If You’re Serious, Make a Joke of It

Chatting before the Myles Martel Lecture in Leadership are, from left, John Morreall, former UConn president Philip Austin, alumus Myles Martel, and Dean Jeremy Teitelbaum. (Tina Covensky for UConn)
Chatting before the Myles Martel Lecture in Leadership are, from left, John Morreall, former UConn president Philip Austin, alumus Myles Martel, and Dean Jeremy Teitelbaum. (Tina Covensky for UConn)
Chatting before the Myles Martel Lecture in Leadership are, from left, humor expert John Morreall, former UConn president Philip Austin, alumus Myles Martel, and CLAS dean Jeremy Teitelbaum. (Tina Covensky for UConn)
Chatting before the Myles Martel Lecture in Leadership are, from left, humor expert John Morreall, former UConn president Philip Austin, alumus Myles Martel, and CLAS dean Jeremy Teitelbaum. (Tina Covensky for UConn)

If you want to get something done, be funny.

That was the message from John Morreall, a humor expert who explored the serious relationship between humor, leadership, and persuasion in the biannual Myles Martel Lecture in Leadership and Public Opinion at Konover Auditorium on Thursday.

Humor Works, the title of a book he wrote, is Morreall’s mantra.

Humor is particularly effective in the leadership style that has evolved in the business and political worlds in the past 20 years, he said. That style involves rewards, not punishment; sharing knowledge to empower people; and being able to laugh at yourself.

It’s a far cry, he said, from the days when 300-pound President William Howard Taft felt that he had to hide the story about getting stuck in the White House bathtub, or from Adolf Hitler’s “joke courts” that hanged a stand-up comedian in Berlin for naming his horse “Adolf.”

“Humor is enjoying incongruity … You get a mental jolt, but you like it,” said Morreall.

And it indirectly conveys a message that otherwise might offend. On a trip to an antique shop with his family, Morreall saw this sign: “Unattended children will be given an espresso and a free kitten.”

Humor also flattens hierarchies and fosters an open atmosphere, he noted.

In speaking to a group of nurses and doctors, Morreall dissolved an underlying tension between the two groups by displaying a series of patients’ chart notations by doctors. Among them:

“The patient refused an autopsy.”

“On the second day, her knee was better, and on the third day, it disappeared completely.”

Humor is often critical, said Morreall, who is a professor of religious studies at The College of William & Mary, which, he noted, counts John Stewart among its alumni.

When the Republic of Abkhazia broke away from the Soviet Union in 1989, the first postage stamps it issued were of Marx and Lennon – Groucho Marx, and John Lennon.

“Even banks have started to use humor,” said Morreall.

People who can tolerate ambiguity, the essence of humor, are more creative and are better at divergent thinking, a basic skill of emotional intelligence, he said.

He had this advice for would-be humorists: Avoid ridicule; don’t talk down to people; tell stories from your own experience; connect the humor to the topic; and don’t tip off the audience that you’re trying to be funny.

“If you can joke about yourself, everyone can relax,” he said, citing Ronald Reagan’s famous debate quip about his advanced age, “I’m not going to exploit my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”

The Martel lecture is endowed in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences by Myles Martel ’65 (CLAS), who was a personal debate adviser to Ronald Reagan and has advised more than 40 senators, congressmen, governors, and others on communications and leadership. He is president of Martel & Associates, a leadership development and communications firm.

Martel has received many honors, including the UConn Distinguished Alumni Award for Outstanding Professional Achievement.