The Art of Humour
© VDS Brink July 2010
Great people once said:
“Humour is the spice of life”,
“Those who make others laugh deserve a place in paradise” - Koran,
“The best ideas come as jokes. Make your thinking as funny as possible”- David Ogilvy,
“No one ever had an idea in a dress suit” -- Sir Frederick Banting,
“True humor is fun - it does not put down, kid, or mock. It makes people feel wonderful, not separate, different, and cut off. True humor has beneath it the understanding that we are all in this together” - Hugh Prather,
“Humor is by far the most significant activity of the human brain” - Edward de Bono.
As our personalities differ, yet some key aspects bind us together. Humour is in the heart of it. This article is in preparation for the 2010 Toastmasters Humour competition. My idea to test new waters to grow personally to share the learning as it might my co-sufferers in mastering this art.
The article is derived by listening to the masters of the art, and by some great books.
To smile is the only body language shared by all people on this earth. Even blind people, with almost no body language at all, do it. It is the very first body language that a new baby will display to the delight of grannies, moms and friends.
Laughter or a beautifull story sets off a series of positive events in the human brain. The primitive limbic system that only do two things: fight or flight, sets off the chemical dopamine into the cortex, the thinking brain, that leads to a warm floating feeling. The ideal audience to have in our hands!
THE ESSENCE OF HUMOUR
Humour is so much more than a joke. True humour is music for the soul. Humour can be used to control people, or to introduce conflict in a group. More importantly though, humour can be used to create consensus or reduce social distance in a group through the development of social relationships.
Different types of humour include anecdotes (short, amusing stories about real-life events), canned jokes (memorised jokes), observational humour (quips or comments about the environment), quotes, self-depreciation (self-effacing humour), the humourous story (“when we were students, we used to go to Margate and then..) and wordplay.
Canned jokes and wordplay can be slightly more “aggressive” than, for instance, personal anecdotes or self-effacing humour, as they require some knowledge and insight on the part of the listener. Vulgarity and insults are also sometimes used in an attempt to be humorous, but tend to do more harm than good, as they often cause offence, and are generally viewed as unacceptable in social situations, especially formal ones such as a wedding.
Starting with a self-effacing joke is often a great way to help the guests to relate to you, and to break the ice. Take an honest look at yourself in the mirror, and liberate yourself (and your audience) by openly talking about your own weaknesses and oddities (e.g. “with big ears like mine, I miss nothing”), instead of awkwardly trying to cover them up. My son-in-law always introduces himself as Mr EGO..”Enorme groot ore!”
During the Toastmasters 2013 Afrikaanse Skouspel competition all opposition was wiped off the floor with a complicated speech on the wonders of Afrikaans poetry. The only remaining guy was a sixty year old who kicked off with a beautiful Tswana accent, "Meneer die kompetisie voorsitter, liewe redemeesters, om mee te begin, ek is 'n Blou Bul!" He won all the way!
When it is just not funny…
- Irrelevance or a lack of context: humour should fit into the context and flow from previous events or comments.
- Assuming too much background knowledge from the audience: telling a joke or using vocabulary in wordplay that requires knowledge from your audience that they do not possess. Like in any speech use the language a sixteen year and you will always be safe.
- Misjudging the relationship between the speaker and the audience. There is an especially high risk of this failure if you tease or insult one of the audience without already having a well-established, teasing relationship with them.
- Disrupting serious conversation. Trying to be funny during a serious conversation or immediately after a touching story or profound comment is a recipe for failure. At a wedding someone was called upon to do a prayer. He kicked off with “Before I do that, quickly this one: two ... and a ... walked on a golf course when a helicopter passed overhead. 'My f#$%k look at that ...' ‟ Sad...
- Portraying you inappropriately for your status or gender. This could happen if you use a personal anecdote that shows characteristics or behaviour that are considered socially unacceptable for someone of your age, race, gender or social stature. If you are past 50, act accordingly, your teenage days, no matter how we feel inside are sadly long since past. Do not be a fool.
USES OF HUMOUR
Humour can and must be used everywhere. Some of the best humour is found at funerals. If an oddity of the deceased is told compassionately to bring more tears while we laugh, it is ointment for our hurt and pain. It requires a special skill and a special relationship with the deceased.
At a serious business presentation highlighting key aspects with similes.. “To balance our budget this year is like walking into a Greek bar..” always works.
