Wednesday, March 23, 2011

So, You Can’t Tell a Joke?

“The most wasted day is that in which we have not laughed.”  --Sebastian Chamfort
"When we see how funny we are, we see how dear we are." --Anne Wilson Schaef

            I am grateful that in today's world there is an increasing awareness that humor and laughter are good for us. The evidence is mounting. Every day there is more news about the power of humor and laughter to heal us physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.  Every system of the body responds to laughter in some important, positive, healing way.  Most folks seem to want to get all the laughs they can, and would love to tell jokes. Two big obstacles to joke telling are 1) most of us don't have very good memory for jokes, and 2) very few people know the secrets of telling a joke really well.  (Perhaps, from listening to your brother-in-law’s attempts to jokes, you already knew that.)

It has been said that there are two sure rules for making something funny; unfortunately, nobody knows what they are! Therefore, this blog is NOT going to teach you how to tell jokes. It IS going to show you how to add vast quantities of humor to your life WITHOUT telling jokes. 

But, while we're on the subject, here are my two best tips for telling jokes. 1) The punchline comes at the end. Don't ruin the joke by asking, "Did you hear the one about..." and then saying the punchline. By the way, a well-crafted punchline will have a punch word. If you tell it right, the punch word is the absolutely last word of the joke! 2) If you can't remember a joke don't dismember it. Telling a joke well requires practice and getting feedback so you can revise the telling and practice again. Do NOT unleash a joke on a key audience until you know it cold, and have mastered the gestures, voice inflections and timing.

Not interested or capable of the following my advice? Never could tell a joke? Relax. Not to worry. You can earn a reputation for being funny without ever telling a joke. Ninety-five percent of people believe that they have a good sense of humor, but only about 2% - 5% can tell a joke really well.  Most people can’t think of a snappy comeback when someone hits them with a zinger, until about two hours later when they realize, “Now I know what I should have said to him!”  By then, of course, it’s too late.

Sound like you? I hope you're feeling better about not doing a good job of telling jokes because you are in good company, and the humor doctor is here.  I believe that everyone can locate and develop their sense of humor.  First, we should clear up two mistaken ideas about humor and laughter.
            1. Many people mistakenly believe that you are born with a sense of humor.  The parts of the brain and central nervous system that control laughing and smiling are mature at birth in human infants, but that is not the same thing as having a sense of humor. (After all, when an infant laughs in its crib we don’t rush over and say, “That kid has a great sense of humor!”)  Your sense of humor is something you can develop over a lifetime.
            2. Humor covers a lot more than laughing and joke telling.  A sense of humor requires an attitude that includes the willingness and ability to see the funny side of life’s situations as they happen to ourselves and others. One of the best definitions of a sense of humor is: the ability to see the non-serious element in a situation.  The ability to tell jokes is only one small part of humor.  
            You may know people who have taken the time to memorize some jokes, and they may have good timing and delivery, but if they cannot see the humor in everyday life when there are foul-ups or set-backs, they don’t really have a very good sense of humor.  On the other hand, if you can see the humor in everyday situations, even if you are terrible at telling jokes, you still have a great sense of humor!
For example, I saw this sign in a store window. I am sure the store manager placed the sign to impress customers with the service they would receive there. That is a serious point in business these days, but to me the sign was humorous. It read: Any Faulty Merchandise Will Be Cheerfully Replaced With Merchandise of Equal Quality. Pretty funny, eh?

The Top Ten (eleven, actually) Ways to Have Humor (and be funny) Without Joke-Telling

1. Look for the unintended humor of reality. Example: a sign seen in an Acapulco restaurant, “The manager has personally passed all the water served here”. Collect examples like this in a notebook so you have them available whenever you want to share a laugh with others or just to review yourself whenever your spirits need a lift. 

2. Wear funny hats or T-shirts with funny sayings printed on them.  Conduct a “Funny Hat Day” at work.  My wife, Pam's favorite T-shirt is emblazoned with, “My Next Husband Will Be Normal". Good for loads of laughs and understanding looks from other women.

