When I talk about humor, I make the point that humor should not be used to poke fun at other people; you should only make fun of yourself. But an exception to the rule is if your task is to “roast” someone whom you are honoring for his or her accomplishments. An effective way to do this in a non-insulting way is to personalize a joke. Let me give you a couple of examples.
A couple called a neighbor to extend birthday wishes. They dialed the number and then sang “Happy Birthday” into the telephone. Once they had finished their off-key rendition, they discovered they had the wrong number.
“Don’t let it bother you,” said the stranger. “You folks sure can use the practice.” You could easily substitute the family of the subject of your roast and this would especially be appropriate if your friend is known as one who could not carry a tune.
Milton Berle was being interviewed by Bob Costas and told this story. Berle visited a nursing home and asked a little old lady, “Do you know who I am?”
The lady looked up at Milton and replied, “No, but if you’ll go to the front desk, they can tell you.” This story would be especially pertinent at a retirement dinner.
In each of these jokes, the making-fun-of-a-person part is addressing a class of people, not a trait unique to that individual. You refer to people who can’t carry a tune when they sing and to the forgetfulness of older people in general. In addition, the jokes deal with commonplace situations which all of us have been in ourselves. You are not making fun of a big nose or a bald head or the crooked teeth of a specific individual.
To prepare, check with others who know the person well to get their opinion on whether the joke would be offensive to the person(s) involved.
Remember that the safest kind of “poking fun” is at yourself. For example, I often open a presentation by telling how my daughter identified me to a friend as “the man with the crooked teeth.” That introduces my story of getting braces at age 46 and what it was like wearing braces at the same time as my 11-year-old daughter. People smile and chuckle and I have fun at my own expense.
My crooked finger is always a source of laughter to my audience because I have a sense of humor about it. The inconveniences are obvious, so I relate the advantages: drinking my tea properly, pointing around corners, and counting fractions on my fingers.
Most of us can always find something to poke fun at about ourselves, and in so doing we better relate to our audiences.
Stephen D. Boyd, Ph.D., CSP, is Professor Emeritus of Speech Communication, College of Informatics, Northern Kentucky University, near Cincinnati. He presents keynotes and seminars to corporations and associations whose people want to speak and listen effectively. See additional articles and resources at www.sboyd.com. To book Steve, call 800-727-6520 or email him through his website.