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The Big Slapstick

Shaquille O'Neal wields his doctorate before an audience of humor scholars

Shaquille O’Neal enters the conference hall and bumps his head on the door frame. And it’s funny.

But why is it funny? Why does this packed hall at Southern Methodist University chuckle at his mishap? Does it matter that the person we’re talking about here is 7-foot-1 Shaquille O’Neal, the four-time NBA champion, the three-time finals MVP, the $250 million net worth superstar? Would it have been more or less hilarious if a different famously tall person had bumped his head: John Wayne, André the Giant, Lyndon Johnson,1 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar? In short, is there something particularly funny about Shaq bumping his head? And, come to think of it, could the collision have been intentional? O’Neal has been dealing with low door frames all his life. Did he want everyone to laugh? Why would he want everyone to laugh at him?

O’Neal is in the right place to figure it all out: The 3rd North East Texas Humor Research Conference, an annual gathering of some of the greatest minds in humor scholarship. Every person here has heard countless times the famous quote by E.B. White: “Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.”2 And they don’t care about it. What they do is serious business — applying scientific rigor to one-liners and pratfalls and Internet memes that the world has long taken for granted.

That’s why, for this year’s keynote speaker, they’ve invited to Dallas not Shaq the basketball player, but Dr. O’Neal the leadership expert. Last spring, O’Neal strode across the stage at Miami’s Barry University and received his doctorate after completing a capstone project on “The Duality of Humor and Aggression in Leadership Styles.” Since the program did not require a dissertation, there were no examples of O’Neal’s work for reporters to scrutinize, no proof that this wasn’t just another diversion in O’Neal’s long list of extracurricular activities, like his rap albums and video games and reality shows and mixed martial arts training and police work and Kazaam. But here in this wood-paneled conference hall, O’Neal is about to take the stage and share exactly what he’s learned about being funny.

Depending on whom you ask, O’Neal either knows a lot about that subject or not much at all. During his 19-year NBA career, he was called a media-hungry prankster, a distracting buffoon, a culturally insensitive bully, but also “the funniest there ever was.” Two years into retirement, he helms a comedy empire that includes the popular “All-Star Comedy Jam Tour,” a “Comedy Shaq” YouTube channel, and a just-launched TruTV viral-video clip show called Upload with Shaq. But he’s also been lampooned for his clumsy and lackluster performance on TNT’s Inside the NBA. So is O’Neal’s sense of humor one of his greatest assets or his worst enemy?

Paging E.B. White: The world’s largest frog has just landed on the dissection table.

My mother told me a long time ago, ‘Your humor is either going to make you a lot of money or get you in trouble,'” says O’Neal. It’s an hour before his keynote address, and he’s passing the time in a guest room in the Hotel Lumen, a swanky operation across the street from SMU’s campus. He’s dressed in a nicely tailored gray suit while lounging on a sectional couch at the point where the two halves form an elbow. It’s the deepest spot, and probably the only place in the room where he’d fit comfortably. In a nearby desk chair, his friend and business manager Anthony “Chicago” Hall, who appeared alongside O’Neal in the film Blue Chips, is pecking away on a smartphone. Sitting on the bed is Barry University associate professor David Kopp, O’Neal’s academic adviser. “Like with any of my other former students over the years, I am happy to assist them in their events or projects if they think I could add value,” Kopp says later. “In his case, however, the events do seem to take on a surreal aspect.”

Right now, O’Neal’s entourage is silent. It’s the big man’s time to reflect on his sense of humor — that is, if he feels like it. O’Neal, the guy who called himself “The Big Shakespeare” and “The Big eQuotatious,” seems somber. Maybe he doesn’t like being asked probing questions about his funny bone. Maybe he’s nervous about his impending speech.

“Humor puts people at ease around me,” O’Neal says quietly. “I am seven feet, 350. I think children love me because of my humor only. They look past this seven-foot, monstrous scale.” He apparently learned this trick at a young age. As he noted in Shaq Uncut, his 2011 autobiography written with Jackie MacMullan, as an oversize kid in Newark, New Jersey, he was saddled with names like BigFoot, Sasquatch, Freakquille, and Shaquilla Gorilla. “I was so self-conscious about my size, goofing off was the only way I knew how to fit in,” he wrote. In other words, O’Neal realized there are two flavors of giant: the scary giant (think Jaws in The Spy Who Loved Me) and the lovable giant (think Jaws in Moonraker). He chose the latter.

