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What Laugh Lovers can teach us all about humor, comedy and punch lines

Toastmasters Do It…Until They Hear Applause
By Craig Harrison DTM, PDG

June, 2005
edition of
The Toastmaster

"Death is Easy…Comedy is Hard!"

Let's face it, humor is hard! Toastmasters helps us overcome stage fright, speak to strangers and think on our feet, But seriously…being funny…on purpose?

We're adept at speaking to inform, persuading our audiences, and touching them with inspirational tales of love and loss. But how do we "break a leg" (a good thing in comedy parlance) by tickling our audience’s "funny bones?"

Speeches employing humor are better received; audiences are more receptive when they've laughed. They relax, lower their defense mechanisms and become more open minded. They often connect quicker with the speaker when induced to laugh. But getting your audience to laugh, therein lies the challenge.

Did you hear the one about the Speaker who tried to get the audience to laugh?

Recently, District 57 Toastmasters in Northern California formed a "comedy" club to help seasoned speakers become more proficient at the writing and delivering of humor. Meeting once a month in the San Francisco Bay Area, Laugh Lovers helps members learn about the art and science of humor. After all, we can all get an audience to laugh at us, but the key is understanding how to get them to laugh with us!

Laugh Lovers was inspired by the late John Cantu, a humorist and comedy coach who once managed the Holy City Zoo comedy club in San Francisco. It was there that comedians such as Robin Williams and Dana Carvey got their start. Back then, they too were learning to be funny. John relished the role of "humor helper" to comedians, fellow Toastmasters and members of the National Speakers Association worldwide. John believed we could all become funnier with practice and an appreciation of the rules of comedy. Rules? Really! That’s no joke.

Laugh Lovers carries on the tradition Cantu started, in helping Toastmasters to be funnier. I recently interviewed Jeff Heidner, corporate humorist and Laugh Lovers Toastmasters club president, about how Toastmasters can create and deliver funnier material.. Below are Jeff’s top ten tips for Toastmasters to be funnier.

1.         Be Yourself.  The world already has a Bill Cosby, Jay Leno and Ellen DeGeneris. It doesn't need another one. Yet there is room for your unique brand of humor. What's your brand?  That’s your first assignment. Whenever you're conversing with someone and you say something that makes them laugh, that's a clue! That’s your unique brand of humor you'll be using.

2.         Take Notes.  Whenever you say something that makes someone else laugh, literally write it down.  And don’t forget to write down how you said it, and the context in which it was said.  Otherwise, when you look back at it a month later you may find yourself wondering, "What was so funny about that?"  Just the process of committing your amusing articulations to paper will go a long way toward helping you discover, develop and define your unique sense of humor.

3.         Pepper your speeches with humor. Just as pepper spices up your favorite dish, you can (and should) also use humor to season your speeches. Sprinkle humor into your next speech to grab the attention of your audience members. When used as an accent, humor adds just the right amount of flavor without overpowering everything else.  Use humor to accent the important points in your speech and your audience will remember the points you made long after they’ve left the presentation.

4.            Special delivery recommended.  How you deliver your material is key. I've performed with many comedians who are talented writers but don't get laughs on stage. They get so frustrated when they see comedians who are lesser writers seem to "bring the house down" at will. Steps 5-7 offer delivery suggestions.

5.         Use your voice.  Toastmasters teaches us the importance of using vocal variety in our speeches.  It's just as important, if not more so, when using humor. Change your inflection, use characters and establish different voices for each one. Go softer as well as louder when speaking for added impact. Doing so will help you create vivid images in the minds of your audience members, heightening the laughter you will garner.

6            Timing is everything.  WARNING: Please pause prior to proceeding with the punch line. First of all, you need to be sure your audience has digested the setup before your launch into the punch line because if they don’t get the joke, you won't get the laughter. Secondly, by pausing for just a beat or two after your setup you create that much more tension, and, consequently, you yield that much more laughter.

7.            Surprise.  Humor and tension go hand in hand.  When you set up your audience for a moment of levity you create tension. When you deliver the punch line—or the twist or surprise—you allow for that tension to be released.  That release is manifested in the form of laughter.

8.         Stay clean.  No, I’m not talking about washing behind your ears.  I'm talking about using humor that is appropriate for the audience you’re addressing.  Remember, humor is supposed to make people feel good—not embarrassed, insulted, or offended.  Stay away from comments that are sexist, racist, ageist, etc.  Of course, if you want to make fun of yourself, go right ahead.  Self-deprecating humor is a great way to put your audience at ease with you as a speaker so that they can get to know you as a person.

9.         Be Write-minded. Write, rewrite and write some more! The more you think about your sense of humor, the more you take note of the funny things you say with your friends, the more you practice using your sense of humor in your speeches, the more comfortable you'll be with it. If your audience doesn’t think your funny line is so funny, then play with it, tweak it, rearrange it and try it again.

10.       Have Fun.  That's a direct order!  If you don’t enjoy delivering it, then how can you expect an audience to laugh at it? Humor is contagious.

Jeff, John and Craig agree on one more point: Toastmasters, You Cantu Be Funny!

Craig and Jeff Recommend:

  • Working Toastmasters' advanced speech manuals such as Humorously Speaking and The Entertaining Speaker help you hone your humor skills.
  • Taking an Improv class. Like Table Topics, improvisational theatre will help you think and speak on your feet, appreciate audience dynamics and overcome speaking fears through experimentation.
  • Use Table Topics as opportunities to create and relieve tension through humor, work on your timing and utilize the element of surprise for comedic effect.
  • Become a student of successful humorists, comedians and storytellers. Observe the histrionics of Bill Cosby, John Cleese and Carol Burnett. Study the timing of Cedric the Entertainer, Billy Crystal and Steve Martin. Analyze the mannerisms of stand up comedians such as Jay Leno and Whoopi Goldberg.
  • Admire the writing in television shows like M*A*S*H* and Seinfeld where many laughs are written into the dialog.
  • Read and learn from a pair of our favorite free humor e-zines: John Kinde's Humor Power Tips (www.humorpower.com) and Karen Buxmon’s lytebytes (www.humorx.com).

Read Jeff Heidner's companion piece: Jeff's Jocular Jargon!

More About Laugh Lovers!

If you live in the Bay Area, and you're interested in attending a Laugh Lovers meeting, then please e-mail Craig: Craig@ExpressionsOfExcellence.com  And if you don't live in the Bay Area, and you're interested in creating a Laugh Lovers club for your district, then—you guessed it—please e-mail Craig at Craig@ExpressionsOfExcellence.com

Professional speaker Craig Harrison DTM, founded Laugh Lovers Toastmasters club (596430-57) in Oakland, CA in honor of the late John Cantu, a Toastmaster and professional humor coach.

Craig can be reached through www.ExpressionsOfExcellence.com.

Laugh Lovers meets the third Sunday night of each month, 6-8pm at St. Paul's Towers, 100 Bay Place across the street from Whole Foods, a block from Lake Merritt in Oakland CA. To download a small map click here.
For more club info click on: www.Laughlovers.org.

© Copyright 2005 Craig Harrison. All Rights Reserved.

Professional speaker Craig Harrison, DTM of Berkeley CA, is a 16-year member of Lakeview Toastmasters (#2767-57) and founded Laugh Lovers, an advanced Toastmasters club #96430-57 in Oakland, CA. Craig received a Presidential Citation in August 2004 in Reno, NV from Toastmasters International at its annual convention. You can surf Craig's site at www.ExpressionsOfExcellence.com.

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