I’m Having a Laugh

All humans in all recorded cultures have the ability to laugh, to find something ‘funny’ and have what is generally called ‘a sense of humour’, that is the faculty to perceive comedy. It’s part of being human.

Some people are nervous about putting humour or comedy in their presentations. There’s a joke in the public speaking world that says you should only use humour in your presentations if you want to get paid. This reminds us how important it is in a presentation to appeal to the audiences emotions. Comedic elements are more memorable than dry facts and that use of comedy in education aides retention of information. This could be borne out by the way teenage children are able to recall word for word comedy routines from television comedy sketch shows and sitcoms (like Monty Python, the Fast Show or Blackadder) but are not so able to do so with dry drama and struggle to remember anything from more formal presentations.

But comedy is totally subjective and its success depends on a variety of factors such as the setting, culture, language, delivery and context. This is why in most cases ‘jokes’ should be avoided as few jokes transcend all barriers to appeal to others without extensive translation or explanation. For comedy to work a shared history is also needed between the comic and the audience.

An excellent way of increasing your creativity and lateral thinking capabilities is to analysise what you find funny (or what you find unfunny where others are laughing!). Take a joke and break it down, see how it works, what does it play on, what information is needed to ‘get the joke’?

There are a few key concepts that categorise comedy which include incongruity, repressed desires or fears and an establishment of superiority.

The concept of superiority is perhaps the most primordial form of comedy with humour derived from failures, weaknesses or deformities or either the comedian or another group. This also forms the basis of ‘slapstick’ (physical comedy and clowning) where the audience laugh from relief at someone else’s misfortune or idiocy. Repressed fears and desires have been a common feature of both the sexist joke (such as jokes about ‘the wife’ or ‘mother-in-law’) as well as homophobic and racist jokes which play on peoples fear of the unknown.

It’s clear to all but an idiot not to use possibly offensive material in your presentations. The rule is – if it’s possible an interpretation could offend – leave it out. The same goes for using profanity. Although a staple diet in most stand-up clubs, big business deals have been lost because most people do not want to hear rude words in a business context. One story goes that when a speaker was turned down for a training session he explained that he would obviously take out the swearwords from his material for that particular client. The client replied that they wanted to book a trainer who didn’t have swear words in there in the first place.

Incongruity of either language or action involves the surprising, illogical or unexpected juxtaposition of ideas or situations which are often referred to as ‘surreal’. The comedian Vic Reeves is possibly the ultimate expression of this type in his UK 1990-91 television programme ‘Vic Reeves Big Night Out’ which was so incongruous that it divided the nation into those who gave him comedy god status and those that thought it was shoddy rubbish. Witnessing ‘Noodles the Comedy Duck’, an obvious glove puppet regurgitating prawns when one of the ten commandments was recited or listening to a man with a stick wearing a paper helmet covered in complaints to his local ombudsmen about coloured lights coming out of his taps requires a certain lateral thinking mindset in the audience. One of Reeves’ catch-phrases was the interesting “very poor” which confessed the obvious shoddy nature of the presentation which added an extra ‘in-joke’ to the faithful which drew them in even more.

Memory plays an important role in comedy. The comedian Harry Hill’s trademark routines involve setting up an enormous number of running gags with seemingly no point to them, only to refer back to them much later in the act. An example is he would mention that he saw three bunches of roses available for sale for a pound. Much later he would say, incongruently, in the middle of another story, “great big bunches they were” and then much later, again out of the blue, “three bunches for a pound? Where’s the profit margin in that?”. The comedy comes from the fact that the audience feel pleased to have been able to be ‘in’ on the joke, having remembered the references from earlier. This works because Hill is imprinting each chunk of gag using deep processing by getting the audience to question its meaning and look for a correlation with something he may have said earlier. He’s playing on the shared history concept.

Humour is useful because it allows the audience to relax into behaving as a single unit were laughter can become contagious. In many ways the comic works a form of hypnosis on the audience. Being a group, the audience will take greater risks and may even feel comfortable ‘heckling’ or participating where they would not in a non-comedy or less collective group.

As mentioned earlier, humour enhances creative problem solving. Other claims have also been made of the physiological effects of observing or listening to comedy such as the strengthening of the immune system, increasing pain thresholds and reducing stress. It has even been found to reduce ageing.

All good reasons to look into livening up your presentations with humour or going to see some stand up yourself – for the sake of increasing your income and improving your health!

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One comment on “I’m Having a Laugh

  1. You’re absolutely right that “jokes” don’t work well across cultures! They assume a whole mode of thought and contextual back ground. I almost never laugh at a joke I hear in Spanish because, even though I understand all the words, the “humor” makes no sense to me.

    I am, however, always surprised when people don’t find Monty Python or Douglas Adams funny…


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