The Serious Business of Being Funny: New Ways Women Use Humor to Engage Audiences

Let’s get serious about humor. Being funny is empowering. When women do comedy, they are in charge. But the same holds true for anyone delivering a presentation. Getting your audience to laugh means they are relaxed and open, which isn’t easy during times of great uncertainty when your listeners might well feel overwhelmed and distracted. Once they’re laughing, you can deliver your serious message with increased confidence knowing it’s more likely it will be received. But women resist the idea of being funny, and for good reasons.

First, for most women, it’s hard to tell a JOKE. Sure, we might amuse our friends with our “Am I crazy or what?” stories in syncopated conversations, but facing a crowd and getting the flow, timing, and punch line right is a whole other animal. Joke telling is tough for women, given what men find funny, and it’s not funny women.

 “…there is something that you absolutely never hear from a male friend who is hymning his latest (female) love interest: ’She’s a real honey, has a life of her own . . . and, man, does she ever make ‘em laugh.’”

Second, most humor is aggressive and pre-emptive. After all, “Male humor prefers the laugh to be at someone’s expense, and understands that life is quite possibly a joke to begin with—and often a joke in extremely poor taste.” Women prefer to take the high road, avoiding mockery and derision at someone else’s expense. Think Mother-In-Law jokes, a type of humor that would never be used by a woman. Some of us actually love our mother in-laws (or are one).

Social mores are changing faster than an iceberg melting and we need to hear women’s take on those changes. Women need to appreciate the impact of “identity politics,” which has reinvigorated feminism and created a demand for points of view beyond those of white men. Women of every cultural, racial, and ethnic background have stories to share about the foibles of the juggling act that are common to most women (and couples) today.

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Women are rewriting history- spelled “HIStory”- as “HERstory” because only women can speak the truth about women’s experiences. If you can construe anecdotes that describe “Fragmentia!” (a term that describes the fragmentation of women’s lives, with tasks and activities required by a range of competing and often conflicting sex roles), you’ll see the audience members nodding and rolling their eyes. Ivanka may have a nanny 24/7, but most women don’t. The lengths working women must go to in multi-tasking and juggling roles are ludicrous and you can expose them with your unique anecdotes.

Once you’ve connected with listeners by exposing the humorous side of women’s lives, you can advance to the more serious issues of women’s economic status, pay inequity, or the lack of affordable childcare. If you find an example of a crazy everyday life experience and frame it as an example of our common humanity, people will listen and quote you to their commuter buddies in the carpool the next morning.

Audiences want to hear from women. Mass culture is in decline, and niche audiences are the goal. You may be overly modest, not realizing that your unique perspective will be appreciated by a particular audience just waiting for someone like you to come along. Unknowns have become overnight sensations once their commentaries (songs, dances, demonstrations) go viral. Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter have democratized the entertainment world by letting audiences directly express their approval with likes.

You don’t have to find your funny bone on your own. Women like us have many new role models who demonstrate ways of being funny. They should inspire the rest of us to follow suit, using humor in our presentations. From Mae West, who once said “One more drink and I’ll be under the host…” to Nora Ephron, who wrote, “I Hate My Neck,” comedic women shock and challenge us in ways men could never.

Today’s comedians are even more outrageous than their predecessors. They push with glee against the confinements of outdated sex roles that defined what women could say and where they could say it. Fran Lebowitz, Ellen DeGeneres, Margaret Cho, Wanda Sykes, Sandra Bernhard, Sarah Silverman, Amy Poehler, Amy Schumer, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, Melissa McCarthy, and Tina Fey have cultivated the very unfeminine gift of being funny through shtick. From belching in bed to burning bushes, they tell it like it is. Vulgar? Hell, yes. But their attitude is: C’mon. We all have bodies, right?

It’s clear comedic women will push the boundaries of good taste when “feminine norms” are thrown out the window. You may have seen Michelle Wolf go over-the-top in roasting White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders at the White House Press Corps Dinner. Too nasty and vulgar for you? Remember that we can watch and learn from how professional comedians are testing the boundaries of good taste as they become more aggressive. Each of us must explore how much we are willing to risk to be funny.

As women age, they care less about what people think and tell it like it is. For instance, 70+ year old fashion icon Diane Von Furstenberg said that , allowing 65-year-old men to father children to 25-year-old wives. Really? She talks about senior sex in a refreshing and amusing way that only women (or liberated men) can relate to.

If there is a point to make, humor can work. For instance, the expectations for working women to be all things to all people is absurd. Consider the plight of this working mom:

“Have you ever been swept away by Mother-Guilt? Yesterday I was working on my annual report and the time got away from me until my 8-year-old texted me, reminding me he was at baseball practice… waiting for me to pick him up…in the rain. OMG, I could have surfed a tsunami of guilt to the field without a car that night.”

You could use the above quote in a presentation as an example of what current research tells us, namely that the consequences of working women’s juggling act are alcoholism and stress-induced heart attacks experienced by otherwise healthy younger women. A good speaker knows that humor is merely a hook. In this case, trying to do it all is no laughing matter. When women wonder about the random assignment of bad luck on top of the juggling act, they ask, “Why me?” thinking they’re unique. For consolation, comedians answer “Me, too,” with no hashtag needed.

Learning how to tell a joke is empowering. Some jokes require memorization but it’s worth it. Professionals explain that “You’re wielding the massive power of surprise. You’re expressing your point of view in an especially potent way. Or, as Joan Rivers put it: “You’re commanding them to listen to you.”

Women prefer to be amusing through anecdotes and perhaps stay away from joke-telling because it’s more of a “masculine” art form. You tease, you string people along by extending the story. Like a magician, you (and you alone) know The Reveal. Nothing makes sense at first, so you drop clues and build up tension. You own the room until the climax. Wow!

Here are a few suggestions for lightening up:

  1. List three things you find amusing about women’s juggling act, women’s aging, or the absurdity of life today. We need to hear women’s take on how social, economic and lifestyle changes are affecting women. Tell it like it is!
  2. Go to YouTube and watch a few of the comedians do their thing. Pick the ones that are role models for you. What do they say or do that is surprising and makes you laugh? Which stories can you relate to?
  3. Go to the Readers Digest Jokes page, find 3 jokes, and memorize them with a pause before the punch line. Tell them to friends. Record yourself on your smartphone several times experimenting with your voice variety, rate, and pauses to get the pacing down.

Dying is easy; Comedy is difficult.” Shakespearean actor Edmund Kean said this on his deathbed. He would know, and he wouldn’t lie, right?

People are busy and distracted with the juggling act of their own lives. How to get listeners to pay attention is a key challenge for any speaker. Professional speakers know that one way to do so is to get them to laugh. Once they’re warmed up, the speaker can bridge to more serious topics. Are you ready to find the absurdity in everyday life that will allow you to pitch a need for a new product, service, or social policy?

About the Author:

Lois Phillips is a dynamic public speaker whose clients say she “practices what she teaches.” Her academic background combines with executive experience to inform her training and coaching. Using principles gained from interviews with successful speakers and outlined in “Women Seen and Heard: Lessons Learned from Successful Speakers”she provides coaching and training to spokespersons, managers and executives. Dr. Phillips has a special interest in executive and professional development, strategic planning, and Board leadership. She has produced conferences on women’s leadership, moderated two television programs about the changing roles of women and men, and has delivered numerous keynote conference presentations. For many years she presented workshops to corporations on the subject of PREVENTING SEXUAL HARASSMENT IN THE WORKPLACE after providing climate surveys of the corporate culture.

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