Bob Goldman
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Stop me if you've heard this before.

A priest, a rabbi and a kangaroo walk into a bar ...

Oh, you heard it at the office. I'm not surprised. It used to be that if we wanted to hear a bunch of bad jokes, we'd go to a comedy club. Now, all we have to do is go to work.

Take it from Sue Shellenbarger, the Work and Family columnist for The Wall Street Journal. Sue recently published "Secrets of Effective Office Humor." According to columnist Shellenbarger, the ability to make your co-workers laugh can not only help you succeed at your job, it can also get you a job.

It's true! The research proves that "employers like to hire people with a sense of humor." But being funny in the workplace is not all fun and games. "The office can be a comic minefield," Shellenbarger writes. "Making colleagues laugh takes timing, self-confidence -- and the ability to rebound from a blooper."

(I assume Shellenbarger means it is difficult to make people laugh with you. Making people laugh at you is easy, as you proved on your first day on the job.)

Before you consider if it is the right time to tell a joke, you should first decide if it is the right place.

You know that no one is funnier than an insurance actuary. Yet, consider the case of actuarial funster Fred Kilbourne who "cracked a joke in the middle of a serious discussion by a committee on auto-insurance risk, prompting a fellow participant to say, 'You know, we're trying to get something serious done here, and this is not helpful.'"

Poor actuary Kilbourne was shamed into silence. Of course, if this incident happened at your job, everyone would collapse in laughter at the thought that what you are doing is important.

Navigating the dangerous shoals of office humor is a specialty of Michael Kerr, a Calgary, Alberta, humor consultant. "Office jokesters must be ready with a funny comeback if they drop a clunker," he says. "Making sure they deliver it in a warm, non-sarcastic tone." Turning the poorly received witticism back on yourself is Kerr's solution. He suggests language like, "it takes a special human being to do what I just did," or "This is great. I was feeling a little under-stressed today."

That kind of subtle, depreciating humor might work in Canada, but not in the U.S., where workplace success demands that you never admit you made a mistake, especially if you have. I recommend a more outer-directed response, like "Are you hard of hearing, or are you just an idiot?" or "Soviet Russia called; they want their sense of humor back."

Delivered in a warm, friendly tone, these witty comebacks will surely get everyone laughing, though, I have to admit, this technique works best if you're the boss.

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Bob Goldman

Bob Goldman is a business humor writer.

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