Comedy = Tragedy Plus Time

Right now, I'm in the middle of my tour to promote my new book, “The Message of You.” As part of that tour, the other day, I was doing a humor workshop for women whose spouses were deployed in the military, all of whom have husbands who are currently deployed in combat zones -- or who have been killed in the line of duty.

Neither of those scenarios makes it easy to laugh – but for those spouses dealing with such a stressful situation – being able to laugh once in a while is exactly what they need to relieve some that ongoing tension.

As the workshop got underway, I breathed a huge sigh of relief as I discovered that the women there were very open to the idea of regaining their collective sense of humor. We all laughed together, and judging from the feedback, the workshop was huge success.

So -- when I began the next day with a keynote at the Toastmasters International convention, I was expecting much less of a challenge. After all, these are speakers having fun and attending a convention – so making them laugh (compared to the military spouses) should be much easier -- right?

That’s why I was totally unprepared for what happened.

Towards the end of my talk, I had the audience finding the humor in the “messes” in their lives, i.e. love handles, over drawn bank accounts... Things were going smoothly – until I got hit with a question from a brave woman who asked, "How do you find humor when you've lost your child?"

The room of 400 toastmasters went quiet. Going strictly on instinct, I walked off stage to the middle of the room and stood with her, holding her hand as she shared the story of how her child was killed.

In even the most dire topics, there are moments where humor can break through. The military spouses I had just worked with were a great example. Another great example is Julia Sweeney’s one-woman show, “God Said Ha!” – where she tells of how her brother was dying of cancer – and then she found out that had she been stricken with cancer as well. The humor (in both cases) came in the irony of it all, the stupid things friends and family would do and say.

But -- there’s a saying, that “comedy equals tragedy plus time.”

With this woman, I could feel that this topic was still too new, and too painful to be seen in that light. And, it was far too important to just try to continue with an upbeat, planned speech -- without fully acknowledging something of such profound importance that had forever changed the course of this woman’s life.

Looking at her, I saw a woman in her late 40s, dressed beautifully, who stood with head held high. She was courageous enough to be a Toastmaster, and to come to an international conference and participate in the competitions.

In that moment, I saw her message. It was clear that she had a message of resilience -- so I told her that what could give meaning to her tragedy was the fact that she is a person of great strength, who could speak and give hope to others who might not be so strong, and let them know that they can go on with their lives.

Like most people – she didn’t realize until that moment just how much she knows -- and how what she knows could be of great help to others.

So, right there, in front of everybody during a humor workshop -- we were both in tears.

I blamed her for ruining my make up -- and everybody laughed. We had learned an unexpected lesson: no matter how much you plan – whether it’s your life, or just a speech -- things happen out of our control. The challenge is finding the message that life is trying to tell you to share.

No matter how much you practice and rehearse, the best and most memorable part of interacting with so many people usually stems from the unexpected, and from being present with what is happening now -- rather than what was planned.

There are messages for us to hear everywhere. Sometimes, the most important skill as a speaker (or in life) -- isn’t what you say – it’s how well you listen.

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Judy's Blog

Judy Carter blogs on comedy, storytelling and public speaking techniques, using personal stories and her adventures as a stand-up comic turned motivational public speaker. Her weekly blogs are read by fans of her books, “The Comedy Bible” (Simon and Schuster) and “The Message of You” (St. Martin’s Press), which include comics, speakers, and entrepreneurs. She is also known for teaching the value of humor and storytelling to businesses as a leadership and stress reduction tool.