The Rabbit Died & Other Funny Stories

It was a packed house on Wednesday, July 9 at the Scranton Cultural Center for an appearance by comedian/actress/author Amy Sedaris as part of the Lackawanna County Library System’s speaker series. The first thing that struck me about Amy when she walked out on stage was how tiny she is. We’re not talking Thumbelina small like Kristin Chenoweth but Amy is small. Her legs were tone but very thin. Her red handbag and pumps designed by friend Sarah Jessica Parker were also eye-catching. She had a comical bounce to her entrance, with her head sort of bobbing back and forth.

For as wacky as the characters are that Amy portrays, she took this interview seriously. She seemed grounded and genuine. Mary Garm, the director of the library system, conducted the interview. Mary delivers what one might expect from a librarian. She doesn’t look like she’ s ever done E at a rave or has tried to get away with checking out 17 items in the “15 items or less” aisle at the supermarket. She looks more like someone who would be happy to sit next to Wilford Brimley on a porch swing enjoying an ice-cold glass of lemonade talking about how hot the summer has been. She and Amy made the perfect pair. My friend Stephanie made the comparison, at points throughout the interview, that Amy and Mary interacting was similar to the SNL sketch “Delicious Dish” (most talked about for Alec Baldwin’s appearance promoting Pete’s Schweddy balls, which were Christmas cookies, of course).  Mary dryly responded to Amy’s answers with “hmm, interesting” akin to Anna Gasteyer’s character Margaret Jo McCullen saying “good times.”

Amy Was Funny And Serious

Amy answered all questions seriously in her regular voice. There were no characters who came out on stage. But Amy was warm, engaging and entertaining as she told her stories. She apparently likes to keep her private life very private but she did reveal her love for cooking and entertaining people in her New York City apartment and she revealed something that I thought was meant to be a joke at first, but wasn’t. Amy is a rabbit whisperer. She goes to people’s homes to help them rabbit proof and ensure the best environment for the fluffy creature.  Amy told the sad story of her 11-year-old rabbit Dusty dying but with a hint of humor. She recalled how the rabbit cried horribly for hours and that she was tempted to move things along by smothering him because she was sure that he was in pain but the vet assured her that he was not in pain. Amy also got laughs when she told the audience how bossy her rabbit was.

You Know Amy; You’ve Seen Her in the Tide Commercials

Amy Sedaris is not a household name but people surely know her if you tell them, “She’s that blonde on the Tide commercials who acts bubbly and kind of cooky.” After listening to Mary mention all of Amy’s various projects, it seems that Amy does a bit of everything. She has written and performed plays with her famous humorist writer brother, David Sedaris. She has done sketch and other comedy on TV. She has small roles in movies. She does voice-over work on TV and in films. She has the whole rabbit thing going on. She has authored books: “I Like You, Hospitality Under the Influence,” which includes recipes and tips on entertaining and how to be a good party guest, “Wigfield,” which she co-authored with Stephen Colbert and Paul Dinello and of course her latest book she is promoting, “Simple Times: Crafts for Poor People,” a funny book about how to create some off-beat craft projects.   She has created a line of quilt fabrics that are going to pop up on other household items like popcorn bowls. And she is of course the face and voice for funny Tide, Bounce and Downy commercials. I’m sure I’ve missed a few things but you get the point. She is prolific and her talents are varied.  With her upcoming break from projects she said she’d love to waitress again but she envisioned problems like other waitresses resenting her … specifically the ones who are doing it to earn a living. And the fact that people might recognize her could be problematic, she said. But she said she loves working with people and finds it so interesting to interact and observe others.

Forget All the World’s A Stage; It’s A Peek Backstage

Comedians need to people watch like we need breathe.  Anyone who writes humorous material must immerse themselves into the world with eyes and ears wide open so you don’t miss anything. (That is not a quote from Amy by the way. I’m saying it. It sounds good though right?)  As someone who has been writing for over 20 years and who has been writing stand-up comedy for about 10 of those years, humorous articles, my funny dating book, “He’s Not Prince Charming When…,” I know how much I owe to the fun observance of people and interpersonal experiences with people. Life is full of material for the next great comedy, sitcom, play, etc.  As Amy shared, her Greek grandmother was the inspiration for one of Amy’s first popular characters. Amy said “She was just so much fun to make fun of.”

