Dr. Derrick Mueller is a leadership & organizational consultant, motivational speaker, trainer, professor, humorist, and author residing in the Niagara region of Ontario. He has degrees in communication, counseling, administration, and organizational leadership. Having worked in all areas of management, he has developed various leadership and administrative tools to assist organizations in developing and coaching leaders. Derrick has been a personal coach to CEOs, executives, and small business owners across Canada, and has written hundreds of articles in the areas of leadership, coaching, change, and cultural dynamics. As a dynamic communicator and former host of the weekly radio show- Lives Changing Lives; Derrick has spoken to audiences of over 2000. He has a unique talent to engage a diverse range of audiences, and appeal to a variety of learning styles. He is a highly sought after speaker, speaking conferences, workshops, seminars, classes, community addresses, and other venues. With over 25 years of leadership and communication experience in a wide variety of contexts, Derrick is able combine practical experience and solid knowledge in a dynamic presentation so as to help all come away with the insights, motivation, and strategy to make a difference.
the History of "When I Look Back I Laugh"
IN THE MAKING
I thought for the tenth anniversary edition of the book I would give a whole reflection on the development of the stories and the stage production “When I Look Back I Laugh.” The journey with the stories and of telling them is in itself a comical one. It is interesting how a work develops. I will never confess to being the best writer or communicator, but I can say I love looking at life through the lens of humor. I used to deny the talent or gift, thinking that it made me a lesser person. I was given the impression by others that humor was for those who lack intelligence and dignity. I say that as one who has studied communication from a variety of angles.
YOU JUST CAN’T JOKE AROUND AS A HOMLITICIAN
My training as a communicator was seeded first in the visual arts. I spent a year studying the art of photography where I worked for couple of years snapping shots. It seemed that in taking portraiture, humor was a crucial tool in connecting with all audiences in search of that perfect look.
My college years involved an emphasis in communication from a counseling point of view. I learned the art of interpersonal interaction. My training as a minister developed other communication skills. I now became versed as a homilitician and focused on the more formal and clerical approach of communication called homiletics, which for the layman is simply the art of preaching. It is important to note that a homlitician should not be confused with politician. Politicians tend to tell you what you want to hear and homiliticians are often perceived as telling you what you don’t what to hear.
I used to try to be more serious and contemplative in my approach to communicating to the masses, but life in itself seems too serious to take it seriously. As a young budding pastor and minister I remember doing my first funeral. I tried to be formal and artificially reverent, trying to meet the perception and expectations of my position. Yet no matter how I tried to suppress the essence of my true DNA, somewhere between people being greeted and concluding my sermon of reflection on the life that had passed away, the real me leaked out and the congregation broke into laughter. As one person commented, I never laughed so much at a funeral. To one who had studied the art of homiletics, I knew that I would never be the poster child for the preaching profession. It was then when I began to discover how humor was healing and could comfort and encourage the soul.
As I entered the world of preaching and ministering in churches, my passion was to take a message I firmly believed offered hope and connect it to others searching for meaning and comfort in a busy, sometimes heartless, world. To tell stories, I realized, was to listen to stories; and I found myself as a rural pastor climbing in tractors and combines, spending all day in the fields listening, learning, and chatting. It was through ordinary stories of people just like me encountering life that developed a connection. The connection wasn’t foreign or contrived, but rather was developed by association to the common every day activities of life.
In the pulpit I found I used my coffee room chats, observations on bad directions, and insights on tractors (which was very little) along with my personal stories to connect with the average Joe (or Mary). My insights on life not only evoked laughter, but soon became gossip points and the local diner. I had caused a carnal sin in the pulpit and made people chuckle, smirk, and laugh out loud on a Sunday morning. It was a sin that I had to repent every Sunday; if not in public, at least in the private confine of my study to my God. Yet I always felt like God chuckled himself as he listened and watched me relate scripture to everyday life. Life became an illustration, a reference, and a manual to speak.
If you want to go one step further and add to my sin of humour, I was, and am, guilty of being to dramatic. In my early years as a clergy and a motivational speaker, I found that people would come up to me after I spoke and ask me if I had taken drama classes. Although said with the intention of encouraging and praising me for my acting ability, unbeknownst to them this was actually the ultimate insult to one who came from a protestant evangelical church strict with tradition, where humour was seen by some as blasphemy, or at least unholy for a man of God. As one who trained to be a preacher and who tried with all his being to present the holy scriptures with the countenance of the Pope, to say that I was acting was to stab me in the back, not to compliment me. It was at that time I realized I was doomed as a minister… or was I?
