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
My husband Jerry loves country ham, grits, biscuits and that most southern of
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
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
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
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
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.
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
“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
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.
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
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
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.