Observational Humor — Case Study #44

 At last week’s PowerHouse Pros Toastmasters meeting we had 17 guests who had attended Steve Pavlina’s Conscious Growth Workshop.

One of those guests was Alex Wu from Ottawa, Canada.  Alex gave an impromptu speech about a Chinese restaurant.  In a meeting top-heavy with humor, his speech was the highlight of the evening.  Brilliant. 

In his speech, Alex used his sharp wit to bring the house down.  Part of his humor was hinged on his using a stereotypical Chinese accent.  For most speakers, playing with an accent could be dangerous.  But Alex, with a Chinese ethnic background, was able to skillfully do it.  He received huge laughs.  That, of course, set his speech up as a perfect target for Observational Humor.  I delivered two laugh lines which were part of a longer monologue.

First I’ll give you my lines: 
  – A set up.
  – A punchline. 
  – A topper. 
Then I’ll follow the lines with my analysis. 

Here are the lines:

“The speech on the Chinese restaurant was so funny.
I laughed so hard…when it was over…I wanted to stand up and crap.
I knew it was OK to do that line…since I’m half Chinese.”

And now for an analysis:

THE SET UP LINE:  “The speech on the Chinese restaurant was so funny.”  I expected a bit of a laugh from the set up line.  Not that it was funny, because it wasn’t funny and wasn’t intended to be.  It was solely intended to set up the two humor lines.  But I expected some laughter because it would be recalling the funny speech.  Usually, when something really funny happened earlier, just mentioning it gets some laughs.  But there was virtually no response. 

The lack of laughter could have been a warning signal that the following two lines were about to bomb.  That did cross my mind.  Or it could be just building tension, which could be either good or bad from a humor standpoint.  The bad could be that the audience wasn’t sure they wanted to give me permission to take a joke into that territory.  After all, I was clearly a tall, 6′ 3″ Scandinavian, and not Chinese. Or, on the other hand, it could mean that they were reserving judgment and waiting to see which direction I took the joke.  If that were the case, building tension is as good thing, as it will be relieved with laughter.  I didn’t know which way it would play out.  But I do remember being a bit surprised by a muted response to the set up line. 

Fortunately they loved the two lines which followed.

THE PUNCHLINE:  “I laughed so hard…when it was over…I wanted to stand up and crap.”  A huge laughter response from the

First, a danger zone.  I normally don’t use the word CRAP in a speech.   And in front of a typical corporate audience, such as in a keynote speech, I would almost never use it.  But I felt that two things, in this situation, set me up with the permission to use it and get big laughs.  First, Alex played with accent issues in his speech, including the switching of L’s for R’s.  This helped pave the way for me to do it, once, as a punchword at the end of a punchline.  Connecting it with the speaker experience of a standing ovation (stand up and CLAP), I did the switch, and it worked.  If it had not worked, it would have received nervous laughter and not the huge reaction that it received.   And it helped that Alex was laughing big time…which added permission.

Second, it helped to build permission because Alex was surrounded with friends who liked him.  Normally as a guest he would have been a stranger visiting a club for the first time.  An outsider.  But in this situation, he had brought his own circle of friends, sixteen other guests with whom he had just shared a very intimate, week-end workshop.  They knew him and loved him.  Also, his presentation at the meeting built a bond between Alex and the club members who were meeting him for the first time.  Those factors helped make it safe for me to enter the territory of a stereotypical accent, when it was not MY territory.

From a delivery standpoint I chose to deliver the line with no accent affectation at all.  I simply delivered the line switching the R for the L in the last word.  This delivery technique choice helped disguise the punchword, giving it more impact.

THE TOPPER:  “I knew it was OK to do that line…since I’m half Chinese.”  This line was totally unexpected and absurd.  Being a tall Norwegian helped make the line play strongly.  I had decided that I could use this line as a “saver.”  It would be a good line to use if the stand-up-and-crap line didn’t work.  If the first line had bombed, I would have delivered the line as:  “I was hoping that line would be OK…since I’m half Chinese.”  By using it as a saver, I would be acknowledging that the first line flopped, and getting a laugh by pointing out the obvious, that I was not Chinese.  Fortunately the line was not needed as a saver and I delivered it as an expression of confidence, that I knew that the line would work.

Thanks Alex for the great humor presented at our meeting and providing me with a terrific target for Observational Humor.