Regular readers will know I’m a big advocate for humor. It helps draw your audience in. It humanizes you and helps you connect with readers or listeners. Humor makes you and your message more memorable.
But what about difficult situations? Can humor help you there? Yes. At the right time and place, and with the right amount and tone.
Humor doesn’t erase tragedy, and it would be insensitive to expect it to. But even in the midst of tragedy, people need moments that remind them of their humanity.
The first Saturday Night Live broadcast following the 9/11 attacks opened with a somber speech from then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani (getting a warm, extended ovation from the audience, so you know it’s a very old clip) paying tribute to first-responders and the indomitable spirit of New Yorkers. Then quintessential New Yorker Paul Simon sang his song “The Boxer.” The song ends:
In the clearing stands a boxer
And a fighter by his trade
And he carries the reminders
Of ev’ry glove that laid him down
Or cut him till he cried out
In his anger and his shame
“I am leaving, I am leaving”
But the fighter still remains…
Not a dry eye in the house—at least in my house. (Even now, remembering it.)
After the song the show’s producer, Lorne Michaels, came out to chat with Giuliani:
Giuliani: …and Saturday Night Live is one of New York’s important cultural institutions. And that’s why it’s important for you to do your show tonight.
Michaels: Can we be funny?
Giuliani: Why start now?
Exercising perfect comic timing, Giuliani got the laugh. And we all breathed a sigh of relief.
The recipe: Lots of seriousness with a dollop of self-deprecating humor.
Humor and 11/9
Voters split nearly in two on 11/9/2016: Hillary Clinton captured slightly more of the popular vote, but Trump won the Electoral College and in the U.S., that’s the win that matters. With the country so divided, many people may be happy with the outcome. Others—and this should not surprise you, I am one—are coping with rising levels of fear and anxiety.
How can this be funny?
It can’t—not the fear and anxiety part—but authentic emotion can bring us together. And then maybe you have a chance to work in something that will make even a traumatized audience smile a bit.
Seth Meyers, of NBC’s Late Night, started out his monologue on 11/9 making jokes. That is, after all, his job. But at about 3 minutes in, he takes a serious turn, talking about how the title of “first woman president” will be filled someday:
“…someone’s daughter is out there right now who will one day have that title. Maybe, maybe you’re a woman who’s currently a Senator; maybe you’re in college. Hopefully you’re not a toddler, but who knows…?”
“Who knows?”—a small joke inserted into a serious passage. Not a knee-slapper, but it works. And then Meyers got more personal: “…whoever you are, I hope I live to see your inauguration. And I hope my mom does, too.” Authenticity. I dare you to listen without tearing up.
How can humor help you?
And that’s a blueprint business leaders can use in situations like this. Address the issue seriously. Acknowledge people’s feelings. Look for ways you can resonate on the same emotional plane as your audience. And if you try for humor, make sure it doesn’t poke fun at the pain people are going through. Make it self-deprecating, like Lorne Michaels did.
Interestingly, Seth Meyers was on the SNL writing staff after 9/11, so he saw the approach they took firsthand. Meyers’ 11/9 joke walks a fine edge—he’s nearly joking about the despair people feel. But since he feels it too, he has permission.
If you want to use humor to lighten the darkness, do it deliberately. Plan it in advance, share it with several trusted advisors and see what they think. This is not the time to ad lib! Even professional comedians would craft their words carefully in a situation like that.
Humor is a valuable tool to fight sadness. Use it wisely and you will use it well.