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Acceptable Humor: The Mark of a Professional

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How to navigate the minefield of good and bad taste.

At a recent Table Topics session, our Topicsmaster quoted a news clipping about someone who grafted an ear to his forehead in the name of art. A member responded: "We were asked if an ear grafted to the forehead was art. Technically, it's called Forehead Art...or F-ART. Which gives you my answer to whether or not it's art."

Oops. That joke crossed the invisible line separating appropriate humor from the inappropriate. Did I talk to the person who presented the joke? Well...No. I thought it would look strange if I were talking to myself. After I delivered the punchline, I decided I should have crossed the joke off my list. I had other things to say and I certainly didn't need one more joke.

But once it leaves the lips, there's no calling it back. Of course the joke wasn't gross or obscene. I didn't say the word; I only spelled it. The audience laughed. It's not really a joke about bodily functions. It made a point in a subtle and light-hearted way. It had great humor structure; a solid joke followed with two toppers (punchlines riding on the wave of the first joke). I'm really good at rationalizing and justifying. Most of us are. If only I had asked the right question, it would have saved me from crossing the line.

Here is the question that would have helped me self-censor that joke:

"Would I use this joke if I were delivering it at a corporate event where I was paid a substantial fee as the guest speaker?" This is one litmus test I could use to arrive at a "No" answer for the forehead-art joke. Other relevant questions would disqualify the joke as well, but the "corporate test" is a good measure of appropriateness. Humor presented at a Toastmasters meeting should meet the professional mark of the corporate-test question.

I learn by doing and by making mistakes. I can't think of a better place to stumble than at a Toastmasters meeting! When it comes to humor, the older I get, the more conservative I become. This growth and learning is not a function of age, it's a result of experience. Let me share some lessons I've learned along the way. You'll benefit because the best way to learn is from other people's mistakes...even if they're mine.

Let's look at some critical questions. These will help guide you through the minefield of good and bad taste. Some questions lead you to making the right choice. Some questions take you down the wrong path.

• Are there humor danger zones? The riskiest areas for humor include sexual references, bodily functions, body parts and classic four-letter words. These should be off limits at any Toastmasters functions, including humorous speech contests. Danger zones also dance around humor in the areas of race, religion and politics. And let's add gun control, gay marriage and doctor-assisted suicide. We could add more.

It's possible to safely cross the line in these areas, but it takes a higher level of skill and awareness, and I would normally recommend not taking the chance. Am I saying you can't speak on doctor-assisted suicide? No, I'm suggesting not presenting those topics in a humorous speech...unless you have the bomb squad standing by. Make choices to avoid bombing.

• Are there some audience members who just wait to have their hot buttons pushed? Yes. Sometimes it's one of those red-flag words that will strike someone the wrong way. Sometimes it's the listener's personality that makes him or her easily offended. I received an e-mail from a Toastmaster who reads my newsletter. He said, "I was delivering a speech and I had the audience in a great state until I said the word 'prostitution.'" Sometimes just one word will do it.

• So what's the problem? Here is the inner dialogue we have when we pose that question: "The joke wasn't that bad. People shouldn't be so sensitive. It was only a word. Only a person with issues would have been offended." Just because you don't have their issues, that doesn't make it open season on disregarding other people's sensitivities. As best you can, you need to be in touch with the yardstick the audience uses to measure good taste. Sometimes it's a line drawn in the sand - identifying it is more art than science.

• How many people need to be offended for it to be too many? This question will not help you pin down the appropriateness of a joke. What if only one person was offended? Is that too many? What if the person offended is just waiting to be offended? There are some people who will always find something in your speech that is inappropriate...because it's their job. You could change your speech, but that won't necessarily be the answer for the one offended. I don't lose sleep worrying about that rare person.

On the other hand, there are times when offending one person is definitely one too many. I attended a program, as an audience member, where a speaker handled sensitive humor very skillfully. With two speakers on the program, the first was a woman who talked about the challenges of being a large woman in a thin society. She was a very funny speaker and skillfully poked fun at herself. Near the end of her program she sang a song. The second speaker, referred to the women's speech this way: "Her program was so wonderful, I never wanted it to end. I felt really bad when she started singing. Because as we all know, it's over when the fat lady sings." Then he added, "I asked her if it was OK to say that."