Later on in life as a teacher and college professor, I found that I often got to travel with student teams to promote the college. It was in part by curse and by fortune that I seemed to travel with drama teams. It was then I began to embrace and develop this dramatic part of me and recognized that this curse was a blessing. I believe God had a sense of humor in having me as his messenger. Having no religious parents, I never really understood church tradition and religiosity. I came to faith and understanding of God through relationship and creative communication of a high school teacher.
Though many pastors truly believed that to be motivational or vulnerable in one’s communication was a sin and had no part in a church service, I decided to embrace how I was created and be real and true to myself (in the most reverent way possible). A doomsday prophet, I would never be; instead, I would embrace life and laugh at it even in its hardest moments. I have succumbed to my humour side and released it to all who are willing to admit they need to smile, if just for one moment. I have become, even now as a College President, a man who loves who he is, and is not afraid to laugh at life. I have become a storyteller of life, bringing hope to a society looking to laugh to break life’s tension.
Recently, I was preaching in a church and a woman with a debilitating disease spotted my promotion for a comedy show I was doing. She was thin, frail, and sounded like she had just suffered from a stroke, yet she had such an air of joy around her. The woman had all the reason to be angry at life as mother and wife, but she decided instead to laugh at life. She renewed my mission to help people look back and laugh. I left her with tears in my eyes, for like me, she had found healing through humour.
THE JOURNEY OF HUMOUR
As you probably already have derived, I studied to be a minister (pastor/clergy). I am in no way a traditional one. My journey as a story teller began in forming illustrations for Sunday morning sermons. Often, these practical insights were developed the week prior as I encountered life as a city boy with a family in a rural context. I discovered that by becoming vulnerable as a speaker to my audience and relating my bloopers, we developed a silent cord of intimacy between one another. Speaking to me was a dialog, even if I was the only one talking. As I laughed at my mistakes and allowed them to laugh at me, I somehow developed a credibility. When I related even the hardest of situations and could laugh, it seemed to provide hope for others.
Discovery of how to relate to others coupled with my ability to read a moment where people needed comical relief became the opportunity to tell stories; not unique stories, but stories we all had versions of because of our common joys and tragedies. So, I became a storyteller in the pulpit and later in my teaching and leadership consulting. My early sermon illustrations taken often from my own experience became the inspiration for stories by camp fires at summer family camps and later for radio talk shows. These stories provided a reservoir of insights for my articles in local newspapers, which then became the material for my first book; a collection of those stories, all of which are comical in nature.
THE POWER OF STORIES
Stories that are real provide everyday humor to which all can relate. As I started to write these stories, it was evident that I was not going to win the Nobel Prize for my writing; but, even in my unorthodox grammatical structure and evident lack of knowledge of the English language, I was funny. My wife to this day laughs at my writing and I laugh with her. Humour and storytelling are very subjective things, and can be misinterpreted and offensive if not done properly.
I developed these simple stories into short articles and decided to send them to the local newspapers who would essentially publish anyone who was willing to write. I found I began to develop a following who liked the unorthodox clergy man. In fact, it was the outcasts and the unorthodox themselves who seemed to find a kindred spirit in me. As years passed and life changed, so did my profession. After years of pastoring followed by working as the executive director of a youth ministry, I enter the world of college teaching. If me being a pastor was scary to some, try having me as a professor and teacher to new budding ministers!
As an academic now, I decided to bring my communications to the next level and author a book. In my early attempts to write I decided to pretend to be scholarly. With my training and experience in youth and family studies, I decided with much thought I would write a serious work on the realties of parenting and being in a family. I resisted all attempts to tell stories or exhibit any humor at all (I had been told that scholarly writing was boring and boring got published). My first major manuscript I entitled “The Global Family.” I truly believed that this manuscript, which really only had a reader level of a grade seven student, was going to impact the world. Since then, I have come to realize that the publishing industry today still uses it as an example of how not to write.
I still remember my manuscript arriving to a certain publisher at the same time as now renowned writer and humorist Phil Calaway. He taught at a Bible College like me, and his ability to see the funny things in life combined with his God given ability to write was a publisher’s dream. So, when both our manuscripts arrived, mine a more serious work with the writing skill of an elementary student and Phil’s work, the result was a letter of denial to me and a publishing contract for him. I quickly realized, as I attended various writing seminars, that I was trying to be somebody else. I should note that just out of spite I decided not to read Phil’s book, but stood amazed at how he was willing to be himself.
