. After some riffing that included the rest of the crowd, it was time to go into my set, which I updated to be a little more off-color.

“When I was a kid, I used to get picked on for my last name. I resisted it because no one wants to be known as the horny kid when they’re ten. It’s a hard reputation to shake off.”
Starting the set with this was the first step to audience connection – it’s what they wanted – but when I felt myself beginning to lose that connection, like when I began a new joke on the absurdities of Tinder, I listened and recreated that connection. “Anyone in here on Tinder?” No one made a sound.
“Next joke.” Everyone laughed, including me. That’s what a real connection feels like.
Although it wasn’t my best set, the key is that I maintained that connection and got some good laughs, keeping the audience invested all the way through my ten minutes of time onstage.
The headliner approached me after I got off stage, “Great set, man. This is going to be a good show.”
If you want to get what you want, you have to look at it from the other person’s perspective and ask yourself, “What is it they want?” first. It took me three shows to remember this, but once I did, it led to me performing the best 10 minutes of comedy in my life, opening up for a national headliner in front of 100 people the next night.

By investing our energy into seeing the world through the eyes of others, we create connection, and once that connection is created, others will be more invested in us.