When Humor Crosses the Line

I learn best by doing.  I learn by making mistakes.  And this especially applies to using humor.

Let me share a lesson learned.  It may save you similar mistakes.

I regularly do an Observational Humor monologue at the end of every Toastmaster home-club meeting I attend.  Over the past thirty years, I’ve delivered thousands of observational humor lines. 

Our Toastmasters club has a great reputation for high-quality Observational Humor.  At the last meeting three members crossed the line, just a tad.  Once the joke leaves your lips, it’s too late to take it back.  It’s a concern even when you’re among “friends” and moreso when you have guests present.

Let me share my inappropriate line first.  Then I’ll share lines from two other Toastmasters.

SET-UP:  A member told us that he had seen a news item that said someone had an ear grafted to his forehead in the name of art.  Unrelated, another member in response to a bad joke said:  “Someone open the window!”

MY JOKE:  “We were asked if an ear grafted to the forehead was art.  Technically, it’s called Forehead Art…or F-A-R-T.  Which gives you my answer to whether or not it’s art.  And I second the motion to Open A Window.”  In my mind, it was safe to use because I didn’t SAY the word.  And I followed it with two toppers…good humor structure.  It’s easy to find logic to justify our choices.  In retrospect, I’ve decided that it was a joke series that I should have omitted.

SET-UP:  A member was evaluating a speaker who had quoted his wife.  He attempted to use a high-pitched woman’s voice as he spoke her words.  The evaluator felt that he should have used his own natural voice instead.  The evaluator said “When you were doing your wife, the voice would have sounded better using your own natural voice.”

THE JOKE:  A club member said:  “My mind was wandering until I heard the evaluator say:  ‘When you were doing your wife!'”   The joke implies that he interpreted a sexual reference into what he had heard.

SET-UP:  Our timer, who times the segments of the meeting, was a new member whose name is Gaye.

THE JOKE:  A club member, at the end of an otherwise excellent monologue, concluded with:  “And I just realized that our timer was gay!”  First of all, it’s taking the liberty of poking fun at someone’s name.  That’s very personal territory.  Secondly, the target of the joke was a relatively new member, having joined two months ago.  And another big factor, it implies that there is something funny about being gay.  That gets us into the area of psychology, sociology, religion, self-esteem and more.  But I’d suggest that, at the least, the joke takes us out of the boundaries of political correctness, and would be offensive to many.

So where do you draw the line?   The first thing is to realize that laughter isn’t the green light.  The fact that people laugh doesn’t indicate whether or not humor is appropriate.  There are other tests that give you the right answer.

My conclusion after reflecting on some of the jokes of this meeting is:  Before you deliver a joke, ask yourself the question:  “Would I use the joke if I were delivering it at a corporate event where I was being  paid a substantial fee as the guest speaker?”  This is one litmus test that I could use to arrive at a “NO” answer for all three of these jokes.  There are other relevant questions that would disqualify the jokes as well, but the “corporate test” is a good measure of appropriateness.

And always remember the sage wisdom:  “When in doubt…leave it out!”