This is a long way of saying that in my writing and speaking career I decided to surrender myself to who I was. I decided to encourage people and make them laugh through who I was already, not by who I wasn’t. My stories became a self published book because I thought, who would publish a grammatically impaired special needs writer? I was even more humbled when I realized that my eldest son, then still in high school, had more skill and wit then I did, so I humbled myself and let him write over and edit the first edition of “When I Look Back I Laugh,” or WILBIL as we have come to call it. In any event, the first edition of the book sold out. I have been amazed how the book has traveled from reader to reader, and even with it’s original sixteen point font and double spacing (because a bunch of 200 word articles does not make a very big book) with pictures drawn by my son became a hit.
The stories continued to be published in a variety of forms over the years, but around the same time that I was developing the book, I also began to toy with the idea of developing a play around the stories. At the time as a teacher of family and youth studies at a rural College in Saskatchewan, I found myself becoming a resource to many organizations and churches in the area and was often asked to conduct seminars or to be a motivational speaker. I traveled extensively but found that often the audiences for my inspiration were limited as I was always speaking to the converted (those who were already great parents). I even felt guilty for taking the fees paid for me because of the low turn out. It was not that those who came did not enjoy and appreciate the material that I presented, it was just that I was a nobody, and most people did not want to go to a seminar where they learned what they were doing wrong in their families.
In the midst of study at Carey Theological Seminary in British Colombia Canada, I began to from a new approach to nurturing and speaking to families. By this time I had welcomed my dramatical and humorist Performa and felt more comfortable with being myself. In one course with other communicators, mostly homliticians (preachers), I began to unfold a new way of teaching and encouraging families. I designed an approach that really embraced my story telling, humorist nature in sort of an improv., drama, stage variety show style. I still can recall the strict critique from these other scholars and speakers in my class.
My proposal to these men of experience and knowledge was that instead of reaching families through a lot of boring sermons to which only the faithful came, and singing songs that did not attract the community unschooled in religion, that I would design an approach that encouraged people through only storytelling, humour, and comedy. About this time a woman’s group from a church in Saskatoon, Canada, asked if I would be their speaker for a ten week series to women in the community. This group of 150+ ladies met every Tuesday and engaged in crafts, small group discussion, and then a motivational talk. I was to be their first male speaker, and my credentials in the area of the family as a teacher and father of four were thought to be beneficial to these young ladies. It was the idea of the committee that since I was a male, it might be advantageous to invite the husbands of the ladies to the closing banquet. When asked on what I would speak, I decided to suggest my new idea of a comedy play - to which my fate was sealed.
It is one thing to think of an idea or even dreaming of doing something you have never done before, verbalizing and proposing it in a salesman like fashion, but it is altogether something else to actually follow through. The next ten weeks was a succession of regrets and wondering to what fiasco I had committed myself. I could not recall being in a school play, never mind writing and acting in one now. My seminary buddies doubted my approach, my peers looked at me with skepticism, thinking that the reality that a one man comedy would be inspirational, nurturing, and uplifting seemed way too visionary. However, in spite of their doubts, the play When I Look Back I Laugh (WILBIL) was born, and I was committed to play out my theory with an audience that may not appreciate my humour, and humour in a church setting.
PUTTING THE PLAY TOGETHER
In writing the play, I thought I would take all the funny stories I had written about and shared weekly with these ladies and make them part of the stage show. Many ladies had their favorite story to which they related and told their husbands each week. It seemed almost natural that for the climax of our time together I would have a medley of the best stories all summarized together. With my early training in media, my script took more the form of a storyboard and outline that was designed to be improvised along the way.
Over that ten weeks as I formed what the production might look like and related it to the ladies, they began to look forward to bringing their husbands to the comedy show in eager expectation. I realized developing a comedy show and becoming a self proclaimed comic overnight can be dangerous. Everything inside me wanted to cancel the performance or change my approach, but there was no turning back. The mechanics seemed simple; I would take all my funny stories, arrange them chronologically, and string them together in a stage style presentation. My formula was to use stories from articles and my book draft combined with the favorites from the speaking sessions and put them in a comical reflection of the various stages of family life. This became my thread. Realizing that Bill Cosby could just sit on a stool and tell stories, I wanted to go one step further and ensure that this speaking head would not fail. So, I began to think up ways to enhance the storytelling aspect by using music, sound, and costumes. My goal was to make this one man show look better than it actually was by engaging a variety of senses in the viewing and absorbing of the show.
