*QUICK DISCLAIMER: This is not a “you should” post as it pertains to humor in student affairs. This is simply a collection of my thoughts on the matter, thought through with a few colleagues, and ultimately the standards I try to follow when joking around in cyberspace. Everybody good? Good. On we go.*
Pete Pereira posed an interesting question last night:
For the uninitiated, I’ll provide a little context. In the days leading up to this year’s 2014 NASPA Annual Conference in Baltimore, the hashtag #FailedNASPAProposals saw a lot of action. Pete kicked the tag off, and it quickly caught fire in a way that few expected. Twitter does that sometimes. In the interest of being comprehensive, I should note that Pete’s tag was a play on a tag that comes around during conference season via a comedian/magician named Michael Kent- his version generally focuses on ideas that are simply too outlandish or ridiculous to truly happen. For example,
Clearly, these are not designed to be real. These suggestions could not likely hit upon, as a few said with our hashtag, actual failed proposals. But for those who followed the tag, our community’s contributions quickly took a turn from the outlandish to the…uncomfortable in truth. In every joke there’s probably a little bit of truth, but I’ll admit to being a little squirmy when some of the tweets could have been filed under “too specific to be hypothetical”.
The idea of humor as a means to ground and supplement our work, interestingly enough, came up again at the Closing Session for NASPA, where we were treated to (or subjected to, depending upon who you ask) a lecture from Jon Lovett, former speechwriter for President Obama and creator of the ill-fated 1600 Penn. I’d like to share some of the tweets that came from that session, and share my viewpoint on them.
Jon talked about using humor as a way to deflect awkward situations, but also to show a level of truth in difficult situations that “straight talk” simply doesn’t express. There is a value to bringing humor to our daily lives- would the POTUS have speechwriters who were also comedians if there wasn’t- but we should be careful when we do this. More on that in a moment.
So Josie is uniquely qualified to speak on this, as she married a comedian 🙂 But she shares a good point that Jon made. We should never take ourselves too seriously, because there is something inherently funny about life itself. The situations we find ourselves in every day, the students we work with, even some of the things that are now a part of our jobs…there’s something funny in all of that. Stephen shared a great closing sentiment of Jon’s to that section of the speech.
HOWEVER. Bad jokes do exist. In fact, as I write this, a joke of questionable value shared from the fingers of “Stephen Colbert” is being relentlessly analyzed for its comedic merit. But it’s hard. Colbert’s hasn’t been defined as unilaterally good, or definitively terrible. Quantifying the “goodness” or “badness” of a joke can be difficult. Jon shared one metric to determine what happens when a bad joke is told:
In fact, a joke that was perceived by some as a “bad joke” opened Lovett’s speech. He put his trust in the audience that a quick quip about conferences being a time for infidelity on the part of some, was one that got mixed reviews from the crowd in the room. He went for it- for some, it paid off; for others, it was a turn-off that affected how subsequent jokes were received. With an ongoing interest in comedy, but an equal level of interest in quantifying its success, I fired off this Tweet during Jon’s speech, after a series of stories he told about writing jokes as “a Seinfeld character that walked into a Tom Clancy novel.” Needless to say, some jokes are appropriate there, while others aren’t.
For this part, I got a little bit of help. I’m a comedy enthusiast, but admittedly approach it as more of a theorist than a practitioner 🙂 Enter Mike Zakarian, an area director at MIT who I promised to introduce as a “hilarious housing pro and bearded cardiganista.” But for the purposes of this particular post, we talked while he was wearing his “improv comedian” hat, as he is a member of several improvisational comedy groups in Boston. He got into it because he likes to laugh and likes to make other people laugh, so we talked about what makes jokes fit in their environments, and how to deal with ill timing or reception of jokes. Among the points we addressed in our conversation:
Time, place, and manner. Just as with the free speech guidelines that govern public campuses, there is a time, place, and manner for jokes. Some jokes shouldn’t be told during a staff meeting or in the presence of your campus chaplain. Other times, a joke can be offensive if told in a venue where it can’t be fully explained (Twitter gets people in trouble for that a lot.) One way to moderate the reception of humor, is to know your surroundings in as many ways as possible. A related element of this is chronological timing. While the idea of “too soon” is a fluid one, there are times when its too soon for the joke-teller to be able to effectively separate the feelings associated with the joke, with how it’s told. As an example, look to the popular Tumblr What Should We Call Student Affairs. There are lots of funny submissions to that site, I’ll be the first to admit that. However, I’ve cringed at more than one submission, recognizing that it’s, again, “too specific to be hypothethical.” That is to say, someone exited a hard situation, and decided that the way to cope was to post a meme about it anonymously. That’s hard. Taking time to fully feel all the emotions associated with situations like that could yield a very different, easier to enjoy, end result. It’s a rare quality to be able to express something that raw in a funny way- to my knowledge, only Tig Notaro has nailed it.
Relatable vs. alienating. No, not everyone is going to get every joke. That’s not really the point of comedy. And in fact, Mike and I got into an extensive conversation about a joke he had posted that he was very afraid was going to alienate people. Ultimately, it was shared, and generally well-received. But we were in agreement that the goal of a joke should not be to intentionally exclude others. Even with inside jokes, there is something shared between the people who are “in” on it. Or, to quote another funny Mike (Birbiglia), “a joke shouldn’t have to end with ‘I’m just kidding!’ (or ‘Git ‘er done!’)” Generally speaking, if you have to do that, it means someone has been hurt. Not that they’ve missed the joke, or don’t like it, but have been hurt. And that shouldn’t be the goal of most jokes, and certainly not the jokes of a helping profession like student affairs. To that end, it also bears mentioning…
Inappropriately identifiable. Barring extremely stringent rules about professional-student interaction, we all are somewhat visible to students in our online presence. And while there are many things I’m prepared to have to explain as it pertains to my social media presence, one backpedal I don’t want to have to make is an inappropriate or hurtful comment about a student or colleague. As Mike and I discussed, jokes should generally be made about things or people that have opened themselves up to be joked about. Public figures, as Jon and other comedic speechwriters have proven, are a little more open to this than most private citizens are. Does this expand to the relatives of comedians? Yeah, probably. But most, if not all, of these people, are aware that they could be the target/butt of jokes. That is not true of most of the people we meet and work with each day.
If anyone I work with can read a Facebook post, LinkedIn update, Tweet (or subtweet), and can identify that the target of a derogatory tweet is a student, I have erred. I also believe this about my colleagues and supervisors, but as long as we are not intentionally hurtful, I personally believe we have a little more flexibility there because our responsibilities to them are different. Yet every day, so many of us are guilty of things similar to this. I can even recognize where I’ve done it. But I also recognize that these are not “good”jokes. As Jon Lovett said in his NASPA Closing Session, humor connects us. We continue to make our own way in this still Wild West-like environment that is the Internet; humor can be a beautiful way to do so. However, the Old West had guns, and so does the Internet. As we continue to quip about our workdays, and contribute to community sources of comedy such as What Should We Call Student Affairs, #SARealTalk, other sites like Admissions Problems, and hashtags like #Failed[InsertConference]Sessions, Mike and I would encourage you to aim and fire carefully.