Inside Jobs:Humor in Production
By Nancy Goldman, Ed.D.
Producing entertainment is not always entertaining. The hours are long, personalities can be difficult, and time or money (often both) is limited. But help is available! And it costs nothing, is easy to carry and if used properly, can yield great rewards. I’m talking about humor. Humor is a tool that can be used to many ends: it diffuses stress, helps us adapt to change, reframes problems, smoothes conflicts and brings people together. Because of its many uses, humor is the Swiss army knife of production.
Producer Michael Bridenstine has found that humor is a shortcut to creating community on set. He noted, "When you’re laughing with someone, you have something in common with them.” John Morreall, author of Humor Works, describes laughter as a social lubricant, noting, "Sharing humor builds morale, camaraderie, and team-spirit.” Teamwork is crucial to producing. As Bridenstine observes, "If you don’t have people together, you can’t move forward.”
Creating commonalities can be especially useful when considering the diversity often found among crew members. Producer Jill Demby recalls an occasion when members of her production team were Vietnamese, Chinese and Persian. "The Persian [colleague] came from a big Persian family and she joked about being Persian. This gave me a window into her life.” Humor can spotlight our similarities and minimize our differences. If used effectively, it can make others feel included. One way to do this is to rely more on the utility of self-deprecation rather than outwardly-directed jokes. Allen Klein, author of The Healing Power of Humor suggests a good rule of thumb is to make sure humor is appropriate, timely and tasteful.
|Producer Jill Demby|
Humor can also be used to keep spirits up on set. Production can demand of lot of rushing around followed by a lot of waiting around. Producer Carrie Certa believes that part of her job is to keep morale high. So she created her "happy dance.” "When I was producing shorts I had 175 people working for free,” she recalls. "I felt I had to give something back. I did that by keeping them entertained. When the energy on set dropped, I did my happy dance and it would help them get happy.” Humor is, after all, a form of play. As Demby says, "You may think it’s not a fun situation, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have fun doing it.”
However, Certa warns, producers must tread a fine line to ensure humor does not get out of control or send the production off-course. For instance, through trial and error she has learned that it’s better to start out being strict on set and then get lighthearted rather than the other way around. This establishes the tone that business comes before play.
Also, since most sets and small production companies don’t have human resource departments, it’s critical that communication, especially humor, is self-managed. Telling jokes that are off-color or offensive is one way in which humor can backfire. Certa recounted, "When people tell dirty jokes, I playfully say ‘All right, you gotta pull it back.’ Then they move on. Or I talk to people one on one. " There are other ways that humor can backfire. Bridenstine confesses that he may have lost gigs or had jobs shortened because he attempted humor that was ill-received or misinterpreted. "I have had a lot of misunderstandings and gotten looks,” he concedes. "[Humor] can get out of people’s hands easily. It can hurt people.” The key, he offers, is to understand your audience, which is a good rule to apply for just about every aspect of producing.