What Makes Amy Laugh

When Mary asked Amy what she thinks is funny, she listed things like: people falling (at which point my friends Steph and Michelle looked at me because we witnessed some poor woman fall in the lobby that evening; while she wasn’t injured, none of us laughed because it wasn’t “that kind of fall”), wigs flying off. Eventually she said that she finds “everything” to be funny. She said she’ll laugh at a patch of mushrooms growing together.

As far as people she finds funny, that list includes her mother, Jonathan Winters, her brother David, her friend Stephen Colbert and others that I forget.

What about the Whole “Women Aren’t Funny” Thing?

Before I went to the event I wondered if I had a question that I wanted Amy to answer. I figured that the basics would be covered and beyond that I didn’t have too much I was dying to know. But I did want to hear Amy’s perspective on the whole “women aren’t funny” thing.  Even though I speak in front of audiences for my business, Laugh to Live, some times to groups of a few hundred people in size, I was nervous about raising my hand or shouting out a question. I never feel completely comfortable doing that.  Thankfully, mics were set up on both sides of the stage where Amy was seated so you just had to get in line and address her at the mic. So I did. I asked her what she thought of this whole notion or some-time buzz that women aren’t funny.

Her answer managed to surprise, disappoint and encourage me. It was as if I had asked her about a little-known restaurant down the street. Her response was like “Hmm? What is that?” It had not seemed to make any great impact on Amy’s career. She said that she enjoyed great female ensembles like the one on “Orange is the New Black” and that she worked with a lot of female actors and comedians, especially doing improv at Second City, and it was never an issue. She even asked back “Is that still a thing?” Her response disappointed me in a way because I kind of expected and wanted her to give some fire and brimstone speech about how hard her path had been but how she and other brave and strong funny women need to keep doing it to quiet all of the naysayers. But I was also inspired and encouraged that she was so unaffected by it and possibly even insulated from it. She has made a life and career making people laugh – and doing a host of humorous, creative projects – that is fulfilling to her without any gender angst. When I told her that not too long ago Adam Carolla created a bit of a stir by making comments about female comedy writers being less funny than men, she responded with “Who?” and then after a wry smile, “Oh, and we know how funny he is.” (I’ll make a note here to say that I have nothing against Carolla, not that if I did it would keep him awake at night or keep him from continuing to earn the fantastic living that he does, who am I? but I mentioned his comments because his were among the most recent that I could recall about women not being funny.) While I was at first disappointed by Amy’s nonchalant attitude about it, I am glad to hear that throughout her career she has not felt hindered or discriminated against for being a woman in the funny business and that the whole “women aren’t as funny as men” thing is not on her radar.  Amy strikes me as an explosive ball of creativity who is far too busy putting herself out there through her numerous projects and making people laugh to notice, or even care who is playing judge and jury to what or who should be considered funny!

Companies with a sense of humor get it! Profit that is!

Sure I’ve been saying it for a long time. Humor and laughter are valuable resources to help individuals and organizations succeed. But I drank the Kool-Aid a long time ago, so to speak. I believe in this so much that I left a secure, well-paying job in marketing communications to deliver the message and be my own boss. Convincing others can be a bit tough but I think that what SouthWest Airlines has achieved should get everyone’s attention. It may be time for you to get the pitcher of water out and mix in the flavor packet of your choice so you can drink too.

SouthWest Airlines closed out 2013 with record profits. The company must be doing a thing or two right, right?

I don’t know the airline’s whole story but the chapter I know involves having a sense of humor and not being afraid to empower employees so they are genuinely engaged and invested in the company’s success. Thanks to attending conferences through the years of the organization AATH (Association for Applied Therapeutic Humor), I heard about how successful companies were using humor from the top of their organizations down. One company that kept being mentioned was SouthWest Airlines. The president of the company has taken himself lightly enough to dress in drag and sure that’s good for a few laughs but he’s not just window dressing. He believes wholeheartedly in the value of creativity, imagination and humor and encourages it throughout the organization.

In fact, flight attendants are allowed to customize and inject humor in their pre-flight safety spiels. You know that time on most flights when people look at their phones, fluff their pillows, gaze out the window … basically tune out the boredom they’ve heard many times about buckling seat belts, floatation devices and emergency exits.  But when humor is added to this important information, people don’t just hear droning, they actually listen. They’re entertained. They’re engaged. Watch the magic on one of their flights.   Passengers will remember this flight and will most likely leave with a positive attitude about the company.

 

My question to you is: What is YOUR organization doing that’s memorable? Maybe a touch of humor could mean the difference from your organization being grounded or really taking flight. Why not buckle up and take off with humor?!!

