by Lynne Brandon  - photos by Steve Exum
-Reprinted with permission from July, 2004 issue of bizlife Magazine


“Keep ‘em laughing” is more than a motto for Jeanne Robertson ... it’s a way of life. For this nationally recognized humorist and professional speaker who peaked at her current height of 6’2” at the age of thirteen, talent and determination are crucial; but the ability to see humor in the everyday humdrum of life is the foundation upon which this vivacious and infectious speaker has made her mark.
   “Humor is my hobby and my profession,” says Robertson. She makes her point with a story she calls “Hamming It Up:”
   “I took after the grandmother who didn’t cook rather than the one who cooked well. Too bad.
  My husband Jerry loves country ham, grits, biscuits and that most southern of traditions—redeye gravy.
   Several days before a holiday of years past, I asked Jerry what he would like for a gift. It was the last time I gave the man a choice. He chose the items above, and placed special emphasis on the redeye gravy. He even added something like, “It can't be difficult to make, honey. A lot of people do it.”
   “No problem,” I assured him, and immediately telephoned my “cooking grandmother” in Luverne, Alabama where babies are given the recipe for redeye gravy when they leave the hospital.
   She gave me the following directions: “Fry the ham in a frying pan until brown. Take the ham out and pour the grease in a little bowl, leaving the browned drippings in the pan. Add a tablespoon or two of coffee to the drippings in the frying pan, heat and pour into the grease, making the red eye in the redeye gravy.”
   Well, it certainly sounded simple. Unfortunately, however, if you read back over her directions, you’ll notice she didn’t say a word about first cooking the coffee.
   I fried the ham and set it to the side. Measured out two heaping tablespoons of coffee grinds and dumped them in the drippings in the frying pan. A few minutes later I spooned the gritty concoction out of the frying pan, added the grease and proceeded to pour it all over the top of the biscuits. I was so proud when I put it in front of Jerry.
   I’ll say one thing for him. He tried. He truly tried to eat those biscuits and whatever it was that I had put on top of them. When he didn’t rave, I soon asked, “What do you think?”
   “It’s different,” he said, chewing slowly.
   “What do you mean?”
   “I'm not sure,” he mumbled, as he worked his tongue around in his mouth.    “It’s the first time I’ve ever had redeye gravy stuck between my teeth.”

A Competitive Edge

Robertson is interviewed by
Morley Safer for
CBS's 60 Minutes

 A striking woman at 60, Robertson has kept on top of the competition by doing something most of them have been unable to do ... writing her own material.
   “It may surprise people, but being funny is a serious business. It’s hard work. I spend hours every day coming up with and polishing new material. Other people in my field are amazed at the amount of fresh material I find. But that’s my marketing secret; when I can make an audience laugh, they leave the room saying, ‘We must get her to address our next meeting.’”
  It’s that secret—and Robertson’s commitment to hard work—which have cemented her position among the world’s leading humorists for the past 41 years, and garnered an average of 100 speaking engagements per year.
   She also admits that her physical presence has opened many doors.
Describing herself as 6’2” barefoot and with her hair “mashed down,” Robertson holds the dual distinction of being the tallest-ever Miss North Carolina and the tallest-ever Miss America contestant (“I can still get in the gown, but can’t breath,” she says). Although not crowned Miss America, her popularity with the other contestants led them to vote her Miss Congeniality (“... usually the one considered the least likely to win,” she quips).
   When asked why she competed in the pageant, Robertson smiles. “I entered to make a mark for all the tall girls. Everybody picked up on my height and I ended up in Time magazine and Sports Illustrated. I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of being tall,” she says.
   Robertson used her opportunities wisely, and credits her reign in 1963-64 as the catalyst for her career. As Miss North Carolina, the then Jeanne Swanner used the year to her advantage, traveling her native state, speaking at pageants and addressing civic clubs and corporations.

Robertson and comedian Carl Hurley have developed quite a reputation with senior motor coach travelers. "It's a niche," says Robertson, "that I didn't set out to find. It kinda found me. But it's fun, and will help me transition into the next phase of my career."

