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Rethinking Humor

Eleanor Kay Southers


  • Lawyers often use humor to ease tense situations. It works well if it is appropriate, but if it is not appropriate, it can make everything worse. This primer will help you brush up on using humor effectively.
  • One-liners, funny stories, and satire can all be used in your communication style but remember that it’s always safer if you make yourself the target of your own jokes.
  • When deciding whether a joke or funny story is appropriate, consider your audience and their tastes. Always err on the side of caution.
Rethinking Humor
Michael Burrell via Getty Images

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Do you have a sense of humor? This trait is sought by many people wanting to have a relationship or friendship. What are people looking for? Someone who laughs easily. Someone who can see the appropriate humor in tough situations. Someone who can make others happy by sharing fun and humorous happenings. You may have other definitions based on your own history with humor, but it is seen as a positive trait by most folks.

Lawyers often use humor to ease tension in situations. It works well if it is appropriate, but if it is not appropriate, it can make everything worse. Rethinking humor will give lawyers a checkup on how to use this effective tool to its best advantage.

First, let’s see what different kinds of humor are available to us.


All kinds of jokes are out there. Think about the “knock, knock” jokes that kids love. Think about the “parrot and bar” jokes. There are jokes or funny stories for pretty much any occasion. As public speakers, we were told that we should start every speech with a joke. That didn’t last all that long as audiences began to expect a joke, and appropriate material began to be limited. It was hard to know all the different views in your audiences and easy to offend some. The only safe joke seemed to be one about yourself. But bar associations have even called for an end to “lawyer” jokes. (Vicki Torres, Chief of Bar Association Asks End to Lawyer-Bashing, L.A. Times, July 6, 1993.)

I guess I am obligated to also mention “dirty” versus “clean” jokes. Doesn’t everyone know that telling a really dirty joke is a no-no in any setting? Guess not because we are still inundated with them (which apparently means that many people still enjoy them).

It comes down to knowing your audience and their tastes. Always err on the side of caution.

Here’s a joke that I find funny and hopefully appealing to most everyone:

One Sunday, a minister played hooky from church so he could shoot a round of golf. St. Peter, looking down from Heaven, seethed. “You’re going to let him get away with this, God?” God shook his head. The minister took his first shot. The ball soared through the air 420 yards and dropped into the cup for a hole in one. St. Peter was outraged. “I thought you were going to punish him.” God shrugged. “Who’s he going to tell?”


Cartoons are loved by many people. In my youth we saw them in newspapers and magazines. Nowadays, cartoons are most frequently passed about online and via social media. The New Yorker is renowned for its cartoons, although I have a hard time sometimes understanding them. (I think you must live in New York to be “cool” enough to find many of them funny.)

Your law firm’s printed and digital materials are the most likely places where you will use cartoons as a lawyer. The same rules that apply to jokes are applicable here. Analyze your audience. Try to antagonize as few people as possible. And keep it clean, clean, and clean. It’s difficult to get free cartoons. Pixabay allows you to download simple images that you can use for free, and there are probably other sites that offer free material. If you don’t mind paying for use, the sites are plentiful. Also, sites are available to build your own cartoons. If you are feeling creative, go for it.

Funny Stories

If you have a funny story, the same rules that apply to jokes need to be used here. Stories that are about yourself are good. Not too long ago, a handsome “silver fox” friend of mine who resembled a certain blue-eyed movie star would open his presentations by telling his audience that he had been swamped at the airport by autograph seekers. He’d say that he had asked each autograph seeker how he should sign it, and inevitably each person would go away clutching a prized autograph from “Paul Newman.” Of course, the real Paul Newman had already been dead for more than ten years.

If you can find a personal story that underscores your subject, all the better. If it is humorous, even better still.


Because one-liners are brief but require what is called “a setup” (the context), they usually appear in written form.

It is possible to use them in oral form, but since one-liners may need contemplation, the written mode seems to be more understandable. Here are a few examples from official court records nationwide (they appeared in my book Be a Better Lawyer: A Short Guide to a Long Career, ABA, 2014, at 40–41):

  1. Q: Have you lived in this town all your life?
    A: Not yet.
  2. Q: Now, doctor, isn’t it true that when a person dies in his sleep, in most cases, he just passes quietly away and doesn’t know anything about it until morning?
  3. Q: Do you know how far pregnant you are now?
    A: I’ll be three months on November 8.
    Q: Apparently, then, the date of conception was August 8.
    A: Yes.
    Q: What were you doing at that time?
  4. Q: Were you present in court this morning when you were sworn in?
  5. Q: Mrs. Jones, do you believe you are emotionally stable?
    A: Used to be.
    Q: How many times have you committed suicide?

Those darn court reporters take down everything we say!


This type of humor can be very tricky. Of course, many writers and comedians have made their living and become famous as satirists. Basically, they are making fun of all kinds of situations that normally wouldn’t be funny. Mark Twain is my favorite writer of satire. In his writing he is kind and makes fun of himself and others as he journeys through life. If all you ever read was Huckleberry Finn, try Roughing It, which he published in 1872.

Again, the important thing is to know your audience and go for fun rather than trying to be witty. Leave that to others who like to take chances.


Here, again, one of my favorite quotes is frequently attributed to Twain (although its exact origin is disputed): “My life has been full of disasters, most of which never happened.” Quotes are great for adding to a newsletter or an article to make it more appealing to your audience. You can find all kinds of quotes just by Googling the areas you are interested in. Funny or unusual quotes are the best. If you come across a good one in your hunt for material, start a file for later use. It can save you and your readers from boredom.

Employing Humor

Now you have a lot of different kinds of humor to contemplate. Which kind would you like to expand your toolbox to include? Start by answering some questions:

  • Do you personally feel you have a sense of humor? Do you look for humorous situations in your daily life? Do you laugh at least once a day?
  • Would you like to add more humor to your life?
  • Which of the six types of humor above would you like to add or expand upon?
  • Do you smile at strangers?
  • Do you enjoy watching comedians? Who do you find the funniest?
  • Do you enjoy the company of people who have a good sense of humor? If not, why not?
  • Do you ever feel it is better to be serious all the time?

If all of this looks too daunting, start out by pinpointing what you do find funny. Don’t try to be the center of attention. As you begin to recognize what is humorous around you, your life will begin to feel fuller and lighter (and your frown lines will disappear without Botox).

Try starting a “humor file” at work. This is where you keep jokes, cartoons, etc., at the ready for when you are feeling down or anxious. These are items you find funny. No one else needs to find them funny.

At some point, you will want to try your new humor out on your friends. Start out small. Smile a lot. If you see or hear something amusing, laugh out loud.

If you have humor in your ordinary life, you might like to “tighten” it up by reviewing the different types of humor—with the cautionary advice laid out in this article.

Humor is mankind’s greatest blessing. —Mark Twain