Former cabinet minister and current Newfoundland and Labrador Lt.-Gov. John Crosby got roasted this week after making an offensive joke during a speech. The joke, involving Pakistani call centers and suicide bombers, to me sounded like a joke he lifted from an internet site or nightclub comedian. And although the audience laughed, when word of the joke spread, other people didn’t find the humor in the joke. In other words, the bombing joke bombed with the general public.
In his defense, Crosby said he likes to be entertaining in his speeches. Having seen many politicians speak firsthand, I’m glad he for one recognizes the value in being a little entertaining, as trust me, many do not.
His classic mistake, still made by far too many CEOs, politicians and public figures, was to reach for an old, and worse still, offensive joke, as the means of upping the humor. Often a very bad move.
The first challenge with using any joke is that they are far too often recycled, so chances are that folks in your audience will have heard the joke before – never a good thing.
The second challenge with jokes is that, unless you write the joke yourself, they rarely have the ring of authenticity to them – they do very little to help enhance your own authentic voice while speaking.
The third challenge is ensuring they are relevant and have a point to them. Not having heard Crosby’s entire speech, it’s difficult to know if he was trying to make some bizarre point with the joke, or if the joke related to the topic of his speech.
And of course the final challenge is finding jokes that won’t offend someone. Certainly comedians such as Jerry Seinfeld and Jay Leno have shown that there are thousands of jokes out there that touch on safe territory. But there are even more jokes circulating, especially on the omnipresent internet that will potentially lead you into murky seas.
Some commentators have remarked on how loud the audience laughed at Crosby’s joke, suggesting that perhaps that indicates the joke wasn’t so bad and people need to lighten up and massage their funny bone a bit. But did people really laugh because they found it funny, or were they simply being polite and respectful towards an elderly public figure? Hard to know, but it’s worth keeping in mind General Norman Schwarzkopf’s observation that he became much funnier as he rose through the ranks.
So my advice for practicing safe humor? Consider the venue, the audience, the timing and whether or not your speech is being broadcast across an entire nation before trying an untested joke. And if you want to keep the humor totally safe, then laugh at yourself first and foremost. If you laugh at yourself you take away anybody’s ability to laugh at you.
Michael Kerr, November, 2011, www.mikekerr.com
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