Archive for August, 2006

Humor Skills — Raising The Bar

Monday, August 28th, 2006

Voice of Experience.  It has been over twenty-five years since I performed in a comedy club.  My material was clean by comedy-club standards.  But my material also had an edge, often using innuendo to imply something that was not directly stated.  Since I was also performing for corporate clients in that same time period, I occasionally got the idea that the material that worked in the comedy club would also work well in the corporate setting.  More than once, I was wrong.  And I learned the hard way, by using a piece of material and having it received with lukewarm response.  I wish I could have taken a smart pill.  But instead I learned the hard way, from experience.  The more experienced I am, the more conservative I’ve become when it comes to tasteful material.

Copy Cat.  Oftentimes, people use off-color material because they see others use it and get big laughs.  I think many types of entertainers fall into that trap.  Magicians are no exception.  I’ve been performing magic for almost 50 years.  I’ve attended many magic conventions.  About twenty years ago I stopped going to conventions for about 15 years as I was focusing more on attending speaker conventions.  Five years ago, I attended my first magic convention is a long time. To be sure, they had raised the bar on magic as an art form.  And I could list many excellent magicians today who perform to high standards.  What caught me by surprise was the large amount of tacky, suggestive, sexual-charged and insulting humor that was used by a good many of the performers.  It wasn’t a new trend.  It all came back to me as my memory was refreshed.  And yes…I had been guilty of using a few of those lines 25 and 30 years ago.  Not totally obscene humor, mind you.  But just enough to be the kind of material considered unsuitable for today’s sophisticated business audiences. 

Monkey see.  Monkey do.  Keep in mind that just because somebody else is using a certain type of humor and getting laughs doesn’t mean that it’s classy material.  You need to make good choices if you want to be considered a professional.  Reflect on which names in the comedy business have really made it big.  Although you can name a few foul-language comics that have become somewhat successful, their numbers are small compared to the really successful names who have made it big on TV and in the movies.  Think Bill Cosby.  Story teller extraordinaire.  Squeaky clean.  Successful.  Rich.  Respected.  Influential.  His name is recognized by nearly everyone.  He’s a role model.  Besides, sophisticated, clean humor is a bigger challenge to write and deliver.  And more fun.

Play It Safe.  I was sitting at a blackjack table with two strangers last week.  At the table was a very elderly woman and also a man who was probably in his 50s.  He was wondering how old the woman was and was bold enough to ask.  The woman responded that she was 91 years old.  His response was:  “Oh my goodness, my grandmother was 91 when she died!  When you get to heaven, look her up and tell her I said hi.”  It struck me funny as I thought his comment was almost the same thing as saying:  “Oh my goodness, you’re almost dead!”  But I didn’t say a word.  I remembered that what might strike me as funny, may not be funny to someone else.  Always remember the perspective of your audience.  In this case, I’m sure the man meant well and might have been offended that someone would mis-interpret his comment.  And hopefully the older woman wasn’t offended in the first place and COULD have been offended by my observation.  I just enjoyed the humor in my own mind.  That was a safe choice.  It made me smile.  Some humor is best when kept to yourself.

Raise The Bar.  In our Las Vegas improv troupe, we have set the bar for our performances at a high level.  We take the stage with the expectation that every show will be suitable for a family audience.  In fact, there are usually several children in every audience.  Sure, we slip a little, occasionally.  But our shows are squeaky clean when compared to those of most troupes you might compare us to.  And we’re funny too.  As a speaker or performer, set your standards high.  You’ll appeal to a broader audience, earn laughs for the quality of your humor rather than simply for the shock value, and quite likely, you’ll make more money too.  Take the high road.

Using Humor — Getting Permission

Friday, August 25th, 2006

One of the principles of good humor in public speaking is the concept of Permission.  Let’s look several ways it comes into play when you’re presenting humor. 

