Humorist Jeanne Robertson has spent most of her hilarious career—which is nearing the half-century mark—as a professional speaker for conventions.
"Sometimes, the number of people at my speeches has depended on the weather at the convention that day," she says. "If it rains, you pack the room."
Wherever she goes, this 68-year-old Methodist grandmother and former president of the National Speakers Association has audiences laughing so hard they literally shake. As evidence, you can watch examples of her performances on YouTube—with 14 million hits and counting. Among her many topics, Robertson describes her reaction to the suggestion that she go bungee-jumping, dishes about her relatives and friends, relates ongoing adventures with her husband (nicknamed "Left Brain" for stage purposes) or tells of gambling in Las Vegas with her Baptist friend, Norma Rose.
Robertson has released seven DVDs, with audio versions available through iTunes. She has authored three books and can be heard regularly on SiriusXM Radio—but only recently has Robertson started attracting paying fans to concerts in theaters.
"I've spent 48 years as convention speaker, but it was always at conventions and meetings, where the admission wasn't open to the public. But with the new social media and avenues through the Internet, people started seeing parts of my speeches. And a couple of years ago, I started getting the questions: 'When is your show coming,' for example, 'to Tucson?' After the second year of that, we started to think we could sell tickets."
Tickets, by the way, are on sale for her performance this Friday, Jan. 20, at the Fox Tucson Theatre.
"I've performed a lot in Tucson and in Arizona in the past, but this will be the first time for a theater in Tucson," she says.
A sophisticated 6-foot-2 beauty, Robertson is a native of Graham, N.C. She got her start in public speaking after being named Miss North Carolina in 1963. She went on to compete in the Miss America pageant, where she won the Miss Congeniality award.
"Pageants were big then. They were all on television, and you had a big responsibility if you won. After winning Miss North Carolina, I gave 500 speeches in 12 months, so I dug up all my old stories, and I would tell them, and people liked it."
Robertson taught piano for a while, but kept returning to public speaking, and after a few years, she decided she could market herself full-time on the convention circuit.
She saw convention humor up until that point as tired and predictable—and predominantly male. "I looked around and thought about what I could do to get ahead here. Most of the speakers at conventions at that time were male, and they'd tell a few sports jokes or something about a guy who walked into a bar. I saw room for opportunities."
Robertson says she prefers to be called a humorist rather than a comedian. She tells stories, not jokes.
"The comedian's sole goal is to get people to laugh, but at the expense of others. My goal is to make people laugh, too, but my humor is not meant to offend. I love to go to comedy clubs, and if I am in a town for more than one night, and there is a comedy club near my hotel, I make sure and go. But my style of humor wouldn't fit in there."
She also is convinced that people who want to make others laugh must be able to poke fun at themselves first. "I do believe you can develop a sense of humor, but not comedic timing. Laughing at yourself is one of the things that we tell people is essential to developing a sense of humor."
Among Robertson's favorite comedians are Bill Cosby, Bob Newhart and Jerry Seinfeld. Although her observations are perhaps more homespun than the humor of those pioneers, she shares similar values with them: Robertson makes people laugh because her humor is universal and accessible to all audiences.
"When I tell jokes about how I was 6 feet tall at 13, and how awkward I felt, it's really the same material for people who are very short. We go through the same things.
"I'm not saving the world, but I think people who might come to my speeches forget their problems for a little bit. When we are all laughing so hard we're hurting, it doesn't matter whether we are Jewish or a Southerner, or black, or women or men; we're laughing at the same thing."