If you’re mainly looking for a bunch of jokes, skip this post. However, if you’re interested in a deeper look at the principles and psychology of creating humor, read on.
What’s the difference between Observational Humor and Customized Humor?
Observational Humor, by my definition, is humor that springs from or is inspired by something that you’ve just seen or heard. True Observational Humor lines are not jokes that you prepare in advance and bring to the event with the intention of using them.
Customized humor may be funny lines that are written or adapted to fit a certain speech, event and audience. For example, you might take a favorite golf joke and be prepared to tell it about the CEO of a company. That’s a type of customized humor. It’s not observational humor. Sometimes I’ll round-out or fill-in an Observational Humor monologue with some of the lines I usually use in the opening of my keynote speech. Those lines are not Observational Humor, they’re just an attempt to put a garnish on a monologue that might need some help. Customized, pre-planned humor can have it’s place in a monologue, although I prefer to use it very sparingly.
My definition of Observational Humor does not exclude recycling previously used Observational Humor lines. Nor does it mean you can’t use old jokes that are adapted to the present moment. What makes Observational Humor special that it is inspired in the moment, not pre-meditated…although some pre-planned humor can certainly create the illusion of spontaneity. Our goal is to become more skilled at in-the-moment humor and not solely relying on prepared lines. Although a good monologue may contain some of both elements.
The focus of this article is about reusing old lines in a way that meets the intent and freshness of Observational Humor.
What makes these “old” lines fresh is that you had no intent of using them until something at the event stimulated your recall of those lines. Maybe five-percent of the time the lines I create for a monologue are lines I’ve used before or heard before, but I don’t bring them to the event with the intent of using them. Here are some thoughts on the process of recycling lines in a fresh way.
I have, on many occasions, heard Patricia Fripp speak and have presented Observational Humor monologues on about eight of those occasions. I attended a Lady and The Champs workshop in Las Vegas, presented by World Champion Speakers. Most of he audience was hearing Fripp speak for the first time. And the audience was mostly not familiar with my past Fripp-event monologues.
When I recycle an Observational Humor line (which happens most frequently at Toastmasters meetings), I often try to present the line with a different twist. When you’re recycling a previous Observational Humor line, there are at least two reasons to change it. First, you’re making an attempt to improve it. Second, you’re challenging yourself to find a different angle for the joke. That stretches your creative skills and helps you become a better creator of humor. Sometimes the second time you tell the joke is not as strong as the first and that gives you the opportunity to analyze the process, to learn and to grow.
RECYCLE EXAMPLE NUMBER ONE
Here’s an abbreviated segment from a Fripp story which provided me a seed for Observational Humor: She told about being in a Ladies Room and being approached by a woman who asked, “Are you British.” And then added, “Aren’t you Patricia Fripp?” The stranger had been in one of Fripp’s audiences in the past.
The first time I heard this story, here’s the monologue line I created.
I was in the Men’s Room during the lunch hour combing my hair. A stranger came up behind me and said: “Are you British?” I said, “No I’m not.” And he replied, “For a second there I thought you were Patricia Fripp.”
This line was based on a reversal, placing me as the receiver in the men’s room, and got a very good laugh. The second line was a topper. And the absurdity of being mistaken for Fripp activated the joke. I’m not British. I’m not a woman. I’m about a foot taller than Fripp.
About a year later, I was at another Fripp presentation and heard the same story. I asked myself, “What can I do with this that would be different than the line I created the first time I heard the story?”
Here’s the approach I took: During the lunch break, Fripp was in the restroom when a voice from behind asked, “Are you British?” And then I realized I was in the Ladies Room.
In this joke, instead of reversing it to have me receiving the “are you British” line in the men’s room, I changed it to having it be ME as the person who said the line while accidentally in the ladies room. The line received a strong response equal to the first line.
