While many students across the country were suffering through graduationesque ceremonies, ceremonies that were not what anyone would really have hoped for, Senator Ben Sasse was doing the commencement address for his former high school. First off, good on him for working that in. As a senator his speaking docket is overfull. But in all honesty, his address was an unmitigated train wreck. I tend to take anything that "blows up" on social media with a grain of salt. I have jumped to conclusions based on an initial reaction as many of us have and that is usually not helpful. But after watching only two minutes of the speech, anyone can see this is a mess. And for a humor apologist like myself, his office's response that he was "just joking" is one of the worst responses to give. It helps further make people hesitant to use humor. Humor can be used well and we all know how nice it is to have it present in a speech even in formal ceremonies. But this is a roadmap of what not to do.
I will be offering a deeper dive on this after I develop a way to code the humor used in the speech, but let's begin with some obvious issues. The staging is a bit odd. He's presented in a white shirt, red tie loose at the collar, and a few days' growth of facial hair. Overall he looks unkempt. It's almost like he had a late couple days at the office and just kind of rolled out and started a speech. Now with that COVID-life all around, perhaps he should be forgiven, but I think with the content of the speech, the way it's filled with ridicule and making fun, you just get the sense that he's ranting a bit more than a little. And that's one of the key things to note, he spends much of his time ridiculing. He doesn't talk about the grander themes he has open to him.
Anyone can see that within the first two minutes of his speech he has making fun of the graduates in that they're probably wearing sweats, psychologists for not really doing any "real" job than protecting the hurt feelings of people, his own father for being a gym teacher, parents of kids who started out teaching at home and then have given up and become gym teachers, and the Chinese, blaming them for the pandemic. One of the rules you hear so often mentioned on the proper ways to use humor when your not a comic and not an insult comic, which Sasse is neither, is that you want to avoid ridiculing people. Let's not forget that this is a graduation speech. Casual jokes about the difficulties we all go through in high school are fine. He could have even related a story about his trials and tribulations as a high schooler, but he doesn't. Sasse seems to think that his very subtle "wink-wink, nudge-nudge" sort of approach will help the audience get "he's only joking." The problem is there's just so much time spent poking fun at some group or person. With that much ridicule, that early and often in a speech where the typical bits are about achievement, resilience, and grit, are expected, Sasse is picking on anyone and everyone that could possibly be in his audience. Make fun of teachers? Check. Make fun of graduates? Check. Make fun of parents? Check. Make fun of a foreign country? Check. The only person he hasn't made fun of, and one person who if had been targeted might have gotten him some points with the audience, is himself. If you're handing out the dozens, it might help to include yourself in the target pool.
I have certainly been critical of Senator Sasse and his performance deserves criticism. His inability to come out and simply apologize is not helping either. But here's the thing that we should all, myself included, take into consideration. This was one gaffe: a large one and with today's internet and outrage culture, people are excoriating him. That's a bridge too far. I don't know much of his politics or his policies. I know only that he's a Republican. Maybe he'd actually had some bad days. This COVID-Life ain't easy. If it's a bad day and an attempt at humor that just went horribly awry, stand up, sincerely apologize, and try to do better. It's all we can and should reasonably ask. But one lesson we should all take away from this, is that unless you are an insult comic, leave the ridicule behind. Make some jokes about the absurdity of the situation that causes us to have to distance, and it is absurd, but then marvel at how our technology, so often maligned for the social distance it can contribute to, is helping us celebrate our achievements. Poke some fun at yourself; know that you, in this situation lack the up close and personal cues we often use to judge an audience. A good speech with humor and levity can be given on Zoom. This one just happens to be full of examples on what not to do.