Joking Around in Serious Presentations
A Mischief Warning
by Marsha Hunter
This week the defense team’s opening statement in the George Zimmerman trial in Florida included a knock knock joke. It wasn’t particularly funny, and nobody laughed. Reports about the joke labeled it “in poor taste,” and “Kindergarten humor.” Alan Dershowitz classified defense lawyer Don West as unworthy of being admitted to a law school trial skills class for pulling such a stunt. Since we are often asked whether beginning with a joke is a good idea, this is an opportunity for a serious discussion about using humor in public speaking.
Beginning a speech or other presentation with a joke is an idea that has been around for ages, but now seems quaintly out of date. Jokes often poke uncomfortable fun at someone, or offend entire groups of people. You cannot know the backgrounds and histories of your listeners, and making broad assumptions about their reactions is impossible. Beyond these sensitivity issues, telling a joke requires comedic skill, timing, and adherence to the artistic rules of comedy. It requires that you be keenly aware of the setting you are in, and the tone and nuance required by the joke.
Our view is that planned jokes are simply too risky in court, and in most other presentations that lawyers are called upon to make. There are too many downsides to making your inital comments into a burlesque.
First, unless you have spent a previous career as a stand-up comic, your delivery will be amateurish. Even if you like to tell jokes, and you think you have the perfect joke on hand, your timing is likely to be clumsy. You will deliver it too quickly, or mangle the punchline, or get the rhythm wrong. Comedy demands just as much practice and attention to detail as the law. It isn’t as easy to toss off a brilliant quip as the Comedy Channel makes it look. Your audience watches its favorite comedians on demand, and they measure you against their personal tastes and preferences. Don’t compete with Tina Fey or Conan O’Brien.
Attorney West has apologized for telling his knock knock joke, but he blamed its failure on his delivery. It cannot have been pleasant to feel the joke land with a thud, but instead of taking responsibility for making a lousy choice, he blamed his poor comic timing, implying that if only he had nailed the punchline, it would have been fine. The truth is, it was a bad idea in the first place.
If you are tempted to inject a gag, realize that your comic material is probably inappropriate for at least some of your listeners. While it is possible that the jury in Zimmerman’s trial might have been receptive to an amusing comment about how they came to be sitting there, they were also acutely aware that Trayvon Martin’s friends and relatives were in the courtroom, listening to a tasteless joke about the now-famous killer of their friend, relative, or son. It makes people uncomfortable to hear a joke that offends others in the room. The all-female jury may well be more empathetic than a mixed or all-male jury might be, making this bull-in-a-china-shop offense especially unfathomable. Why, during opening statement, would you blow your best chance for the people on the panel to get to know you as a trustworthy, decent person? Do you really want the jury’s first impression to be that you are an insensitive lout? This isn’t just a matter of joking around, it is a matter of character and judgment.
Another reason not to stray into comedian’s territory is simple: you may not be a funny person. If you aren’t inherently funny, you probably won’t be able to tell a joke that makes people laugh spontaneously, and have the desired effect of lightening the mood. After the knock knock debacle, I might add that you shouldn’t first apologize at length about the joke you are about to tell. A rambling prelude makes your listeners brace themselves and pray you get it over with quickly. Such pre-joke apologies are a sure sign that you are not funny. Funny people just tell the joke.
If you do miscalculate and tell a joke that tanks, don’t chastize your listeners when they fail to laugh, as defense attorney West did when he complained, “That’s it?” He told them it might not go over well, it didn’t, and then he whined about it.
Let’s consider further this question of whether you yourself are funny. You may have a sense of humor or a love of laughter, but that doesn’t mean you possess a clown’s verbal instinct and timing. You may enjoy irony, puns, or limericks. You might be a good audience for jests from others. You may be good-natured, but not necessarily the source of clever, witty comments. Having a sense of humor doesn’t mean you are funny. Consider yourself off the hook, then—you will never be obligated to tell jokes in any public setting!
If you are funny, you know it. You have spent your life making people laugh and are conscious of this part of your character. You may have a talent for telling jokes that hit the bull’s eye every time. Your instinct for shaggy dog stories inspires you to practice until the wording and timing are just right. Even if you are funny, beware of telling jokes on opening statement (watch the knock knock video here).
If you aren’t funny, but mistakenly think you are, that’s a problem. (See blaming the delivery, above.) If you can recall telling jokes that didn’t pan out, or have a feeling that your humor falls on deaf ears, ask someone you trust about it. Find a humor mentor. However, if you are a white guy defending a racially-charged murder case in which an unarmed African-American teenager was killed by your client, do not tell jokes during the trial. There just isn’t anything about this that is a laughing matter inside the courtroom.
But back to those of you who are genuinely funny. You may not be a joke-telling stand-up comic, but instead have a talent for making spontaneous integrated humor. Justice Scalia, for example, can riff on a comment and charm a room while cracking people up. He may not be good at knock knock jokes, but he is famous for provoking laughter in the Supreme Court. I’ve been present when his repartee lightens an argument, and it comes across as real, made-in-the-moment humor. It is the genuine article, not some joke he looked up on the Internet that might come in handy when discussing Miranda warnings.
Speaking of warnings, here’s mine. Let’s call it the Mischief Warning. If you are tempted to use a joke as an ice-breaker, don’t. If you and your trial team find yourselves brain-storming for the perfect witticism, stop as soon as you realize what you are doing. If anyone advises you to tell a joke during opening statement, reject the suggestion. You are the one who will have egg on your face if it goes wrong. I say this because the trial team for Zimmerman clearly vetted the knock-knock joke, since West rambled on about how the jury should take it in the right spirit before he launched himself off the cliff of good taste. Who urged him on?
If you want to lighten the mood in a courtroom or a board room, try a pleasant, socially appropriate smile. Always be professional, credible, and believable. If something amusing occurs to you, be very, very careful about commenting on it. If the gods of comedy inspire you with an appropriate jest, use a gentle touch, and don’t wait for the laughter because it may never materialize. Move on gracefully and stay on your topic.
But do not tell a joke. Heed the Mischief Warning.