Ten years ago, my father was in the hospital. Not an uncommon occurrence during the last decades of his life. But suddenly, the routine became dangerously serious.
Unfortunately, there were some complications with a port the doctor had inserted for a blood transfusion. As the emergency response team worked on my dad, they asked questions to make sure he remained conscious. At one point the doctor asked, “Mr. Fallon, who’s the president of the United States?”
“Harry Truman,” my father replied. The team stopped everything, worried that he’d slipped into delirium. After a slight pause, my father opened one eye and said, “Well, we’d be better off, don’t you think?”
The doctors and nurses chuckled, and went on with their work. Their patient was fine. He may have a strange sense of timing when it comes to telling jokes, but he was fine.
Growing up, I didn’t consider my father a funny guy. Of course, working several jobs to support his family didn’t leave a lot of energy for telling jokes at night. And keeping 10 kids in line probably wasn’t a piece of cake either.
But it’s a different story whenever I talked with his former co-workers at the post office. They always shared tales about his easygoing manner and his sense of humor. Whether from my generation or my father’s, his co-workers spoke about his laugh and funny jokes. It’s quite a compliment to be remembered that way.
As I listened to these stories, I learned some important lessons about having a sense of humor and telling jokes at work. The three most important are: keeping the jokes clean, don’t make fun of others, and learn to laugh at yourself.
“Keeping the jokes clean” may sound like an anachronism in today’s world, but it isn’t. In over 50 years, I never heard my father swear or tell a dirty joke. And while my father was a devout Catholic, I know that he had plenty of opportunity to learn how to curse. We both went to the U.S. Army boot camp at Ft. Dix, New Jersey, and drill sergeants talked the same way in the 1980s as they did in the 1940s.
By choosing not to include swears or raunchiness in his jokes, my father made his humor accessible by everyone. Neither the teller nor the listeners would worry about being embarrassed. And the story could be repeated anywhere.
Clean jokes can still be funny. We grew up listening to Bob Newhart, whose old albums still crack me up. It doesn’t take that much effort to leave out the cursing, and there are plenty of funny jokes that don’t include sexual references.
Jokes also don’t have to be told at someone else’s expense. Making fun of someone, especially someone weaker than you isn’t being funny. It’s being a bully.
Just as I never heard my father swear, I never heard him tell a racist or sexist joke, or make fun of someone because of a disability. No one ever accused my father of being “politically correct”. But people did describe him as being polite.
There’s enough bigotry in the world without adding to it. Jokes can be about “three guys entering a bar”, it doesn’t have to be “a Mexican, an Irishman and a Jew enter a bar”. And there’s nothing funny about disabilities or diseases.
The exceptions to this rule may be politicians and the very wealthy. As the start of this story shows, the president (any president) is clearly not off-limits. People who place themselves above others can afford a joke at their own expense. They’ll get over it.
Which leads to the third lesson – learn to laugh at yourself. If you don’t think you can be the butt of a joke, ask a good friend. Or better yet, ask someone who’s not a friend.
My father was known for telling jokes about himself. He made fun of the way he walked with his cane, his propensity for going to wakes and funerals, and of course, his health. When one of his grandchildren gave him a t-shirt that said “Grumpy” instead of “Grampy”, he didn’t get upset. He laughed and wore it with pride.
I’ve tried to bring that same approach into my own life. When I was a manager, I was often the subject of a joke by my employees – whether it was about my suits, my temper, or my beard. Rather than let the jokes bother me, I embraced them. I refused to loosen my tie, took bets on my blood pressure readings, and adopted the nickname “Wolfy”. Everyone got to laugh, and I got a reminder of just how important I wasn’t.
Enjoy a good laugh at your own expense, especially if you’re in a position of power. It makes you more human and accessible by employees. It’s good to be humbled occasionally. Don’t worry, you’ll survive.
Not everyone is naturally funny. And considering some of my father’s bad jokes, maybe he wasn’t either. But all of us can decide whether or not we’ll approach the world with a dour face or with a smile. I think I’ll join my father and choose to smile.