Observational Humor — Case Study #1

My regular Toastmasters Club meeting serves as a visit to the gym.  It’s where I exercise and strengthen my observational humor skills.  It’s always a good workout.  If you’re not familiar with Toastmasters, it’s an organization which helps members to become better speakers (www.Toastmasters.org).

One of the special things, included in our club’s meeting agenda, is a segment near the end of the meeting called The Observational Minute.  During that part of the meeting the Observational Humor Master rises and asks for contributions of observational humor from the audience.  It’s always a fun point of the meeting.   Last night’s meeting was no exception.

Here’s a taste of the observational humor I created and shared last night.  For it to make sense, I’ll need to give you the situation or setup (what happened at the meeting), before I share the lines with you.  And then I’ll analyze some of the lines.

Keep in mind that observational humor is powerful because it’s customized for a specific audience. 

“You-had-to-be-there” is an expression which underscores what gives observational and spontaneous humor such impact.  Consequently the lines which were funny at the club meeting are presented here NOT to make you laugh.  Putting this on paper is like a laboratory experience.  To paraphrase EB White: Examining humor is like dissecting a frog, it dies in the process.  But we learn from it.  Learning and growth is the reason I share this with you.

The Set Up

Here is how the meeting flowed (not everything, just the background you need to understand the humor that follows).

1. The Toastmaster of the evening (the MC) was Steve Pavlina (www.StevePavlina.com).  He had done his homework and did a terrific job of weaving fun into the entire meeting. 

2. Our meetings normally have a theme chosen by the Toastmaster of the Evening.  Steve chose a very unusual theme:  “Being John Kinde.”  He chose that theme because, two days earlier, I had won the Area level speech contest.  I expected the meeting to feel like a roast, and in some respects it had a touch of that. 

3. The word of the day was Jocularity.  A good choice for the theme of the evening.

4. Bill Jacky, in the opening of the meeting, suggested turning off all cell phones.  He mentioned that he had once been embarrassed by his cell phone ringing while he was singing in a church choir.

5. President Ron Lewison, recovering from Bell’s Palsy (which caused loss of control and drooping of the right side of his face) made the self-observation that he was still “Half-Faced.”

6. Steve circulated copies of the agenda which featured my photo, the entire size of the page, screened and printed as the background to the entire agenda.

7. Steve followed his meeting theme by frequently referring to my varied background and the many jobs I’ve held.  Among others, these included blackjack dealer, improv director and nuclear weapons custodian.

8.  Steve mentioned the terms splitting and doubling down involved in playing blackjack.

9.  Steve told the group that immediately after the Area Contest I went to work as a blackjack dealer.

10. S Frank Stringham gave a speech which included some song lyrics.  Among them was “If you see a john…standing in the rain…” from a popular musical.  The song lines were not intended as a reference to me. 

11. In his speech, S also talked about Adam and Eve and the creation of the earth.

12. Steve commented on how, when a funny joke is told at the meeting, everyone will laugh but me.

13.  Steve mentioned that S laughs at his own jokes.

14.  John Bernstein said, during an evaluation of Randy Mitchell’s talk, that when speakers use self-deprecating humor, it causes him to like the speaker.

15. Steve suggested that Randy could improv his talk by using more enthusiasm.

16.  Randy mentioned that, based on Steve’s comments, it appears that I can’t keep a job.

In a nutshell, those are a few things that happened, at the meeting last night, which setup the jokes in my monologue which follows. 

The observational humor monologue. 

Note that my monologue followed about ten pieces of observational humor made by other members.  Only one of those humor lines duplicated one of the lines I had prepared. 

Lesson:  There is a wealth of situational humor out there.  You’ll catch some, and miss some.  Just know that it’s all around you and to keep your humor radar tuned.  I see observational humor only when I am precisely focused on that task.  And I don’t catch everything. 

Also note that every observational line in the monologue springs from something that was said or happened during the meeting.  No part of the monologue was prepared in advance.  For observational humor to be at its best, you need to be “in the moment.”  

Also note that while I pay attention to the flow and structure of the monologue (my note sheet is filled with deletions and arrows), I normally do not have time to hone the transitions between one line and the next.  It’s a lab experience and my goal is to try as many good lines as possible, creating the entire monologue as the meeting takes place.  It’s a good monologue. It received good response.  But a refined work of art is isn’t. 

With observational humor, you aren’t shooting for perfect.

Here’s the monologue with notes:

1.  (I have the reputation of being a low-key, laid-back speaker.  After I was introduced, I did my best to run to the front of the room with a loud voice and wild gestures.) Thank you for a wonderful meeting. (I threw my arms around Steve, hugged him and kissed him on the cheek.)  Finally a theme I can be good at…Being John Kinde (as I tried to be as un-John-Kinde as possible).

2. The theme of tonight’s meeting was “Everything You Never Asked About John Kinde…And Never Wanted to Know!”

3. (I turned and looked at John Bernstein:) “Was that enough self-deprecation for you to like me?” 

4.  It was mentioned that I can’t keep a job.  You don’t know the half of it.  I’ve also flown a fighter jet, played violin in an orchestra and worked ten years as a printer.  In a former life I was a Jock (gesturing to the word of the day sign, jocularity).  Then I was reborn as a boxer.  (Playing on the double meanings of jock and boxers, both are types of people and types of underwear.)

5.  Bill said that his cell phone went off when he was in a church choir.  What he didn’t tell you was that the embarrassing part was that his ring-tone was a song.  And it announced to the choir that he was a closet-fan of Gangsta Rap. (Note:  I looked for a disconnect between Church Choir and style of music.  Since I’m sure that Bill doesn’t listen to Gangsta Rap, I felt that it was outrageous enough to be safe to use.)

6.  Ron mentioned that he was half-faced.  At least nobody will ever accuse you of speaking out of both sides of your mouth.  (Note:  I then suggested, stepping out of the monologue, that when a speaker is dealing with an affliction, a good strategy is to find lines that take the stress out of the issue while you are speaking.  This will depend on the speaker.  And it will depend on his or her relationship to the audience.  I’m currently looking to blend some lines regarding Parkinson’s Disease into my talk, since that’s an issue I deal with.)

7.  (I held up an agenda sheet on which my head-shot photo was the prominent feature.) I have the feeling that tonight everyone’s dart board will be adorned with this.  (Note:  Again, self-deprecation.)

8.  I must have been in a strange mood after the Area Speech Contest.  When I got to work, I punched out an older woman.  She was sitting at my table and said, “Hit me!”  (Note:  This is a reference to blackjack where, when a player wants another card, they will sometimes say “hit me.”  That was one of the few blackjack terms that Steve had not used during his part of the program.)

8.  God created the earth in six days.  Then He said, “And it was good.”  He didn’t say, “And it was funny.”  That’s why I don’t laugh. (Note:  It came up twice during the meeting, and it’s a running gag in my club, that I don’t laugh out loud as often as everyone else does. Running gags are ripe targets for observational humor.)

9.  If you see a John…Standing in the rain…
     A Kinde it isn’t…Bernstein’s the name!
  (Note:  Taking advantage of the fact that I wasn’t the only John in the room.)

10. Steve, you suggested that Randy could have delivered his speech with more enthusiasm.  In his defense, he was trying to comply with the theme and he was just “being John Kinde.”  (Note:  I opened AND closed the monologue with self-deprecating humor.)

So there you have it.  Observational humor:  The set up.  The lines.  The analysis.  I hope you enjoyed it and picked up an idea or two you can use.