At best, the show was just a string of stories about me hopelessly trying to parent and survive as a family man. I further added the use of props to liven up the show and help people to see what I was saying. I knew as a communicator that I often got really excited, and when I did the increased speed at which I spoke reduced comprehension at times. In order to overcome this potential problem, I decided to engage as many different creative communication techniques to overcome my weakness and increase the (potential of) comprehension and laughter.
The idea of using props in addition to sound and costumes to further enforce and help people visualize the story became essential ingredients for the show. I imagined that I could keep the attention of even the most apathetic audiences if the stage included props I could use to make my stories come to life. Even if you didn’t understand a word I said, my Charlie Chaplin antics would still register a laugh.
The ten weeks leading up to the show became a study of laughter and what makes people laugh. I watched faces and viewed comedy shows like a comedic disciple at the foot of the masters. I took long walks on the prairies rehearsing to fields of milking cows. I mumbled my stories inaudibly to the mirror while I shaved. As dooms day approached, a tension rose in my core being of how exactly I would I deliver my message. I had promoted it as a play, but how would I perform stories as a play? How does one who is comical, but who has never actually done comedy, perform comedy? How would I tell stories as a one man show? There was “Saturday Night Live” sketch approach, or the Bill Cosby, or even the “Vinyl Café” style, each exhibiting their own unique way of delivering humour, but what fit for me? As much as I had rehearsed, I would only decide on stage at the moment I encountered the audience exactly how I would perform.
It is important to realize that I had several handicaps that presented a unique challenge to doing a 90 minute show. First, I really didn’t know how to practice for comedy or improv. Second, my short term memory and my lack of ability to memorize were problematic at best. Third, my mild dyslexia heightens under pressure, and performing in the evening presented reading challenges on stage. Finally, my hyper ADD tendencies combined with my other handicaps provided even more stress.
Understanding these challenges, I designed a cheat sheet that arranged stories in clumps or stages of life, and colour coded them for easy recognition. There were the preschool years, the elementary years, teen and adult years. The chronology worked and made it easy for me to remember. The stage was arranged in three room-like sections: the kitchen, living room, and nursery. Each mini set had its own set of props that became stories, or, as only I knew, a reminder of my script. Adding lights and arranging them so they enhanced each scene aided in the increased visual effect.
The day of the show, I spent my first minutes on stage sitting on a couch in the living room set as I arranged my butterflies in my stomach and prepared myself for this experiment. At this point I still had not done a run through, and at that moment I decided I would not do it in a script-like fashion with people overhearing my words. Instead I would surrender to who I was, a comical, motivational, dramatic preacher with a passion and heart for people. The result was a show that threw people off balance for in one way the show followed a script, but in another into was totally improvisational feeding off the reactions of the audience (which really messed up the lighting and sound technicians). I did what I did best as a communicator and a dialoged with the audience. I was a stand up comedian, story teller, preacher, and therapist all at once. Together as audience and performer we engaged in a conversation about life, laughing at its twists and complexities.
The props, music, sound, and stage all became tools to tell a story, and my life became the connection point. There was a power that I had never before experienced: the power of laughter used to heal the wounds of the past. The play was born, the experiment a success; and, as I concluded to a very mellow song with lighting a candle and letting the words seep into the hearts of all who came, the play, comedy, or conversation about life ended. It ended in reflection, its focus not on the story teller but on the journey of life of all who had come. The medicine had been delivered, and now a strange silence followed. Some cried, others reached for their spouses’ hands, and others just gazed at a now empty stage as the music ended. “You wanted to applause,” one person said, “but it seemed irreverent.” After a long silence, the MC just clapped and then came a standing ovation. Humour, a route to the soul, became a release for anxiety and an encouragement to continue on the journey of life.
Thus, a message of hope in the form of humour was born. It has evolved into a blend of the styling comedy of Bill Cosby and the antics of Tim Allen in “Tool Time” to the real life stories satirized as in “Corner Gas” with the values of “Seventh Heaven.” Each show is unique and continues to evolve because stories are always in the making. Every show is contextualized to its particular audience, and has become a vehicle to encourage everyone on the journey of life.