 Member Of The Group.  If you’re telling a joke about Catholics and you’re not a Catholic, you could be treading on dangerous ground.  You’re not part of the group.  Likewise if you tell a joke about Jews, Buddhists, Hispanics, gays, the physically challenged, Asians, overweight people, short people, bald people, old people…and you’re not part of the group which is the subject of the joke, you’re taking your chances.  On the other hand, being part of the group quite possibly gives you permission to poke fun, since it appears that you are poking fun at yourself.  This can still be tricky territory.  But if I were to tell a North Dakota Norwegian Lutheran joke, making it known that I am one of them is an asset in making the joke fly.  Or telling an Asian joke, if I’m married to an Asian, that might be a factor in my favor.  Or a physically challenged joke, and if I’m in a wheel chair.  You get the idea.  Being a member of the club, so to speak, is a factor which may give you permission to explore humor in that social and cultural neighborhood.

Self-Deprecation.   Poking fun at yourself activates the element of Permission.  If you lightly laugh at yourself, put yourself down just a little, humanize yourself in front of an audience…the audience will like you and will be more likely to give you permission to poke fun at someone else.   “Well, it’s all in good-spirited fun.  He made fun of himself so I guess it’s ok to share the ribbing.”

Be The Target.  This is a principle involved when you set up some gentle humor in a formal introduction which you provide for your introducer to read just before you speak.  I always include at least one light humor line in my speaker introduction which shows that I don’t take myself too seriously.  This principle also works in Roasts.  When I’m a Roastmaster of the event, I design my introductions of the roasters to include at least one roast-like jab at their expense before they take the microphone.  Psychologically, this sets them up with Permission to poke fun at the guest of honor.  Make sense?

Ask The Question.  Sometimes you get permission by simply asking for it.  Let me share a few of stories. 

Fifteen years ago I presented a motivational program for a group in California.  In most of my programs I include customized, personalized humor based on inside information provided to me before the event.  I was told that one of the members of the group went on vacation to the same destination each year.  The inside joke was that she vacationed on Fantasy Island.  Based on my conversation with the person that supplied me with the inside information the material seemed safe.  I was wrong.  After the program the woman, who was the subject of the joke, approached the platform to tell me that she was unhappy that I had used that material in my talk.  She also said that she realized that the material was given to me by someone in the organization.  But that didn’t take me off the hook.  I was still fully responsible for everything in my speech.  I should have asked more questions ahead of time.  Perhaps I should have interviewed the woman who was the target of the joke.  I had interviewed five people from the organization, but not that woman.  After I walked out of the meeting hall, I immediately contacted the person who had hired me (and provided me with the information) about the complaint that I had received.  It was my job to keep him informed so that the situation could be dealt with in a responsible manner.  I was attending the school of damage control. We learn by making mistakes.

I was the MC of a birthday-party roast many years ago.  One of the bits of inside information provided to me was that one of the guests was soon to be married…for the fourth time.  He had been divorced three times.  Sounds like roast material.  Right?  Well, that depends.  The big question is: “Does the man, who is getting married for the fourth time, joke about the fact that that he’s been divorced three times?”  The only way to find out is to directly ask his friends.  And if you’re not sure after doing that, then ask the future groom himself.  The answer was yes, he laughs about it.  It seemed safe.  It played strong.

I remember attending a program, as an audience member, where a speaker handled humor around a sensitive issue very skillfully.  There were two speakers on the program.  The first speaker was a woman who talked about the challenges of being a large women in a thin society.  Near the end of her program she sang a song.  The second speaker was a man who used observational humor as a part of his program.  One of the lines he used referred to the excellent speech by the woman who spoke before him:  “Her program was so wonderful I never wanted it to end.   I really hated to hear her sing.  Because as we all know, It ain’t over ’till 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 the speech it was a good bet that she wouldn’t have a problem with it.  Second, it let the audience know that the first speaker was “in on the joke” and not simply the butt of the joke.  It was a piece of humor strategically well planned and executed.  Permission from the target of the joke.  Permission from the audience.

 As a side note:  Since a good part of the effectiveness of a joke is the element of surprise, it might seem that coordinating the joke with the person who was the intended target would take away from the effectiveness of the joke.  Not really.  99% of the audience will not have heard it until you deliver it.  And getting the permission from the individual involved is critical.  That person will normally enjoy the joke even more since he/she was a participant in the joke’s preparation.

