Some Thoughts on Applied Humor
Sam Ervin, who presided over the largely unfunny Senate Watergate hearings, wrote: "Humor endows us with the capacity to clarify the obscure, to simplify the complex, to deflate the pompous, to chastise the arrogant, to point a moral, and to adorn a tale." *
Pretty powerful stuff, humor.
In many ways the world right now is not a very funny place and the world of business seems particularly morose. But at times like these a dose of humor can be especially good and welcome medicine.
I have had the pleasure of writing a lot of "applied humor" for my corporate clients -- including videos, speeches, gags and web stuff. I've written song parodies, funny hats, matchbooks, menus, and cocktail napkins, too.
Here are some things I've learned:
1) Humor is hard work.
"Funny" is fun to do, but it's hard work -- and important work. James Thurber once wrote of playwrights that they, "...seem to have fallen for the fake argument that only tragedy is serious and has importance, whereas the truth is that comedy is just as important, and often more serious in its approach to truth, and, what few writers seem to realize or to admit, usually more difficult to write." Amen, Jim!
2) First define your objectives.
I love humor for its own sake, but at the risk of appearing cynically commercial, I have to say that the worst excuse for making a funny business video or a wacky break-out skit is to "spice-up" a dull presentation.
If you're going to make yuck-yucks on company time why not do it in a way that offers some kind of return on investment? Define some specific objectives for your funny business. Create something brilliant that serves a purpose.
3) Comedy is an inherently dangerous sport.
Laughter can be cathartic, but attempts at humor can lead to painful injuries including severe embarrassment, abrasions of the ego, and compound fractures of the corporate image.
Much of what passes for humor on television is little more than cruelty masquerading as wit. Insults may draw wild hoots of appreciation from the studio audience, but they're the lowest form of comedy.
The old saw goes, "If I fall into a hole, that's tragedy; if YOU fall into a hole, that's comedy." But if the humor derives from my pushing you into a hole, that is tragedy indeed. It is also entirely too easy, and a I said above, "humor is hard work."
Real humor sparkles with humanity. So think hard about the risk of offending others -- even your company's competitors. Be gentle. Don't be small. Don't be nasty. Don't be mean.
4) Know when to quit, then quit.
Walter Savage Landor [1775 - 1864] was a renowned, if irascible, English poet and essayist. He advised humorists: "Of all failures, to fail in a witticism is the worst, and the mishap is the more calamitous in a drawn-out and detailed one." Shakespeare put it more succinctly in Hamlet, "Brevity is the soul of wit."
What's funny once can become tedious. When a joke gets old, it dies. Be merciful. Pull the plug.
Finally, I should like to say something about originality: I highly approve of it.
5) Be original.
For some of the funny videos I've made, have a look at: "Applied Industrial Strength Humor"
*Sam Ervin, Humor of a Country Lawyer, 1983
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