You often hear that you should stay away from using humor in interviews or when in meetings with new people or in formal spaces. This is good and sound advice. But as a humor researcher it’s sometimes hard to avoid. I am not suggesting that you prep some jokes for interviews, but sometimes having a funny story to tell about a situation or a work experience will help not only help the explanation, but if you can make folks smile as you interview (interviewing isn’t fun for most anyone involved) you’re going to look a better candidate.
I was interviewing for what would be my second academic job. I really needed to do well because this was a tenure track job and I was staring down the barrel of unemployment. I was interviewing at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, Louisiana. Fork ‘em Demons. The position was for the assistant director of the Louisiana Scholars’ College, an honors college. It was and is a great program. It was doing work that I wanted to do, the faculty were great, and the town was pretty cool. I had a pretty packed day, and one of my last meetings was with the then president of the university, Randy Webb. Randy passed recently and it was a loss for the university. It’s not typical that an assistant director position get such attention, but there I was. As I entered the office, not only was the president there, but so was his dean of students and now current president of NSU, Chris Maggio. I wasn’t overly nervous, but I wasn’t what you'd call relaxed either.
The interview went in the pretty standard ways. I discussed my background, my previous history, some of what I would like to accomplish, and all the rest. The conversation was pleasant, engaging and then to my surprise Randy grabbed my CV and said, “It says here you study humor.” I said “yes.” “enjoyable work?” he asked, and I nodded in assent. He had actually read my CV. And then just like that, he said “Then tell me a joke.” If I wasn’t nervous before I was immediately petrified. It took me a second and I looked at him, trying to regain my composure, and said, or rather stammered out “Do you know how bad a joke can go in this sort of situation? Assuming I am doing well and you like me, if I tell the wrong sort of joke, I could go from being considered for the job to never being invited back.” Randy dismissed my worry and said something to the effect that I’d be fine. Trust me, no matter what he thought, I could bomb worse than any comedian and then lose a job I was interested in. I tried resisting, but there was one thing I learned that day, Randy wasn’t going to let go.
I was on the spot, trying to think of a joke that was, 1) non-offensive, 2) funny, and 3) one I could remember. The best I came up with was a joke about golfers. I figured making fun of golfers wasn’t going to offend anyone, the joke was pretty clever and best of all, it was one I remembered. I was thinking a joke about university presidents might work, but I am not that much of a risk taker. I told the joke, both Chris and Randy laughed, and I laughed, but more from relief than humor. I have no idea if that joke helped or harmed my candidacy. Regardless I ended up getting the job and it was one of the better postings that I ever had. While Louisiana can keep the heat and humidity, Natchitoches was and is a great little town. I highly recommend you have a visit. But if you’re there on an interview, I’d still advise to keep the humor to a minimum and maybe be smarter than me and find a way to artfully dodge a request to be funny.
Check back next week for some ideas on how you can artfully use humor in an interview to boost your chances of getting that job.