Can you hear the old prospector from a spaghetti western saying that? Actually, the well-known line is a misquote from 1849 when Dr. M.F. Stephenson tried to persuade miners to stay around the hills of Dahlonega, GA, instead of heading to California for the Gold Rush.
Why does human nature guide us to look elsewhere for what we want, when it’s often right in front of us?
Many speakers email me for the secrets to finding a humorous story — they want me to tell them where to look. My reply is usually, “Look in the mirror!” It’s there, but searchers sometimes you don’t see the ‘gold’ in their own stories because it only appears to be just another plain, boring, old rock. We must learn to have the eyes and ears of an experienced (laugh) miner and know how to mine and refine it those laughs!
Carol Burnett once said:
“I got my sense of humor from my mother. I’d tell her my tragedies,
and she’d make me laugh. She said, ‘comedy is tragedy plus time’.”
Humor is a release of tension. So if we’re going to release it, we must find it! Start by looking at your own tragedies. If you know my story or heard my “Ouch!” speech, almost all of the laughs come from tragedies.
- My sub shop financial failure.
- Dr. Goddard’s first rocket launch failure – and the New York Times’ insulting reaction.
- My brother laughing at me when I told him, “I want to be a comedian!”
- The crushing silence after telling my parents that I wanted to be a comedian
- Bombing on stage — and the woman in the skit who made me shut my mouth by covering it with her hands.
When my sub shop ‘went under’, (pun, of course, intended) I wasn’t jumping for joy and thinking, “Hey, someday this will be funny!” Nope. I just felt the pain.
What most presenters don’t understand is that people will usually emotionally relate to your pain – and that’s where the connection is made. Now, when you talk about you, you’re also talking about them. I learned from Judy Carter to look at my own ‘ills’ to find my unique humor. If you’re still figuring out your story or message, check out Judy’s new book, The Message of You.
You may have heard of my comedy mentor, Vinnie Favorito. You may not have heard about my earlier comedy mentor, Dave Fitzgerald. Dave was also very important to my journey. When he was diagnosed with cancer, I’d just introduced him to the world of speaking. Though he was very successful as a speaker in the ‘support group’ world, he was still new to motivational speaking. He was very passionate about taking his cancer experience and making it funny.
As far as I know, he was one of the first comedians to actually say the word “cancer” from the comedy stage in the late 90’s. It was one thing to use the word “cancer” on the motivational speaking circuit, and quite another to say it in a comedy club. It was a ‘taboo’ word back then, partially because there were fewer people surviving.
When Dave first started adding his cancer story to his comedy routine, I saw one of the best headliners in Boston go down in flames. He had the audience and they were loving him. Then, as soon as he mentioned the ‘C’ word, he lost them. When I asked him,” Why would you keep bringing up the cancer story if you keep losing the audience?”
He told me of a quote that he’d heard at a sales seminar years prior:
“Anything worth doing is worth doing wrong first.”
~ Graeme McCorkell
Then he followed with, “Darren, I care more about figuring out how to make this work, than how tonight’s show goes.” Wow. That was eye-opening. He was on a mission to make it work. What he eventually discovered was that, as soon as he mentioned the word “cancer,” the audience had sympathy for him. They thought he was going to die soon. So they were taken to a different emotion. Once he figured this out, he realized he had to cushion the story. He started reassuring people that he had been sick and now was in the best health of his life, before he said the ‘C’ word. This changed everything. Now the audiences stayed with him and were rooting for him all the way.
His effort paid huge dividends! In fact, it was so powerful that, once he got the routine working in the comedy clubs, he started changing people’s lives by giving motivational speeches. One man came up to him after a show and said, with tears in his eyes, “Thank you. If you can joke about cancer, I can find the courage now to talk about it and finally tell my family.” Wow. Where there’s humor, there’s hope.
Dave knew the gold was in the mineshaft. He just had to keep digging until he found the vein. Often we try a story once or twice, and then give up way too soon. That conversation with Dave and seeing the powerful results didn’t only change my speaking, it changed my life because he committed to taking the story all the way through the process until it worked. Powerful.
Your gold could be one more swing of your miner’s pick away. Just because you can’t see the gold doesn’t mean it’s not there. Care more about your outcome and be willing to ‘risk’ until you figure it out. Once you do, every audience for the rest of your career will benefit from it. Judy Carter helped me write my favorite sub shop joke that I still use today, twenty years later. She created a great prospector’s map and I was willing to follow it. She taught me about looking for the gold in my own ills. Yes, I know it’s not great grammar, but you’ll remember it now, won’t you?
Dr. M.F. Stephenson was right. Don’t look outside of yourself or 3,000 miles away for your gold. It’s right where you are. If you’re looking for laughs or a deeper message, look at your ills and ask yourself, “How can this help people?” and “How can I make this funny?” Keep swinging your pick!
Comments? Please share them below!
Thank you for this insightful post. I think you’re right on about past ‘tragedies’ becoming comedic after time, and in the right context.
I look forward to using your suggestions in a Toastmasters speech!