Keep the mood light even if your quip flatlines
Stick to your day job, Kellyanne!
Kellyanne Conway became the target of jokes earlier this week after she brought cue cards onto an episode of Fox News Channel’s “Hannity” to defend Donald Trump and his associates against mounting claims that his campaign colluded with Russia in last year’s presidential election. The presidential counselor’s move swiftly triggered a flood of bewildered memes, with the likes of late night comedian Stephen Colbert getting into the act.
Conway’s reaction to the barbs however, only exacerbated things further. The first woman to manage a successful Republican presidential campaign subsequently went on Twitter to call out her critics for being “humorless.”
Apologies to the humorless. Kellyanne Conway Uses Visual Aids to Challenge Russia Collusion Narrative | Mediaite https://t.co/BPSTceybxS
— Kellyanne Conway (@KellyannePolls) July 13, 2017
According to people who make a living from being funny, that’s a strict no no. “The best practice when you make a joke that doesn’t work is to acknowledge and admit it,” says Avish Parashar, a Pennsylvania-based professional speaker who bills himself as a “motivational humorist.” “If you don’t acknowledge it, people are going to keep thinking about it.”
A good way to nod to the fact that you’ve made a quip that flatlined is to be mildly self deprecatory. “Poke fun at yourself but not in a way that undermines your authority,” says Kimberly Oser, a New York City stand-up comic. “There can be a playful acknowledgment that’s still in joke mode.” For instance, Oser thinks Conway could have said something along the lines of “well maybe this class knows the truth and won’t need cue cards the next time,” instead of firing back.
That doesn’t mean an adversarial approach never works, but you have to be careful when to use it. “It works if you’re in a give-and-take, playful environment,” says Parashar. “But it’s more dangerous. If in doubt, just go self-deprecatory.”
Even if you’re a great standup comic, there are many reasons— from timing to audience composition— that a joke can bomb. That’s why Parashar recommends avoiding telling jokes in corporate settings, but instead recounting funny stories. “If a joke doesn’t work, you’ve just bombed,” he says. “If it’s a story, there’s may still be value [to the lesson being passed on] even if they don’t laugh.”
This is especially true if you’re in a work presentation and say something that no one laughs at. In such a scenario, Parashar suggests saying the word “anyways” and then quickly moving on to the point you were about to make. “Go to the reason you even bothered making the joke,” he says. “You’ve then just transitioned from the ‘joke’ to the point.”
Whatever you do, don’t be defensive. “If people are alienated by a joke that doesn’t resonate, you further [the alienation] by telling them they’re humorless,” says Oser. “You should try to keep the crowd with you, even if it’s the wrong crowd for the joke. Just be cute about it.”
And for comedy’s sake, don’t explain your joke if it doesn’t make people laugh the first time. “Comedy is very much about timing and it’s just going to make things more awkward,” says Parashar. The only exception: if you say something that people take as offensive when you really didn’t mean it that way.
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