 So when you’re presenting humor, keep in mind the principle of Permission.  It may help pave the way, so the jokes that follow will have a smooth ride.

Creative Writing and Humor Skills — Warning Labels

Tuesday, August 22nd, 2006

This month we featured a Warning Label Contest.  Writers were asked to create imaginary warning labels for products, people, or animals.  We received over two hundred entries.  Fourteen judges (speakers and improv players) voted for their favorite lines.  Here are the results:

**First Place**

WARNING:  This product is not intended to take the place of bathing.
     Cindy Tebo, Catawissa, MO

**Second Place**

Topless nightclub
WARNING:  Objects may appear larger than their natural size.
     Nancy Lininger, Camarillo, CA

**Third Place**

Jigsaw puzzles
WARNING:  Some assembly required.
     Caroline Lobo, Pittsburgh, PA

Honorable Mention (in random order)

Greatest Hits Karaoke Machine
WARNING:  The music is great, your singing may not be.
50% reduced fat and calories chocolate cake
WARNING:  Does not give you permission to eat double the serving size.
Australian Airport
WARNING:  Once you’re down under you may never get back up.

Single Men
WARNING:  Single male Party Animal may turn back into Couch Potato when wed.
WARNING:  At 13 may turn into ‘people’ and not need your hugs anymore.
WARNING:  May leak without warning.
Casino entrance
WARNING:  Gambling can be hazardous to your wealth.

Delivery room
WARNING:  Innocent babies can grow into intolerable teens.

Prescription Drugs
WARNING:  You may get healthy and have nothing to complain about.

Bottle Sleeping Pills
WARNING:  Once you get the protective wrap and childproof cap off, you will be so tired that you will fall right to sleep.

IRS agent business card
WARNING:  I’m not really your friend.

WARNING:  There are only 24 hours in the day – plan accordingly.

Voting Ballot
WARNING:  Anyone who would run for public office is not really that smart.

WARNING:  May not always work.

Diving Board
WARNING:  Failure to jump after five minutes may result in your being pushed off by the next person in line.
WARNING:  Any attempt to dress this animal in doll clothes could result in multiple claw marks.
WARNING:  Since our weather forecaster cannot predict school closings, it is highly recommended that you do your homework.

Dressing room mirrors
WARNING: Objects in mirror may be less attractive than they appear.

WARNING:  Use of this device to produce the item known as a “comb-over” is a crime and will be punished to the fullest extent allowed by law

Electronic devices
WARNING:  If you are above the age of 5, you may be unable to program this device.

Exercise equipment
WARNING:  Purchase of this product does not guarantee improved fitness.  Item must actually be used for full effect.

WARNING:  Only works when you’re asleep.
WARNING:  Will let you make more mistakes, faster than ever before.

WARNING:  To enjoy this movie, lower your expectations.

WARNING:  Change daily.

WARNING: We are not responsible if your brains stop working after seeing this.

Bottled Water
WARNING: May be Wet.

Diet Coke and Mentos
WARNING: Consuming together may cause you to “interrupt” others.

Photo in Singles Ad
WARNING: Objects may appear better than they look.
Singles Ad
WARNING: Website not responsible for apparent typo in weight category.
Teddy Bear
WARNING: Is cuddly but guaranteed to not return hugs.
WARNING: Computer
May not save the time you expect or deserve — live with it!

Sense of Humor
WARNING: Only recognized by similar species.

WARNING: Exercise may go to waist.

WARNING: May be more affectionate than your spouse.

WARNING: Use of this product with socks voids all guarantees of attractiveness.

Three-and-a-half inch Plasma TV
WARNING: Watching too close may cause minor dizziness.

A Look At Creative Writing

Wednesday, August 16th, 2006

The Mid August issue of the Humor Power Tips Ezine features a look at the creative writing of Steve Wunderink, Memoirs From A New York City Subway.  Check it out!

Studying A Celebrity — Clint Holmes

Monday, August 14th, 2006

This continues our series of learning from the pros.  When you see a top professional, in any field, perform…watch for what they do and say that makes them great.  Adapt the skills you observe into your own life as a speaker or performer.

