A few weeks ago the National Speakers Association (NSA) hosted their Laugh Lab. It’s a seminar taught by comedians and humorists to teach professional speakers and presenters how to use humor in their talks. I was able to fit the Laugh Lab into my schedule between speaking at BlogWorld and CES (you can read my post HERE) in Las Vegas, and I was thrilled to attend. My friend Brian Walter ran the seminar and classes were taught by Brian, comedian Judy Carter, NSA president Ron Culberson, comedy writer Bill Stainton, funny man Brad Montgomery, and more hilarious characters. To underscore the strength of the Laugh Lab faculty, you should know that between us, Bill Stainton and I have been awarded 29 Emmys. (You should also know that without me Bill Stainton has been awarded 29 Emmys.)
One fascinating assignment was to go to a Vegas comedy show and keep track of the comedic techniques we had learned about in class. Foolishly, it never occurred to me that comedy actually had specific techniques, but now that I’ve learned just a few of them it fascinates me to see them used in comedy routines by famous comedians from Sid Ceaser to Louis CK to the guys working Vegas today.
What did I learn?
1. Being funny is a really hard business.
Setting aside how incredibly hard it is to make a living as a successful comedian, being funny takes a lot of hard work. The people we listened to have dedicated their lives and their study to comedy, and they’re always on the lookout for stories and occurrences that they can use in their work to get a laugh.
2. Spontaneity takes a lot of preparation.
Although a lot of comedy seems to be ad-libbed, much of it has been written, outlined, and rehearsed over and over and over and over. And even when the yuks appear to be off-the-cuff, they’re usually very well practiced. It’s the talent of the performer that makes the audience believe they’re hearing something that’s never been presented before.
3. Really funny people are really funny.
I like to think that I’m funny, although the people stuck running with me and listening to my jokes most mornings might beg to differ. But compared to Judy, Ron, Brad, Brian, et al, I’m about as funny as a bag of hammers. Or, as Henny Youngman used to say, “What am I, chopped liver?” Being funny might start out as a genetic advantage or childhood coping mechanism but it takes a lot of study, practice, and hard work. A recent NYT story about Jerry Seinfeld diagrams the arduous process Seinfeld goes through on every joke he develops and he’s arguably the most successful comic on earth.
4. The “magic question” for writing humor is not to ask when something funny happened.
Maybe the most revealing thing I learned was that humor writers don’t necessarily look for funny situations but instead ask, “When did something go wrong?” According to Bill Stainton, the funny stuff starts at the “oh crap” moment when things change so severely that nothing can ever be the same. Stainton says that the movie Tootsie is the master class in this technique because as the trouble gets more and more complicated, the film just gets funnier and funnier.
5. The spoonful of sugar really does help the medicine go down.
Since attending the Laugh Lab, I’ve tried to consciously use humor in all of my client presentations. What I’ve found is that humor helps my audiences relate to what we’re trying to communicate.
Is the humor actually working? While I don’t have any good measurement metrics to prove that humor improves our business, we have won the last four new business pitches we participated in. So to quote the old woman who told the ambulance driver to feed chicken soup to the dead man: “It couldn’t hurt.”
I’ve written before that my goal with these posts is to do three things, 1) be valuable, 2) be useful, and 3) be enjoyable. NSA’s Laugh Lab accomplished all three of these goals. My sides hurt for two and a half days while I filled page after page with notes I’m sure I’ll refer back to for years and years. Thank you, Brian, for a wonderful experience.