An Epic Ode To Humor: A Poem by Kelly Swanson

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Motivational Speaker Kelly Swanson is an award-winning storyteller, author, and comedian who teaches you how to harness the power of your story to connect, engage, and get results. In this blog, Kelly focuses on the business of professional speaking. Kelly’s post day is Friday. If you aren't sure how to comment on this story, click here.

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An Epic Ode To Humor - a poem by motivational speaker Kelly Swanson

As a motivational speaker you get asked a lot of questions.  You get used to answering the same question with a variety of responses based on the person standing in front of you.

Recently someone asked me to define humor.

Below is what came out of my head. I guess you could say it’s like a poem (an epic poem) or maybe just a thought progression on how I found my way to the funny side of life and what I learned along the way.

Can anybody relate?

An Epic Ode To Humor

Humor is the fun factor of our speech,
The key piece,
To provide emotional release,
From what we teach,
From the impact of our training,
From the tension of our truth,
From the tedium of data and information,
Which on its own has no impact.

It’s the punch for our pathos.
It’s not just added nice added in-betweens,
But the very means,
By which you wrap your content,
In a way that makes it easier to follow,
Much more fun to swallow,
And turns the act of delivering information into a show.

And when you have the ability to entertain,
Wrapping content into each refrain,
And when you strive to do it well,
You’ll see that content works,
But funny SELLS.

Perhaps you’ve tried only to be burned.
Fear not, humor can be learned.

Yes, I was always the funny one,
The class clown.
Everyone gather ’round,
Give her a beer, and see what she will do!

So I was funny by nature,
Or was it created?
No time here to be debated.

I was funny in real life,
When the situation presented,
I would react with a witty retort,
Of some sort.

But being funny with a beer,
Surrounded by friends,
Is not the same as being funny on stage,
When no situation is presented.

So by accident, on stage,
I created laughter.
But then ever since thereafter,
Like chocolate, fake tans, the bedazzler and more,
I was hooked, and wanted more.

But I didn’t know how to be funny on purpose.
And isn’t that where most of us get stuck?
Even the funny ones.

And so I watched and I studied and I wrote,
And I wrote.
And I practiced and bombed.
And I took classes, and read book after book,
Formula after formula.
It was harder than college!
Then again, I went to Appalachian,
Which is not where I learned to be a motivational speaker,
Because apparently there’s no degree in that,
No course where you sit around and just cheer each other up.

But I digress.

And so I worked.
Moving words here and there ,
And getting funnier all the time,
Without even realizing it.

And did I say it was HARD?
Because humor is more than just three men,
Walking into a bar.

So what is it?

Humor is tight.
And it is syncopated,
Elevated to the absurd.

Where every word,
Is chosen and scripted and properly placed,
So that the punch goes last,
And the setup goes first.

And the timing is well crafted,
With precision.
A pause here, or a pause there.
A slight indecision.
Because the slightest shift in a phrase,
Or change in a beat,
Can get another laugh,
Or lose one.

Humor is practiced,
Over and over and over,
And then,
Saying it this way and that way,
Then this way again.

Should this word be loud or should it be soft?
Where SHOULD I place the inflection?
Where should I PLACE the inflection?
Where should I place THE INFLECTION.
Because each way takes the audience,
In a different direction.

Do not discount this as fluff,
When I tell you that humor is dedication,
And perseverance,
And like everything else,
If you want to be good –
I mean really really good,
You have to put in the work,
And the sweat and the tears,
And, yes, maybe even the YEARS –
Jumping past your fears.

Play big or go home.

Because humor is not for the lazy,
Or those who want a short cut,
Or those who want something without really trying.
Success doesn’t come without the risk of dying,
Or a fear of flying.

YOU decide whether you treat your humor,
Your story,
Your speech,
What you do on the page,
And then on the stage,
As a means to an end,
Or as an ART.

Will you choose good enough,
Or hit it out of the park?

So if humor scares you,
Makes you come undone,
Don’t think about being funny,
Focus on just being FUN.

