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Toastmasters and Humor

by Izzy Kalman (July 2005)

I love Toastmasters. I wrote about it in a newsletter a couple of years ago. Few group activities improved my life the way my one year of participating in Toastmasters did. And it is practically free to attend.

The central theme of the latest issue of Toastmaster magazine was humor. The articles all encouraged us to use humor, and gave some ideas how where to find material and how to incorporate it into speeches. Humor was consistently presented as something positive and uplifting. Despite all the pages of advice, never are we told what makes something funny. Not even one article clearly indicated that humor involves portraying people’s faults, weaknesses, and misery. The closest the articles came to this was to encourage us to talk about our OWN faults and miserable experiences. Never are we told that it can be okay to make OTHER people look bad.

One article quotes the famous speechwriter, Peggy Noonan: “Humor is gracious and shows respect. It shows the audience you think enough of them to want to entertain them.” Sure. Really gracious and respectful. By making people look bad!

The same article contains the following example of a good joke:

Ted Turner, Jack Welch and Bill Gates all die on the same day and arrive at the Pearly Gates. God asks each to answer one question – What do you truly believe in? – before they can be granted entry. Ted Turner says: “I believe in speed and accuracy. Give people what they need quickly and reliably, and you’ll be successful.” Great, says God; come in and sit at my left hand. Jack Welch says: “I believe in product quality and being No. 1 or No. 2 in your marketplace. That will make you successful and an asset to society.” Wonderful, says God; come on in. Then Bill Gates steps up. “What do you believe in?” asks God. Gates says: “I believe you are sitting in my chair.”

Funny? Of course. But it is highly insulting to Bill Gates. What did he do to deserve this? Create a service that revolutionized the world and made him the richest man on the planet? But that is the nature of humor. Complimenting Bill Gates would not make us laugh.

By the way, it is acceptable to insult Bill Gates because he is more powerful than we are. To make fun of someone below our position is usually in bad taste. And that would make it “bullying”, because it is not okay to pick on someone weaker. Good, moral people only insult stronger people.

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