Robert Orben, author of books on humor, gag source for famous comedians, speech writer for presidents and a bonafide magician, is a keen observer of life—its foibles, its ironies and its many winding roads.

Retired now at age 83, he turned out twice-monthly newsletters called Orben’s Current Comedy for three decades. Earlier, when an 18-year-old magic shop employee, he published his first gag book. He was a speech writer for two presidents and a joke source for a star-studded line-up of comedians, including Red Skelton. Perhaps best remembered for pithy comments on topical humor, he also waxed wise philosophically. (Remembered quote: "’Smart’ is when you believe only half of what you hear. ‘Brilliant’ is knowing which half to believe.")

Orben wrote a bunch about the inevitable pratfalls that mark many formal events, such as commencement exercises, where best laid plans often go asunder. His poem often applies: "Every speaker has a mouth, an arrangement rather neat. Sometimes it’s filled with wisdom. Sometimes it’s filled with feet."…

At this very moment, tens of thousands of Americans who have speaking parts in ceremonies soon are feverishly preparing material to enlighten, inspire, encourage and congratulate.

Alas, tongues will tangle, brains will freeze and jaws will lock as speakers’ best intentions turn to mush. What is intended to be instructive and uplifting winds up producing smiles, guffaws and sometimes outright laughter.

At such time, speakers should take deep breaths, contemplate the enormity of the universe and marvel at the expanses of God’s handiwork. Then, if words leave their mouths in wobbly alignment, speakers’ "verbal foul balls" will seem comparatively insignificant. With hands thrown up, they should join the hilarity that’s already underway….

Politicians’ verbal pratfalls loom large on listeners’ radar screens, and when they foul up, it’s bound to make the news.

A wonderful current example is Florida gubernatorial candidate Alex Sink. Twice in her recent commencement address she mentioned "USF" graduates. The initials elicited groans, since these letters stand for "University of South Florida" in Tampa. Problem was, her speech was for the 1,300 graduates of "UCF"—the University of Central Florida in Orlando.

Comedian George Jessel got it right: "The human brain starts working the moment you are born and never stops until you stand up to speak in public."…

Sometimes the omission of a single word causes side-splitting responses. Ask veteran church youth minister Cory Liebrum. He had note cards to avoid errors and carefully timed his commentary for high school graduates as they paraded across the platform during Sunday services.

He also announced their lifetime goals, including one graduate’s dreams of "owning his own drag-racing team."

Poor Cory. He pronounced all the words correctly, and the timing was perfect. Too bad he omitted the word "racing" from his commentary….

One speaker used an opening "guess what happened to me" story to warm up his audience. He mentioned a recent drive when he noticed the flash of a traffic camera. He figured that the picture had been taken for his exceeding the speed limit, even though he "knew he was not speeding."

Just to be sure, he drove around the block four more times, driving slower each time, and the camera flashed with each passing.

"Two weeks later, I got five tickets in the mail for driving without a seat belt," he confessed….

Likely, speakers will challenge graduates to "give back" without "giving in." A long-time remembrance of the latter is the late Winston Churchill’s message to students at Harrow School: "Never give in."

And what of two magnificent quotes attributed only to anonymity: "When the world says, ‘Give up,’ hope whispers, ‘Try it one more time.’" Finally, "Sorrow looks back, worry looks around and faith looks up."…

If a commencement ceremony is on your calendar, take a pad and pencil along. If laughter erupts, take notes and send them along to me for next year’s column. I’ll either use ‘em, or pass ‘em along to Orben….

Dr. Newbury is a speaker in the Metroplex. Inquiries/comments to: Phone: 817-447-3872. Website: