Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Humor in Talks

Should you have jokes in talks? Too much humor can detract from your real work but a little laughter can lighten up an otherwise dry presentation. You must use jokes with care. You should avoid any offensive jokes: nothing sexist, racist, homophobic or sexual innuendos. Many jokes are funny only in context and in a major conference it will be hard to find context with people from different religions, countries, backgrounds and many of whom do not have English as their native language.

Some topics to be careful with:

  • Popular Culture: Most scientists even many American scientists have no clue what occupies the minds of most Americans. Even a Michael Jackson joke would likely fall flat at our conference. A Star Wars joke might work on a majority of our crowd but too many of them feel that anything that is popular should be ignored. One exception is children's popular culture: Not that anyone likes Barney but you can't avoid him, especially if you have young kids.
  • Politics: Since our field lies in such a narrow band in American politics, political jokes are fine as long as they sit in this band (i.e. making fun of Bush and his cronies). But a seemingly harmless joke outside this band will be considered "offensive". I once talked about a paper by Allender and Gore and said "but this is not the Gore that invented the internet." Didn't go over very well.
  • The P versus NP problem: Some things are too important to joke about.
What can you joke about? Make fun of yourself and your research (without insulting other's research). Make fun of your friends if they can take a joke and other people know who they are. Make fun of George Bush, Donald Rumsfeld and the religious right. Make fun of the French (okay maybe you shouldn't make fun of the French though they are such an easy target). Most of all just make fun and keep your talk interesting.


  1. Personally, I would never recommend anyone to make fun of the "religious right" in a scientific context. In general, I'd claim that insulting a religion in a technical talk is far from wise.

  2. There are plenty of other things to joke about. Most people flew in on a plane, for example, so you could joke about that. But probably better would be to relay some personal anecdote. Or to rely on the stock jokes like "... for very large values of 2."

    There's also one danger with using jokes: If you are nervous and have a joke planned to make yourself feel more comfortable the joke might fail and then you'll only get more nervous.

  3. I wouldn't be so quick to assume that everyone in our field finds
    Bush-bashing jokes amusing, since I know for a fact that some do not. Frankly, I am stunned that you find such blatantly political jokes acceptable.

  4. I think that a joke like your previous post (Wife & Mistress) is acceptable, even though there is an underlying sexual connotation and most people would find adultery "offensive". There is much to be said about *how* a joke is presented.

  5. Who's Barney? What's funny about the French? Us non-Americans may be even more clueless (less clueful?) than you give us credit for.

  6. I would also worry about telling political jokes in a talk, where there might be "mixed company". On the other hand, in one of my last talks I made a joke about Larry Summers that seemed to go over well, even though some might construe his self-inflicted pain as "political".

  7. A good clue for americans is: don't assume anything about your culture is known in other countries, because it probably isn't. Except for the most famous hollywood stars, the president, and mickey mouse, nothing else is common knowledge for non-americans (contrary of what you may think).

  8. I'm an American, and I am baffled why we are supposed to find the French funny. For the past couple years, colleagues and acquaintances have made lame appeals to the "humor" of the French without providing a single worthwhile punchline. Newspapers have been plagued by unfunny editorial cartoons with coiffed poodles and beret wearing, baguette toting men in striped shirts.

    As near as I can tell, the only thing funny about France is that "they" estimated Iraq's threat level to the United States and the rest of the world far more accurately than any of the people making these "jokes" did.

  9. > Too much humor can detract from your real
    > work

    Yes, but no amount of humor is too much if you don't have that much "real work" to talk about. (This happens more often than one may think.) On another note, I agree that prepared jokes are risky and should be used sparingly. The best humor, by far, is what comes spontaneously.

  10. I agree with Wed Jun 08, 10:10:40 AM CDT comment. You can assume that non-Americans know who George W. Bush and Bill Clinton are. Depending on the audience, they may or may not know that Al Gore was a vice-president and a candidate for the president. They will likely not know "Gore invented internet" story, unless they have recently been in US for an extended period of time.

    People are typically exposed to some amount of American popular culture but the relative popularity of various American TV shows/etc. in other countries may be very different from US. Because of that, "the most famous hollywood stars, the president, and mickey mouse" advice makes a lot of sense.

  11. I disagree with the "narrow political band" claim, both on a factual level (mathematicians and CS people are more varied than, say, philosophers and linguists) and on a normative level (by narrow political band jokes you serve those that wish to exclude their unlike-minded colleagues).

    I believe that the jokes that work the best are those on a recent news item that has made it to the global village "top charts", such as the butterfly ballot jokes in FOCS 2001.

  12. maybe this is why the gore joke flopped


  13. Whoa Nellie.

    I hate to be the one to tell you this but anyone I hear making the sort of political jokes you think are acceptable (Bush, religious right, etc) apears to me to be a very shallow "thinker" and dangerously biased.

    Go ahead and joke and I'll quietly take note of the fact that the "thinking" is faddish and reflect poorly on your character. (Anti-intellectual since not open to debate).

  14. I enjoyed Omer Reingold's jokes during his STOC'05 talk about his result having "important applications" to exploring mazes, with pictures of real world mazes to emphasize his point... Theory making fun of Theory, now, that's really fun. A bonding experience -- jokes which everybody in the audience can understand and appreciate, but which would probably baffle outsiders.

    Jokes are useful in keeping the listeners attentive and helps them memorize the talk, as teachers know.

    As for other, more general topics on which to joke, well, I would say, tread lightly, as in any occasion where you don't know exactly who you're talking to.

  15. Yes, and another example is Chris Umans' joke during his talk at FOCS 2003. Utterly uncontroversial, yet memorable.