3.  Become a toy collector.  You never outgrow your need for toys. They induce playfulness and laughter in yourself and others.  Make it a point to shop for toys for yourself.  Buy the toys that suit you best.  Whether its a simple wind-up toy that bounces and jiggles across your desk or an elaborate electronic gizmo. It may be just the icebreaker to get to know a new employee at work or to create a pleasant exchange with a new customer. If it brings a smile to your face, it can give you the relief you need to ward off the ill-effects of stress. 

4. Wear fun badges.  Start your own collection.  Some of my favorites read, “I’m not deaf!  I’m ignoring you!" and “Enjoy life!  This is not a dress rehearsal!”  The badge conveys the humor; you don’t have too tell a joke.

5. Place humor in your environment. Put cartoons on bulletin boards at work, or put up a humorous poster in your office or at your desk.  When there are cartoons on bulletin boards, people will read more of the other notices. When your eye catches your funny poster, you get a lightening quick boost.

6. Schedule time for fun.  Be sure you get to see that favorite funny TV show, or go to a comedy club, or just take time to play with your kids.  If you have a very busy schedule it’s important to put it on the calendar and mark it “Don't Postpone Joy!”

7. Enroll in a humor class.  Many adult education programs are now offering classes designed to help you discover and develop your humorous personality.  Several types of “Humor Conventions” are now held throughout the year.

8. Hang out with people who have a well-developed sense of humor.  Watch them and see what makes them laugh. Let them serve as good examples for you. If some people leave you feeling tense, drained, guilty, depresses, or otherwise bummed-out, get away from those energy thieves as fast as you can!  Get with people who make you laugh, who leave you feeling good, uplifted, re-energized!

9. Subscribe to humorous publications or read them at the library.  Check them out! (I love that pun.)

10. Become a HUMOR i-PENPAL. Line up a few friends who share your sense of humor, maybe even include a couple who's sense of humor is diferent, off-beat. Viia e-mail or snail mail, exchange anyhing you find humorous - a greeting card, cartoon, bumper sticker, badge, poem, story, whatever. This is a great way to see what others are finding funny and infuse your day with laughs.  And, be sure to Google "jokes" because even if you can't tell them, you sure can enjoy reading them!

11. Join a laughter circle or laughter club. These popular gatherings are for the love of laughter, NOT about jokes. They help you unleash your inner spirit of laughter through activities that are fun and "emotionally safe". i.e., laughing with rather than laughter at, no judgment or criticism. Especialy good therapy for jesters who have lost their jingle. 

Use these ideas and find others that work to help you be more humorous and less serious and get the most out of life.  Everything goes better with humor and you definitely don’t have to be able to tell jokes!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Friends in Japan Promote Peace and Laughter

I just finished a delightful reunion Skype call with my friend, Gart Westerhout, an American from the Baltimore area, who has been living many years in Komatsu, Japan. He and his family were spared in the current catastrophe.

Gart writes plays that he then produces and directs with residents of the small town of Komatsu. His plays are about peace. Five times they have been invited to perform outside of Japan. For the 2nd invitation, in 1999, he brought the troupe to perform in Washington, DC. He and I had already met online (it was only the third year of the Internet) and discovered our shared interests in peace and laughter. Following a beautiful performance of his play “Birds of Peace” (all in Japanese), and a pizza party for cast and crew, Pam and I met Gart and about two dozen of the actors from Komatsu, for a memorable laughter session on the National Mall between the Lincoln and Washington monuments.

We started with my yo-yo tricks. Gart was the translator. We ended up with the cast spontaneously inventing a form of peace laughter, which entails standing on one leg like a crane, while laughing and gracefully flapping our arms like large wings. You see, in Japan, the crane is known as the bird of peace, commemorating the story of a young girl made fatally sick from the atomic bombings. There is a belief that if you fold 1,000 origami cranes, you will be granted a wish. Ill with a leukemic condition, the young girl started folding cranes. Her wish was to be for peace. Gart wrote the play to tell her story. The cast brought 50,000 origami cranes, made by the townspeople of Komatsu, to distribute during their tour. Hence, the crane pose became a form of peace laughter. Pam and I we were very encouraged that (1) we were able to communicate and connect friendship and laughter, and (2) we witnessed the close connection between laughter and creativity.

