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Laugh, Why Don’t You 14

Laugh, Why Don’t You

Two punch lines walk into a bar. The bartender says, “What is this, a setup?”

I don’t hear you laughing. 

Maybe you’re not laughing because the joke isn’t that funny (I doubt that, but perhaps). Maybe you’re not laughing because the joke is funny but the punchline is a bit obscure (i.e. using an old joke format to illustrate the basic structure of a joke). Or maybe we are too socially distanced for me to hear you ROFL-ing.

Whatever the reason, this is a classic philosophical conundrum. If someone tells a funny joke but no one laughs, is it still funny?

I think that in the midst of a worldwide pandemic, civil unrest, a devastated economy, and the questionable return of college football, we need to explore something on the lighter side of life. So, let’s walk into that proverbial bar together. Watch your head. Haha.

I’ve observed comedy all of my life. When I was in high school, I saw David Letterman’s first performance on The Tonight Show. I was mesmerized by his uniquely quirky style of humor. I also saw Steve Martin’s live performance at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. He was my favorite comedian, and even though he left the stage halfway through his act due to heat exhaustion, I still felt I had gotten my money’s worth. And then a few years later, when my wife and I were courting, comedy clubs became a frequent date-night destination. More than once, our food was served just before the opening act and I had to avoid spewing chicken wings through my nose as we tried to eat during the show.

To me, there is nothing more fulfilling than the laughter that follows a perfectly delivered punch line. Whether it’s Lily Tomlin, Dave Chappelle, Hannah Gadsby, or Nate Bargatze, I love the way comedians deliver material in their own personal way. For comics, performers, and even those of us who are humorous speakers, laughter is simply, “gold, Jerry, it’s gold.” (If I used footnotes in my blogs, this is where I would reference Kenny Bania, a character on several episodes of Seinfeld.)

Today, however, the laughter is absent from most humor venues. When my wife and I saw Brian Regan several years ago, waves of laughter filled the sold-out theater. It was like, “Haaaaahhhhhhhaaahhhhhhhhh.” But last night, when we were alone in our den watching Dave Chappelle’s 2017 special, it was more like, “Ha…(silent dead space)..ha. Heh, that was hilarious.” 

The television performance was just as funny as the live performance but our in-home, socially-distanced, small-crowd reaction was not the same. And with just the two of us in the room, we were careful not to “overlaugh.” We all know someone who overlaughs and no matter how funny the joke is, the reaction is over the top and frankly, it’s just awkward.

Speaking of television performances, have you seen any of the Saturday Night Live episodes done from cast members’ homes? The creativity of the bits and production techniques were brilliant. But there wasn’t any laughter. The comedy formulas were there but the outcome was different. So, perhaps there is a critical third part to the old formula. There’s a setup, a punch line and, there’s laughter. Without the laughter, the rest of the process feels like it loses something.

“Laughterlessness” has a direct impact on my work. As a speaker who is accustomed to generating a few guffaws at in-person events, I have resigned myself to the fact that most of my programs will be postponed until next year.  However, I do have a few virtual programs on the calendar. For those, I’ll stand in front of my webcam and try to muster the same humorous delivery that I would normally generate in front of several hundred people during a live program. But it’s very different because I can’t draw off of the audience’s reaction. So, when I deliver a darn good bit of funny (which happens quite frequently I should add), there is no laughter. I immediately start to question my darn good bit of funny or wonder if the participants have actually left the room and just kept their computers logged on to make it appear that they are still there. It’s terrifying to think that no one laughed because, well, they were gone.

But you know what? Having a virtual option for humor is still better than having no option at all. I am forever grateful to the clients who feel that my material does translate to a virtual environment. And I’m perfectly fine sitting in the den with my wife watching a hilarious comedy performance while trying not to overlaugh. But I do look forward to the day when we can once again sit with several hundred people and experience, “Haaaaahhhhhhhaaahhhhhhhhh.”

Whether we laugh by ourselves, in the intimacy of an environment with our significant others, or with a small group of socially distanced friends, I think we need to keep laughing no matter what. Laughter helps us maintain our balance when our world feels like it’s about to tumble. Humor allows us to step back and brush off some of the anxious burdens we’ve been carrying during the past few months. And during that moment of levity, we lighten the heaviness around us.

So, I would recommend that you find a regular reason to watch comedy, to read a funny book or article, or to listen to a humorous podcast. Get a regular dose of humor and let it ease the pressure. It’s healthy and we need it—now more than ever.

And remember what Steve Martin said, “A day without sunshine is, you know, night.”


  • Phillip Van Hooser says:

    Well done, buddy. Well developed, well delivered and well, it was spot on. I love having brilliant … and funny friends!

  • Sarah Saulsbery says:

    Excellent, as always. My husband was a motivational speaker and minister. It was such an overwhelmingly satisfying feeling when he had good reactions from the audience. (He said he could go for days on good feedback!)

  • Gale Hankins says:

    I so enjoy your wittiness. I saw you at an NHPCO conference some time back and signed up for your emails. When I see an email from you in my Inbox, I know it will be a treasure to read. You can’t hear the laughter or see the smiles from your readers, but know they are there. Our lives will resume a normality at some point, but for now we need to keep the sunshine in our hearts and minds. Thank you, again, for sharing your thoughts!

  • Jason Hewlett says:

    SLTM is the new LOL.
    Silently Laughing To Myself.
    I completely resonate with this article in every way, and equally know that you, of all people, will pull off the virtual setting with grace, goodness, and guttural laughter, because dang-it man, you’re funny! Love your emails and always read.

  • Judy says:

    I agree laughter is the best medicine. Hard with social distance but I still try to get family together to talk and laugh. Life is too short not to

  • Jennifer says:

    It has been a pretty dark couple of months for myself, a hospital social worker and my colleagues. I agree the laughter isn’t as frequent and we’ve all noticed a change in the office. We’re all trying to keep our heads above water. I’ve been trying to watch comedy specials as well. I fell in love with Jo Koy. Always puts a smile on my face and it was refreshing to laugh out loud again. Here’s to better days and more belly laughs! Be safe out there

    • Yes, it’s been so hard for healthcare folks. I remember when I worked in hospice care, we felt that the laughter in the office was what gave us the resilience to do the work. Take good care!

  • Caroline says:

    I hope you read my comment even though it’s a week late. I highly recommend over-laughter in the privacy of your home with your loved ones. If they cannot accept your over-laughter then too bad. They’re stuck with you! I truly enjoyed your presentations both times I have seen you. You bring joy to this world. Thank you for your contributions to joy in our lives!

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