Tiptoeing through the minefield: Can you pull off humour at work?

employee monitoring

Scene Change co-founder and Motivation for Sceptics blogger Ian Whitworth. Source: supplied.

Every job has its unique crosses to bear.

I was chatting with a comedian after his set at a corporate dinner. A couple of older gentlemen approached, bringing with them a small cloud of atomized Shiraz.

“I’ve got a joke for you,” said one, with a ‘you’re in for a real treat’ look on his face.

He launched into a long joke from 1973 featuring strong misogyny themes, confused plots (“no, wait a minute, Little Jimmy said that to the teacher, not the other way around”) and rasping chuckles at his own material.

“Ha ha ha. Nice joke,” we nod politely.

“I’ve got another one,” he says.

Afterward, I asked the comedian if that happened often.

“Every. Single. Time.”

Old dinner mates were nice people, and meant well. But how comedians deal with the incoming material without screaming is beyond me. I guess the same way I coped with people telling me their ‘genius’ ideas when I was making ads. It would always be a pun.

“So you’re working on insurance? I’ve got an ad for you. Someone’s going through all their insurance bills, and an actor in a bear suit walks in and rips them all up. Voiceover goes: ‘Premiums more than you can bear?’ Ha ha, whaddya reckon?”

I’m not in advertising anymore.

It’s time we had a chat about humour and jokes in the business world. In cocktail banter, in presentations, in marketing material. It’s a minefield of potential opportunities for people to see you at your worst.

The question must be asked: is humour actually the secret passport to charm and marketing success everyone seems to think it is?

Humour vs Jokes

Humour is a good thing, generally speaking — though harder than you think. But we’ll return to that.

Jokes are horrible — the tool of conversation hogs. Telling jokes in a large social setting is a massive dick move.

The worst jokester I ever encountered told non-stop gags to a group of 12 people he’d never met before at a dinner, in a remote guesthouse with no possibility of escape. None of his jokes ran under three minutes. What took it to the next level was him telling them all in the first-person. So as each joke rolled out you thought: ‘Maybe this one is a story that really happened.’

“So I was in Africa on safari with some friends, when out of nowhere a lion popped up …”

But then it led into a joke straight from the Drunk Uncles’ Book Of Guaranteed Side-Slappers. It was the longest night of our lives.

Telling jokes is the same as pulling out an acoustic guitar at a party. Worse actually, because jokesters don’t provide anything that can be smashed over their head.

Want to be charming when you’re out there networking? Please don’t tell jokes.

Speech humour: Do you have what it takes?

Peak joke nightmare is presenters ‘warming up’ an audience with a joke. They get up on stage, pulsing with nerves, and deliver some ‘icebreaker’ they searched online like: ‘Of all the introductions I’ve received, that was by far the most recent.’

They look up from their notes for the response. Deep space silence. Just the faint hum of the air conditioner, and their elevated heartbeat as the bombed-joke adrenaline surge kicks in. Which ensures the rest of the talk is tense and stilted.

The traditional wisdom from the three billion presentation advice blogs out there is to ‘use anecdotes with self-deprecating humour to make the audience like you’. Because there’s no punchline, if nobody laughs, you just move on.

That’s sort of true. But can you pull it off?

Take this vital test.

Ask yourself: ‘Do I ever make people laugh in a social setting?’

If so, great. Work out what sort of material gets the laughs. Was it a story? Comic exaggeration or understatement? Fresh, sharp observations about everyday life? Find your style, and try that out on a larger audience.

If you’re not a proven humour-bringer in small groups, just don’t try it on stage. It simply won’t work. That’s cool, there are plenty of other ways to be a compelling presenter. Sir David Attenborough doesn’t do humour: case closed.

Marketing humour: The dark urge for puns

Everyone, except those who know what they’re doing, believes marketing should get people’s attention via jolly jokes and wordplay. No. Marketing messages should show how your product alone can solve people’s problems, in as few words as possible.