So what is humor?

It’s a funny picture you found on Facebook,
And put in your PowerPoint.

It’s a prop, like a unicycle,
Or a dummy,
Or a set of plastic lips.
A song you rewrote,
And now sing off key.
Hey, it works for me.

It’s a crazy outfit,
Or a hat,
Or a gesture,
Or a facial expression you’ve been doing since you were ten,
A weird outlook on the world from where you’ve been.

Humor is saying what nobody else will say,
Out loud,
Because you know they are thinking it.

It’s the tiniest slightest word,
Of the absurd.

It’s saying what you’re thinking,
Before the filter comes off.
It’s what you say when you’re venting,
Yelling at the automated voice machine,
The car two lanes over,
Or the microwave,
Because it is taking 33 friggin’ seconds,
To cook your burrito,
And this is just unacceptable.

Humor is planned,
And it is not planned.
It can be improvised,
By those who learn and practice,
The art of reacting,
And over reacting.

Because humor is exaggeration.

Humor is scheduled,
Practiced to look like it is not scheduled.
And then sometimes,
It is the beautiful thing that just happens,
In that moment,
You did not plan,
Where a situation presents itself,
And you REACT.
And it brings down the house.
Because the house knows,
That it just happened right then.
And they think you are brilliant.

And you agree.

And you run to your car,
And write it down,
So you can do it again once more,
Without letting them know next time,
It already happened before.

So look to see,
Where people are already laughing.
For that is a sign,
That you are doing something right,
Or wrong.
But they’re laughing,
Which makes it right.

Because humor isn’t in the perfect,
It’s in the real.
It’s in the mistake.
It’s in the fall,
And how you recover.

Humor is body language,
Where words are not necessary.

Something you always do at parties,
That makes your friends laugh.
A stupid dance you do at weddings,
That you take on stage.

It’s that simple,
Though not without fear.
What to do is often the easiest part,
It’s in doing that we find the true art.

Maybe you do great voices,
Or a great imitation,
Of your third cousin Dwight,
When he gets to the end of a case,
Of Budweiser Light.

Be sure to test and practice your humor,
Because sometimes what you think is hilarious –

If I had to define humor,
What it means to me,
In one sentence,
Though Webster may not agree,
I would say Humor is the ELEMENT OF SURPRISE.

It’s setting them up to think you’re going to say one thing,
And saying another.
Works every time.
It’s why we laugh when the mailbox talked on Candid Camera,
When babies hold conversations about stocks on TV,
Or cavemen wear suits.
Or – hello? A talking Gecko.
It’s why we laugh when someone is strolling along and gets sideswiped by a bus.
Not because we’re mean.
But because it wasn’t expected.

Humor is what defies the norm.

It’s as simple as making three statements in a row –
The first two serious,
The third one being what they DON”T EXPECT you to say.
Serious, serious, funny.

So, yes, humor is a formula.
Many of them.
Or lines and phrases that help you,
Trigger you,
To think funny.

Like Top Ten Signs.
Think Jay Leno.
Come up with as many as you can.
Then choose the best ten.
Because it will take a hundred,
To find ten that are good.
Because even funny people aren’t funny every time.

Humor is about
Letting them laugh.
Not talking over it,
But waiting for them to finish,
Or rather almost finish.
When the laughter peaks,
And then heads back down,
Is when you start up again.

It’s not something you get right,
In the beginning.
Because like most everything in this business,
You get good with practice,
And years on stage.

And if it didn’t get a laugh,
So what?
Act like it wasn’t supposed to.
That’s the beauty in being a speaker.
You don’t have to knock ‘em out every time,
Or even every other time.

This is a melody,
Ups and downs,
And all varieties in between.

In every moment,
In everything you do on stage,
Think of what that audience,
Expects you to do,
Then DEFY it .
Trust me, just TRY IT.

Humor is TRUTH.
That’s where it starts.
Not in the funny.
But in the truth.

So humor is universal,
But funnier if it is specific,
To you.

