I was three or four jokes into my routine, when I realized that one of the troublemakers my client warned me about was sitting dead center on the front row.
With arms firmly crossed over his chest, and a frown deeply embedded in his face, he was glaring defiantly at me with eyes that said, “You'll never make me laugh.”
In my mind, I silently agreed by nicknaming him Stoneface.
It was the beginning of a full day seminar on creativity in advertising. The meeting planner warned me that several members of the audience resented being forced to attend these workshops.
She said they had caused problems for previous presenters – including heckling them.
As a humorist, I'd long ago learned about the bonding nature of laughter, so I suggested that I open with a ten to fifteen minute comedy routine.
I hoped that my humour would break the ice with the group, while signalling that it was going to be a fun day.
It was a risk; even if there were no disrupters in the audience.
Eight o’clock is early in the morning for comedy – especially if the coffee hasn’t kicked in!
Also stacked against me was an audience that was more than 75 per cent male.
Women laugh quicker and easier than men, plus their laughter incites the men to join in.
While it started out slow, the laughter was growing steadily with each joke, but Stoneface was beginning to seem like an obstacle.
I tried not to notice him, and simply work the audience on either side of him, but he was a very large man – both big and tall.
He was an imposing figure that was difficult to ignore – and he became the challenge I wanted to overcome.
Like most comedians, I have a hip pocket joke guaranteed to get a laugh if I start to bomb, but I left it out and continued to work my routine.
He was winning, I was nearing the end of my opening, and his hostile stare had not let up one bit.
At that point I found myself delivering the jokes directly to him – an act that did not go unnoticed by the rest of the audience.
With each joke I served up, he held firm; yet the crowd around him was now roaring.
I should have been satisfied, but I wasn’t.
Then it finally happened; I reached him with a surprise-ending, a one-liner that split his face wide open.
It was only a smile – he didn’t even make a sound – but I couldn't resist pointing at him and saying, “Gotcha!”
At that he laughed aloud – as did the entire audience – and in that moment we all bonded.
Stoneface, who was now Jim, became one of the most active participants that day.
I have often heard that it is impossible to hate someone who makes you laugh.
Laughter is a bonding agent that we experience initially as babies when we develop our very first relationships – the ones with our parents; and it continues to be the social lubricant which enables us to make friends throughout our lives.
French philosopher Henri Bergson said that laughter makes social life possible for human beings.
Because of its ability to bring people together, laughter can be a powerful motivational tool.
But you can’t make someone laugh unless you are relating to them on a personal level.
There is an integrity in humour because true laughter, like crying, cannot be forced.
You must have empathy for your audience’s frustrations and fears.
And, you must inspire their trust.
While laughter is universal across the human species; humour is not.
Jerry Seinfeld demonstrates this in an American Express commercial where the American slang in his stand up routine bombs in England because he doesn’t understand the cultural nuances of the language.
To stimulate laughter, you must find the common ground between you and your audience.
The broader the audience, the less subtle you can be with your humour.
That is why silent movie slapstick comedy so easily crossed international boundaries. Everyone can relate to the pain of Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp, who, despite having fallen on hard times, tries to maintain his gentlemanly dignity while dealing with bullying authority figures.
When you find a comic connection, laughter can be contagious. Which reminds me of the Laughing Quadruplet Babies from America’s Funniest Videos. If you haven’t seen this, look it up on YouTube, and you’ll find you can't help but laugh along.
We enjoy laughter so much because it makes us feel good. It is so powerful that it relieves stress and relaxes the entire body. It triggers the release of endorphins which can ease physical pain. It decreases stress hormones and boosts the immune system. While we are laughing we forget our fears, anxiety, and other discomforts. What can be better than that?
Share a laugh whenever you can. There are funny things to laugh about everywhere. As I was leaving the gym the other day, I saw a woman drinking SmartWater. I pointed to the bottle and said, “I tried that once, but it didn’t work.” Then I quickly smacked the heel of my palm against my forehead, and shrugged.
She laughed, so I grinned and added, “I must have drank Smart-Ass Water by mistake.”
She laughed once more. Hmmm, maybe it’s time for me to try stand-up again.
– Robert Wilson
• Robert Wilson is an author, humorist and innovation consultant. He is also the author of the children’s book, The Annoying Ghost Kid. For info, visit www.jumpstartyourmeeting.com.Posted: Jun 5, 2013