15 Ways to Benefit From Humor in Government


President Eisenhower had it right when he noted, “A sense of humor is part of the art of leadership, of getting along with people, of getting things done.” Poll after poll tells us that the public values three things most in government leaders: Trustworthiness, credibility and a sense of humor. No one should go into government service without the sense of humor that comes with the ability to laugh at themselves.

If you enjoy Saturday Night Live, Second City, 30 Rock, Parks & Recreation or Whose Line Is It Anyway? , then you already have an understanding of the benefits of a good sense of humor. The skills derived from a sense of humor – creativity, spontaneity, ‘in the moment’ thinking, flexibility, storytelling – are important tools for municipal leaders and government officials.

Some of the popular benefits are:

  • Build trust and awareness.
  • Foster teamwork and better brainstorming.
  • Improved communication and presentation skills.
  • Promote creative problem-solving.
  • Helps you respone quickly and decisively to unanticipated challenges.
  • Think on your feet and recognize opportunities as they arise.
  • Increases comfort level with change and willingness to take risks.
  • Manage change and promote a supportive governmental culture.

Humor is used regularly by presidents on both sides of the aisle to their great advantage – often to deal with what was perceived as a potential political liability.

In 1960, John Kennedy ran for president. There was a serious issue of whether or not his family’s immense wealth would influence the election. Kennedy joked that on the eve of the election, his father, Joseph Kennedy, had asked him the exact number of votes he would need to win. The senior Kennedy said, “There’s no way I am paying for a landslide.” The issue never surfaced again in the news.

Twenty-four years later, President Ronald Reagan ran for re-election when he was 73. He was the oldest man to ever run for the presidency. During a debate with Democratic challenger, former Vice President Walter Mondale, the age issue came up in a question. Reagan deflected the issue with a joke, “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” The age issue never surfaced again.

Both Kennedy and Reagan knew the advantage of self-deprecating humor: If you can laugh at yourself, no one can politically attack you.

Communications consultant, Andrew Targin, shares the following 15 ways to benefit from a sense of humor for use in life in general that can be applied to government leaders:

  1. Humor gets people to listen. “Consistent use of appropriate humor makes people want to read and hear what you say.”
  2. Humor increases long-term memory retention. “Instructional messages that gain students’ attention and help them make sense of course content – clarity behaviors – enhance students’ ability to process the content – resulting in greater retention and learning.”
  3. Humor increases persuasion. “Humor can be highly persuasive when presenting a message that people disagree with because the humor distracts them from immediately creating counter-arguments, in part because they don’t feel like the message is being crammed down their throats.”
  4. Humor aids in learning. “The use of humor as a pedagogical tool has been shown to reduce classroom anxiety, create a more positive atmosphere, as well as facilitate the learning process.”
  5. Humor increases the likability of the speaker. “An appropriate use of humor will produce a favorable attitude toward the speaker.”
  6. Humor connects us with others. “Positive sounds such as laughter or a triumphant ‘woo hoo!’ can trigger a response in the listener’s brain. The response is automatic and helps us interact socially by priming us to smile or laugh, and thereby connecting us with the other person.”
  7. Humor reduces status differentials. “Humor can help to reduce the social distance between managers and employees.”
  8. Humor diffuses conflict. “Humor has long been seen as the great equalizer — a means to facilitate conversation and bridge differences. As a matter of fact, humor has been identified as a key factor in peace-building and international mediation.”
  9. Humor builds trust. “Social benefits of humor include group cohesiveness, reduction of status differentials, diffusion of conflict, team and trust building among diverse groups.”
  10. Humor encourages people to work together. “A growing body of research shows that when you share a laugh with someone, you’re mirroring not only one another’s body language but also the hormonal and neuronal activity, prompting a mutual investment in each other’s well-being.”
  11. Humor boosts overall brainpower. “A dose of humor releases the chemical serotonin in your brain, which improves focus, increases objectivity and improves overall brainpower.”
  12. Humor improves decision-making. “Positive moods prompt more flexible decision-making and wider-search behavior as well as greater analytic precision.”
  13. Humor increases the acceptance of new ideas. “Unconventional interactions can lower the barrier for people to posit novel things.”
  14. Humor triggers new connections. “Humor stimulates the right hemisphere of the brain, which, in turn, sets off divergent, creative thinking which allows individuals to see broader applications, novel connections and otherwise elusive relationships.”
  15. Humor enhances one’s ability to solve problems. “Studies have shown that simply watching comedy films can improve creative problem-solving skills.”

