Issue No. 321 of Your Weekly Staff Meeting cautions you to watch your back—it’s April Fools’ Day in some of our countries. And this reminder: subscribe here for Drucker Mondays, as 52 guest writers share their favorite quotes and commentary every Monday in 2015, from the new book, A Year With Peter Drucker: 52 Weeks of Coaching for Leadership Effectiveness.
Fifteen Funny Folks
Warning! Watch your step today. It’s April Fools’ Day. This day of practical jokes and jokesters is celebrated in the U.S., Europe, Australia, Brazil and Canada. For my readers in other countries, look it up on Wikipedia here. And did you know that Charles Dickens (1812-1870) was the most successful comic in history?
So today I bring you a very satisfying book/comedic journey from historian Paul Johnson who channels W.C. Fields: “We know what makes people laugh. We do not know why they laugh.”
Johnson, with his unique style of short historical chapters, elegant writing, and deep insights, delivers a cavalcade of comedy—while spotlighting an amazing list of humorists and their secret formulas for making us laugh.
“Broadly speaking,” says Johnson, “humor is a matter of chaos or character.” So here’s a little April Fools’ Day dessert for my more discriminating readers who delight in tickling various funny bones (their own and others). Warning! If you are a public speaker and think yourself witty—think again.
LO! & LOL: ABRAHAM AND SARAH. Paul Johnson says “the Old Testament contains 26 laughs, which do not form any particular pattern or expand our knowledge of why people laugh. The first occurs in chapter 17 of the book of Genesis, and is the first time a case of laughter was recorded in words, about 1500 BC.” (It’s when God appeared to Abraham. “Lo! Sarah, thy wife, shall have a son!” Read Johnson or Genesis for the punch line!)
PRE-TWITTER: 1709-1784. “The sayings of Dr. [Samuel] Johnson, which are memorable or at any rate remembered, amount to at least a thousand by my reckoning. The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations lists 276, which puts him fourth after Shakespeare, Alexander Pope, and Kipling.”
“He would often say, Mrs. Thrale records, ‘that the size of a man’s Understanding might always be known by his Mirth.”
Johnson on Johnson: “For neatness, profundity, or aptness, pith, and force, they are an unrivaled collection.”
The author has high regard for humor. If you’ve read my reviews of Johnson’s other books (including Churchill and Jesus: A Biography from a Believer), you may be surprised. “In this series of books collecting together intellectuals, creators, and heroes, I reckon the comics are the most valuable.”
DICKENS: EGREGIOUS AND ECCENTRIC. “Dickens was not a comic who raised a laugh by creating chaos. He was the other type: the comic who relies upon individual character. He looked at the mass of humanity and plucked out of it the egregious and the eccentric for our delight.”
Chuckle along as you read Paul Johnson’s pithy descriptions of Dickens’ characters (more than 3,000 “adorn” Dickens’ novels). And you’ll be reminded of “the equally characteristic British device, the verbal running gag.” (Were Leno or Lettermen devotees of Dickens?)
“He took trouble over the names of inanimate objects too, especially places.” Names like: Slamjam Coffee House, Willing Mind tavern, and the Anglo-Bengalee Disinterested Loan and Life Assurance Company. “The Tilted Wagon inn is yet another invented pub: Dickens complained that ‘real inn names are so peculiar it is hard to outdo them.’”
BUT SERIOUSLY. On G.K. Chesterton, “He never made a joke against the female sex, as such, because to GKC the act of making a joke was one of the most serious decisions you could possibly make, on a par with publishing a political manifesto, or a declaration of war.”
Chesterton remarked, “It is easier to make a man laugh at a bad joke, but more worthwhile to get a woman to laugh at a good joke.”
GAG ME WITH A SHOE. Charlie Chaplin developed his craft (more than 50 gags) under Fred Karno, “probably the greatest instructor of every kind of comic talent who ever lived.” Karno required six months to coach wanna-be comedians.
Chaplin: “The best gags are the simple ones which look easy but require the most rehearsal.” Some of his best: funny walks in oversized shoes, stamp licking, and more.
Sadly…Chaplin—and many others featured in this rare book—“was scarred for life by a sad and impoverished childhood, which left him with a monumental self-pity.”
Note: Johnson doesn’t sugarcoat the dark side of these funny faces (Chaplin included). You may want to skip some chapters and profiles. Pastors, though, could profitably use the contrasts (hilarious versus hellish) in numerous sermons.
3 CLERGYMEN WALK INTO A BAR. If you’re looking for a joke book, this is not it. If you’d enjoy a deep dive into a British historian’s hunches on humor—have at it.
Johnson profiles 15 humorists including Benjamin Franklin, G.K. Chesterton, Toulouse-Lautrec, W.C. Fields, Laurel and Hardy, The Marx Brothers, James Thurber, Noel Coward, and others. He includes Groucho’s famous line, “I don’t want to belong to a club which would have me as a member.”
Let me close on this silly day with Johnson’s commentary on political correctness gone amuck. “The future for humorists thus looks bleak, at the time I write this.” (For example, here is NPR’s headline today: “Trevor Noah, Jon Stewart's Replacement, Goes from Hero to Villain in 24 Hours.”)
P.S. Begin reading at the back of the book with Johnson’s four-page color commentary on how he came to write Humorists. Insightful and quotable. (And...my thanks to David Curry, who often makes me laugh, for recommending this and all of Johnson's books.)
To order from Amazon, click on the graphic below for Humorists: From Hogarth to Noel Coward, by Paul Johnson.
Your Weekly Staff Meeting Questions:
#1. Johnson writes, “I must say, I do warm to a politician who can make me laugh.” He enjoyed the humor of Harry Truman, Lyndon B. Johnson, Ronald Reagan, Harold Wilson, Margaret Thatcher, Abraham Lincoln, and Winston Churchill. Who makes you laugh—and why?
#2. “Most great jokes hover on the brink of failure, as Mark Twain pointed out.” Do you have anyone in your circle who is honest about your humor—or lack of it?
The Hoopla! Bucket Challenge!- Insights from Mastering the Management Buckets: 20 Critical Competencies for Leading Your Business or Nonprofit
As we cycle through the 20 buckets, don't slip on the banana peel over at The Hoopla! Bucket, Chapter 10, in Mastering the Management Buckets. Today I’ll point you to a very funny website (sorry—no kitten videos). Catch these stories:
• Man tired of being used in sermon illustrations
• Church creates section for huggy, touchy couples
And my favorite:
• Church members struggle to memorize mission statement
For more resources and ideas on affirming and celebrating your team, visit The Hoopla! Bucket webpage.
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And...read John’s weekly governance blog for ECFA. This week: “No Margin. No Mission.”