Yet some dark instinct draws business people to the cheapest humour mechanism there is: the pun.

How does a global pharmaceutical approve a headline like: ‘The misery of hayfever is nothing to sneeze at’? That’s a real ad.

Or this one, from Subway.

I know marketing Subway coffee is always going to be a stretch. But the brand is basically your Dad reading out Christmas cracker jokes. Using capitals for BEAN just makes it worse. You can practically hear a cartoon ‘boing’ sound effect. It’s not clever, it’s not funny and it’s not selling your coffee.

Compare this creaky effort with this beautiful bit of work, completely free of jokes or ‘the finest blends’ sort of superlatives.

Whose coffee are you buying? There is a time and a place for puns in marketing: never and nowhere.

Can adults learn humour?

I wish I could give you a 10-step ‘guaranteed way to become humourous’ checklist.

There are many skills you can pick up from how-to articles and videos. SEO. Video editing. Drawing a dinosaur.

Humour is like playing the piano on stage, driving a racing car, or getting innocent people acquitted in court. You see it on TV and think: ‘Doesn’t look so hard. I could do that.’ You probably know people who use exactly those words every time they see a modern artwork they couldn’t have done.

Professionals make really hard things look easy. Because they’ve spent a lifetime refining their craft. Or in the case of comedians, alone in front of brutal audiences that pivot between indifference and abusive.

There is no guaranteed humour process that can be replicated or scaled so that Gary from admin can do it.

I could try analysing my favourite-ever New Yorker cartoon, a process that will straight-up murder every bit of joy in this masterpiece.


Also, both those points also apply to that horrendous bear-suit insurance ad idea.

Humour has hundreds of tiny moving parts all meshing together: timing, context, tone, pre-conceptions about you.

I’ll give you one example, not because it’s the greatest piece of humour ever, but because it was in a movie I watched last night. Samuel L Jackson gives Robert Downey Jr a dressing-down and delivers what is, on paper, a lame Dad joke.

Yet with the eyepatch, the timing, the slight squinty tilt of the head, the deadpan response of Downey Jr, and the fact that it’s Samuel L Fucking Jackson, it’s cool. Professionals, making stuff you can’t do look easy.

Humour is just one skill that you should use at work if you have it — like numeracy, dress sense or a great memory for names. If you don’t have it, it’s fine.

If you’re an adult and you don’t have humour skills by now, the odds are well against you getting them now. Sure, if you studied it hard, watched hundreds of standup comedians on Youtube and did theatresports at night, but where are you going to find the time on top of your other insane business and personal commitments?

Don’t feel you have to do things because some trainer told you they were desirable. Just work to your strengths.

Humour as harassment

Let’s finish with a trawl through the everyday workplace humour HR complaint files.

There’s a type of person whose chosen joke structure is:

  1. Some gross insult;
  2. A pause; and then
  3. ‘Just joking!’, a wink and a shoulder pat.

People who do this mean that insult literally — but think they’re getting away with it in the same way as when people say ‘no offence but’.

The joke is often based around some minority group characteristic. It’s trying to show that we’re all mates here because that’s what mates do, insult each other har har har so you’re in the mates club now.

That’s not always how it gets received, mate.

Good humour punches up, not down. Aim your barbs at the boss, the government, social influencers, business bloggers. There is no humour in taking down people worse off or with less power than you.

If you have to say ‘just joking!’ more than once a week, odds are you’re a dickhead and should take a hard look at your joking habits.

Not joking.

Wow, that’s a bit of a stern note to end on, better finish with a photo of this big red rock eater because it’s my earliest memory of humour and I still love it so much.

This article was first published on Motivation for Sceptics. Read the original article.

NOW READ: Social media mishaps: Why businesses should think twice before cracking jokes online

NOW READ: Pet-food lickers and changing-room strippers: Why you’ll never sell to people you don’t understand


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