When the world makes you headdesk

NOTE: I wrote this a few weeks ago, but I held off posting it. As a result, I held off posting anything—not good. Read on to find the headdesk worthy update that caused me to finally press Publish.

“Why?”

You know how that word sounds when people sincerely want the answer to that question. They ask “why?” with no guile, no defenses.

I got one of those Whys in response to an assertion I made today. And the sheer lack of comprehension in that “why?” short-circuited my brain. Seriously left me speechless. And if you know me, you know how rarely I find myself speechless.

What did I say to provoke such puzzlement?

It’s the Italian translation of “Green Eggs and Ham,” of course. Made me giggle.

The man I was talking to had just given a speech, a fairly good one too. He started by talking about a long-ago sketch on SNL. As an homage to the recently deceased Dr. Seuss, they had someone read Green Eggs and Ham as a serious piece of oratory.

What made the sketch indelible was the guest they asked to do the reading: the Reverend Jesse Jackson. So far so good. But instead of showing the sketch, the speaker acted out parts of it. Yes, complete with a Jesse Jackson impersonation.

Do I need to add that the speaker is white?

I told him that in 2019 it is not appropriate for a white person to impersonate a person of another race. I was prepared for a lot of responses—I’d already collared the conference organizer to express my displeasure. The organizer also seemed flummoxed by my passion, but he reacted more defensively—wondered if perhaps I just didn’t see much comedy, didn’t understand comic impressions.

But the sincere, utter cluelessness of the speaker just floored me.

As we continued our conversation, it seemed that he did have some understanding that what he did was inappropriate. He had always read Green Eggs & Ham to his daughters in his Jackson voice, and they thought he was the best storyteller on the planet. So when the Dr. Seuss centennial came around, they volunteered him to read it at the school.

“All the kids were sitting on the floor,” he said, “and I was about to start when I noticed this little African American girl sitting in front of me. And I thought, ‘Should I do this?’ And I decided not to.”

I told him he’d made the right decision that time. And that perhaps if there were more people of color at this conference he would have thought twice about it. (For the record, I raised the lack of diversity with the conference organizer too.) I also suggested that he didn’t need to impersonate the Reverend to make his point. He said he’d looked for a clip to play but couldn’t find one. Perhaps he’s forgotten how to Google. I found one—admittedly grainy—in about 30 seconds.

I’m not sure my conversations with the organizer and speaker accomplished much, though the speaker promised he’d watch the replay and see what he thought. I hope I opened up at least a tiny crack in their worldviews.

As for me…it showed me I don’t get out in the world nearly enough. I live in my little bubble, working with people who understand that diversity means more than having 50% of the speakers be women. I write about diversity and inclusion for clients who have a sophisticated understanding of the issues, so I guess I’ve assumed that people across the business world understand internalized racism and seek to eradicate it.

Oops, the business world tries not to use the R-word. They call it “unconscious bias.” The bias I encountered today was so unconscious it was practically comatose. Whoo boy. We have a lot of work to do.

UPDATE:

And then I was watching TV one night and saw an ad for an actual movie that will be released into theatres shortly. “Shortly” as in soon and also, I hope, as in it will disappear almost as soon as it arrives. (I refuse to link to it; you can find it on your own if you wish.)

It appears to be a comedy…about a white man who becomes famous by imitating a black woman on the radio. Think Tootsie as a voice actor—which at least relieves him of the need to don blackface, though I wouldn’t be surprised to see that plot twist before the credits roll.

What about this mess seems like a good idea?

So much for the impassioned conversations I had with the clueless conference organizer and speaker. Thanks for nothing, Hollywoodland.

Headdesk, indeed.

What’s funny about that? Humor in dark times

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 attacks of 9/11 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 to the indomitable spirit of New York residents. 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: 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.


Learn to tell your story powerfully. Join me for my free webinar “The Courage to Communicate: Write Right to Lead”—Wednesday November 30th at 8 p.m. Eastern, 5 p.m. Pacific.