Dr. Stuart Robertshaw, Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Education at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and an attorney, currently serves as the President and CEO of the National Association for the Humor Impaired.
Dr. Robertshaw, a national speaker and humorist, is known throughout the nation as ‘Dr. Humor’. His review of research led him to conclude that, “15 percent of people in America are humor impaired and another 15 percent are ‘at risk’, and it’s no laughing matter.” As a result of his review, he founded the Association in 1990.
Dr. Robertshaw has presented to over 700 business, government, healthcare, and education organizations in 37 states.
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It was the kind of outrageous act many of us would love to pull off but we’ve never quite dared. Or maybe we’ve just never thought of it. One day Stuart Robertshaw, a La Crosse attorney and special education professor, got stopped for speeding. The police officer was arrogant, even rude, and Robertshaw’s mood quickly deteriorated. “I found myself going from feeling joyful and singing along with the music while I was driving,” he recalls, “to all of a sudden being mad at myself for speeding and mad at the officer.”
The situation called for a creative response. As the officer walked back to his patrol car to write the ticket, Robertshaw reached into his glove compartment, where he just happens to keep a dozen or so big, red clown noses. He put one on and awaited the officer.
“The guy came back,” Robertshaw says. “I rolled down my window and said, “Officer, you’re not going to ruin my day.” He didn’t even flinch. But what I noticed about me was that after five seconds, all the anger was gone. And I felt absolutely wonderful.”
At the outset the officer might have picked up a few clues that this would be no ordinary speeding driver. On the windshield of Robertshaw’s car, written in big backward letters—like on an ambulance—is the word: LAWYER. And his license plate reads “Dr. Humor.”
If you were to meet Robertshaw, a.k.a. Dr. Humor, there’s something about him you’d notice almost right away. No, not the clown nose. He doesn’t always wear that, although you might catch him sporting it when he’s driving down the highway, bored, and wants to see what sorts of reactions he can stir among other motorists.
What you’re most likely to notice about Robertshaw is his laugh. It bubbles out of him, rolling out like a child’s giggle. It’s infectious; you can’t help but catch it. And Dr. Humor is doing his best to spread the condition.
Toward that end, he gives talks all over the country to groups ranging from school counselors to Fortune 500 companies to FBI agents. He’s published one book, Dear Dr. Humor, a collection of funny stories people have sent him over the years. Another book is now in process, entitled Each New Day Above Ground Is a Great Day. All of this activity is under the auspices of the National Association for the Humor Impaired, an organization Robertshaw launched six years ago.
But his interest in humor goes back much further than that. In fact, it seems to have been a trait inherited at birth. “I have a funny family,” he reports. For instance, his mother has that same contagious laugh, as does one of his three brothers. His mother also is known for her knack of injecting humor into most any situation. Take the time Robertshaw’s oldest brother finally worked up the nerve to ask her, when she reached age 76, what she wanted when “that day” finally came. Would she prefer cremation? What kind of service would she want? Without missing a beat, the family matriarch looked at him with a straight face and responded, “I don’t know, honey. Surprise me.”
Robertshaw has taken his familial bent for humor and made a profession of it, adding it to his two previous professions, special education and law. Currently he’s practicing all three; using his lawyer skills now primarily in mediation.
The special education part of his career came first. A New York native, Robertshaw earned his doctorate at the University of Kansas in 1971. Having promised his wife she’d get to pick where they lived next, they ended up in La Crosse, where Robertshaw joined the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse faculty.
In 1976 one of his students sued him for giving her a failing grade. Robertshaw ultimately won the case two years later, but the episode sparked a new interest for him. “I went from being terrified at the thought of being sued to sort of falling in love with the law,” he says. So, in 1978, Robertshaw took a 30-month leave of absence from his teaching duties to earn a law degree at the University of Wisconsin Law School.
He returned to the UW-La Crosse being the only person in Wisconsin with both a law degree and a doctorate in special education. “So from 1980 to 1990,” Robertshaw says, “I was known as the ‘Judge Wapner’ of special education.” Besides hearing special education-related cases all over the state as an administrative judge, he did guardian ad litem work in family court for several years, all the while continuing his professorial duties.
It was the latter that led him to his career in humor. In 1987 a publisher asked him to review a textbook on child development. “There was a chapter on joy, creativity and humor in young children,” Robertshaw recalls, “and there was a quote that got my attention. It said that, on the average, preschool children laugh or smile 400 times a day, but adults over the age of 35 laugh or smile only 15 times a day.”
