“The things that strikes us as funny have the power to set us free.” – Ron Jenkins, author of Subversive Laughter
Although subversive, “unsafe” humor should never be encouraged in the workplace, its presence can be advantageous. Why? Because for humor to be effective, there has to be some truth present.
Of course, humor is silly and facts may get wildly exaggerated, but if there isn’t at least a smidgen of truth in the humor, it is not effective. You should listen carefully, then, for the underlying truth spoken in subversive humor. If everyone is laughing about a certain issue, there’s probably a good reason. If employees, for example, are continually exchanging Dilbert cartoons, it could be useful to see which topics are the most popular.
Subversive or cynical humor usually tries to diminish a powerful or unknown opponent. In a large organization, subversive humor can give power to employees who may feel powerless to effect any real change in the workplace. This style of humor is sometimes the only way that employees can level the hierarchical playing field in a dysfunctional organization.
Knowing there is an element of truth in all humor, you can use humor quite effectively to draw out the repressed feelings of employees. Many organizations, for example, hold skits during annual conferences or staff retreats, where employees act out different scenarios or play different members of the executive team. These are often events where people let their guard down and truly express what is on their minds. People feel more free to speak out through humor because of the context of the situation and the fact they are playing a part. These are perfect opportunities not just to laugh, but to open up communication channels and read between the humor lines to find out what the real workplace issues are.
In an interview in The Humor Project publication Laughing Matters, Dilbert creator Scott Adams describes a great example of how one organization is using subversive humor as a positive tool. The company has established a “Dilbertization Committee,” whose function is to locate and eradicate any behavior that could end up being described in a Dilbert cartoon. (Incidentally, there’s a wonderful verb now commonplace in many corporate offices: to be “Dilberted” is to be oppressed or exploited by a boss.)
In a similar vein, both the 1996 Bob Dole and Bill Clinton U.S. presidential campaign teams monitored the late-night talk shows to see what David Letterman and Jay Leno joked about when it came to their respective candidates. By monitoring the humor, they could tap into what issues were on voters’ minds or see how certain statements were being interpreted. For example, Letterman joked: “A lot of people would look at a glass of water as half full, some as a glass half empty. Bob Dole looks at a glass and says, ‘Man what a great place to put my dentures.’” For the Dole campaign team, jokes like this signaled the need to convince voters that his age was not a concern.
On a grander scale, subversive humor has given a voice to people throughout history who were powerless to express their ideas any other way. As early as 400 BC, Aristophanes, the first comedic playwright of note, scripted plays that dealt with sensitive public issues in a humorous light. Centuries later, comedians like Rick Mercer, from the television program This Hour Has 22 Minutes, has used humor to lampoon big banks as a way of deflating their power and providing a voice to people who feel powerless against corporate monoliths.
Here are more examples (many of them are described in greater detail in Ron Jenkin’s fascinating book, Subversive Laughter) of how subversive humor has given a voice to people’s concerns and leveled the playing field under some very oppressive situations.
– In Charlie Chaplin’s first talkie, the classic The Great Dictator, Chaplin plays dual roles as a persecuted, but spirited, ghetto barber and the hapless, ego maniacal dictator Adenoid Hynkle of Tomania. This 1940 film is a satire of Hitler and the rise of the Nazi regime. The film lampoons the Nazi party and paints Hynkle (Hitler) as a foolish, ignorant, vain and clumsy autocrat. In one memorable scene, Hynkle prances around the room bouncing a giant globe as he dreams of world domination. Hynkle has assistants to lick his envelopes for him and at one point proudly proclaims, “Once the world is rid of Jews, then we can get rid of the brunettes.” The film, while making us laugh, also reveals the utter stupidity and senselessness of the tragedy unfolding in Europe. By using subversive humor, Chaplin was able to psychologically diminish the power of Adolph Hitler. At the end of the film, Chaplin steps out of character and delivers an impassioned speech full of heart and anger, pleading to stop the madness. The speech was so powerful, Chaplin was asked to repeat it later on national radio. Subversive humor like this, working through our funny bone, helps us confront an issue we may otherwise not wish to see.
– Clowns in Bali regularly perform at state functions and the politicians take the clowns underlying messages seriously, which often poke fun at modernization and the ongoing threats of cultural and military invasions.
During the Middle Ages traveling storytellers in Italy were known for their defiant comic spirit against social injustices.
– Clown-led rallies and parades demonstrated against apartheid in South Africa, while comedic theatrical plays helped to expose apartheid to the world.
American slaves used humor and parody as a form of defiance.
– Prisoners of the Nazi occupation in Lithuania used humor to give them courage to fight for their freedom. Here, as in other situations, humor often replaced the need for actual physical violence.
Subversive humor, in short, can challenge our thinking, stir our emotions and diminish the authority of tyrannical figures. Subversive humor can sometimes cut to the heart of an issue with more finesse and power than any other form of communication. If, in oppressive regimes, subversive humor is the only voice people have to express their discontent and feel free, what does it say about workplaces where the dominant form of communication includes sarcasm, cynical jokes and politically subversive humor? What messages can be gleaned within the subversive humor in your workplace?
Michael Kerr is an international business speaker, trainer, and author of “You Can’t Be Serious! Putting Humor to Work,” “The Humor Advantage” and “Inspiring Workplaces.” You can reach Michael at 1-(866)-609-2640 or firstname.lastname@example.org . For more humor at work articles, DVDs and other humor at work resources, surf on over to www.mikekerr.com .
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