Law and humor collided recently when defense attorney Don West told a knock-knock joke to begin his opening statement in the trial of George Zimmerman. (“Knock knock. Who’s there? George Zimmerman. George Zimmerman who? Congratulations you’re on the jury.”) The joke went nowhere and West was almost universally panned: “Inappropriate. Astounding. Unprofessional in such a serious setting.” Yes, the joke turned out to be on Mr. West. Or did it? If you watch the joke on YouTube you see an immediate shift in the courtroom. West becomes somewhat foolish looking, embarrassed and…well, human. We have all failed in front of others and West did there, but in that uncomfortable moment he became less lawyer and more person. There are many reasons the jury came out the way they did in that controversial trial. But Don West later explained that after the prosecutor’s dramatic opening he wanted to move the atmosphere toward his side. Maybe through his initial faltering he did.
The problem with mixing law and humor is they reside in two different worlds. Law is rigid, serious and conformist. In law school we learn to analyze, synthesize and compartmentalize. Our creative, fun-loving right brain withers while our analytic, pessimistic left brain swells as if on steroids. We are trained to tear ideas and, yes, people down. Not exactly a recipe for yuking it up.
On the other hand comedians go on stage to be funny. To make us feel good. The most successful comedians don’t rely on tearing down but rather elevating the listener through shared experience and smooth self-deprecation.
The problem with mixing law and humor is they reside in two different worlds.
So what guidelines can we lawyers follow when these two worlds intersect?
First, if you are in court and want to be funny don’t do it. Humor requires a safety-certified professional which we are not. Put the joke down and step back please. Not only can we have a messy explosion but remember the tort of comedy malpractice is always lurking around the corner.
Second, the judge is always the funniest person in the courtroom. Always.
Third, natural self-deprecation is okay in court but forced self-deprecation alienates.
Finally, ridicule is useful in argument against ideas but almost never against persons. Follow the rule of most successful comedians: make fun of things or yourself but slam others only when the audience thinks they truly deserve it.
By the way, if you do get a case involving comedy malpractice and you need an expert whose comedy routinely falls below the standard of care give me a call.
Ken Turek is a San Diego trial lawyer and trial consultant. He has won several stand-up comedy competitions. For more information go to KenTurek.com. He and his friend Don West were law school classmates.
(Originally published in San Diego Lawyer magazine 2014)