The lovable giant was often on display during O’Neal’s playing career — dancing with the Jabbawockeez at the 2009 All-Star Game, coining one Shaq-ism after another, making cracks to the press such as “I’m tired of hearing about money, money, money, money, money. I just want to play the game, drink Pepsi, wear Reebok.” Sitting in his hotel room, O’Neal explains it was all about being the star of the biggest show around: “One time, I begged my father to take me to a game and we didn’t have enough money. So we scrounged up a few dollars and the next couple days the money he was supposed to use on food and stuff, he’d used it on me,” he says. “So if I make a dad pay all this money they are charging now to bring his son, daughter, and family to the game, I am going to give them a hell of a show. I am going to show them a little force, and I am going to do something funny.”

But O’Neal’s high jinks weren’t just a front. As his Orlando Magic and Los Angeles Lakers teammate Brian Shaw (now an assistant coach with the Indiana Pacers) points out, he was like this all the time, even when there weren’t fans or cameras. “I think it came naturally,” says Shaw. “His humor was all over the place, from the sense of humor of a grade school kid all the way up to the most clever comedy shtick that you would see.” Take the time when Shaw skipped shaving his head for a few days and developed what he calls “the George Jefferson look”: bald on top, five o’clock shadow on the sides and back. One day, while the team was waiting on court for practice to start, O’Neal walked out of the locker room completely naked save for socks, shoes, and a towel wrapped around his head. Without cracking a smile, O’Neal removed the towel to reveal he’d shaved the top of his head to look just like Shaw. “Even if you thought about doing something crazy like that, I don’t know if you have the balls to do it,” says Shaw. “He would, no question about it. And that’s only the PG-rated stuff. I can’t tell you the other stuff.”

To hear O’Neal tell it now, such shenanigans were a conscious decision, a way to engage and motivate his teammates. As an example, he recalls his famously tense relationship with Lakers teammate Kobe Bryant, perhaps the last thing you’d expect O’Neal to dredge up from his past. “Kobe was the type of guy, he was like a student you know is bright but he is not applying himself,” he says, assuming a professorial tone. “So you have to do something that will get him to apply himself, like give him an A-minus, which pisses him off, so now he comes back and ARGH” — O’Neal lunges forward on the couch, looking like a monster-movie villain — “and he gives you something so much more. So what I was doing as a leader was always doing things to poke Kobe. Because I knew it was going to rev Kobe up. A lot of people didn’t understand I was doing that. [Lakers coach Phil Jackson] understood that, and that’s why he never butted in.”

But if O’Neal’s humor was all part of the plan, something he honed and perfected like his drop step, why did many of his zingers seem as wild and off-target as his free throws? Why would he have blundered into obvious controversies like the time he told a reporter, “Tell Yao Ming, ching chong yang, wah, ah so”? Or the time he drew the ire of the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association for saying Don Nelson’s Dallas Mavericks were playing like a bunch of women? “I wanted to use the B-word,” O’Neal explains now, “but there were kids watching.”

Even if O’Neal’s jokes didn’t always work, he insists they’re the reason he’s enjoying a busy post-NBA career. “Because of my humor and likability, that’s why I am still prevalent in the superstar space,” he says. It’s certainly true he’s parlayed his comedic persona into a variety of business and media ventures. And it’s clearly a major reason TNT recruited him last year into the postgame circus that is Inside the NBA. “I think they brought me in to inject humor,” says O’Neal. “I come in every now and then and try to be serious, but [the producers] will curse me out. They don’t want that from me. ‘Let [host Ernie Johnson] do that, we want you to be funny.'”

So far, however, much of O’Neal’s humor on the show has been unintentional. On the NikeTalk online forum, there’s a thread titled “Shaq Has Made Inside the NBA Unwatchable.” It runs 10 pages. Saturday Night Live skewered O’Neal, with his Inside the NBA co-analyst Charles Barkley impersonating his leaden and mumbly performance. The Onion ran a story titled “Shaq Spends Entire ‘Inside the NBA’ Segment Analyzing Size of Own Hands.”

“The Shaquille O’Neal brand is humor,” concludes O’Neal. “We have always been in control of my brand.” But is this really the case? Has he wielded his funny-guy reputation to help people forget how he sometimes picked on other players, clashed with many of his coaches, and left most of the teams he played for on bad terms? Or did O’Neal never reach his potential on the court — as his Lakers coach Phil Jackson put it, “This is a guy who could and should have been the MVP player for 10 consecutive seasons” — because he was too busy goofing off? Was Shaq in control of his humor? Or was his humor in control of him?

