How and why do humorous attempts blow up in the public face of the media and in our daily lives? It’s the serious side of funny that comes down to three points: pain, power and punch. You’ve heard it a thousand times, especially in the wake of the deaths of Robin Williams and Joan Rivers. A lot of humor comes from pain. In fact, the age old saying, the formula is “tragedy + time = humor.” The critical tipping point of tragedy equaling humor is who pays for the joke. That’s exactly what failed on Fox & Friends attempt at making a Ray Rice quip, which literally blew up social media.
Let’s look deeper at the reasons why all three commentators failed to be funny in their live, on-set bantering. Let’s also look at the lessons we can learn from this horrendous media spectacle.
OUCH! I can’t stand to watch the video. It hurts, because it hurts (most of us) to see anybody get hurt. Many have been physically and/or emotionally hurt so we feel Rice’s knockout punch to his girlfriend-turned-wife, right though the media screen. Instantly we identify with the horror of her getting knocked out in an elevator. A universal connection is made with the victim, Rice’s girlfriend, being knocked out.
In comedy, to make a universal connection is usually exactly what we want, and, it’s called a punch line. Though painful, it’s painfully funny, particular when it’s someone else’s pain. America’s Funniest Home Video’s TV show is a prime example as are the iconic classics of the “The Three Stooges.” In these shows, getting physically knocked out is funny either because it’s not real, as with The Three Stooges.” Or, it’s real and really stupid but everyone is OK., This explains why we laugh out loud at the unintentional craziness people get themselves in to and then post on-line or send a video to a TV show for the world to see. Laughter usually comes from a self -identifying, bonding link connecting us through the pain. It’s a “me too” moment. Which is exactly why the Fox & Friends news commentators banter over the Rice event did not create a knockout punch line. The remark delivered by Brian Kilmeade, “I think the message is to take the stairs” miss the mark so much because it is not a “me too’ moment. Nobody wants that moment, either as Ray Rice or as his girlfriend.. His colleague, Steve Doocy, then compounded the comedic fracture with his even more authoritative comment, “The message “IS” when you’re in an elevator, there’s a camera.” Double OUCH! And, let’s not leave out the nervous twittered laugh of female colleague, Elisabeth Hasselbeck. What was that about? A third punch to the knocked out girlfriend/wife from the arm chair quarterback media seats.
As we sometimes like to say in the South, “Don’t have a dog in that hunt.” And, these commentators didn’t. This situation was not the personal truth of any of the three. Judgment and opinion is what commentators do. It’s their job. And it’s always at the mercy of public opinion. Their humor died because the brutality of the Ray Rice event is horrendous. But throw in the cultural taboo of hitting a woman and it was double -down trouble. Remarks in any serious situation have to be carefully weighed and strategically delivered in a split second before they glibly rolling out of your mouth. Planned spontaneity is key. What’s that, you ask? This team knew they would be taking about this hot topic. A little pre-planned bantering could have saved the day, the faces and the butts of three commentators. The power comes in shifting the focus to the predator or even back to themselves. They could have switched it and made Ray the real villain that he admittedly is. For example, “The message is HE should take the stairs and walk off some of that “dirty” Rice.” Or “Rice’s elevator didn’t go to the top on this one and neither will his career, now.” Or “That’s one elevator ride I don’t want to take!” Do anything other than verbally punch out the victim again, which is what they did. It is often said that anger is about power and control. The ironic thing is, humor, delivered strategically and pointed in the appropriate direction is real power and control. Humor has been attributed to helping President’s win elections and it’s even averted wars. Talk about power and control!
If you are going to throw a comedic punch at a potentially hot point of contention, two split -second considerations should be cost and consequences. Is it worth it? Will there be a bang for your comedic buck with this punch line? Your first question to yourself should be, “Is my humor pointed out or pointed in? In other words, who is the butt of the joke, you or them? Second question, “Do I have enough deposits in their ‘emotional bank account’,” as author, Stephen R. Covey called it. In other words, will this punch line cost me? Will the positives of our relationship outweigh the cost of this withdrawal? Again, who’s the butt of the joke? Clearly in the comment “take the stairs,” Girlfriend was the intended “butt.” The humor was pointed out. “There are cameras in the elevator,” was pointed out at Rice. The bigger foul there is the thousands of implied messages to be interpreted by the public on Social Media, which, it was. “Hey Rice, you’ll get caught in an elevator.” If you’d just waited to get back to your room, you’d still be an NFL Pro. Seriously? Really? Off the cuff pointed out humor can have huge consequences. And, on an even deeper level, what does it say about who we are as an individual and our culture as a society?
One of my favorite quotes by anonymous paraphrased is, “Nothing defines a man so much as that to which he will not laugh.This brings us back to the nervous twitter laugh of Hasselbeck. I could write, another entire article on women and laughter. It is a natural nervous reaction particularly for women. Was she twittering laughter because she was: a) nervous over the comments, b) knew she didn’t have time to comment due to air time constrains, c) didn’t get or didn’t care the context that Girlfriend was still the victim of the joke or d) uncomfortable with the absurdness of the implication if Rice had just waited until he was out of elevator camera range, he’d still be an NFL Pro? Who knows? Only Hasselbeck. What this failed attempt at funny does do is heighten our awareness, at least for exploration, of that to which we will laugh. It says much about who we are individually and culturally.
There will always be caustic humor. It’s the nature of many. And, there’s no right or wrong with your style of humor. But there can always be cost and consequences.
When humor strikes a universal truth, the connection can pack a positive punch in the right direction. Remembering these three questions can help you find that universal truth. It’s the serious side of funny:
1. Do I have a dog in this hunt—authentically, do I know this pain?
2. Is my humor power pointed out or pointed in—who’s paying for the joke?
3. Do I have enough deposits in their emotional bank account to deliver the punch?
June Cline, is a Certified, Speaking Professional (CSP), Harley Riding Humorist, Author and Co-host of HappinessRecipe.net online radio program Contact her at JuneCline.com.