Crossing The Line — Offensive Humor

Sometimes it’s a fine line between keeping it clean and being offensive.  Sometimes is just a question of good judgment.

I received an email from a reader:  “I was delivering a speech and I had the audience in a great state until I said the word prostitution.”  Personally, words rarely push my buttons.  But for many people they do.  We need to be in touch with the yardstick the audience uses to measure good taste.

When you’re giving a speech, and not a stand-up comedy routine in a night club, you need to distinguish between corporate quality humor and comedy club humor.  In a comedy club almost anything goes.  It’s a place where you can present over-the-line humor.  Although in my book, the truly great comics tend to play it clean.

However, a talk for a lay-audience, Toastmasters group, or corporate event, calls for humor that is non-offensive.
Twenty-five years ago, I gave a Toastmasters Regional Level humor speech (the fifth level of competition), to an audience of 350 people.  My speech was THREE TIMES funnier than the closest competitor, measured by a stopwatch.  And I didn’t win.  I was second.  The subject material was risky and on the edge.  Excellent for a comedy club.  Funny.  But apparently hit and miss with some of the judges.  When a judge writes you off the ballot, you’re out of luck, even if the majority of the audience loved it.  And if some of the judges didn’t like it, some of the audience also didn’t like it.
The challenge is to figure out what works and to be funny without crossing the line.  Body part references are risky.  Body functions are risky.  Sexuality is risky.  Even innuendo is risky.  That’s not to say that they should or should not be risky topics, they just are.  Topics that push buttons are risky; gun control, immigration, gay rights, doctor-assisted-suicide.  It’s a judgment call when you can approach the risk-line and when you dare cross it.
If a risky speech topic is important to you or has great humor potential, the challenge is to come close to the edge with crossing it.  When you cross the line you lose the audience and your speech loses its impact…whether it be to entertain, inspire, persuade or motivate.  Good judgment often comes from the experience of falling flat on your face.  I’ve occasionally learned the hard way when I should be more careful and conservative.

I gave a humor contest speech two years ago on the subject of going to work naked.  It won the district contest.  Many seasoned Toastmasters would think that could never happen.  Just the word naked, by itself, pushes buttons for many people.  However, in the entire speech I never mentioned body parts, sex, or body functions.  What’s left?  A funny seven-minute winning speech.  Some of the funniest lines I came up with, I couldn’t use. But it forced me to work harder at coming up with great lines that were funny not just for the sex/shock/blue value.

Always avoid going for the easy and cheap laugh.  Work on your craft and become funny because of your comedic skills and not because of your “bleep” content.

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Responding to Offensive Humor