Who says reaching for your goals has to suck the life out of you? Guest, Andrew Tarvin, believes that you can still have fun while getting better results. In this interview, he talks to Dr. Diane Hamilton about the importance of humor in our daily lives. As the world’s first humor engineer and the author of Humor That Works, Andrew has been improving workplaces with an increase in productivity and creativity and a decrease in employee turnover and stress by using humor as a tool. He shares to us the different ways of using humor at work, identifying where to draw the line, and utilizing improvisation. On the downside of humor, Andrew then talks about its prevailing gender bias and gives some pointers on how to fight that. In a world where a work-life balance has become increasingly difficult to attain, why not make your workplace feel less unbearable and more motivating? A little, if not a lot, of humor can go a long way.
I’m so glad you joined us because we have Andrew Tarvin here. Andrew is a humor engineer. You might’ve seen his TEDx Talk that I think has five million or more views on that, which is amazing. He’s a facilitator. He’s the author of Humor That Works. We’re going to deconstruct some humor. This is going to be fun.
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Using Humor In The Workplace With Andrew Tarvin
Andrew Tarvin is the world’s first humor engineer who teaches people how to get better results while having fun. He’s worked with more than 45,000 people at more than 250 organizations, including Microsoft and the FBI. He’s the author of Humor That Works: The Missing Skill for Success and Happiness at Work. He’s got a TEDx Talk that’s been viewed more than five million times. It’s so nice to have you here, Andrew.
Thank you so much for having me. I’m excited to chat with you.
I am excited to talk to you about this. I love anything humor-related. I talked to a lot of guests about adding improv in business to learn some different aspects to make it more interesting as a speaker. Anytime we can add humor, I love that. I’m curious what led to this level of success for you. Why don’t you give me your backstory a little bit?
The backstory is I speak on humor and it’s done using improv and stand-up. My background is in computer science and engineering, which people sometimes are like, “We don’t typically think of engineers as being the people standing up in front of people and chatting, let alone being funny.” That’s the background and there’s a lot of logic and humor, which for sure we can talk about. The short story is I was going to Ohio State University. I was getting a degree in computer science and engineering and we were sitting around playing Halo, the video game, one we did quite a bit and in college. My best friend was like, “We should start an improv comedy group.” He was doing a little bit of improv and we’d loved watching Whose Line Is It Anyway? and we all said yes. We would try to repeat what we saw on whose line and we were terrible, but we had so much fun doing it.
I fell in love with improv and that later led to stand-up. That began my journey from being a student on the comedy side. This is the advantage of being an engineer. I love taking things apart and then trying to see how they work and put them back together again. That’s what I started to do with humor. After I graduated, I started working at Procter & Gamble as an IT project manager and started to realize that I was having success at work, not because of my technical skills, probably more so because of what I had learned in improv and stand-up. That’s when I started to fuse the two, realizing that humor is this very human thing that happens.
First of all, my husband went to Ohio State night. I dragged him to an improv class, which was a lot of fun. It could be very helpful in so many different situations. They had a lot of different things they showed us. There were a couple of their fun little skits and stuff that I could see that would be huge. We both love Whose Line Is It Anyway?. What a great show. It’s hysterical. In business though, we take ourselves seriously. It’s hard for us to let go. I would consider myself as someone who has a great sense of humor. I get jokes, but you get on stage and you get in front of a business setting and you change a little bit. You have a certain serious quality that comes out in you that can be hard for some people to get to that level of confidence that they can show their sense of humor. Do you find that that is a problem for a lot of people?
It’s very true. There are a number of benefits to humor in the workplace, which we can certainly talk about. It ranges from increase in productivity to increase in employee engagement, decrease in employee turnover, decrease in stress, improved communication, helping people remember things longer, thinking more creatively. All these things are backed by research, case studies, real-world examples. As an engineer, I’m like, “If this is so valuable, why don’t people use humor in the workplace more?” We ran a study. The number one reason why people don’t use humor in the workplace is because they don’t think that their boss or coworkers would approve. What that means is a couple of things. If you are the leader of an organization and a leader of a team and your team isn’t having fun, if they’re not constantly laughing with each other, if they’re not smiling in the office, those types of things, you might be part of the reason why and I don’t think that it is maliciously or intentionally. I don’t think people are like, “No, we want to squash the fun out of everything.” Although some men tend to be like that. It’s more of we’ve grown up, we have this misconception that work has to feel like work or that if you are enjoying your work or if you’re laughing a little bit that you’re not taking your job seriously.
