The problems caused by a lack of sanitation are no laughing matter. Still, one man is leveraging humor to solve the problem. His name is Jack Sim (AKA Mr.Toilet), founder of the World Toilet Organization. Through stunts like putting a giant inflatable toilet outside the UN HQ, he uses humor to set the sanitation agenda center stage while empowering local governments and communities to fix the problem for themselves. ANA BLUEWING interviewed Jack to learn more about his story, discover who inspired him, the challenges he has faced along the way, and how advocacy and business can benefit from a touch of humor.
A giant inflatable toilet outside the UN HQ.
I am a joker. I grew up imitating comedians. Adding humor to taboo subjects such as toilets removes the barriers and gets people talking.
It must have been a challenge to make such a taboo topic humorous. Did the humor come naturally, or was it a struggle at first? Did anyone guide you along the way?
A social entrepreneur in Thailand called Senator Mechai was sort of a mentor to me. He taught me that if you are sensitive you cannot do this job, and also that I am not important, the problem is.
Jack Sim (right) with Senator Mechai (left).
Once I remove myself from the equation, I am no longer an obstacle to solving the problem. My self-image is not important. I am simply a vehicle to communicate a message.
Once people see that you are serious about solving a very serious issue, then your humor connects…
Exactly. If humor is authentically comical and it is genuine, people will hear the message coming from your heart.
But humor is not universal, is it? Have you ever had to adapt your humor to a particular country or culture?
Humor is not universal. Humor is dependent on context. I was once on a discussion panel with two politicians. One was saying “toilet first,” the other, “temple first.” When it came to my turn, I just said, “use the temple to promote toilets.” They laughed and the conflict turned into harmony. In some countries they ask me not to use vulgarity. Of course, I can still be humorous without being vulgar, so yes, I adapt my humor to suit the context.
You mentioned that you grew up as a joker, did you ever use humor in your previous jobs?
Whether we were dining out or doing business, I ensured my clients were always laughing. If you make people happy, they come back. And humor is therapeutic, especially in stressful business situations. So I used humor almost like a lubricant in these situations to make my business connect better with people and be more successful.
Does humor run in your family?
I would say my four children share a little bit of my humor, but are also very different. I would say that every child is humorous. But we teach them not to be. If I had some advice to give people, I would tell them to let their children be children and don’t make them adults. I never grew up. I am 64, but I behave like a little boy.
Like that character in Peter Pan that is always laughing…
Ah yes. But this is the best way to live.
How do you keep your humor fresh?
Well, I have been talking about toilets for 24 years and yet the subject is fresh every time. Why? Because it is never scripted and always natural.
Tell us about how you ended up dancing in Hard Rock Café in Hollywood.
I was filming a documentary on Hollywood Boulevard dressed as Mr.Toilet, taking pictures with other people dressed in superhero costumes. We noticed the dancers in the cafe window, and my director said, “Jack, go go! go inside and dance with them,” so I did. They were very welcoming. Sometimes humor can open doors, and in business, too, it can lead to new opportunities.
The pandemic has spread anxiety and worry around the world. In what ways do you use humor in this kind of situation?
The pandemic is not a joke, but sometimes humor can be used to promote serious things. For example we use humor in the images in our social media posts teaching people to wash their hands.
Also, this year, we will make a t-shirt with a bare bottom printed at the back of it with the message “Bare Necessity.” 2 billion people still don’t have a toilet, so this is humor, but this is also serious. I discovered that messages that are shocking are memorable. People who remember your message become your advocate. This is how you grow advocates. What we are doing is humor as a disruptive technology.
Every November 19 is ‘World Toilet Day’. Every year, on this day, the WTO holds special summits around the world.
Jack is just one of a selection of Changemakers that ANA supports by subsidizing the cost to fly around the world through its BLUE WING Program. The money saved on flights helps Jack focus his resources on his operation.
With just a few clicks, individuals like you can support Changemakers like Jack and make a real difference in people's lives. By purchasing your plane ticket through BLUEWING (at no additional cost to you) or donating miles directly to a Changemaker of your choosing, you too can be involved in the solutions to the global problems affecting our world today.
Why do you use humor to raise awareness about the sanitation problem?