Clint Holmes opened his show with two high-energy songs which found him in the audience shaking hands and kissing hands before he even spoke a word.  He connected both emotionally and physically with the audience right from the start.

The very first words out of his mouth, after the second song, were funny.  “That’s our show.  Thanks for coming.  Good night!”  The audience laughed.  He laughed.  Off to a great start.

He also use the technique of “book-ending” using one of his songs.  Book-ending is bringing something early into the act or speech and then coming back to it again near the end.  He did this with his hit song, Playground In My Mind (1973). 

Let’s look at the structure of the humor as I paraphrase some of what he said:

“I’d like to sing a medley of my Top-Ten hits.  (the setup)
“Well actually, that’s one song.  (self-deprecation and the unexpected)
“I’ve only had one song that was a Top-Ten hit.  (clarifying the punchline and setting up a topper)
“But then how many have you had? (topper/unexpected comparison made possible by poking fun at himself first)
“The therapy was worth it.” (topper/brief line that let’s the audience make the humorous connection)

Then later in the show he sang his hit song again.  “When you have only one hit song, you’ve got to sing it twice.”

Effective humor.  Great structure.  Connected relaxed delivery.  It wasn’t the only humor in the show, just a sample.  See the show…you’ll love it.

Here are other elements of the show that made it really rock the house:

The band is terrific.  This could be applied to any speech or act, perhaps opening with some royalty-free music to set the mood for your talk or program.

He has the looks and energy of someone 15 years younger than his actual age.  He loves what he’s doing and it shows.  The lesson for a presenter is to stay in shape and speak on a subject for which you have passion.

He is very much in the present moment.  He interacts and reacts with the audience freely during his program.  You don’t have a sense of him being tied to a rigid script. 

The power of the personal story.  He shares stories that touch the heart.  His recovery from colon cancer.  A wonderful story of how his parents met.  I totally loved it, one of my favorite parts of the show.  He incorporated the power of photos into his act.  If you’re giving a speech and you’re talking about someone who was important in your life…can you include a photo?  During the show we met one of his best long-time friends (musical director, Bill Fayne), his sister (who sings and dances in his show), his son (who was in the audience).  A very personal show.  When it was over you really felt like you knew Clint Holmes.  You’re likely to have a great speech too, if the audience really feels that they know the real you when it’s over.

Over the years I’ve heard nothing but great reviews about Clint Holmes show which has closed its run at Harrah’s.  He is leaving Harrah’s to work on opening a new show on Broadway.  Be sure to watch for his PBS special, An Evening With Clint Holmes, which may be coming to your local Public Television Station soon. 

Studying A Celebrity series:
Barry Manilow and Rita Rudner

Observational Humor — Case Study #3

Thursday, August 10th, 2006

Here’s another analysis of an Observational Humor monologue from a Toastmasters meeting.  During the meeting I’m challenged to put on my humor-hat and create on-the-spot humorous observations at the end of the meeting.  The way it works in my club, as the Observational Humor Master, I would first call on other members for their humorous observations before presenting my monologue. 

This meeting was a special model meeting for a newly forming club.  There were many non-Toastmasters in the audience who were prospective members for a club which was trying to achieve enough members for a charter.  Here are some of the things that were said or that happened at the meeting:

1.  Many of the people in the audience, as guests, were unfamiliar with the flow and purpose of a Toastmasters meeting. 

2.  On my way to the meeting, held at an Air Force Base, I passed by the Basic Food Flavors factory.

3.  The Table Topics Master (who presented the off-the-cuff speaking topics to members and guests) asked the guests if any of them would decline to present a table topic, without telling them exactly what they were getting into.

4.  A speaker said that women were better rock climbers than men.

5.  A speaker said that there was a rule that identical twins had to enter the field of stand-up comedy.

6.  I realized that first-time guest at a Toastmasters meeting often thinks of evaluation critiques as negative criticism.

