When people rush to say they’re not laughing at you, but laughing with you, it’s a good bet they’re laughing at you.
Reason enough to beat them to the punch line by first poking fun at yourself, and in so doing, join the growing self-mockery movement.
The strategy actually is more self-deprecating in tone, motivated by people in authority wanting to appear more relatable, more “in on the joke,” more — dare we say? — human.
“I call them leaders who lighten up,” said Colin Sokolowski, a Shoreview man who makes videos for local people in positions of authority, from school superintendents to priests.
The notion has appealed even to President Obama, who recently appeared on “Between Two Ferns With Zach Galifianakis,” a web talk-show spoof featuring the “Hangover” star. Galifianakis conducts awkward interviews with his guests, the best of whom come off as good sports at the mercy of a rather insolent host.
A recent Time magazine cover story explored “the case for mockery,” with comedians Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele suggesting that the true purpose of humor is to help people “cope with the fears and horrors of the world.”
Sokolowski found a common chord in this quote from their essay: “When a humorist makes the conscious decision to exclude a group from derision, isn’t he or she implying that the members of that group are not capable of self-reflection? A group that’s excluded never gets the opportunity to join in the greater human conversation.”
Keeping pessimism at bay
The video opens with a priest at his desk, forlornly wrapping up a day’s work. Sarah McLachlan’s poignant hit “Angel” plays over the scene. Words appear on the screen: “Every night, countless priests agonize as the dinner hour approaches. They’re waiting for the call. An invitation to dinner … that rarely comes.”
The action follows the priest, the Rev. Phil Rask of St. Odilia Catholic Church in Shoreview, as he knocks on a parishioner’s door to no avail, only to see through a window a rollicking nun dining with the family. Once again, he steers his car into a fast-food drive-through.
When a narrator hugging a dog appears on screen, the significance of McLachlan’s song, used in ads to fight pet abandonment, becomes clear.
“Will you be an angel for a neglected pastor, or associate pastor?” she pleads. “For just a few dollars a dinner. … ” Well, you get the idea. (View the video at http://colinsokolowski.com/humor/)
Sokolowski, a member of St. Odilia’s, made the video for the church’s annual music and talent show. He acknowledges the fine line between being laughed with and laughed at.
“I want people to do this knowing they can get out of this with their dignity intact, but still showing that they have a sense of humor,” he said. “And in the end, we’ve shared this light moment.”
Rask said he didn’t take much convincing.
“It’s been said that one of the crowning works of the devil is a crabby old priest,” he said, chuckling. “I didn’t want to have that kind of reputation.”
Coincidentally, he’d been reading “Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life,” a book by a Jesuit priest, James Martin. “For me, the goal is to have people leave church feeling really good,” he said. “The purpose of humor and laughter is to produce a little optimism when it’s all too easy to be pessimistic.”
Leadership with a rimshot
Leaders often want to be seen as flawless, unflappable, even a little imperious. From John Sweeney’s perspective, that just means they’re afraid.
“The word we use is that leaders are in a mind-set of fear, which can show itself as being concerned with status, being distant and aloof. We want to go to a mind-set of discovery.”
Sweeney owns Brave New Workshop, and if you think that’s a comedy theater, he says you’re right, “but if you ask our banker, we’re a corporate training company.” More than half of its revenues come from helping companies become more nimble by teaching them the tenets of improvisation, which asks for some vulnerability.
“One of the terms that’s really strong now is servant leadership,” Sweeney said. “We’re proponents of leading amongst people, not at people.”
Sweeney stressed that self-deprecating humor isn’t comedic.
“It’s not standing up and making fun of yourself, but realizing the power of humility and taking yourself a bit less seriously in front of the people you lead,” he said. “It’s getting rid of that old organizational chart based on hierarchy.”
While it’s hard to quantify the impact of a charmingly disparaging shtick, Sweeney pointed to research showing that companies with a “servant leadership” mind-set deliver returns of sometimes twice the value of more hierarchal companies.
‘Fish out of water’
Sokolowski, director of public relations for the Mounds View School District, also runs his own communications business through which he does the videos. His two worlds came together this month with a video featuring the district superintendent, Dan Hoverman, trading places for a day with a student. Antics ensue on the dodge ball court, in the lunchroom and on the bus.
“I needed to think about leading at a different level,” Hoverman said. “There’s the suit-and-tie level,” but also a way to show that he’s “a kid at heart.”
The video was made as a fundraising tool for student scholarships, but the long hours of filming revealed added benefits.
“I was able to spend a lot of time with the kids, leading to all sorts of discussions. I know a lot more about how they think about things.”
Hoverman has been in the district for 39 years, and superintendent for the past seven, so he’s a well-known personality. “Yet I’ve gotten a lot of feedback from the staff, complimentary about the fact that I was willing to do this.”
Sokolowski believes that leaders who lighten up build credibility. “It buys you goodwill, and a level of understanding between employers and employees. Doing the ‘fish out of water’ thing may break down a wall.
“It’s like when you’re a kid and seeing your teacher at McDonald’s and being incredulous that she’s eating a cheeseburger,” he said. “We tend to put people in boxes as kids. Do we carry that over to adulthood? It’s a little bit jolting, but a whole lot refreshing.”