Foolish Humor

How the impulse to be funny can kill a career.

Posted Apr 13, 2011

Humor is a generally effective way of interacting with others, but it can be a formula for foolishness (i.e., an undesired but predictable bad outcome) when it is offensive or overly flippant. An example of misplaced humor is pointed to as one of the factors that led to the failure of President George H.W. Bush to be reelected in 1992. When accepting the Republican nomination in 1988, Mr. Bush had placated the anti-tax wing of the Republican Party with his famous catch-phrase "Read my lips: No new taxes". Facing large budget deficits, the president had to back off that pledge in order to get Congress to adopt a budget in 1990. While jogging in a park in St. Petersburg, Florida shortly afterwards, the President was asked to explain why he changed his stance. Without breaking stride, Mr. Bush pointed to his backside and said "read my hips."

This flippant comment, even more than the justified policy flip-flop, was one of the factors that contributed to the president's dramatic fall-off in popularity. It turns out that off-the-cuff wisecracking was a core aspect of the 41st president's personality, and that riffs on "read my lips" (such as "read my clips") had been a staple of late night comics over the previous two years. So the president couldn't resist the chance to make a joke in public that he probably had been making privately for awhile. Unfortunately, the response from the voters wasn't as positive as the one he had likely been receiving from his staff and family.

Anther example of very foolish use of humor, this time somewhat more premeditated, involved Rich Mitchell, the superintendent of a suburban Chicago school district. At a back-to-school-workshop for high school teachers in August, 2006, Mr. Mitchell gave a presentation on how to inject humor and laughter into the workplace. What he did was to take videotaped interviews with new teachers, and then edited them by inserting his own gag questions, in order to make the faculty look like they were endorsing such things as terrorism, drug use and stripping. There were many in the audience who did not find this particularly funny, but Mr. Mitchell thought it was so hilarious that he actually posted the mock documentary on the district's web-site, where it came to the attention of the news media. The public's reaction was so intense that Mr. Mitchell lost his job as a result.

A related type of foolishness is the making of offensive racial comments, also often as a form of humor. Such foolishness seems to be a staple of athletes and sports commentators, partly because racism and racially-tinged teasing may be endemic to that field, and partly because many people involved in sports may lack the sophistication to understand that racist comments tolerated in the locker room are less likely to be tolerated in public, particularly given emerging changes in the public's racial attitudes. There are many examples of people whose careers as sports media celebrities crashed and burned because of such misplaced efforts at humor.

Among these examples are: basketball great Rick Barry, whose career as a premier NBA analyst was severely damaged when he directed a watermelon joke at his visibly annoyed on-air African-American partner, Bill Russell; football analyst Tom Brookshier, who was demoted and later fired as a TV broadcaster, by joking that the five (all Black) starters on the University of Louisville basketball team "had a collective I.Q. of about 40"; and former baseball player Steve Lyons, who lost his job as a TV analyst after making a joke that appeared to be saying that people who speak Spanish are likely to steal his wallet. (Apparently, Lyons had been warned previously to cut out the ethnic joking, but wasn't able to follow the advice).

Career demise due to racially insensitive needling is hardly limited to sports figures, as US Senator George Allen of Virginia found out. (On second thought, Allen grew up in a sports household, as the son of famous football coach George Allen, so maybe the connection between sports figures and racist loose lips still holds). In the homestretch of a tight reelection campaign against his Democratic opponent James Webb, Allen was captured on videotape calling a 20-year-old man of Indian descent in the crowd "macaca," a derisive term (derived from macaque monkeys) originally used by white settlers in Africa to describe Blacks. Allen then went on to say "welcome to American and the real world of Virginia" and concluded with comments about terrorists. When the man turned out to have been born and bred in Virginia, Allen's campaign, in a state which now has a much more ethnically diverse electorate than in the past, went down in flames.

Foolish humor is foolish because it reflects a lack of social foresight, i.e., awareness of possible, even likely, negative consequences. An example of how a lack of social foresight can bring someone serious unintended grief occurred in early 2010 when a veteran air traffic controller, Glenn Duffy, took his 9-year-old son to work with him in the control tower at New York's JFK airport. He allowed the boy to give the clearance to a jet awaiting takeoff. This was such a positive experience for Duffy and his son (and the pilots who seemed to enjoy it) that the next night he repeated the stunt with his son's twin sister. Unfortunately for Duffy, and his supervisor, Shawn Simms, audio recordings of these episodes made in onto the national news shows and the blogosphere, and the two men were suspended, harshly condemned and threatened with loss of their jobs.

True, Duffy's behavior, and Simms' allowing of it, were unprofessional and a technical work violation, but their real mistake was the failure to understand that what seemed cute and harmless to them could become public and be seen as outrageously dangerous. (Pilots, who understood that it was not that big a deal, ironically were far more supportive of Duffy than his own union). Being competent in one's private and professional life requires, in the era of the Internet, an ability to ask oneself "could this action become widely public and if so how would it be perceived?" Of course, when caught up in the excitement of an appealing, original and humorous gag-furthermore, one possibly egged on by others--it is easy for an otherwise competent person (which I assume Duffy to be) to forget to stop and think of the broader possible consequences.

             Copyright Stephen Greenspan