Two things were involved here. First, he had the good sense to check with the other speaker to see if she was comfortable with the joke. Based on the humor in her speech, it was a good bet that she wouldn't have a problem with his line. But it would have been a big mistake to assume that since she poked fun at herself, it would be okay for someone else to do it. Second, it let the audience know that the first speaker was "in on the joke" and not simply the butt of the joke. This helped make the joke more acceptable to the woman who was the subject of the joke. When a joke is coordinated with someone ahead of time, usually they love it even more because they feel they were part of the process that created the joke. To my knowledge, no one was offended.

Who is the ultimate judge? I remember a regular performer at a comedy club in Montgomery, Alabama, where I often performed on Open-Mike Night in the early 1980s. One night, after a bad set, the comic confided in me: "The audience bombed!" Not exactly. Although he was normally funny, on that night, he bombed. Don't be too fast to blame the audience. If a joke book falls open in the woods and nobody is there - is it funny? No. It takes an audience for something to be funny. And it takes an audience for something to be offensive. They're also the primary judge of good taste. We're not talking about a majority vote here. If only 10 percent of the audience thinks your humor is inappropriate, the judge and jury have spoken and you have a problem.

• Did the audience laugh? This is never a measure of appropriateness of a joke. Surprisingly, it's not even a measure of its comic value. An inappropriate joke can often get laughs simply for its shock value. One reason people laugh is to relieve tension. If a joke causes them to be uncomfortable, they laugh as a result of the tension. You'll sometimes hear laughter when a joke is not appropriate and not funny. You could get laughs and never be asked back to speak just because they laughed.

• What do other people do? Comedy club performers often fall victims to Monkey-See-Monkey-Do. They see other comics using obscene material and they follow their example. We can fall into that trap at a Toastmasters meeting. It's possible for a club meeting to drift just a bit over the line of good taste. People make the mistaken conclusion that slightly crossing the line of good taste is perfectly okay. Before you know it, things can go from bad to worse. Just because something becomes common practice does not make it a measure of what's right.

• Isn't innuendo acceptable? If you hint at or insinuate something, that's OK only if saying the same thing clearly and directly is also all right. At a recent club meeting, one of our members asked that cell phones be turned off or set to vibrate. And then he added: "If anything other than a cell phone is vibrating, we don't want to know about it." To most people, this would be sexual innuendo. Would it be acceptable, at a professional meeting, to specifically say what he was inferring? Clearly not. Innuendo is not acceptable when it's used to suggest something that would normally be off limits to say directly. Cloaking the unacceptable in subtle wording is no defense.

• Am I trying too hard? A person who tries too hard to be funny is often tempted to cross the line of good taste. The rule of less is more applies to humor. Develop the ability to censor your humor ideas to eliminate the not-so-funny and the not-so-appropriate. You want to develop the reputation of someone who is funny and clean every time he or she speaks. That's the target. The alternative is being someone who is funny part of the time. Or someone who uses clean humor some of the time. Not good. Set your goal high. Although you may occasionally and inadvertently miss the target, the fact is that high standards are the foundation for your professional reputation.

• How should you practice? A California comedy improv troupe, where I occasionally played as a guest, had the habit of using a warm-up game called R-Rated Limericks. Although their goal was to produce a totally clean show for their audiences, they felt they could get the off-color jokes out of their systems during rehearsal warm-ups. I personally don't think that is a good idea. You should practice the way you play. I've been directing my own improv troupe for 12 years. At our weekly workshop we try to keep everything as clean as though it were a public performance. In the same spirit, we should strive to keep every Toastmasters meeting in good taste. It builds the right kind of habits.

• What is the opinion of people you respect? Get feedback from the Toastmasters you admire. My club, Powerhouse Pros in Las Vegas, Nevada, has many members who give insightful feedback. We have an observational humor segment in our meeting which potentially produces borderline jokes as speakers offer a variety of comments on everyday life. Whenever you are creating fresh, untested humor, you run the risk of unintentionally crossing the line of good taste. To help us stay on top of that issue, we design the meeting so that the observational humor part of the meeting comes before the general evaluator's closing remarks. We expect the general evaluator to critique the appropriateness of the humor.

