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Is It Okay to Laugh In Serious Times?

Comedy lives in the details of life.

By Judy Carter



Click play to hear an interview with Judy Carter and the Toastmasters Podcast hosts, and learn techniques on spreading humor to help relieve stress, soothe tension, and improve your mood.

 

Have you ever noticed that joking about a problem can make it more manageable? That’s because at its core, comedy is about telling the truth in an unexpected and counterintuitive way.

Right now, most of us are living with one of the most life-altering problems we may ever experience—the coronavirus pandemic. The crisis has driven the majority of the nearly 8 billion of us who share this planet into quarantine. There’s nothing funny about that. Or is there?

As a comedy writer, teacher, and professional humorist, I’ve been asked if we should feel guilty laughing during such serious times. Is it okay to joke at a time when so many people are hurting? As my Jewish mother would say, “It couldn’t hurt!” And as the U.S. TV show host Stephen Colbert wisely notes, “You can’t laugh and be afraid at the same time.”

Judy Carter posing in green shirtIn unnerving times, comedy writer Judy Carter advocates “flipping the fear” and finding the positive side of life’s challenges.

Laughter, like supermarkets in this time of COVID-19, should be considered an essential business. Our mental health depends on it. Studies show laughter alleviates stress, soothes tension, relieves pain, improves your mood, boosts your immune system, resolves conflict, and just feels good.

The virus may take away our sense of smell and taste—but it can’t take away our sense of humor, which can help us cope in uncertain, stressful times.

Try some comedy techniques to turn problems into punchlines.

And there is plenty to get stressed about: fear of losing our health and jobs, not to mention the quarantine weight gain. It’s no wonder that flattening our abdominal muscles seems more difficult than flattening the coronavirus infection curve.

The virus is not only making us sick, it’s making us sick of each other. So what can help?


Finding the Funny

During my online comedy workshop, participants discussed how long it takes to get COVID-19 test results, and this joke popped out of my mouth:

I’ll tell some coronavirus jokes, but you’ll have to wait two weeks to see if you got them.

The entire workshop exploded into laughter, easing everyone’s stress. Next thing you know, people started turning their problems into punchlines:

Prediction: There will be a minor baby boom in nine months after shelter-in-place, and then one day in 2033, there will be the rise of the Quaranteens.

As a prank, my house just got TP’d (wrapped in toilet paper). Suddenly it’s being appraised at twice the price.

Actually, laughter is like the virus—it’s contagious. A lot of scary news is coming at us right now, creating despair, desperation, and depression. So rather than spreading fear, why not learn some comedy techniques to spread humor? You don’t need a prescription for it, you’ll never overdose on it, and you can help make a difference.

As I write this in May 2020, there is no vaccine against COVID-19, so right now laughter just might be the best medicine. As a matter of fact, the only medicine.

Here are some comedy techniques I believe can help all of us spread positive messages and laughter in these uncertain and often unnerving times.


Virtually Hilarious

Due to the pandemic, thousands of Toastmasters clubs are now meeting online. Consider opening or closing your Toastmasters speeches with comedic content. Think your humor won’t wow the club as much online as in person? Think again.


1 I dare you not to laugh.

There is nothing lonelier than saying something funny and hearing silence. Our brain interprets that as bombing, or, to use a kindlier word, failing. Next thing you know, you speed up to fill the emptiness and set a speed record for finishing your eight-minute speech in less than four minutes.

Laughter depends on connection. So when giving a humorous speech it’s essential for the online host to have all attendees turn on their videos and unmute themselves (with the exception of that one Toastmaster with a crying baby). The more laughter you hear, the more smiling faces you see, the more confidence you will have. Remember, laughter is infectious.


2 I'm watching you.

Deliver your speech looking right into the camera and arrange your view (on Zoom) from “Speaker View” to “Grid View.” So rather than looking at yourself, you will see members’ faces. Then, when you do get a laugh, you can add spontaneity by reacting to your club members: “Karen, love your laugh!” or “Well, Bob thought that was funny!”

Knowing that they are being seen and watched by you during your speech will encourage more laughter and discourage them from multitasking and shopping on Amazon.


3 Wait for it.

How you react to your audience’s laughter can be the difference between extending the laugh and killing the laugh. After delivering a punchline, there’s a lag from the end of the joke to the time the audience laughs and that silence can feel like an eternity.

You might be tempted to jump quickly to your next bit, but that is a huge mistake. It cuts short the laugh before it has fully developed and disconnects you from the audience. Hold for the laugh; add gestures or commentary to accentuate your words. Poke your hands toward the camera and lean forward while nodding your head. You can also ask the audience, “Right? Right?” This can be a great way to orchestrate a laugh, even if you didn’t get one at first.


Your Life Is a Joke

“But Judy, there is nothing funny about my life now.”