8.  The AH counter reported that a speaker said:  1 UM, 1 SO, and 4 unnecessary ANDS during his speech

7.  I’ve been a Toastmaster for 33 years.

Here is the flow of my monologue with footnotes in parenthesis:

1.  UM, SO, AND AND AND AND.  I’ve found it’s best to just get those out at the beginning so they don’t ruin the rest of my talk.

2.  Welcome to Toastmasters.  Today we’re going to tell you how you, too, can become rich with multi-level marketing. (I suspected that many in the audience have had the surprise of attending an MLM program with disguised intentions.  That common experience made this joke work.  This joke would not have been strong at a normal TM meeting, but worked well for a model meeting for guests.)

3.  Asking someone whether or not they want to participate in Table Topics without telling them what it is…is like asking a clueless person if they want to participate in a Fear Factor stunt (USA TV program where people face dangerous or unpleasant tasks)…and five minutes later they find themselves eating worms.

4.  We heard that women are better rock climbers than men.  (looking at the woman who had said that)  I don’t know whether or not that is true…but I do know that YOU are a better rock climber than I am.  (What makes this joke work is self deprecation, poking fun at myself.  She is obviously younger, more agile, and in better shape than me.)

5.  My brother and I are twins.  I’m two years older.  It was a long delivery.  (This paved the way for the next joke.)

6.  And we heard that there is a rule that twins go into standup comedy.  That’s true.  What the speaker didn’t tell you is that there is also a rule that people who are NOT twins…are required to join a Toastmasters club.  (a perfect joke for a meeting designed to recruit new members.)

7.  If this your first meeting, it may have occurred to you that some of the evaluator’s comments sounded like criticism.  One of the techniques we learn in Toastmasters is to follow a negative comment with something positive.  For example:  “That was one of the worst speeches I’ve ever heard.  But it was a great improvement over the last time I heard you speak.”  (This was delivered as tongue-in-check humor, making it obvious that I wasn’t serious.)

8.  On the way into the base I passed the factory with the sign:  Basic Food Flavors.  I guess that means Better Dining Through Chemistry.  Am I the only one whose mouth waters every time I drive by that factory?  (This is a joke that plays in my head every time I drive by that factory.)

9.  I recommend that, after you join a TM club, you practice your observational humor at every meeting.  And when it comes to observational humor skills, after 33 years, you too will become an overnight success.  (The truth is funny.  People realize that any skill doesn’t come overnight.)

Other Observational Humor Case Studies
Case Study #1
Case Study #2

Observational Humor — Case Study #2

Wednesday, August 9th, 2006

I was the Observational Humor Master at two Toastmaster meetings this week.  For more on the feature of Observational Humor at a TM meeting check out our first Observational Humor case study.

A quick review.  The Observational Humor Master takes notes during the meeting and reports humorous insights about the meeting at the end of the evening.  This case study is presented to show you how the process works, not to make you laugh.  As usual, for it to be really funny “you had to be there.”

Here’s part of what happened at the meeting.

1.  Our theme for the meeting was The Inner Child.

2.  In support of the theme, the Toastmaster of the Evening, John Bernstein, gave everyone a Tootsie Pop as the meeting began.

3.  The word of the day was dauntless (meaning fearless).

4.  The Toastmaster of the Evening, by profession, is a mime.

5.  I am a Norwegian from North Dakota.

6.  A dual-club member, Bryant Pergerson, (someone who is a member of two clubs) was recruiting another member to be a guest speaker at his second club.  Three of our members have been guest speakers at that club in the past two months.

7.  The meeting’s printed program identified the AH counter as OPEN or VICKI KALLMAN.  Vicki was present and served as AH counter.

8.  Speaker, Peter Pizor, talked about controlling a canoe by standing up in it. 

The Script.  Here is the text of my segment of Observational Humor at the end of the meeting with my footnotes.

1.  For our guests who are here for the first time…we always open each meeting with everyone doing their best Kojak impersonation.  (A referral to the Tootsie Pops for which Kojak was famous.)