   When her reign ended, the calls for speaking engagements continued. While she taught school and coached—the career for which she had been formally trained—Robertson continued to accept speaking requests, but it would not become a full-time vocation until nine years later in 1976 when Robertson traded in her chalkboard and sneakers for a podium. “I got in this crazy profession at 19,” she says. “And I never looked back.”
Head and Shoulders Above the Crowd

   During her 41-year career, Robertson has been recognized by her peers with every top honor and designation in her profession. She earned the Certified Speaking Professional (CSP) designation in 1980 and was inducted into the Speakers Hall of Fame in 1981. She served as President of the National Speakers Association in 1985-86, and in 1989 became the first woman to receive NSA’s highest honor, the Cavett Award.
   In 1998, she received Toastmasters International’s highest award, the Golden Gavel. Past recipients include Zig Ziglar, Walter Cronkite and the Triad’s own Nido Qubein. She was named Auburn University’s Woman Entrepreneur of the Year for the Southeastern Conference in 2000, and the North Carolina Press Association named her its 2001 “North Carolinian of the Year,” an honor bestowed on past recipients such as Dean Smith, Elizabeth Dole and the Reverend Billy Graham.
   Most recently, Robertson was honored by her hometown with the opening of a permanent exhibit at the Graham Historical Museum.
   Robertson has garnered national attention as well … she has been interviewed by Morley Safer on 60 Minutes and has appeared in such publications as USA Today, Southern Living, Time and Sports Illustrated.

Serious Biz
Jeanne Robertson is a funny woman. But don’t be fooled ... her humor is serious business. Audiences have come to know not to expect stand-up comedy and punchline-driven monologues when they enter her world.
“Telling funny stories doesn’t give a person a sense of humor,” she warns. “A real sense of humor means being able to laugh at yourself and at the day-to-day situations that are often anything but funny when they happen.”
Her list of clients and speaking schedule pay testament to the fact that people are listening.
“Every industry is looking for ways to get a break from the routine,” says Robertson. A new financial client represents a major piece of business, after having booked Robertson for 23 engagements in the next calendar year.
“Fortunately, everyone needs to laugh,” she says with a smile.
A Tall Speaker with a Tall Sense of Humor

Robertson and her husband are loyal supporters of Elon University (seen here), including the donation of a new sports field at Irwin Belk Track.

   Robertson says her style of humor relies on the quirks of everyday life instead of typical one-liners.
   “I don’t tell jokes; I’m a humorist. That’s different than being a comedian. The comedian’s primary goal is to make the majority of a group laugh, even if it offends. In my experience, people don’t want to hear the four-letter stuff. I don’t have to tell offensive stories to get a laugh. When I tell stories, even if I embellish them a bit, people can honestly say, ‘The same thing happened to me.’”
   And Jeanne Robertson prefers it that way. She’s a master at telling the truth … peppered with embellishment. And she’s accumulated quite an inventory of funny material—so much that she’s developed a journal system to keep track of it all. “I keep a humor journal which I typically fill in after each speech. If I’m consistent with it, at the end of the year I’ll have about four to five hundred humorous vignettes, many of which will make it into one of my speeches.”
   To keep her creative juices flowing, Robertson also collects humor books and does about 20 comedy shows a year for motor coach travelers with comedian Carl Hurley. In addition, Robertson has written three books on the subject of humor and has produced four humor videos.
Marketing ‘Funny’
   Jeanne credits her longevity in the demanding business of public speaking to being adaptable to changing times and changing audiences. “No two audiences are the same,” says Robertson. “I might address a dental convention where attendees are looking for ‘meat & potatoes.’ On the other hand, a coach tour of seniors doesn’t want a message ... they just want to laugh.”
   Identifying and focusing on what she does best is a piece of wisdom imparted to Robertson by a good friend and mentor some 25 years ago. It’s advice that has served her well.
   “Speakers get into trouble when they don’t know what they do well,” she explains. “I’ve discovered that the best marketing tool is to deliver a good speech.”
   Jeanne Robertson is a woman on the move, albeit a delightfully funny one. And when she speaks, people listen. Soon, they’re smiling. And before long, they’re laughing. It took a tall girl from a small town with a large career to remind us that no matter what life throws your way, just remember to “keep ‘em laughing!”
When Jeanne Robertson needs her batteries recharged after long hours on the road, she turns to husband Jerry, a former Duke basketball player, whom she refers to as “LB” for “left brain” in her monologues, and son Beaver and family. Exercise and physical activity have always been a part of the Robertson household and Jeanne relies on walking for staying in shape while traveling. Her adventuresome spirit led her to train for her first marathon at age 56 and she has since participated in marathons at Myrtle Beach, Virginia Beach, Raleigh and Orlando.
Community service is also important to Robertson, and both Jeanne and Jerry are loyal supporters of Elon University in Alamance County, where Jeanne serves on the Board of Trustees. Members of the Elon Athletics Foundation since 1984 and parents of a former Elon athlete, the Robertsons left a lasting mark on the institution when they donated a new field at Irwin Belk Track and dedicated it to the Athletic Director, Dr. Alan White and his wife Norma.

Jeanne Robertson
Humorist/Professional Speaker/Author