When writing comedy, start serious—and end funny. Day one in my comedy workshops we get real by answering this question: “What’s wrong about your life?”

A student’s starting point could be: “I’m getting a divorce!” “I can’t stand my kids!” “Cancer.”

That’s right. A woman in my workshop once got an audience to laugh at cancer. She said, “Anyone see my bumper sticker? ‘Lose weight now … ask me how.’” Did her ability to find the funny in a serious topic boost her T-cell count and help her go into remission? According to her it did, so what else matters?

Find a topic 90% of your audience has experienced and you'll not only get a laugh, you'll throw some sunlight into the world.

However, remember that humor can heal and it can hurt. Insensitive jokes guarantee you aren’t going to win any fans in your Toastmasters club. It’s one thing to joke about your lack of toilet paper; it’s another thing to joke about the lack of respirators.

But here’s someone you can always joke about: yourself. Go ahead, joke about yourself! Everyone else is. If you feel your life is a joke, it probably is. Go with it! After all, that’s not a receding hairline—that’s a punchline.


Flex Your Funny Bone

“But Judy, I’m not naturally funny.”

Even if you are humor impaired, the following exercises can help make you funny. I’ve taught comedy techniques to software engineers, accountants, and even the most unfunny—dentists. They all ended up doing five minutes of stand-up comedy. Even better, they nailed it. Follow these cues, and while you may not launch a career as a stand-up comedian, you will get laughs.

 

Warped thinking works.

Where others see problems, comedians see punchlines. We have a warped, or as I like to say, a counterintuitive view of life. A dysfunctional family or a quarantine has an upside: potential material. We flip our fear to make it work for us by looking at the positive side of fear.

I asked my Comedy Bible Facebook group to see if they could find the funny side of some COVID-19 calamities. I gave them this joke setup: There are some advantages to being quarantined, such as…

The coronavirus is a good thing, because now I know how to spell quarantine.

I used to be afraid of hoarders. Now I admire them. I’m taking a “How to be a Hoarder” course online.

And this setup: Signs you’re broke…

…you ask to sleep on your friend’s couch just so you can look for loose change.

…getting paid triggers a call from your bank due to unusual activity.

…you’ve stopped paying compliments.

Flex your funny bone and come up with your own advantages to living in these uncertain times. It’s a great topic because 90% of your audience has experienced it, and you’ll not only get a laugh, you’ll throw some sunlight into the world.

 

Don’t get mad, get funny.

The pandemic has given us examples of breathtaking compassion and, at times, jaw-dropping insensitivity. We can’t stop people from saying hurtful things, but we can choose how to respond. Why not try making a humor choice? This is the same technique I have used onstage to squash a heckler and it works great in life as well.

The technique is called validate and paradox. That means to repeat, in a calm voice, the stupid thing someone said to you: “So, you think I’ve gained weight? Right?” Resist the urge to defend yourself; instead, think counterintuitively and agree with them in an exaggerated way: “Yes, thank you for noticing all my overnight eating has finally paid off!”

Having a laugh rather than a fight can turn conflict into camaraderie and lighten up your day, not to mention your quarantine.

 

Write it down.

We may be feeling stuck, bored, and scared during this quarantine. But there are extraordinary stories in an ordinary day if you look at the details of the day.

Man standing at lectern telling joke to people around tableToastmasters will eventually return to in-person meetings, where comedy thrives on personal connections. Until then, turn on your Zoom camera, unmute the audio, and keep laughing at your fellow members’ funny speeches.

Comedy is found in the details of life. You think you’ll remember funny moments, but unless you write them down, they will vanish. If you think or see something funny, jot it down. You can also spend 10 minutes each morning journaling—it just might result in a story that wins you the World Championship of Public Speaking®. What about the time you tried to make dinner from scratch, using peanut butter, an artichoke, and a can of sardines? As we comics say, “Bad for life—good for comedy.”


Do Something Different

Making people laugh means thinking differently. Doing something in a different way can exercise your brain, expand your skill set, and lighten up your life. During the quarantine I’ve learned how to make bread, Zumba dance, and teach online comedy classes. In fact, teaching opened my eyes to how much comedy talent people have—even dentists.

Consider opening or closing your Toastmasters speech with comedic content, as the willingness to spread laughter is a good thing.

So think differently, learn differently, and you might find you have a hidden talent for telling stories that spread laughter and lighten lives.

And now, I’ve got to go. I have a bowl of pralines-and-cream ice cream waiting for me.

Editor’s Note: If Judy Carter sounds funny—and familiar—to you, it might be that you’ve seen her comedy concepts on display in the Engaging Humor path in Toastmasters’ Pathways learning experience. Carter shares her expertise in a Level 5 video in the path, as does Darren LaCroix, Toastmasters’ 2001 World Champion of Public Speaking.



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