That set Robertshaw to researching the subject. He’d always been a humor collector, keeping files of cartoons and funny stories. But he started looking deeper. “I spent about four hours a week for the next three months in the library reading about humor,” he says. He was amazed at what he found—for instance; medical studies showing that laughter lowered blood pressure and produced endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers.
His research convinced Robertshaw that he ought to do something to combat one of modern society’s worst afflictions: terminal seriousness. He formed his organization and sent out a press release to announce its existence. “I did it as a funny idea,” he says, “not as a real organization. I sent the release to every newspaper in a five-state area. I thought small county newspapers would use it just for filler or something.”
Little did he know. When a La Crosse reporter—the same guy who dubbed him Dr. Humor—sent the story out on the Associated Press, Robertshaw found himself citing write-ups in the New York Times, the L.A. Times and lots of newspapers in between. He even was interviewed by Family Circle magazine, with its circulation of 5 million, which brought in thousands of letters to Robertshaw. Before long, his organization had more than 4,000 members, including some as far away as Australia and Israel.
But that was just the beginning. When a story appeared in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, a fellow who worked for the Department of Defense in Washington, D.C., happened to be in the Twin Cities visiting his elderly mother. He saw the story and called Robertshaw to ask him to speak to a group of FBI and CIA agents. “I thought it was a put-on,” Robertshaw says. “But he said, ‘No, I’m serious.’ It wasn’t until he sent me a follow-up letter on Department of Defense stationery that I realized this guy was for real.”
So Robertshaw went to Washington. Until then, he’d only given presentations at local civic clubs and church groups, for free. This was his first paid speaking engagement. And you might say it was baptism by fire. He spoke before 200 FBI agents, 200 CIA agents and 300 private defense contractors. The top-secret conference sessions were off-limits to Robertshaw, except the one where he got to try his hand at making the crowd laugh.
“It went wonderfully,” Robertshaw says. “They were stiff at first. But after the presentation they wanted to buy me some beers. When I got home I told my wife I’d never met so many people named Bill with no last name in my life.”
From that engagement, Robertshaw received 22 more bookings, and he was on his way in the speaking circuit. “My presentation tends to be my personal journey of how I got involved in this and what I’ve learned in my studying,” he explains. “I have 2,500 slides of all this stuff I’ve collected over the years. Usually at night when I’m watching TV, I’m coloring cartoons getting them ready to be shot as slides.”
Cartoons, classified ads, faux pas in newspapers, funny signs—they all make their way into Dr. Humor’s routines, which he does while wearing a white lab coat he found at St. Vincent’s. He carries a camera everywhere, always on the lookout for humor. “For example,” he says, “I have this wonderful slide of something I found in North Dakota. It’s the tombstone of a lady by the name of May Prescott, who died May 2, 1928, and on it it says, ‘I told you I was sick.’ I have a whole collection of that kind of stuff. You can’t not laugh.”
But it’s about more than laughter, Robertshaw says. Woven in with the humor are subtle messages about the need for caring, optimism, empathy and generosity—values we so badly need in today’s world. Sure, he admits, we live in tough times. Not only do we hear of major horrors such as Bosnia, but many people live with smaller fears each day, such as worrying about getting pinkslipped. “I just did a big company where there’s lots of restructuring going on,” Robertshaw says. “It was a tough crowd. People would only laugh if the boss laughed. That’s tragic.”
So Robertshaw’s aim is to get people to lighten up, to keep their sense of humor alive and to remember that change isn’t the end of the world. What does the doctor recommend as an antidote for fending off world-weariness? Start your day, he advises, by laughing for 30 seconds while looking in the mirror. It’s hard at first, but once you get the hang of it, he says, “it completely shifts your mood.”
The Healing Power of Humor
Humor and Stress Management
Increasing the Joy, Laughter and Fun in the Workplace
"Many in the audience said he was the best after-dinner speaker they had ever encountered. . . . I heartily recommend Dr. Humor to you if you want a humorous touch to your meeting." — Menasha Corporation
"Your presentation was fantastic! Everyone in attendance was laughing constantly from the moment you began until your final story." — Internal Revenue Service
"By the end of his program, even Ebenezer Scrooge would have been laughing to the point of tears. . . I would not hesitate recommending his services to anyone who is in need of a respite from the daily rigors of life." — Canadian Pacific Railway
"Few professionals recognize the importance of humor in the workplace as do those of us in consumer care. And your program on the medical and psychological benefits of laughter was a smashing success." — Society of Consumer Affairs Professionals in Business