Let’s turn to the experts.

shaq illustration

The North East Texas Humor Research Conference might give people the wrong impression. There is no South East Texas Humor Research Conference, or Mid-State Texas Humor Research Conference, or any other Texas humor research conference for that matter. “The name is kind of a joke,” explains conference co-founder Salvatore Attardo, dean of humanities at Texas A&M University and former editor of Humor: International Journal of Humor Research. Between Attardo’s work in humor linguistics — among other things, he has analyzed joke recordings to prove that, contrary to popular belief, folks don’t naturally pause between setups and punch lines — and that of other researchers at Texas A&M and nearby SMU, northeast Texas turns out to be “a humor-scholar hotbed,” says the dean. So three years ago, all those professors got together, launched a conference, and, to go along with the subject matter, gave it a cheeky name.

But with a title like that, Attardo concedes that the conference has had trouble attracting institutional support: “It sounds like it’s in a stand in the middle of the prairie.” Dealing with a lack of respect is nothing new for humor scholarship, a field with few obvious world-saving or fortune-making applications. “Whenever you do basic, fundamental science, it is objectively difficult to explain why it is important,” Attardo says. It’s an especially hard sell when trying to determine why we laugh at farts.

Take the lineup at the humor conference. One attendee is looking into what the short-lived NBC comedy Outsourced says about the changing state of political correctness. Another is arguing that the South Park episode “Jared Has Aides” could be used to teach freshman-level English students proper punctuation. A third has been running studies that monitor people listening to a David Cross routine played at various speeds. The results suggest that Jesus jokes are funnier when they’re sped up by 20 percent. Such work is interesting, but it’s hard for outsiders to take seriously. No wonder that, as any longstanding humor scholar will tell you, nearly all journalists who’ve tried to cover humor-research conferences in the past end up simply making fun of the events for being profoundly unfunny.3

But there’s a reason why thinkers from Aristotle to Thomas Hobbes to Sigmund Freud pondered what makes things funny. Humor academics argue that laughter is something people do all the time, so shouldn’t researchers try to figure out how it works? These days, the entertainment industry spends billions on stand-up tours and sitcoms and comedy movies. Yet still we end up with Jack and Jill. Isn’t it time to apply a little more discipline to the matter?

This is humor scholarship’s goal, but how can the field bring attention to its efforts without inviting further ridicule? SMU communications professor Owen Lynch, co-organizer of the North East Texas Humor Research Conference, thought he found an answer when he learned about Shaquille O’Neal’s work on humor. The subject matter of O’Neal’s research project, plus him having no published papers to show for it, seemed to come ready-made for media disparagement. “O’Neal’s final project sounds like something he could have slapped together on the set of Inside the NBA,” quipped the South Florida Sun Sentinel. “Now if he could only get a degree in ‘speaking on television,'” added MSN.

Lynch figured he could give O’Neal a chance to silence the skeptics by inviting him to speak. “I could give him a stage where he could enter into academia,” Lynch says, “where he could represent himself as an academic and present his work.” If the event went well, the field of humor scholarship might finally have its perfect spokesperson — someone with one very big foot in the real-world side of humor and one in the academic side. “We justified it to ourselves that it was a legitimate mixture of celebrity media attention and scholarly work,” Attardo explains.

Much to everyone’s surprise, O’Neal agreed. “He was very, very generous,” Attardo says. “Thank goodness he agreed to speak as an academic because I heard his professional fee would have bankrupted us for years and years.”

So the self-proclaimed Big Aristotle would come face-to-face with the world’s foremost experts on humor. What could possibly go wrong?

A few minutes before the event, O’Neal rides the Hotel Lumen’s elevator down to the lobby to walk the short distance to the conference hall. Immediately, everyone within a one-block radius stops what they’re doing. A group of well-dressed twentysomethings gathered in the lobby for a wedding rehearsal swarms O’Neal, grasping for a handshake. “I thought you’d be taller,” someone quips, surely for the millionth time. Out on the sidewalk, passersby gape and fumble with their camera phones, while cars slow and honk. Hey, Shaq! Yo, Shaq! It’s as if he’s on a first-name basis with the entire world. Shaq! Shaq! Shaq!

As if by some comedic cosmic plan, O’Neal’s security detail from the university involves a single, extremely diminutive female police officer. So here he is, one of the largest men ever to play in the NBA, sauntering through the cool Texas afternoon alongside a woman half his size. For his protection.

But gone is the somberness O’Neal displayed in the hotel room. He’s all smiles — waving at every honk and holler, chuckling at the long-stale wisecracks, chatting up his pint-size protector. And, just for a moment, it’s possible to conceive of what life must be like in O’Neal’s size-23 shoes. Imagine being one of the most recognizable people in the world, who also just happens to be 7-foot-1 and 350 pounds. There would be no escape, no place to hide. Wherever you’d go, you’d be a walking punch line.