In today’s e-mail, Gart writes, “Leaving Saturday for the UK and the continent - see We bring a message of peace and much-needed laughter through our show which catapults characters from Japanese history into the present. No one-meter laughs in the show, but plenty of giggles and guffaws, and what you taught us back on the National Mall (with official permit to hold a gathering, I recall!) has stuck with me all through the years. One of my favorite memories of that workshop was that my parents and several of their good friends started as onlookers (they had attended the show) but by halfway through they were all full participants!”

Subject: laughter kanji

“Here is the kanji for the word warau, or laughter, suitable for color printing and framing!  It was done by a good friend here who did the art for our poster this year (see for poster and trip schedule), and he is coming on the trip and will do giant calligraphy onstage (link to photos on the main page right under the March 13 show info in the left column).”

[The laughter character is done by the calligrapher Kazu Mori of Akaze, Komatsu, Japan. He  did the poster you can see  at, and below the poster is a photo of him at work.]

And, now, dear reader, I share the beautiful laughter kanji with you to print or frame or pass along or just to look at. You can get it at In the midst of a catastrophic event, some who survive continue their work –even re-double their efforts-- for peace and laughter. I am happy to have this friendship.

Monday, March 14, 2011

National Humor Month Kicks Off with April Fool's Day

On June 28, 2008, I received the mantle of the auspicious position of Director of National Humor Month, with all responsibilities, rights, privileges and laughter appertaining thereto (along with a big box of funny stuff) from best-selling humorist and philanthropist, Larry Wilde, Director of The Carmel Institute of Humor who founded the special month in 1976. It is designed to heighten public awareness on how the joy and therapeutic value of laughter can improve health, boost morale, increase communication skills and enrich the quality of one's life.

We honor those who make us laugh, professionals and amateurs alike, as well as friends, neighbors, teachers, and relatives, including your Uncle Fred and your Aunt Tillie. This is the place where you can come to share ideas about how to celebrate humor, information about the ancient roots of humor and the myriad contemporary expressions of humor.

We look forward to encouraging humor in everyone's life around the world and all year long.

Special materials for teachers, parents, librarians and others interested in using humor to help kids enjoy reading are free at You will also find "Thirty Ways in 30 Days" ideas for celebrating National Humor Month, and a bunch of other good stuff...also free.

National Institute of Health Wants to Know...

I am honored to have been invited to participate in a program within NIH (April 5, 2011, Washington, DC) exploring humor and healing. Other panelist/presenters include Dr. Lee Berk and Dr. Paul McGhee. I will be blogging and otherwise sharing information about the program and the material I am preparing to present.
My part of the program will be about training and education in therapeutic applications of laughter and humor, and how we have been able to create an organization and programs to train nearly 6,000 CLLs so far, who have sent more than 16,000 Forum messages with feedback and observation about results.

Although World Laugher Tour (WLT) does not conduct formal scientific research, case studies and observations are considered the beginnings of science, and WLT programs are being used by OT, PT, and Speech & Hearing professionals, to innovate a concept we call “Integrative Laughter Therapy”  in a large company operating about 100 facilities.

We have a lot to offer to NIH and others who want to know about laughter, humor and healing.

Keep Your Funny Side Up - Discover The Humor Perspective

            Here’s a sobering prediction I came across not too long ago: 52% of American executives will die of stress-related illnesses.  As a psychologist I know that a good deal of the emotional tension and stress experiences by those executives will not be caused by the events in their lives.  Rather, the stress will be caused by their perceptions of those events.  It is not what is happening to us that hurts as so much as what we think about what is happening to us. And, Lily Tomlin wryly and rightly observes, “The trouble with the rat race is that even if you win, you’re still a rat!”

