Humor as Catalyst

In this TED video Lisa Donnelly, a cartoonist, says

women + humor = change

I’m not sure what changes she means. But I think she is saying something important. Humor has a way of making change easier.
In the 1980s a friend of mine named Melody McLaren worked as a personal assistant in a London advertising agency. One of her co-workers was a woman named Denise Taylor. Denise was the personal assistant of the managing director, Chris Ogilvie-Taylor. Normally personal assistants get a nameplate on the appropriate door but Denise did not because her boss, Ogilvy-Taylor, was worried about the appearance of nepotism.
Everybody — except perhaps Ogilvie-Taylor — thought this was unfair. But Ogilvie-Taylor’s boss was on a different floor. It would have been dangerous and strange to appeal to him.

My friend conceived a brilliant and surprising solution. She wrote a long poem, maybe 60 lines long, with rhyming couplets, about an imaginary town of Taylors (a play on “tailor”). The point of the poem was that Denise deserved her name on the door. Then, with the help of the art department, my friend wrote the poem on a giant card, about six feet high. The card was passed around the office. Everyone signed it. Then it was put in Mr. Johnson’s office. Soon Denise got a nameplate.

This was not exactly humor — more like whimsy, with humorous elements. It facilitated change.

Another example comes from a Chinese blogger:

On Oct. 20, a female blogger in northern China nicknamed Piggy Feet Beta announced a contest to incorporate the phrase “Li Gang is my father” into classical Chinese poetry. Six thousand applicants replied, one modifying a famous poem by Mao to read “it’s all in the past, talk about heroes, my father is Li Gang.”

Here too we have the three elements: woman, humor, change.

A friend of mine from Poland was surprised we had jokes in America. He thought the sole purpose of humor was to criticize the government. And our government was pretty good.

Sure, jokes are a way of saying the unsayable (e.g., dirty jokes). Sure, they can empower the weak, not just the strong (e.g., racist jokes). What’s interesting here is (a) Donnelly felt her equation was interesting (she’s right), meaning most of her audience didn’t know it; (b) she didn’t illustrate it well (why not?); (c) humor can be useful in everyday life (as my friend’s example shows), not just to criticize the government. I think this point should be incredibly obvious, like the sky is blue, but it isn’t.

2 Replies to “Humor as Catalyst”

  1. I read this quote from an old counseling textbook and it has stuck with me:

    “Humor makes it easier to explore difficult, awkward, or nonsensical aspects of life. It can be used to challenge beliefs or magnify irrational beliefs to absurdity.”

  2. Interesting examples Seth, thank you for sharing!

    It’s worth noting on here that, while humor can be used as a catalyst for positive change, there are also subtle implications if used incorrectly. I work in innovation and the term my company coined, “humorous bazooka”, is a funny, witty comment that, intentionally or unintentionally, shoots down another person’s idea (read: innovation killer). You can read more about our thoughts on it here:

    Just good to talk about the good, bad, and the ugly of humor!

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