Humor at The Kennedy Center Honors

The Kennedy Center Honors–Using Humor

Host:  Glenn Close
The 2013 Honorees
  – Carlos Santana.  Rock Guitarist. 
     Introducer Harry Belafonte.
  – Martina Arroyo.  Opera Singer.
     Introducer Sonia Sotomeyer.
  – Herbie Hancock.  Jazz Musician.
     Introducer Bill O’Reilly.
  – Shirley MacLaine.  Actor.
     Introducer Kathy Bates.
  – Billy Joel.  Song writer and singer.
     Introducer Tony Bennett.

Lessons learned for using humor during an awards program.

1.  Don’t force the humor.  Play to your strengths.  The script left the humor for those who were skilled at using it.  The most humorous introduction was given by Bill O’Reilly.  Sonia Sotomeyer used no humor.  Never force humor into your presentation if it’s not your style. 

2.  The pacing.  The host started the show with very light humor. They paced the humor by having the second-funniest introducer, Harry Belafonte, make the first introduction.  And the funniest introduction was placed in the middle of the show, Bill O’Reilly.  The least funny introduction, Sonia Sotomeyer, was sandwiched between the two funniest.  The flow allowed for peaks and valleys in the humor.

3.  Permission.  Introductions at an awards program often use humor which borders on roast-like jokes.  The relationship between the introducer and the honoree allows the introducer to tell stories and jokes which involve the two of them.  It strengthens the Permission Factor.  Kathy Bates said that she was in four films with Shirley MacLaine.  “Our entire body of work received no Oscars.”  Harry Belafonte:  “They have got to do something about Mexican immigration.  They’re taking jobs that would otherwise go to Americans.  Carlos Santana took my spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.”  (The quotes are paraphrased.)  Belafonte had the Permission Factor working for him based on his friendship with the honoree and the fact that he was also a member of a minority group.  Both the Belafonte line and the Bates line used self-deprecation, also strengthening the permission factor for the jokes to follow.  Poking fun at yourself gives you permission to poke fun at someone else.

4.  The implied punch line.  Bill O’Reilly opened with self-deprecation. “Yes, I’m surprised too,” implying that the audience was surprised to see that he was doing the introduction.  An implied punch line is almost always stronger than one directly stated.  And another self-deprecation line: “I don’t hang out with him.  I don’t want to ruin his reputation.”  That gave him permission to follow with more jokes and laughs, the funniest introducer of the evening.

5.  The right balance.  They seasoned the program with the right amount of humor.  It wasn’t the Mark Twain Award, in which the focus of the evening is humor.  The Kennedy Center Honors recognize entertainers, singers, dancers, writers and composers, and more.  It’s never intended to be a comedy show. 

Lessons learned from last night’s show:
  – Less is more.  The lesson learned is that just because you CAN do humor, that doesn’t mean that you SHOULD do humor.  One well written line can go a long way.  In a serious program, one or two funny presenters gives you the variety you need.  You’re looking for variety and pacing.  You’re not looking for a joke fest.
  – Play to your strong suit.  If you don’t do humor…don’t do humor.  Sotomeyer is known for her judicial expertise, not her comedy.  There was no effort to turn her into a comic for the evening.  The right choice.
  – Self-deprecation is usually a safe choice.
  – Be aware of the Permission Factor.  Without it, the audience may be uncomfortable with the humor. 
  – The more clearly defined is the relationship between the introducer and the honoree, the more options are opened for humor.  Sometimes that relationship needs to be stated so that it’s clear to the audience.
  – Stories about the honoree are good vehicles for carrying the humor.
  – Every time you see a professional program, be a student.  Look for tehniques you can use to make you a better speaker and entertainer.