Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Using Humor At a Memorial Service

Guest Blog by John Kinde*


For many people, speaking at a funeral or memorial service is one
of the most difficult speaking challenges.  When faced with making
meaningful tribute comments, humor is often a friend and the
perfect tool.

On November 19 I presented an Observational Humor monologue near
the end of a memorial service for PowerHouse Pros club member
Pam Shinkle.  Since that time I've been reflecting on the pro's
and con's of using humor at a funeral or memorial service.

1.  A natural stress reliever.  Humor is the perfect tool when
delivering comments at a memorial service.  Emotions run high
and people are usually ready for a break in the tension.  They
want to laugh.  You want to do it right and avoid the risk of
"the wrong humor at the wrong time."

2.  Less-is-more.  That's a rule of humor that definitely applies
at memorial services.  A little humor goes a long way. 
Presenting a lot of humor may be perceived by many as, "Does he
think this is a comedy club?"

3.  A funny story.  For most people, opening with one humorous line
or funny story is perfect.  It sets the scene for sharing touching
memories. The humor can evolve naturally from the story.  A
humorous true story, unlike a stock joke, won't seem force-fit
into the talk.  A funny story is a great way to remember the good
and fun times.  It reflects positively on you and the honoree.

4.  Book ends.  Ideally, when I give a talk or a monologue, I like
to use book ends.  That's a device where I open my remarks and
close my remarks using humor which is on the same theme.  One of
the speakers in the middle of the program was Sherrie Parker,
wife of the emcee, Bill Parker. Sherrie commented that she was
going to hug and kiss the emcee.  She received a good laugh.

When I was introduced I set the first book end with, "I'm glad I
was asked to be on the program...since I now realize that when I'm
done, I can give Bill a hug and a kiss."  That laid the groundwork
for the second bookend to close my remarks.  When I was apparently
finished speaking, I returned control of the service to Bill.  He
extended his arm to shake hands. I moved towards him with open
arms indicating I expected a hug.  So he hugged me.  And I kissed
him on the cheek.  Since it appeared that I had completed my
remarks, the unexpected kiss greatly magnified the element of
surprise.  A huge laugh.

5.  Your expertise.  The less experience you have using humor, the
more cautious you must be.  I've had over 30 years experience as
a humor professional, and I'd almost never present a humor monologue
at a memorial service.  There are exceptions:  Does the program
have an underlying theme of humor?  Are the other speakers using
lots of humor?  Have you been specifically asked to do a humor
set?  Avoid the temptation of doing lots of humor just because
you CAN.

6.  The format of the service.  If it's a typical memorial service,
a funny story is the perfect way do deliver a smile and a laugh. 
If it's a roast format, it opens the door to lots of humor.  Pam
Shinkle's service was in the format of a Toastmasters meeting. 
Therefore, the type of humor normally used at a meeting would
likely be acceptable and expected.  At our club meetings, we
always have a segment reserved for Observational humor.  I was
introduced as the Observational Humor Master.

7.  What would the honoree like?  Was the person of honor a
stand-up comedian?  Did the honoree have a great sense of humor
and frequently use humor?  Would he or she laugh at your humor
if present at the service?  In the case of Pam's service, it was
known that her favorite part of each meeting was the Observational
Humor segment.  We would have been missing something if we had
not included a significant amount of humor.

8.  The tribute.  If you're presenting humor at a memorial service,
don't get so tied up in the humor that you forget the tribute. 
Presentations at a memorial service should normally contain
elements of praise...nice things about the honoree.  Since my
remarks were mostly humorous, I made some serious remarks about
Pam's sense of humor:  "Most people thought that Pam knew
everything.  But she didn't.  She thought she wasn't funny...she
was wrong.  She WAS funny.  She was funny...because she thought
she wasn't.  She was funny because she didn't try too hard to be
funny. She was funny because she was smart and could see the
humorous connections. She was funny because she understood the
chemistry of humor.  She was funny because she didn't take herself
too seriously.  She knew how to poke fun at herself.  And she was
a carrier of humor.  Pam would be the first to laugh at YOUR jokes. 
We'll miss the laughter and smiles which Pam brought to our lives."

9.  Test the water.  What are other people doing?  Are others using
humor in their remarks?  Is their humor getting a good response? 
People who are on the agenda before you can tell you whether or
not "the water's just fine."

The presiding minister opened the program with humor.  She was a
non-Toastmaster and had done her homework.  She knew that
Toastmaster members are encouraged to present speeches which
fulfill "manual projects," so that they can complete the speaker's
manual and get achievement recognition.  Early in her opening
comments she said she might be in trouble, "I didn't bring my
manual."  A good line and it paved the way for more humor to
follow in the nearly two-hour program.

Before I spoke at the service, Eric Culverson, an experienced
stand-up comedian, presented a Top Ten list...Ten Ways It's No
Longer Business as Usual in Heaven.  It received an excellent
response from the audience.

Eric's Top Ten List, and the humorous comments of at least ten
other presenters, told me that using humor was appropriate. 
You'll need to make a judgment call, if the humor of other
speakers is getting laughs, whether or not it's appropriate. 
A word of caution:  Just because a joke gets a laugh, doesn't
mean that it was timely and in good taste.  It's important that
you don't fall into the trap of thinking someone else has paved
the way for you, when in fact they offended people and set land
mines for speakers who followed them.

10.  Personal humor.  Focus your humor on the honoree.  And keep
it positive.  Don't be afraid to mention some of the honoree's
notable quirks, but keep it respectful.

  - Remember the fun times.
  - Think of times when you laughed together.
  - Think of embarrassing moments.
  - Think of examples of self-deprecating humor.
  - Look for stories which are common knowledge.
  - Look for mistakes or mis-understandings.

A common theme of jokes centered around Pam as a short person.  She
might have been shorter than five feet tall.  Since I'm tall (six
feet three inches), and the fact that the program was running
long, it would open the door for me to begin with:  "I'll be short."

Another common theme of jokes during the program centered around
Pam's intelligence.  She was smart and seemingly knew everything. 
That set the stage for my personalizing an old joke to fit the
occasion.  "A few years ago I saw an ad in the paper:  Encyclopedia
set for sale...Wife knows everything.  So I called the number. 
Bryant answered the phone."  Excellent response.  And Bryant
laughed too.

11.  Avoid generic death and funeral jokes.  There is a joke going
around, "I noticed there was a fence around the cemetery.  I asked
a grounds keeper if the fence was there because people were trying
to escape.  He said the fence was there because people were dying
to get in."  In the right circumstances, it's a good joke.  But
it's inappropriate for a funeral.

12.  Go to school.  Each time you attend a memorial service, even
if you're not on the program, note how the presenters use humor. 
What type of humor?  What works and what doesn't?  Let the success
and failure of others strengthen your presentations.

13.  When in doubt.  If you ask yourself the question, "Is this
joke inappropriate?"  The answer is probably YES, just because
you asked the question.  Always err on the side of caution.  When
in doubt...leave it out.

Remember that humor and memorial services go together.  The stress
and tension of losing a loved one can be broken with a healthy
laugh. The next time you say a few words at a service, consider
sprinkling your remarks with a little humor.  It's a great way
to honor someone you care about.

*Website:
www.HumorPower.com
*Blog:
www.HumorPower.com/blog
*Newsletter:
http://humorpower.com/articles_free.html

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