So of course O’Neal is all smiles and humor. Of course his NBA career was marked by pranks and wisecracks, even when this wasn’t always wise. Of course he feels the need to force jokes on Inside the NBA. And of course he bangs his head on purpose when he enters the conference hall, so everyone will laugh. With the life he’s been given, he only had two options. He could reject the attention or go along with the joke.

“Using Humor to Navigate Mega-celebrity.” What a great topic for O’Neal to explore in his keynote. It’s the sort of juicy, complicated subject the humor scholars would applaud. It could launch a raft of lab experiments and peer-reviewed papers. But it doesn’t happen.

Instead, O’Neal, sitting onstage flanked by Attardo and Kopp, touches on his capstone project, which involved interviews with captains of industry such as Steve Jobs, Howard Schultz, and — fittingly because of his affiliations — executives from PepsiCo and Time Warner Inc., which owns TNT. According to O’Neal, what he gleaned was, well, nothing new. “When it comes to leadership and humor, a lot of stuff I was applying in the organizational world was already being written about in scholarly texts,” he tells the audience. “I just couldn’t put a name to it.”

So what’s O’Neal’s secret to using humor in leadership, both on and off the court? “In real life, I modulated between 70 percent humorous and 30 percent serious. In the basketball world, it was the opposite: 90 percent serious and 10 percent humorous.

“A lot of times with leadership, you have to make a decision on, do we focus on the relationship, or do we focus on the task,” he continues. Then, once again, he brings up the “‘Shaq versus Kobe’ thing,” to knowing laughter from the audience. “I was always focused on the task of winning championships,” he says. “And when you focus on the task, the relationship comes below.”

That’s more or less it. No startling revelations, no groundbreaking insights. Six minutes in, O’Neal starts taking questions from the audience, which are mostly softballs from pre-selected undergrads. Attardo offers up a few carefully worded inquiries, referencing the “baffling” findings of a 1999 Academy of Management Journal article and asking his guest about the best combination of leadership and humor styles. O’Neal responds by noting that he treats male and female employees differently, and that “I handle my females with tender love.”

Soon O’Neal segues into full goofball mode, making funny faces at the crowd and coining nicknames — “Sexy Samuel!” — for the nervous students reciting their questions. Then he asks his friend Hall, standing off to the side, to toss him his police badge and he starts telling law-enforcement jokes. One involves a mom making out with a sheep. Another is about a serial strangler and ends with the line, “Artie chokes three for a dollar.” In the audience, the humor scholars remain silent.

The keynote ends with O’Neal picking up conference organizer Owen Lynch like a damsel in distress, as the crowd claps and whoops. Later, looking back at the event, Attardo says that, if nothing else, O’Neal’s presentation convinced him his Barry University doctorate isn’t a joke. “When he was describing his work, and he said he’s looking at a book this thick and thinking, Oh crap, I need to read this by tomorrow and meet with my adviser, I said to myself, ‘This man has done his work.’ That’s exactly how it feels.”

But what else did the dean of humor scholarship take away from O’Neal’s address? “To be entirely honest with you, the biggest thing I got is he looks like a nice guy,” says Attardo. That, and “He’s really tall.”

Attardo and his colleagues are too professional to make fun of O’Neal’s presentation. That sort of thing, they know from research, is best left to real comedians.

The following morning in an SMU lecture hall, the conference continues without O’Neal, who flew home after the keynote. But a few other academic outsiders are in attendance: Conference organizers invited a couple Dallas comics to the conference, and they get up during one of the sessions to tell jokes. One of them is Clint Werth, a shaggy-haired, bearded guy who was expecting to run through his usual routine, but threw it out after he sat through O’Neal’s presentation.

“Please tell me I was not the only person who saw the absurdity of Shaq not just using his badge as a prop for jokes, but that he needs someone else to carry it around for him,” he begins, as the audience cracks up.

“One of the professors said satire was the lowest form of humor,” he continues. “I think the lowest form of humor is to use an unnecessary prop to tell a pun. It’s kind of like Carrot Top writing New York Post headlines.” All around the lecture hall, the academics are in stitches, laughing at all the things they’ve been thinking but would never say.

Dr. O’Neal wouldn’t have it any other way.

Joel Warner (@joelmwarner) is co-author of The Humor Code, an account of his global adventures with humor researcher Peter McGraw, due out in early 2014.

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