Humor Trumps Anger (No Pun Intended)

There’s a great scene in Mel Brooks’ 1974 comedy masterpiece “Blazing Saddles” that is similar to a force that seems to be driving a large part of the narrative in this year’s presidential election.  The Governor (played by Brooks) attempts to demonstrate how angry he is at some situation by shouting “Harrumph!”   And not just a single “Harrumph!” but “Harrumph!  We must do something about this immediately!  Immediately!  Immediately!  Harrumph!  Harrumph!  Harrumph!  Harrumph!” as he attempts to get everyone around him to “Harrumph!” with him.  You can watch the ten-second clip here:

It seems to me that “The Harrumph Factor” has been instrumental in the rise of popularity of both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.  The candidates are yelling “Harrumph!” which is galvanizing everyone around them to yell “Harrumph!” with them.  It doesn’t matter what the issue is—which is Brooks’ point in the scene.  “The Harrumph Factor” succeeds because people feel better when they find like-minded individuals to “Harrumph!” with—and to yell Brooks’ line of “We must do something about this immediately!”

The ‘anger’ becomes a form of communication and, perhaps more importantly, a method of persuasion.   And while Sanders will not ultimately be his party’s nominee, I believe it was his use of “The Harrumph Factor” that was largely responsible for his massive support that was totally unexpected.  (As was Trump’s.)

To be clear, this is not a political post by any means.  I am just stating that ‘anger’ has been used successfully as a persuasion tool this year by candidates from both political parties.  However, my message in this post is that I think that candidates would be far better served in using humor as a tool of persuasion than by using anger.  Yes, Humor trumps Anger.

The Presidential Debates begin in September.  My advice to the candidates as they prepare for these events is to concentrate less on the “Harrumph!” and more on the “Ha!”  We’ve seen several instances of genuine humor in this campaign over the last year—some scripted, some ad-libbed—but those moments were quoted in the press as often as the ‘serious’ verbiage being presented and/or refuted.  And in this contentious atmosphere of political discourse in our country, the moments of levity stand out in a big way because they are so welcome.

Laughter is therapeutic, always has been—but laugher is also very, very persuasive.  And, I would contend, perhaps more persuasive than anger.

The best speech I ever witnessed was by stand-up comedian, author, and activist Dick Gregory.  This was many years ago, when I was a student at the University of Florida.  Dick Gregory spoke for almost two hours.  But his presentation was structured very interestingly.  The first hour was pure humor…..and was one of the funniest, laugh-out-loud comedy routines I have ever seen.  But then he transitioned into the second hour, which was his main content and featured his ideas on important issues facing our society.

His humor was so powerful as a persuasion tool to establish and create his likability, that his message—which involved views on subjects that many in the audience previously would not have agreed with—was now being considered, accepted, and actually cheered.  I experienced it both as an audience member and as a young humorist examining the immense power of what I had just witnessed.

Most political candidates have their handful of ‘laugh lines’ they use in their stump speeches.  Like any good comedian or humorist, they know those lines are going to get a laugh every time.  But I would love to see candidates using humor as their primary persuasion source, not simply as a way to get a few quick laughs from the crowd before launching into their normal anger-driven messages.

When I ‘punch up’ speeches with humor for executives and professional speakers (and the occasional candidate), I make sure humor is placed throughout the speech, reinforcing the messages from start to finish.  Most politicians don’t have the luxury of Dick Gregory’s two-hour platform to present—so his model would be difficult to replicate.  But I would suggest that any candidate who is willing to use lots and lots of humor to drive their messages—albeit appropriate humor, but humor nonetheless—will find themselves with far greater influence than one relying primarily on anger.

Yes, Humor Trumps Anger.  (OK, maybe pun intended.)