When They Do Not Laugh—What Do You Do?

by John Kinde

The eyes of your audience are fixed on you. You deliver your best new humor line. They stare at you in silence.

It has happened to all of us. It will happen again. What do you do?

The conventional wisdom from experienced professional speakers is valid. Pretend you were serious. Humor, properly delivered, should be a surprise. If you told them a joke was coming (telegraphed your punchline), you probably did it wrong. Delivered properly, since it was a surprise, they didn’t know it was supposed to be funny. So don’t let them know that YOU thought it was funny. The “look of expectation” is what gives you away. It’s that look on your face which begs for a laugh. Begging is not a gesture that connects you with your audience!

When a joke dies, one of main things you should do is to learn from it. Consider the silence of the audience a gift that will allow you to grow. After the talk, take some notes. Analyze the structure of the line. Look at the pacing and delivery of the words. Were the funny connections relevant to the audience? Were the setup lines adequate? Was the punchline buried? Was the punchword at the end of the punchline? A bad joke deserves a good autopsy.

Some speakers use savers or bomb-lines to rescue them from a bad line. “That is the last time I will use a joke that Fred gave me.” “That line was funny when I practiced it.” “Some of these lines are just for me.” “Is this thing on? (tapping on the microphone).” “My dog laughed when he heard that story.” I personally prefer to ignore the silence and keep on moving.

A good option is to make a serious point. “The reason I told you that story was….” In a speech, hopefully all your humor makes a point, so this technique should be easy to use.

Something you should never do is explain the joke. It only makes a bad situation worse. Remember the “pretend you were serious” advice.

Perhaps you can follow the bad humor line with a sure winner. I have some short humor items that always get a laugh. I call them fence-posts. I usually plan one or two of them before and after trying some new humor which might miss the mark. Hopefully, your bad humor line was not the result of poor judgment. If you considered leaving it out because you thought it might be on the border of good taste…using it is a big mistake. When in doubt leave it out.

Did the joke fail because you did not have “permission” to use it? Did you poke fun at the wrong person? Humor directed at you is always the safest. Humor directed at someone else sometimes requires a setup of some kind. Sometimes that setup is talking to the person in advance. In some situations, a roast for example, poking fun at yourself first puts you in a position (gives you permission) to poke fun at someone else.

Don’t panic. Your mind can race as you expect immediate response to your humor lines. Five seconds can seem like 20 seconds when you are in front of an audience. Relax. Give the audience time to absorb the joke. Take a drink of water. I usually find that, given time, most humor lines will connect. Some of my lines I refer to as “time-released humor.” This is the type of line that takes a bit longer to register and then washes over the audience like a slow wave. Don’t wait forever! Just give your attempts at humor a fair chance before moving on.

Remember the role of eye contact as you deliver the line. Land the punchline to one person. And then maintain eye contact with that one individual for a beat or two AFTER you have delivered the line. Avoid spraying the entire audience with your humor attempts. You are always speaking to one person at a time. If a joke bombs, the tendency is to fall into the trap of nervous eye dart, or to totally avoid eye contact. Immediately after the line is delivered, keep your eye contact fixed on one person. Did you deliver the joke to the wrong person? Were you trying to land the funny line to the person with the crossed arms who appeared to be saying “go ahead, make me laugh.” Try to deliver your funny lines to a friendly face. If you find a line is getting a cold reception, switch your eye contact to someone who is laughing, or who is at least smiling.

Unless you are a professional humorist who always connects with your humor, I recommend, when preparing your written introduction to be delivered before you speak, make no mention that you are supposed to be funny. It is best to let it be a pleasant surprise. It increases the chances that they WILL laugh because of the surprise factor. If they are expecting you to be funny, you are then challenged to make them laugh.

Find a safe place to bomb. A friendly open-mike night at a comedy club is a place to test material (some clubs are not so friendly…check out the environment before getting onstage). A Toastmasters club is a great place to be bad. You learn to ride the humor bicycle by falling off and getting back up. Every bombed line is a growth experience.

Always remember that bombing is a state of mind. Don’t let your expectations set you up for failure. Expectations can kill a good speech. If they laugh, great. If they don’t, it wasn’t funny. Don’t let your expectations affect your reaction to their feedback.

Do You Read Minds?

I’m not psychic. And I’m guessing that you aren’t either. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you can read people’s minds. When people aren’t laughing, the tendency is to believe that they don’t think your line was funny. Many times, that is just not true. Not everyone response the same way to humor. Not everyone responds to everything the same way you do.

I sing in a community chorus. After one of our recent shows, several members expressed disappointment at the audience reaction. The audience was dead compared to the people at a performance earlier that day. Same program, different reactions. But several chorus members also commented on how they had received wonderful comments from the non-responsive audience members AFTER the show. People loved the show but didn’t show it during the performance. When they don’t laugh, it does not mean they didn’t enjoy your talk. It does not even mean that they didn’t think it was funny. When I attend a humorous speech contest to support a friend who is speaking, I sometimes warn my friend not to look at me during the speech for feedback. I can enjoy humor without laughing out loud. I can go to a really funny movie and maybe laugh only once during the film.

Everyone is different in their reaction to humor. Some people laugh heartily at everything. Some smile. Some just enjoy it internally! It is said that Groucho Marx, a man with a terrific sense of humor, was never seen laughing out loud. There is no standard humor response. Although we would like to think the response should always be laughter when they find it funny, it is not always the case.

So the next time you give a talk that is supposed to be funny, and it is greeted with silence, convince yourself that you are speaking to a group of non-expressive people who are totally absorbed in your talk and loving the humor. When you talk to them afterwards, their comments will probably prove this to be true. And the positive, optimistic visualization during your talk will energize you to give a better and funnier talk.