08/19/2014 03:37 pm ET Updated Oct 18, 2014


Life is too important to take seriously, my father used to say. He was a pretty serious scientist, given to worry and a sensitive man, so I always knew he was saying it as much to himself as to me.

The events of the past week are a reminder of the importance of humor in our lives, in our interactions, in business and in our connections to each other. We are reminded how very deeply we all value and need humor. Laughter can help lighten our load, break the ice, make a difficult interaction easier. It is something so natural to us, we almost forget to appreciate it, until something happens that makes us consider what our lives might be like without it.

It is likely that each of us can hear something in our own heads when we think of our favorite sound of laughter -- maybe it's a child, or a loved one, a colleague, or friend. Laughing is one of the first things we learn to do, even before we learn to walk and talk. And through our lives, it is an invaluable tool for coping and connection.

But what is humor, and how do we use it wisely? In business, we witness the misuse of comedy. In an on-stage routine, Ellen DeGeneres noted: "what about when someone says "just kidding".... Hope you didn't comb your hair that way on purpose, they'll say... and then " just joking." (she mimics) No, you aren't actually, (she says now in the character of the receiver of the joke) because if it were a joke, (she notes) we would both be laughing." There is humor that is universal, and it tends to be self-deprecating and silly, never snarky, demeaning or mean.

Comedy in advertising and marketing is a very tricky business. People find very different things funny, and what is funny to one person can be offensive, insensitive, or simply not funny to another. I never found Andrew Dice Clay the least bit funny, and know few women who did, but he was successful, so many did. I found this article on CNET hilarious - but it might just be me!

There was a stick figure Superbowl ad some years ago by a now-defunct startup that was remarkably racially offensive, but intended as humor. Trying and failing to be funny is one of the easiest ways to ruin a marketing campaign, and a relationship -- personal or professional.

In fact, comedy is, quite rightly, considered an art. People struggle their whole lives to learn to make a room laugh. As professional comics describe it, when it works, it was better than any other experience in this life.

Comedian Will Durst explains how early on he discovered he could make people laugh, a discovery of his own possibilities that set him on a lifelong path. That path was not always an easy one. Durst, like many others, enjoyed the comedy explosion of the 80s and 90s, especially in San Francisco. It was full of opportunity, and audiences were huge. But they weren't there to stay. That story, of Will Durst, Johnny Steele and Larry Brown and their comedy career from it's hopeful beginnings, through their struggles to remain relevant, funny and working through the decades, is the subject of a soon to be released film 3 Still Standing movie. The movie covers how each of these three got into stand-up comedy, got through the boom, with contemporaries whose careers skyrocketed in tv, film and more, and how through it, they remain committed to their art.

In San Francisco, the comedy scene was "incubated" by, among others, a morning radio host named Alex Bennett, who brought upcoming comedians on his show each morning. He would let them go on their tangential riffs, the sort of straight man to the wild antics of hundreds of comics at every level of career success. Many a comedy career catapulted from that platform. You could hear Bobcat Goldthwaite before his film career in his panicky character. You could hear Bob Rubin with his signature "Lighten up everybody, the old Rube's here." You could also hear established comics from Mort Sahl and comics of the Vaudeville age -- too many, in fact, to name.
I've enjoyed most of the hundreds of hours of stand-up comedy I have seen in local clubs and festivals over the years, along with the movies, tv shows, and media that have made me laugh. But I cannot tell you what makes something funny, no one can. I can tell you, with certainty, that comedy is vital. A funny narrative, told by someone who has carefully crafted a message to make us laugh, in the right timing and right setting cannot save a life, but it can in my opinion, make the life we have quite a bit better. And I'm so grateful for it, and the people who consider it their life's work. We only get about 36,500 days in a long life, if we are that lucky.... but hopefully a million laughs.

"Through humor, you can soften some of the worst blows that life delivers. And once you find laughter, no matter how painful your situation might be, you can survive it."
-Bill Cosby