Using Humor — Getting Permission

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.