Sunday, 5 August 2012

Humour - it's a serious business

Clowns and I have got a lot in common - it's both our jobs to make people smile. Not for me though an arena where people come to forget their reality and enjoy a moment of hilarity and silliness. My subjects often don't want the attention, or they participate reluctantly, or they want the photo but they've had a bad experience or three...

It's my job to help them smile - to reach beyond the black box between them and me, to connect with the real person, to break down their un-natural inhibition and help them reveal what I truly believe is their truly beautiful smile.

I use humour.

Humour is essential to life. And just like fire and water, and maybe even religion, it's an incredible blessing, in the right time and place. Imagine working in an office where humour is discouraged. It would be soul-destroying! (though I try and avoid the sleaze and smut of the sewer variety...)

Humour can be clever, like the Tui billboards (not all agree) or like Emmerson who has the amazing knack of taking a totally unrelated story to comment on an issue of the day. It can be corny: Did you hear about the man who was tap-dancing? He broke his ankle when he fell into the sink!

It's often just silly - slapstick masters Laurel and Hardy brought hours of laughter to this young and not-so-young child's day... And Charlie Chaplin, who had an incredible ability to connect with an audience before the TV industry gave us canned laughter (so we'd know when the funny bits were). Applying logic just kills the joke.

And it can be subtle, like the cartoon of Father arriving at the neighbour's door with a flagon of beer under each arm. "I've come to complain about the noise", he says! Or as simple as one of my foreign friends' recent Facebook post: "The awkward moment afterwards when someone tells you that, during a hongi, you're supposed to touch noses not bang foreheads." Anyone Kiwi would just laugh. Been there.

Some humour never grows old, the delights of cartoons never fail - Bugs Bunny yet again outwitting Elmer Fudd, or Disney's Uncle Scrooge throwing a tantrum or two. Or Garfield or Charlie Brown in Peanuts. And often it's used to convey a message or an attitude - like Dilbert or Calvin and Hobbes.

I used to tell my kids that "When I grow up, I'm gonna be an adult..." and now I'm starting to realise why. It was only when I got older that I discovered that Get Smart was a spoof of James Bond. It was only in trying to explain Hogan's Heroes to my kids that I realised it was propaganda. As a child, it was just a funny programme.

It can be cruel - sarcasm is destructive at its best, though according to my kids, "It's funny Dad, get a life will ya!" The comedian John Cleese says "Comedy always works best when it is mean-spirited." And I've heard it said that 'humour is just violence in another form.' Remember Tom and Jerry? Admit it, you laughed...

The problem is that humour is so easily misunderstood, particularly when it's in writing. I've had two online conversations recently where comments could easily have been taken the wrong way. You can't hear their tone of voice! You can't hear their attitude!

This last week there was online "outrage" at a campaign by Hakanoa and The Little Grocer where ginger-haired kids could be swapped for a six-pack of ginger beer. It could have been funny, if it wasn't for the message in the accompanying press release:
"... no one really wants a ginger"
"... children are a blessing, but it’s fair to say no parent sets out wanting a ginger child."
"... parents unfortunate enough to be cursed with ginger children..."
"... From the ... smirks to the feelings of shame, there’s a lot for them to bear."
To quote myself,
"Got 3 gingas in my house, and it suits me just fine, wouldn't ask for different, don't understand the negativity, can only assume it's a rather poor attempt at humour.
Maybe the 'organic fair trade ingredients" have addled her brain (he says, with his tongue stuck firmly in his cheek...)"
Cos actually, I love gingas - and blondes - and brunettes - and those blessed with just a touch of grey...

It just goes to show that a joke explained is never as funny. Hakanoa followed up three days later with a press release to explain their motivation - it wasn't them, it was the marketing folks who had had problems with their kids being bullied, and this was their way of raising the issue - [by adding to it??]

The problem is, hardly anyone saw the Real Story! Of the 15 online media/blogs/forums that ran with either story, only one ran the explanation.

I should probably admit this post has been a while in the writing. I started thinking about humour a couple of months ago when I accidentally hit a very raw nerve in a colleague with a one-off throwaway comment. And like The Little Grocer,
"If I had a time machine, I would go back..."
"I am truly deeply sorry for all (the) hurt this has caused. That was not my ... intent."
Hakanoa said they were just trying to raise an issue and maybe we should give them the benefit of the doubt.

Maybe they were a bit like the young man who bowled up to his girlfriend's house to deliver her a birthday present, and to his dismay, her father showed up as she unwrapped it - a sexy see-through negligee. "It's not the gift", the young man stuttered, "it's the thought that counts!!"  J

PS: It's a serious business. Here's why I think the ginger beer ad back-fired:
  • It raised the issue, but hardly anyone heard the Real Story. Of the 15 online media/blogs/forums that ran with either story, only one ran the explanation.
  • NZ Herald, who got more than 10,000 votes on their poll on the first story, then wrote an opinion piece and quoted just two lines from the Real Story, immediately followed by three quotes from the first press release to justify their disbelief in the sincerity of the second.
  • Even an organisation who endorsed Hakanoa's founder as a very worthy fellow committee member withheld their opinion on the campaign itself.
  • At least 4200 people were offended, and will tell their friends.
In terms of humour, I think the campaign was a fail. Only time will tell whether it succeeded or failed in marketing. I really hope it works out for them.
Update 20 October, 2012: The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has now ruled the ad was likely to cause serious and widespread offence. It said the ad went beyond the acceptable use of stereotypes and satire, and encouraged the discrimination and ridicule of red-headed people.


  1. I was once told, ''don't be stupid, what I said was just a throwaway comment'' - as if THAT excuse excuses the comment itself!

  2. Humour and/in relationships is so risky... Oh that I might gain a little more control over my tongue - sometimes my wit is so much faster than my wisdom :-)

  3. Sometimes the joke gets completely missed because of:
    the subtle use of irony within humour pertaining to said subject,
    the context in which made the joke funny in the first place.
    If we cant learn to laugh at ourselves, we're lost and bound.
    Laughter is the evidence of freedom.
    FB - GC

  4. ... and it is the best medicine. Don't know how I would have got through the past few weeks without laughter.
    FB - KH

  5. Oh yeah, sometimes I smile cos I'm happy, and sometimes cos I want to be - and sometimes you just do not want to know what I'm thinking :-)