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Corporate Comedy: Jokeses and Hoaxes

By Dr. Duff Watkins

From Presentation Solutions Magazine

What’s more serious than business? Comedy!

Eliciting the intermittent, abbreviated contractions of inhalations and exhalations known as laughter is a serious business and that's why corporate comedy is no laughing matter.

Corporate comedy is a small but growing industry wherein professionals, often full-time actors trained in both business and theatre, are hired to hoax unsuspecting audiences. These charlatans masquerade as experts who, through a blend of blarney and fact, persuade an audience to laugh at itself.

Why would corporations want to be fooled by a fraud? What's so funny about corporate comedy?

The Importance of Being Humorous

Humour is useful to companies because it relieves tension, discharges anxiety, and helps resolve the conflicts arising as we try do rational business in a non-rational world. Humour defuses the time bombs of stress that inevitably accumulate at work. When your business gives you headaches, instead of taking a powder, try tapping the power of humour. President Ronald Reagan did.

When 54 year old Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale hammered the elderly President Reagan about his advanced age during a televised debate, Reagan joked to the national audience:

"I refuse to exploit Mr. Mondale’s youth and inexperience for my own political advantage."

Even Mondale laughed in what was easily the highlight of the debate.
Reagan even got the last laugh by winning the election in a landslide!

Humour Has Power

Humour scores points. Just as citizens like their leaders to react with good humour to adverse circumstances, so too do employees like to see their leaders take economic setbacks in stride.

In business, as in politics, communication relies upon an ability to manipulate those little verbal symbols called "words." Riddles, puns, double entendres, and the short stories we call "jokes," are examples of how we cleverly manipulate words in order to make points.

For example, note the witty way management guru Peter Drucker differentiates between "efficient" and "effective."

Being efficient means doing things rightly;

being effective means doing the right thing.

Or recall the old joke about the economy:

Recession: When your neighbour is out of a job.

Depression: When you are out of a job.

Recovery: When Paul Keating is out of a job.

Or the Nigerian proverb:

The truth is very bitter; many cannot eat it.

Humour scores points because it harnesses the power of words and makes even the bitterest truth easier to swallow.

Jokes are Bonds

Humour bonds people together and corporate comedy taps this bonding power. For example, a group of strangers trapped in a lift will joke about their predicament. This eases the tension and creates a common bond. In like manner, corporate comedians research their client’s company and derive their material from in-house jokes, industry issues, and company gossip in order to have their humour hit home.

The good-natured roasting of senior people in the company, the public airing of in-house jokes, and the satirising of a company’s idiosyncrasies, all serve to strengthen that intangible esprit de corps found in successful companies.

Humour as a Means of Change

Humour is a means of expressing anger and frustration in a socially safe, acceptable and constructive way. When employees of IBM refer to their corporate headquarters in Cumberland Forest as "Slumberland Forest", it's a protest as much as a joke. The same is true of the following question posed by Scottish comedian Billy Connelly:

What does and ostrich, a pelican and the Tax Office have in common?

They can stick their bills up their arse!

Humour offers an acceptable vehicle for rage. Jokes about IBM and the Tax Office are safe because it is distinctly unsafe to tell either IBM or the ATO to "stick it!"

Laughing at Ourselves

We cope with the uncertainties of business through humour. Everybody wants a "pre-guarantee" of success before embarking upon a risky endeavour. Everyone seeks tangible signs of security. As Woody Allen once said:

I could believe in God if I just had some kind of sign...
like a large deposit in a Swiss bank account in my name.

Business, however, is filled with uncertainty. When our herculean efforts produce paltry rewards, we need to be able to laugh in order to cope.

The point of corporate comedy is this:

In business, when the efforts you make are out of proportion to the results you achieve, having a sense of humour is an important safeguard to both your personal sanity and your professional success.

Laughter is a sign of successfully coping with the mild feelings of fear, insecurity and stress which are inevitable in the business world. Humour helps us bear what we cannot avoid or escape.

For example, during the height of the "Westpac Letters" affair, a corporate comic posing as an academic expert hoodwinked the Yale Club of Sydney by asserting that Yale University is now producing low-achieving, dim-witted, dullards who are incapable of succeeding in business. In order to "prove" his point he singled out a particular individual and asked, "Sir, what do you do for a living?" To which the unfortunate fellow replied honestly, "I handle Westpac's public relations!" The comedian shrugged and the audience roared with laughter.

Laughing at ourselves restores a sense of order. Ideas about our personal value can grow unrealistically out of proportion if unchecked. Humour keeps a business balanced

--- emotionally if not financially. Humour liberates us from fear of failing and of being embarrassed. Humour protects us from our egos, prevents us from becoming pompous, and keeps our work in perspective.

The value of not taking yourself too seriously is illustrated by the following true story, told to me by a colleague:
Once upon a time the local undertaker, a leading citizen of the community, took me out to the cemetery and gave me some advice. "Son," he said, "you're young, ambitious, and eager to get ahead in your career. But do you see all those tombstones out there? I just want you to remember that every one of those people was indispensable."

In conclusion, the next time you encounter a setback in business just remember this:

every day above ground is a good day!

Tell it Like It Ain't!

Corporate comedy is no joke, nor is it easy. Being funny requires intelligence, skill and a sense of humour. The trick is to blend fact with fancy and make it look natural and plausible.

"Winston Churchill has devoted the best years of his life to preparing his impromptu speeches."
-- F.E. Smith, British politician

Like Churchill, hoaxers prepare diligently to make it look easy. They study their roles carefully and craft their message to convince their audience. Every minute performed before an audience represents one hour of research by the performer. As one corporate clown puts it, "It's not the rehearsing but the researching that gives credibility."

Every person laughs, but not at the same thing. Different industries find laughter in different topics. An audience of electrical wholesalers has a different "funny bone" than an audience from the Sydney Stock Exchange. Therefore corporate comedy has to be tailored to the audience. The key to a good hoax is blending sensible fact with preposterous nonsense. As one comic says,

"Anybody can lie, but the best lies are half-truths."