2.  We can use tonight’s meeting to build a promotional campaign to recruit new members.  

    – Does public speakiing make you dauntfull? (a twist on dauntless)
    – Join a speaking club where the MC is a mime.
    – Where the Observational Humor expert is a Norwegian.
    – And where, as a new member, you’re guaranteed to be asked to speak at Yucca Mountaineers TM Club.

3.  If you check the program for tonight you’ll notice that the AH counter is “OPEN or VICKI KALLMAN.”  (It needed to be pointed out, as part of the setup because most would not have specifically noted that entry on the program.)  The word OR is normally used to link the words OPEN and VICKI KALLMAN.  Last night I was running late and arrived at a Cold Stone Ice Cream Store at about 10pm.  An employee was standing in the doorway.  I said “are you OPEN?”  He said, “No I’m VICKI KALLMAN.”  (I used a HE rather than a SHE to accentuate the surprise and disguise the punchline.)

4.  Years ago I was on a canoe trip and tipped it over on a curve in the river.  NOW I know that it could have been prevented…if only I would have stood up!  (A “yeah right” thought triggers this joke.)

5.  Our theme of The Inner Child reminds me of the saying, “Inside every person is a child trying to get out.”  Well, inside our Toastmaster of the Evening tonight (who modeled child-like qualities during the meeting) there are three children trying to get out.  Some other common sayings you may not have heard:

    – Inside every dieter there is a thinner child trying to get out.
    – Inside every lotto player there is a winner child trying to get out.
    – Inside every church member there is a sinner child trying to get out.
    – Inside every cannibal there is a dinner child trying to get out.
(I call this a “series of jokes on a theme” and is a good vehicle for creating and delivering humor.)

6.  Another member, Steve Pavlina, used the same technique to piggy-back humor on something I had said earlier in the evening about teaching a young person to drive.  “How would a humorist teach someone how to drive?”  He listed several bullet items:

    – Turn off your signal…you’re telegraphing your lane changes.
    – Slow down.  Drive like a Norwegian from North Dakota.
    – If you step on the brake pedal and the car doesn’t stop, just keep going.  The passengers probably didn’t notice.
    – If you get pulled over by a cop, use observational humor sparingly.

7.  Click here for more information on Toastmaster Clubs.

Warning Labels — Humor Writing and Creativity

Tuesday, August 1st, 2006

Our contest for August is Warning Labels.  We’ve all seen the usual warning labels:

Cigarette package.
The Surgeon General has determined that smoking is hazardous to your health.

Do not remove under penalty of law.

Keep out of the reach of young children.

Can you create your own, humorous Warning Labels?
Here would be some examples of made-up labels:

Military bomb
Use of this device does not guarantee peace.

Wedding license
This certificate does not come with a lifetime guarantee.

Trying to teach this animal tricks may frustrate you and the cat.

Political candidate
This person may promise anything to get elected.

Baby diaper.
This product provides only a temporary fix.

Whoopee cushion 
Placing this device on your supervisor’s chair may be hazardous to your wealth.

Cotton candy
To reduce your chances of experiencing a sugar high, instead of eating this product, swallow twelve sugar cubes chased with a cup of honey.

Ideas for writing your lines:

1.  Your lines will probably be based on your observations of life and perceptions of the truth.  The humor seen by others may depend on whether or not they share your experiences and views.

2.  Some lines will be funny.  Some may be satire and food for thought.  Some lines will be for your own amusement.  And that’s OK.

3.  Exaggeration of the truth is a good comedic tool.

4.  You may take a standard warning label and twist it by switching a word or two, playing with rhyme or double word meanings.

5.  Your warning label may reflect that the product will give results exactly the opposite of what you would normally expect.

6.  There are probably hundreds of angles or possibilities.  These are just a few ideas to get you started.

To enter the contest:

1.  Start to notice all the products around you that might be candidates for funny Warning Labels.

2.  Write your funny Warning Labels.  Let them rest overnight and edit the next day.

3.  Work with a humor buddy.

4.  Select your best lines.

5.  Send them to by Tuesday, August 15, 2006.

6.  If you are in the top three you’ll see your line and your name in print in a future blog post. 

7.  Remember, it’s about having fun and growing your skills.