Recently, we had a meeting where three of the jokes were a bit over the line - not obscene, but enough to make a few people uncomfortable. I sensed the president's discomfort when he called for guest comments at the very end of the meeting. No one spoke up about the questionable humor. As the next meeting's agenda was prepared, I asked for five minutes on the program to talk about the previous meeting's humor. We need to actively seek feedback and give feedback to help keep us on track.

Do speech contests have different standards from club meetings? No. Sometimes we see competitors cross the line of good taste. This creates the illusion that it might be acceptable to do that in a contest. Remember Monkey-See-Monkey-Do? Don't let the risky contest behavior of others lead you to think that the standards are different from a regular club meeting. They are not.

One reason people push the limits in a speech contest is that presenting five-to-seven minutes of humor is a greater challenge than just getting a laugh or two at a regular meeting. In an effort to fill a speech with humor, some speakers take the easy road, using borderline humor.

Another reason people might push the limits in a contest: If you can skillfully master the challenge of walking the tightrope, it will probably be very funny. Let me share two contest speeches where I pushed the edge:

The first speech was a winner in a District Humorous Speech Contest. The speech had a 33 percent response rate. For every minute I was in front of the audience, they laughed for 20 seconds. That's funny. I had sprinkled sexual innuendo throughout the speech. I never said anything directly, but hinted at lots of things that wouldn't have been acceptable to say directly. After winning the district contest, I included that speech as part of my professional performances, and concluded that it just wasn't a fit for a business audience. I didn't know in 1983 what I now understand about innuendo failing the corporate-test question. It was great (even tame) material for a comedy club, but inappropriate for a Toastmasters or business audience.

The second speech - fast-forward about two decades - was on another edgy topic. The theme was: How To Succeed In Business by Going To Work Naked. Some Toastmasters would insist that such a topic could never win a Toastmasters speech competition. I won the district contest. Here was the challenge: Write a speech about going to work naked and never mention sex, body parts, or bodily functions. And no innuendo. What's left? A funny 7-minute speech. The challenge was going beyond the cheap and easy laughs and working hard to construct a speech based on truly funny relationships. I avoided jokes used simply for the shock value. I'll have to admit, my favorite line was one I couldn't use. But even when you're keeping it totally clean, there's the risk that a small number of people in the audience who, upon just hearing the word naked, will have steam coming out their ears and will stop listening. And some of them might be judges. That's the risk.

The reward is that I had a speech that was considered funny and in good taste by nearly everyone else in the room. The line is never clearly and firmly drawn. If you're going to dance near the line, you'll need to work really hard to keep the material funny for the right reasons. For me it's a challenge and a rewarding growth experience. Do I recommend that you push the limits? Only if you also have more than 20 years experience as a professional humor performer. Otherwise, I recommend that you curb what will disturb.

• How do I sharpen my skills to create good humor? First, practice at your club meetings. Try to use one piece of humor at every meeting. Second, become a lifelong student of humor. Study books that focus on creating and delivering funny lines. Analyze joke books that provide good, clean humor. I recommend you use joke books primarily as a source of inspiration to help you create your own original humor lines. We grow in baby steps and you won't be a headliner at a comedy club tomorrow. But with the right focus and practice you'll start to earn the reputation of a speaker who is funny.

Here are some resources:

  • Comedy Writing Secrets by Melvin Helitzer

  • The Comedy Bible by Judy Carter

  • Comedy Writing Workbook by Gene_Parret

  • 2100 Laughs for All Occasions by Robert Orben

  • Milton Berle's Private Joke File by Milton Berle

  • Museumofhumor.com by Malcolm Kushner

• What if I'm not sure if something crosses the line? When in doubt, leave it out. Period.

Often it's a fine line between keeping it clean and being offensive. Sometimes it's just a question of good judgment. I've been studying and using humor from the platform for 30 years. As each year passes, I believe more strongly that keeping your humor clean is the way to go. I've made the mistake in the past, more than once, of assuming that I can take more liberties with "this audience" - and have normally been wrong. I know that some speakers like the challenge of staying in good taste while still pushing it close to the edge. Depending on your experience level, you may find taking that risk is like flying on a trapeze without a safety net.

Always avoid going for the easy and cheap laugh. Work on your craft and become funny not because of your censor-worthy content, but because of your comedic craft. Be funny not because you shock, but because you shine. Be funny for the right reasons and you'll stand out as a pro.

By John_Kande

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