RECYCLE EXAMPLE NUMBER TWO
Here’s an example of a recycled joke where I didn’t change anything and which received a much weaker response the second time I used it, much to my surprise. It’s also from a Patricia Fripp program: Fripp is a successful speaker coach and often does her one-on-one coaching in a hotel room. Some of the students had jokingly referred to meeting Fripp in their hotel room. It became a running gag which came up at least three times during the day of the program.
Here’s the line I created as a result of that seed: I met Fripp 24 years ago when I joined NSA. But I feel cheated. Back then she wasn’t meeting men in their hotel room.
The line received a very strong response.
At a later program, another Fripp coaching client mentioned to the group that he had received coaching in his hotel room. It was a very specific reference, mentioning the hotel and room number. I recycled the same line that I had used previously, since it had been such a strong line the first time. It received a very weak response, just a titter.
Here are some reasons for that luke-warm response to a line that previously received such a huge laugh.
Reason One: It reminds me of the Curse-Of-Knowledge principle discussed in Made To Stick by Dan and Chip Heath. (A highly recommended book.) The principle refers to how we forget what it’s like not to know something. Our knowledge blinds us. In this case, I was armed with the knowledge that “this joke is funny.” The truth is that it was funny for the FIRST audience. The second audience was a totally different event. And surprise! It wasn’t funny. Every time you present a tested piece of humor, you still need to examine the circumstances, the set-up and the audience to evaluate whether the joke is structured right for THIS audience. Don’t be fooled into KNOWING that a joke, which was funny once, will be funny again.
Reason Two: The set-up seed at the second event had not become a running gag and had not been repeated three times during the day, as it was at the first event. The group only heard the “met me in my hotel room” one time.
Reason Three: The relationship of Fripp to the two audiences was considerably different. At the first event, it was HER speaker school. She was on the platform the whole day, building a rapport with the audience and, in fact, was herself joking about meeting students in their hotel room. She was the sole star of the day. At the second event, she shared the platform with three other star presenters (Darren LeCroix, Ed Tate and Craig Valentine). Many of the attendees had not heard her speak before and hence the relationship between Fripp and the audience was different from the first event.
Reason Four: The audience perception of my relationship to Fripp was different from the first event to the second. At the first event, I coordinated the registration desk for Fripp. It was obvious we were friends. At the second event, my connection to Fripp was not as obvious.
When you combine Reason Three and Four, you have the issue of “permission” come into play. Without the stronger relationship established between Fripp and the audience, and between Fripp and me (comparing the first event to the second), when the audience heard the line about Fripp “meeting men in their hotel room” they weren’t sure if they should laugh. What’s Kinde implying here? Will Fripp think it’s funny? The laugh gets censored in the mind of the audience. I hadn’t created the permission necessary for me to do the joke.
Here’s what I might have done differently.
First, I needed to repeat the set-up since it had not been as strongly set-up during the day. Since it had not been the subject of a running gag during the day, and only mentioned once, I could have opened the joke with, “Unlike the first speaker, I may not have met Fripp at the Suncoast Hotel, room 437. But I did meet her 24 years ago…which was really a bummer, because back then she hadn’t started meeting men in their hotel rooms.” This structure emphasizes the set-up necessary to give the joke a chance.
Second, a set-up to establish that Fripp was in on the joke, an giving some clue that I’ve previously known her, would have been helpful. Perhaps something like this: “I’ve known Fripp for a long time. I may not have met her at the Suncoast Hotel, room 437. But I did meet her 24 years ago…which was really a bummer, because back then she hadn’t started meeting men in their hotel rooms.” It makes the joke longer and a bit wordy (I like to say clunky), but sometimes a joke needs a more extensive set-up to work. At the second event, the shorter version of the joke just didn’t work.
Recycling previously used humor lines is a reasonable, and in fact a good thing to do. I normally recommend trying to change the approach you use for the line to either improve it or at least give you the challenge just to do something different and make it a learning experience. If you think a tested line is really strong, think twice and examine it within the context of THIS audience on THIS day. Don’t be fooled into thinking that just because something was funny before, that it will be funny again. Probability theory tells us that each repeat of a joke is a separate and independent event!