Good News/ Bad News

            How would you react if you received notice that the Post Office was trying to deliver an unexpected certified letter to you?  If you thought it was bad news, you would react with trembling, butterflies or knots in your stomach, increased heart-rate and blood pressure, perspiration; in other words, worry and stress.  But imagine the letter will tell you that you have inherited a fortune and that all your troubles are over; no knots, no trembling, no skyrocketing blood pressure, no worry, no stress.  You might even giggle.  It all depends on what you think is going to happen, and you can control your thoughts.

            Look at all sides of a situation and you will eventually come to the side that is absurd, ludicrous, zany, or ironic.  Find the laughable side of a situation and you will reduce the emotional tension, which is part of your stress. Humor provides an emotional distancing with which your perspective changes by allowing you to step back and take a second (or third) look at things; trouble don’t seem as large, and you can see more of the resources to help solve the problem.  Alan Cohen encourages us, commenting that “laughter lifts us over high ridges and lights up dark valleys in a way that makes life look so much better.”

            There is always another way to look at things.  There is more than one way to skin a cat.  Life is a balance of opposites.  Yin and Yang; the Ecclesiastical “time for all things”: planting and harvesting, coming and going, crying and laughing.  When you look at the proverbial glass of water, do you see one that is half full or one that is half empty?  Personally, I see a glass that is twice as large as it needs to be - yet another way of looking at it!

            So, one excellent way to handle emotional tension or stress, especially in the “lighter” stages - the minor irritations - is to look not just at both sides, but at all sides of the situation, and looking for the humorous side while you’re at it.

Grace Under Pressure
            You can also help yourself by having that A-Number-One all-important special sense of humor: the ability to laugh at yourself.  According to psychologist Harvey Mindess, Ph.D., “Though we make fun of ourselves for being stupid or lazy or klutzy, by laughing at those flaws, what we are really saying is that we’re lovable nonetheless.”  Develop your sense of humor and you will find it easier to see all sides of a situation and all sides of all sides of that situation as well.

            Can you do it?  Can you see your own shortcomings as funny foibles rather than fearsome failings?  Can you take yourself lightly when the crunch comes?  if so, you will certainly handle problems better, keeping your blood pressure at healthier levels.  And there are bonuses such as winning the admiration of your co-workers for your ability to quell panic, get the job done, and not be disturbed by disappointment or discouragement. 

            Cultivate the ability to see the lighter side to everyday life and you won’t feel defeated nearly as often.  Take the joke on yourself in a good-natured way and it will be impossible for others to make jokes about you.  If you don’t feel very creative in this regard, just look around for examples from others who are able to adopt this attitude.  Try to learn from them, but, at least, borrow from them.  I know of a secretary who, when she drops the telephone (who hasn’t?), retrieves it and tells the caller, “Oh, you must be on candid telephone today.”  She doesn’t get flustered or embarrassed or make excuses.  She stays in control of the situation, maintains her poise and dignity, and gets the job done, probably winning the respect of the caller, too.

Who Are You Laughing At?

            You might try your hand at making up fun descriptions as one way of coping with the tougher parts of your work.  Here is a job definition which might help teachers have a good healthy laugh at themselves: “A teacher is a person who can drink three cups of coffee before eight o’clock in the morning and hold them till three o’clock in the afternoon!”  (Of course, teachers have a  lot of class!)  One nurse says that sometimes she thinks “R.N.” stands for “Real Nut.”  (And we all know that nurses call the shots!)

            Shakespeare created a play on words which compares a shoemaker to a clergyman, “A cobbler is a mender of men’s soles (souls).”  Paul Harvey has fun with bumper stickers which he calls “bumper snickers.”  Many of them are job related: “Plumbers go with the flow!” “Electricians want your shorts!”  “Bakers roll in the dough!”  And, “Doctors need a lot of patients!”  What is your job like?  Can you think of a phrase that will put it into a humorous and healthier perspective?