Humor is easy to understand,
Not buried in obtuse language –
Like this poem.

So get your vocabulary as basic as you can.
You want them to understand,
And understand fast –
Not have to dig through flowery speech,
Or hidden entendre,
Unless that is the joke.

You want the shortest path to the funny.
Shorter is better,
And holds more punch.
The more you add to a joke,
The more you lessen its impact,
Especially if you add words after the punch line.
Don’t do that.
Let your sentence come to its final rest,
On the funny word or moment of funny.

Humor is best served,
At your own expense.
Turn on the defenseless,
And the audience will turn on you.

Humor is a list of fun things you want to try on stage –
Different ways of opening,
Or closing.

It’s looking at ways that different people use the stage,
In different genres.
And looking for things you can try.

Humor is all around you.
Maybe even something you read on the bumper sticker.

Humor is the ACT OUT.
Just like a speech is better shown than told,
And a story more powerful when they can live it,
Rather than hear about it.
So humor is best served LIVE,
In the moment,
Happening now.
It doesn’t have to be Grammy worthy,
Just worthy of your courage.
Take the risk,
To look stupid.

Humor is about having the guts to be real.
Admit your weaknesses and flaws.

It’s about being spontaneous,
Making the face.
Even if the undersides of your arms,
Jiggle like a bat’s wings.

The bigger the risk,
The bigger the outcome.

And if you fail?
Who cares?
You tried.
One moment of stupid is not going to kill you.

And who knows –
That one moment of stupid,
Might actually turn out to be,
That one moment of brilliance,
That you never would have found,
If you hadn’t tried.

So don’t go out and write 60 minutes
Of new humor.
Go out and write two minutes.
And slip it into your next speech.
And see what happens.
And then try another two minutes.
And another two.

Humor is finding the fun,
That fits you –
The right personality.
It’s a style,
A brand,
A schtick,
That’s YOURs.
Always has been.
Just now you’ve made it bigger,
Like the caricature artist,
Who accentuates that one thing about you,
That everybody notices.

It’s your unique perspective on the world.
The army brat.
The overweight class clown.
The one who drinks too much.
The one who never drinks in a family who drinks too much.
The Cuban who grew up in a small town in the South.
The year you worked as a stuffed hotdog.

Your life is filled with unique comic perspectives.

Humor comes from YOUR pain,
YOUR life.
The experiences –
Good, bad, and ugly.
Especially the ugly.
Because who cares when everything goes right?
We want your quirks.

And as you slowly develop your own comic style,
Your own personality,
Don’t focus so much on funny.
Just focus on real.

And if all else fails,
And you just can’t do this,
Hire someone to help.
But make sure that what they write fits you –
Comfortable enough to be real,
But uncomfortable enough for you to be good.

And if you still can’t do this,
Then maybe you aren’t supposed to.
Maybe you need to leave the funny to someone else,
And find out that one thing that YOU do,
And it will be more than one I know it.

I promise you already have the gifts you need –
Waiting for you to step into them,
Or pick them back up,
From where you shoved them aside,
In favor of what you thought you were supposed to do,
In order to blend in,
Only to realize,
If you blend in you lose.
And you lose big.
For you become another fish,
In the bottom of a big sea.

Jump out there.

Be different.
With value.
But different all the same.
And that will make you not the same.
And will put you at the top of the sea,
With a lot less fish.
And a lot more fun.
And you will be a lot more in demand,
And less replaceable.

I hope that you go out there,
And find the fun in you.
I hope they laugh at you.
And laugh loud.

It wasn’t what you wanted as a kid,
But it is now.

As a kid if you stick out you’re dead.
As a speaker, if you don’t stick out, you’re dead.

Now go make them laugh,
And they will remember you for years,
Or at least until lunch.

See you at the top!

I’ll be the one laughing!


  • Poetry … is their anything you don’t do? I think humor is that which connects us as one and we breathe a sigh of relief that everyone is as weird as we are! We are not alone.