In the talk I’ve been pushing around the Northwest, I included a fair number of jokes. I’m not a comedian, and some of my jokes can be pretty bad, but I do think sometimes even bad jokes can be helpful, just because they can be so memorable. Jokes help keep things lively, sure, but I also believe that they can help make people build stronger connections when they’re learning. Plus, for better or worse, it’s just who I am.

As the talk has evolved, some jokes inevitably get cut. Maybe one is ill-placed and doesn’t help to build that connection. Maybe there are too many jokes too close together, and the pacing is all wrong because of it. Or, maybe a joke is just inappropriate in some way or another.

In the early versions of my talk, I included a slide featuring Bob Ross with a speech bubble that contained the phrase “Fuck that.” It’s funny partially because of the timing (something I’ll never be able to properly explain in words here) but also because the person who is saying the rude words is known as one of the most soothing, unshakeable personalities of all time. Did Bob Ross ever swear in his daily life? Who knows, but his PBS TV show painted a very deliberate picture of a man who would never be crass to anybody.

The slide of Bob Ross swearing
The slide in question.

Because I recognize the world can be offensive to some people, I had always contacted one of the organizers ahead of time to make sure it was the right kind of crowd, and that I wasn’t violating any codes of conduct. I could easily change the joke if it came down to it, but nobody ever made me do it.

The first time I gave the talk, it definitely got laughs, and I felt pretty good about myself. The second time, however, when the slide came up, it was total silence. I held the pause a bit longer, hoping that someone might finally snort, but the laughs never came. “Nothing?” I nervously took a drink of water and then explained the joke, “C’mon, it’s Bob Ross. And he’s swearing.”

“We don’t know who that is,” came one reply. I was a bit astounded, but at least it was something. I put it behind me and moved on.

After that talk, I intended to press on. I emailed the next organizer and they said I could keep the swear in if “fuck” was used for emphasis, but not in the context of doing a sexual act. Does “fuck that” imply this, I wondered? I think technically yes, but it’s a bit of a gray area. I figured it would be safer, though, to rewrite the joke. What else could I say but still keep in the funny? “Fuck no” would certainly turn the swear into an emphatic, clearing up any ambiguity. So, that was my first intention.

But then I began to wonder if I really needed to keep the swear in there. It was the only truly rude part of my talk. Did the talk require it for some reason? Did the joke? Was I impressing the crowd with it? Was I impressing the conference organizers or others who might want to share my talk?

I decided, if nothing else, that I would try the next version without the expletive and see how it went. I simply made Bob Ross say, “Dude, no,” instead. When my chance to give the talk again came around with Devsigner Conference, I presented this cleaned-up version and… the crowd laughed.

The slide of Bob Ross with swearing replaced
The same slide scrubbed clean.

In hindsight, I believe the meat of the joke comes from Bob Ross’s apparent defiance, not his rudeness. On the one hand, it’s easy to imagine him being nice about everything; when it suddenly turns out he’s not on my team, the audience is caught off guard. On the other hand, Ross standing up for himself shows a certain leadership that the crowd can rally behind. Beyond that, good jokes have good timing, and that’s what I practiced over and over in the nights leading up to the event.

It’s true, “fuck” can amp up the joke on a visceral level, but in the end, I have to keep my true, primary audience in mind: people who are watching me to learn about color, its history, some theory behind it, and new technology that they can use. A few good jokes along the way are just bonus content.