Introduction by casting mud on oneself is always appreciated. The great Steve Jobs in front of Stanford graduates kicked off with “This is the closest to graduation I have ever been”. They loved it and when he hit them emotionally: “When I was born, my mother was only sixteen”, he could do anything with them.
Culture, shape and size of people, their oddities, profanity, anything under the belt ... Racism is sick. My rule book and yours are different, let's respect it and do not mess with it.
If that person is yourself, go 4 it !! Audiences love it.
A SLICE OF LIFE
During the FIFA fun period we attended a late game on Loftus. Denmark as descendants from the Vikings, similar to the local Blue Bull Pap & Vleis types, wear helmets with horns and battled successfully against Cameroon. We travelled to the venue in a fleet of 300 spotless 1995 model Toyota Hi-Ace 10 seater taxis driven by some great guys from Mamelodi not taking any nonsense.
Afterwards by about 23:30, we queued up again for the homeward journey. A 60 year old white guy donning a green and gold Springbok rugby hat was telling stories. His audience about a hundred cheering black people shouting at him: “Another one ..!!!”
The language, a jolly mix up of English, Afrikaans and Pedi ... His victim: Julius Malema!
The language, a jolly mix up of English, Afrikaans and Pedi ... His victim: Julius Malema!
The Rainbow nation bound together by humor.
GETTING THE KILLER PRESENTATION TOGETHER
Avoid jokes as it only works briefly. Humour is not a joke. Humour is serious. Humour is remembered.
We need a topic. The more serious the better. A previous national winner was “Donate blood!”. I made it up to Division level with: “Living with a Teenager”. Another national finalist was “the Evils of Gambling”
Comedy is serious stuff, do it without a smile and it is even better.
The structure of a perfect one-liner:
Attitude + Topic+ Premise + Act-out + Mix + Act-out
Pick a serious attitude like “It is hard, difficult, scary, stupid, weird”
Apply to a topic known and understood by all, give it a premise (a foundation and description) and give it a funny twist.
Good topics can be your outer self, stuff you hate, things that worry you, frightening stuff and the oddities of life. Topics are all around is, keep a notebook and let nothing slips by. How people drive (especially when they go anti-clockwise around traffic circles in Pretoria!) and somebody else do a u-turn in it, board a plane (keeping hundred people waiting while one person is sorting out how to stow overhead luggage!), doing things in a gym (especially those groaning monsters in the weights room), people trolly-ing in Pick n Pay ... are hilarious if we just look at in a different way.
E.g. Nataniel on his climbing of Kilimanjaro: “It is hard (Attitude) here in Africa, stuff is not maintained well(Topic), Kilimanjaro was none different (Premise), it barely the 3rd day when ... the oxygen ran out ...(Act-out)”
Liberally use comparisons “My dog is as slow as a snail on tranquilizers” and similes by creating visual pictures. Avoid jokes as it only work briefly. Humour is not a joke. Humour is serious. Humour is remembered.
IN TOASTMASTERS CONTEXT
Toastmasters is about experiential learning at its very best. As little chance we have in finishing the Comrades by buying expensive Nike's, reading fancy books and attending a course on public speaking will bring us nowhere.
Sadly people do not dig in and work step by step into the advanced manuals and lose the richness there is to receive.
A good idea is to do a path in one calendar year. One speech a month. When acquiring the CC, look at the advanced manuals not to acquire a qualification, but to change a life. Choose the 6 manuals that will change your life. Yet for AC Gold, the very last manual, the most difficult of them all: Humour
FOR A TOASTMASTER COMPETITION
Touch the heart, pick serious inspiring topics: Poverty, Aids, Donate Blood, Education, Abused Children. Build your total speech with all the elements of a great speech.
Rehearse many times as if it is to be the real serious thing. Shelve for a few days. Look at life in the context of the speech. Create one-liners as above about two per minute resulting in 10-15 one-liners for the whole speech. Spice it into your speech.
Deliver to your mirror, tape it, blush at the result, when you have more courage try the cat (she will not even listen), then the dog (expect some embarrassing reaction at the wrong moments) If they agree, embarrass an innocent family member. Only then move onto your pet hate ...
Do it over and over, come to the club, deliver, and feel good as you have mastered the very first tiny step towards the most difficult form of public speaking.
Example of a humouristic satire
Humour Competition 2011
“It is hard to be humble when you are perfect in every way. I can’t wait to look in the mirror ‘cos I get better looking each day. To know me is to love me!” Scott Davis wrote this 60’s song just for me ...
