Funny Business

It must be funny, and not just funny on paper, but performable. Some humor takes a long buildup (that's out), some requires a dialect (that's out), and some reformed clichés (puns) contain homonyms that work only on paper (red, read ox night, nite, knight). The following puns would be next to impossible to pull off aloud:

Once a knight, always a knight, But once a night is always enough.

In my day, the little red schoolhouse was very common. Today, however, it's the little-read schoolboy who's too common.

Jokes and anecdotes should not be read but told looking out at the audience. If there's anything a speaker needs to memorize, it's the humor. Not only must it be delivered confidently, but memorizing it will encourage a more accurate rendition.

Personalize the humor whenever possible, even though many in the audience will know it's fabricated. Humor, as we've already seen, permits the audience to set aside disbelief. No one will stand up and challenge you. Use words like "I" and "last week"; mention local names and places.

I thought I was a good drinker, but- I'm nothing compared to Mike. He doesn't drink when he's driving, not only because it's dangerous but because he might spill some. Just before lunch he went up to the bartender and said, "A martini, very dry. In fact, make it about twenty to one." The bartender asked, "Shall I put in a twist of lemon?" And Mike said, "Listen, when I want lemonade, I'll order lemonade."

All speech writers must develop tolerance—that's the ability to listen to a client louse up one of your best jokes. Instruct your client not to try and finish a joke that's been stumbled over. The joke has been killed, so take the loss right away. Recommend (and write) savers, those little disclaimer lines that help save face when a joke gets messed up or bombs.

Now you know why my husband says, "Unaccustomed as you are to public speaking, you still do it!"

My wife says I have a wonderful way of making a long story short. I forget the punch line.

By letting the voice rise on the last word, the speaker can "punch the punch line." It's usually the most important word, and it's a sin to bury anything that's alive. And speaking of dead, the words dejected, appraisingly, and sarcastically read better than they sound, and should be deleted.

Never apologize. "Here's something I just dashed off. This may not be very funny, but " Also, don't explain. "See, the guy was an atheist, and. ..."

Don't hesitate to give credit to other professional humorists when using their material. It's not only courtesy, it shows you're well read and aren't afraid to surround yourself with brilliance. And don't be afraid to write in a story you've heard or even one you've used before. You can never satisfy 100 percent of an audience with any material, so if you've got surefire material, don't hesitate to reuse it. The only old joke Robert Orben says he knows is the one told by the previous speaker.

One day I went to a trial of a guy accused of trying to rob a warehouse, but the police grabbed him trying to get away. I was seated next to a little old lady in the back of the room who was weeping and wailing "My son. My son." Being a parent, I felt sorry for her so I tried to comfort her. She turned and said, "If he had only listened to his mother. How I begged him. How I pleaded with him. 'Get the getaway car overhauled.' But, they never listen."

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