Yes, a Borrower Be
George Bernard Shaw asserted, “Good writers borrow. Great writers steal.” No humor is entirely original; it builds on forms and sources going back thousands of years. Most one-liners and funny stories have come up from the grassroots and are not attributable. A comic draws on a subconscious filled with these things to put together new material.
However, you do not want to be thought of as pretending that you made up something entirely on your own when a lot of people know otherwise, so either adapt the details of a joke to fit your point or acknowledge the source (even “someone has said”).
If you only need to lighten your talks occasionally, do not put a lot of effort into it. But if you expect to be giving a lot of speeches and need to change the comic bits because some in the audience may have already heard you, at least the process will be fun.
Start your own topical humor file by clipping out the good items and filing them on index cards (you will rarely want anything longer than two sides). There are almost endless sources.
At 100topjoke.com there is an aggregate of useful sites, including those covering such humor-challenged topics as philosophy, science, and economics (“an economist is a trained professional paid to guess wrong about the economy”).
If you want any-occasion laughs about lawyers, blondes, men, animals, and other subjects, CleanJoke.com is great. Also JokesGalore.com offers a daily joke e-mail service and claims to be the world's largest repository of jokes, including ones on touchy topics.
To find the right gag that is both funny and apropos, expect to put in some research time. Fortunately, you do not need a lot to make your speech just amusing enough to keep most audiences engaged.
You can google “jokes” and come up with 60 million hits and “humor” yields 250 million. Most of these are not very useful for speakers — they include everything from official sites of comic strips to homemade prank videos — but no matter what your talk is about, you will probably find a site devoted to it.
Magazines and Newspapers
Reader's Digest is the king and queen of magazine humor, with its reader-supplied items for a variety of categories every month (and reading it is a great way to keep tabs on popular culture, which is an essential practice for every speaker).
The art of speech humor often involves describing a visual situation, so the funny pages of newspapers are also a good source. If you are looking for over-the-top spoofs of trends, look at Mad Magazine, or for political satire check out The Onion.
There are new compilations of humor published every year, but here are some tried-and-tested sources for spicing up your speech:
1001 Funniest Things Ever Said edited by Steven Price. Example: “Give me a couple of years, and I'll make that actress an overnight success” — Samuel Goldwyn. (You could use this to underscore how outsiders never realize all the preparatory work that goes into achieving goals.)
Comedy Comes Clean: A Hilarious Collection of Wholesome Jokes, Quotes and One-Liners edited by Adam Christing. Jay Leno, Bill Cosby, Bob Newhart, and 50 others provide wit that can be deployed in front of any audience. Example:“I have no respect for gangs today. They just drive by and shoot people. At least in the old days, like in West Side Story, the gang used to dance with each other first” — Robert G. Lee. (Use this to talk about how people romanticize the past.)
Winning with One-Liners: 3,400 Hilarious Laugh Lines edited by Pat Williams. Lots of clean humor, especially about sports, diets, and business. Example: “Dolphins are so smart that in only a few weeks of captivity, they can train people to stand at the edge of a pool and throw them fish” — anonymous. (This could illustrate differing perspectives on the relationship between suppliers and customers.)
The Friars Club Encyclopedia of Jokes edited by H. Alan Cohl. Much of this would not be usable for sensitive audiences, since the Club's roasts were often bawdy. But everyone in your audience will know the contributors, from Mae West to Groucho Marx. Example: “For the first year of marriage, I had a basically bad attitude. I tended to place my wife underneath a pedestal” — Woody Allen. (This could be used to talk about how attitudes can shape results.)
Hire a Writer
The above sources can give you more options to get your audience chuckling than you could ever possibly use. But perhaps you need help because you are addressing an obscure topic with little relationship to the generic humor that is available (hay does not seem to be the subject of many jokes, so you may need help if you are speaking at an animal feed convention).
Or maybe you plan to give a lot of speeches and want to have some original material without making a personal effort. Or you could be expected to deliver a real yuk-fest at a high-profile roast and would feel more confident with help. Veteran joke writer Gene Perret, in How to Hold Your Audience with Humor, suggests these guidelines for working with a professional:
Ask a prospect for a couple of pages of material they already have written that might have even a distant relation to what you need.
If you want to audition them to address your subject specifically, pay for their time. No real pro is going to waste any effort on auditioning, since getting the gig is always a long shot.
Provide as much preparatory material to the writer as you can — your speech as far as you have written it, some of your prior speeches (even on other topics), talks by others to the same audience, background on the industry, and so on. Studying all this has to be factored into the time the writer will spend on the project.
If you need five good jokes, contract for twenty. Discuss what you like and dislike about each and the writer can rewrite them. Even then, many will not work for you, for a variety of reasons (they rely on puns that will go over the heads of too many in the audience, too many cross the line of good taste, the writer does not really understand the business, etc.).
You can pay per joke, per speech, or put the writer on retainer (which would be a very modest investment for a professional speaker to have a reliable source).
Do a lot of stroking. Anyone working in a creative field will have some level of insecurity, so thank them profusely for their efforts and make criticism constructive.
You can find a professional gag writer in a number of ways. Post a project offer at sites for freelance writers like the American Society of Journalists and Authors. Google “joke writing service” and you will get 2.5 million options. Run a classified ad in a trade magazine for the industry you regularly address or in Hollywood Reporter or Variety — many comedy writers can adapt their humor style to almost any subject. Best of all, perhaps, is to advertise in Perret's “Round Table Comedy Newsletter.”