 

 

Super Size Humor to Fit Your Taste

Like Baskin Robbins, commercials aired during the Super Bowl serve up a range of different tones and emotions form sentimental and serious to a number of wacky and humorous premises. My favorite commercial from the 2013 Super Bowl was the Kia Sorrento commercial in which a nervous father explains to his son that babies come from a planet far away called Baby Landia. Cue the adorable babies and little animals. I had to smile when I saw a panda in space and a baby in an astronaut suit. Here you have a real, believable situation- parents dealing with their son growing up and asking difficult questions that they’re not ready to answer – fused with a ridiculous premise or explanation of babies traveling through space. When the son begins to explain where his friend told him babies come from, the father nervously turns on the children’s song “The wheels on the bus” to change the subject. The commercial is well done. The humor is very easy to relate to, even for people who do not have children. I may not have children but I get the humor of a person trying to talk their way out of answering a tough question and in using an elaborate, creative story to do it. There was no intended harm. These parents just want to preserve their child’s innocence. People can easily connect with this premise and the humor helps to strengthen that bond.

Not only were the commercials funny but companies used funny people to deliver their message and ultimately do what they do best, be funny. I laughed at Amy Poehler’s fast-talking shopping experience at Best Buy. Of course I’m already a fan of hers and her show “Parks and Recreation” so that was an easy sell. Tracy Morgan brought the funny promoting MiO as a change or new alternative to sports drinks, as only Tracy Morgan can. And Seth Rogen and Paul Rudd vying for the same endorsement gig for Samsung was also amusing. Again, I’m already a fan of Paul Rudd who I find to be very likable. This commercial’s humor didn’t rely on anyone falling down steps or calling one another names. What was nice about this commercial was that Rudd and Rogen were poking fun at themselves and their status as celebrities. There’s always something very likable about celebrities who can do this rather than take themselves too seriously. Actually it’s refreshing when anyone can use self-deprecating humor, not just famous people. It’s healthy if we could all laugh at ourselves and our challenges. Humor is a ready tool if we just use it.

The last humorous commercial that I think is worth mentioning is the Tide commercial. The ad plays on the concept that people throughout the years and in various locations around the world have claimed to have seen what they consider to be a sign from God whether it’s the image of Jesus or Mary, on everything from a stone wall to a piece of toast. The commercial features a football fan seeing the face of former 49er Joe Montana in a salsa stain on his jersey. People come from far and wide to see this stain. At the end of the commercial the man discovers his wife has washed his famous jersey and removed the miraculous stain of Joe Montana’s face. She looks at the camera and slyly says “Go Ravens,” revealing her deliberate removal of the famous stain. I read tweets by some people saying that religious people may find this commercial offensive because it might seem to mock the idea of people seeing visions of Jesus or other signs of faith. That is always possible with humor. Humor can touch a nerve and offend. I didn’t find it offensive but just because it didn’t ruffle my feathers doesn’t mean it didn’t bother someone else. Companies do like to push the envelope enough to be talked about but not usually so much that they hurt their image in the court of popular public opinion. I thought the Tide commercial was playful and fun…and funny!

I didn’t like the Oreo commercial in which two men begin to fight and incite a riot inside a library over what’s the best part of the Oreo: the cream or the cookie. I get the concept. This cookie -and its cream- are so delicious that people get passionate defending which part they like best. I just don’t laugh at what I see as violence and conflict in a world where I feel like more and more people are forgetting how to be courteous, polite and kind to one another. I know that can be a completely different article “does watching violence lead to violent behavior?” but I just believe it would be nice to see more positive messages out there. At the same time that I express that I have to acknowledge that my personal brand of humor can often be sarcastic and that is not always viewed as positive.

As a comedian who performs stand-up and improv and a writer of my material, of articles and two books, I feel like it’s important that I understand and keep up with how humor is used and viewed as it changes. I don’t want my material to ever seem out-dated but I also don’t want to change my own style just to ride a trend or wave. I hope that I’m not being old-fashioned or judgmental when I turn my nose up at comedy that I think is based in nothing more than mean name-calling or stupid, dangerous physical gags (like the “JackAss” brand). Ultimately everyone has something that makes them laugh. I can respect the different flavors out there. My wish is that everyone samples the humor, finds what they like and keeps laughing. And hopefully, that laughter won’t be at the expense of an unwilling participant. There’s no question: we all need more laughter in our lives. There’s no serving size that’s ever too much!