A well-developed sense of humor enhances communications, relationships and problem-solving. These are essential skills for anyone seeking a career in government.

Kennedy and Reagan used humor to their benefit. Presidents like Nixon and Ford did not. Remember what George Will said, “On a throne at the center of the sense of humor sits the capacity for irony, all which rests on a cheerful awareness of life’s incongruities. It is a genuine awareness, and no politician without it should be allowed near power.”


Joseph Novick is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Mary Kay Morrison

I believe that Andrew Tarvin (not Targin) is the person who wrote about the
benefits of humor. http://www.humorthatworks.com/benefits/30-benefits-of-humor-at-work/ . Drew is a member of AATH (Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor). http://www.aath.org/ Several of us have similar posts about the benefits of humor on our resource pages. Do check us out and join us for our annual conference in San Diego April 12-15 to learn more information about humor and the benefits. We have an optional 3-hour grad course in Humor Studies offered at the conference as well as optional CME and CEU available.

Jon Mathis

I strongly believe that using more humor within government organizations would be beneficial. However, humor often requires taking a risk, and unfortunately the culture of most governmental organizations strongly discourages risk. I remember, as a GS-7 intern, giving a humorous title to a piece of guidance I’d written just to lighten up this dreary material a bit , handing it out only to my small immediate office, and then, the next day, standing in front of our Admiral having to explain myself. But I have heard of some successful uses of humor. The Center for Disease Control’s emergency preparedness instructions, cloaked as Zombie Preparedness (https://www.cdc.gov/phpr/zombie/index.htm) has been very successful. Do you know of any others?

joey novick

I know that the Applied Improv Network had been working with international red cross for disaster presparedness.—http://improvforhumanity.org/about-2/


Humor is funny until your sense of humor conflicts with someone else’s – then you find yourself on the receiving end of something not so funny

Mark Hammer

Any time I see exhortations to employ humor, I am reminded of the old Woody Allen comedy “Bananas”. In the film, Allen’s character gets hooked up with a Central American revolutionary group, who successfully takeover from a dictator. Allen gets sent to New York to raise funds for the emerging republic. Dressed in a Castro-like getup, complete with manifestly fake beard, he is anxious before speaking to what must be a $1000-a-plate crowd, dressed in tuxes and sequins. His aide tells him not to be nervous, and to start off with a joke. In classic early Allen style, he approaches the podium, adjusts his glasses and says “I’m reminded of the humorous story of the farmer who had incestuous relations with all 5 of his daughters.” As you can well imagine, a deathly silence comes over the room, and all you can hear are the jaws hitting the floor, as taste and credulity exit the room.

To paraphrase comedian Ron White, “It’s not THAT you’re using humor. It’s WHAT humor you’re using.”. Humor in the workplace can be a remarkably effective tool, as articulated in the article. But it always needs to be humor that unites, rather than divides by being at someone’s expense. Some folks are skilled at differentiating the two and finding the humor that unites. Others can have poor judgment in such matters, and their attempts to inject levity leave many squirming, or feeling marginalized, at the very least.

Use humor responsibly.

June Philbrick

Humor is important. It helps people cope. Unfortunately some cannot see the humor in everyday situations. Some are easily offended or worried about being politically correct.


I think the key is to never single out a person, race, group, etc. “put down” humor is not funny. But the random foolishness common to all can be quite funny. Since I know myself the best, I usually joke about myself.