To be humble as I never make mistakes, For the rest of you gentlemen ... to err is human and to blame has management potential!
Madam Chairman, dear Judges and especially ladies, you will agree that tonight you look at the ultimate in male beauty. Tall, dark and very, very handsome. I have muscles in places where you guys do not even have places!! A specimen of eternal youth. I tend to live forever, so far so good!.
Not so obvious is that I also had sophisticated surgery recently to enlarge my skull by 30% to accommodate the need for room for my ever-expanding brain. For the rest of you; it is scary as the brain never stops working until we start speaking in public.
Gentlemen: eat your heart out, you will never make it! You feel mediocre tonight, I am sorry for you. As any action are followed by an overreaction!
Who to thank you now may ask? Nobody else but Richard, Richard Branson! (Show banner). This is your great moment; Follow me to enter the sacred hallways of Virgin Active Gym! It is a cross between Buckingham palace, Emerald casino and a horse stable
We stand on the second Monday of January 04:50 in a sixty deep queue waiting for entry. This is New Year’s resolutions at it very worst. Remember ... that the probability of someone watching us is proportional to the stupidity of our action.
Eventually, we cleared the system to eagerly be awaited by Personal trainers. Ladies who just stepped off the front page of Cosmopolitan. All 21 of them in eastern Pretoria vow to slim you down, tone your body, work on you image. None do blood pressure, cholesterol or general fitness. They have more important stuff to do, they make us beautiful!
It is scary when we think that good health is the slowest way to die!
Each newbie receives a mole skinned notebook with complicated instructions to be religiously followed en-route to physical adoration. Their motto: if we cannot convince them, well then confuse them!
Two weeks later, back to normal, 85% of the newbies gone, difficult to understand but the gym wring their hands in delight after pocketed a full year’s subscription and no need to clean up anymore.
We do find the odd one returning, once a month, expensively dressed in Nikes and Adidas, to clock in, be seen just to leave earning points in that greatest invention of all time: Discovery Vitality!
Now follow me to the spinning room. Loud active types cycling away under the influence of loud rock music led by a pedaling screaming role model. They are like working with teenagers. It takes two years to teach them to stand and talk, then sixteen to tell them to sit and shut up ...
Next door in the studio some hundred beauties, dressed to kill, hair done and blow-dried in the wee hours of the morning dance away kickboxing. They believe in laughing at our problems as everyone else does ...
Then the loners like me, “leave us alone we, we know what we do..” typically on the running machines, iPods stuck in our ears to avoid conversation.
Then, the utmost of masculinity you can dream of. They park on the yellow line or the paraplegic site, take the lift to the 1st floor. They wear their tattoos on their shoulders and wear sleeveless shirts to show it all. They come in twos, one doing the moaning and groaning, one the admiring. Looking at them is like watching the evening news starting with “Good Evening!” then proceed by telling us why it is not.
The rest of society: “I have got a training cycle in my garage”, “we walk daily with the dogs”, “I spent R2500 annually on gym fees” Spending the money and having expensive gear does not make you fit ... it is like standing in your garage will never turn you into a car!
So ... dear ladies what is the secret, you may ask, of my pinnacle of physical and mental success?
Visit Mr Branson four times a week, summer and winter, push your heartbeat up to about 140 a minute. Push those irons without anybody admiring. Spin away if you love noise or kickbox.
Bad news: exercise does not slim you down, it does the opposite. When peering into the scale; remember the rule of three: Three things should not enter your mouth: A knife, a fork and especially not a spoon!
Then this expanded brain of mine: we do not exercise for our bodies; we do it for our minds. It is the first barrier against depression, the first light at the end of the tunnel for a better self-image, the first kick to a new life.
So, I know you hate me for what is to happen now ... I am leaving you ...
“It is hard to be humble when you are perfect in every way. I can’t wait to look in the mirror ‘cos I get better looking each day. To know me is to love me!”
Allen, T. 2002. Attitude. Gothic Image: Somerset
Denning, S. 2005. The leader‟s guide to storytelling. John Wiley and Sons: San Francisco.
Carter, J. 1989. Stand-Up Comedy the Book. Random House: New York.
Carter, J. 2001. The Comedy Bible. Fireside: New York.
Theunissen, M. & Brink, VDS. 2009. How to be a brilliant wedding Master of Ceremonies. Readhill: Cape Town