            We have choices about how we look at the things that happen to us. Reader’s Digest compiled some questions that show that common annoyances can seem less irritating once you find an uncommon way of looking at them.  Here are a few examples:

“Where else but in Washington, D.C. would they call the department that’s in charge of everything outdoors the Department of the Interior?”

“Why is it called baby-sitting when all you do is run after them?”

“Why are income taxes due April 15, the same day the Titanic went down?”

“How come the windshield wiper always works better on the passenger side?”

And the los Angeles Times Syndicate poses this metaphorical question, “Do you ever feel that life is a car wash and you’re going through it on a bicycle?”

My Sense Of Humor?
I realize that not everything is funny and that laughter can be completely out of place if the timing is wrong.  But, the next time life’s little foul-ups are getting to me, I’m going to see if I can find the comic’s perspective and use my wittiness to outwit the dimwits and the nitwits and ... RELAX.  You can do it, too!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Attitudes, emotions, health and healing

To the extent laughter or any of the positive emotions, can block panic, depression, despair, we have a therapeutic ally.“ –Norman Cousins

I am grateful for and in awe of the prescient philosophers and scientists who were foretelling the good news about humor and laughter long before it could be proven scientifically.
To my mind, it is significant and essential to begin here by reviewing and bringing to your attention Dr. William (Bill) Fry, Jr.’s 1964 report to NIMH: FINAL PROGRESS REPORT - PUBLIC HEALTH SERVICE Grant. No. MH 07665-01, (Covering the Period - April 1, 1963 to June 30, 1964).
Title of Project: A Classification of Emotive Laughter Responses. Principal Investigator: William J. Fry, Jr., M.D.. Institution: Palo Alto Medical Research Foundation, 860 Bryant Street, Palo Alto, California.
Forty-seven years ago, after more than a year of studying the topic, he made a clear and strong recommendation that laughter would be a suitable field of study. A few excerpts from that report are in order (and remarkable).
“There is much intuitive and subjective, but also unorganized and undisciplined, material about laughter - mainly in the humanities. There is an almost complete absence of objective, organized, and meaningful information about laughter - particularly utilizing modern technical developments and disciplines that have flowered during the past fifty years.”
“We have achieved valuable specific results during the past year. 1.) The most crucial result has been the establishment of a framework for what promises to be a productive and significant study of laughter. This framework is cornerstoned by the concept of laughter as emotive behavior relating to a variety of emotions, with implications relevant to the psychological, and perhaps physiological, homeostasis of the human. We divide the study of laughter into two general categories - 1) laughter as an acoustic phenomenon, of communicative (in 'the broad sense of the word’ - "Communication Theory”) and interpersonal importance; (2) laughter as a physiological experience of homeostatic, psychosomatic, perhaps even survival, importance. This division is also appropriate to the talents available in our research teams - Linguistics and Medical Electronics.”
“It has been our decision…to extend and expand the study of laughter. A large-scale project is being designed and will soon be presented to NIMH in the form of a grant application. In the meantime we are continuing our study on an informal, unfunded basis.”
“On the productive side, the project team has been convinced by the various experiences of the past year that a large scale investigation of laughter is feasible and is desirable. Techniques, procedures, hardware and personnel are all available to allow for significant contributions to be made to a science of laughter. [N.B. Fry put the next sentence parenthetically, but I have removed that punctuation for emphasis.] “The science of laughter was formally established in March, 1964, by the origination, by Dr. Edith Trager, of its name - Gelotology, from the Greek root, gelos (laughter.”
Having coined the term “gelotology” to mean the science of laughter, Fry became the first self-proclaimed Gelotologist. Recently, I asked him what happened to his recommendation because it did not appear that NIMH had acted on it. He replied, “Vietnam”, indicating his belief that any thoughts anyone might have had about pursuing research about laughter had gotten put on the back burner due to severe budgetary restraints. Given the current politics of budgets, we may not be much closer than we ever were to adequate funding for research and application, but I am glad that therapeutic laughter is achieving the credibility it deserves. Bill is glad, too.