The reality is that in this world, work-life balance doesn’t exist like it used to. If you worked in a factory right back in the day and you were stamping plates or something, you could not take your work home with you. You’re not going to take a piece of machinery home and do some extra plating and all that. In a world with email and constantly connecting in a knowledge economy, so many people may leave work at 5:30 or 6:00. They go home, pick up their kids or do dinner and all that, and then they jump back in the email a little bit later at night or on Sunday, they’re planning for the week ahead. This idea of there being this split between work and life doesn’t exist the way that it used to, which means that we also can’t have that same split in our personality.
One of the things that we share with our audiences, and this is probably true of your readers, is that many of you are likable people at home. There’s a little bit of a pause. People go into the workplace and you said something changes. They feel they have to be more of that shell of a human, that they have to be more robotic and they can’t express emotion or they can’t express joy or laughter. The reality is that when you do leverage some of these things, when you strategically use humor as a tool, because that’s our focus with Human That Works as engineers is not just have fun for the sake of fun, but how you strategically use it as a tool. That’s where you start to see and get some of these better results. It all starts with changing our perception around what we, one, mean by humor and two, how we think about how it should fall into the work that we do every single day.
I love that you mentioned changing our perception because my next book is on perception. It’s interesting to see what it is that we find funny versus what other people find funny and where the line is. I’ve known people who sent things on email but maybe crossed the line and got in trouble for a joke or something. Do you think people are afraid of that? I teach a lot of HR people, so I know that they are terrified of everything, sometimes of what they learned in HR training. How do you teach people where the line is and who decides what the line is?
It’s a great question and that’s the number two reason why people don’t use humor in the world or places. They don’t know how to do it or say it appropriately. If you think about the majority of the humor and specifically the comedy that we consume, most often people think of TV shows or stand-up comedians where part of stand-up comedy is sometimes pushing the boundaries, pushing the line. You’re used to seeing a George Carlin or a Sarah Silverman or an Ali Wong or something like that. They’re talking about subjects that if you started to try to bring up in the workplace, you would immediately be escorted off the premises. We think about humor in the workplace though it’s not about being seen as a funny person, but it’s rather about trying to use humor strategically as this tool.
Part of what’s helpful there is understanding that humor is more broad than comedy. Humor is defined as a comic absurd or incongruous quality causing amusement. It can be comedy. Maybe it is a specific joke that you share or it can be something that’s a little bit silly or something that’s a little bit different. It could be like, “Here’s a team-building exercise that we do.” Speaking of improv, a lot of our programs use applied improvisation because we can do a yes, but versus “yes, and” exercise. It’s going to make people laugh but also help them learn a new valuable skill. Maybe it’s something a little bit different than they expected, but now that’s appropriate. It’s not about here’s a funny punchline that is punching down or talking about a taboo subject, but rather here’s a positive shared experience that we can all take place together.
Changing and understanding our definition of humor is different. Also recognizing that workplace is so dry so often to begin with that the bar is so much lower. To be funny in a stand-up comedy club is very tough. It does require after prior perfect setup and punch and getting the right word. Seinfeld talks about he’ll spend hours taking a ten-word joke and making it seven words because that’s going to make it funny in here. We don’t have to do that in the workplace. The bar is so low that by adding some images to your presentations will make the presentation inherently more interesting. By talking, you’re starting with a story that’s going to get people paying attention, then starting with a bunch of stats. Recognizing that the bar is also lower is helpful.
I’m thinking of some of the self-deprecation type of humor that can be funny, but then some people are afraid that it might make them seem they’re hard on themselves and that they don’t have confidence. There are so many aspects to humor. How can you, without telling jokes but saying things at your own expense, be funny without losing your credibility?
The one helpful thing is improvisation. I’m a huge fan of improvisation. It’s so great that you went to an improv class. It’s something that I wish every student and university would go through to learn improvisation. It’s the fundamental mindset of improvisation. It’s how we, as improvisors, build a scene together. If we’re in an improv scene and you step out and you’re like, “There’s a dog over there.” I’m like, “Yes, but it’s just a rock.” Right now, you and I are arguing about something that doesn’t exist versus if you step out and you’re like, “There’s a dog over there.” I’m like, “There’s a monkey riding on it.” You and I get to explore why this monkey is riding this dog and what it means to us as two people. We’re building off of these ideas. There are some misconceptions around “yes, and.” It doesn’t mean that you can’t say no. “Yes, and” isn’t about the literal phrase because someone could be like, “We should do this.” You’d be like, “Yes, and you’re an idiot.” It’s the mindset. The mindset is simply to say, “How do I build off of what the last person said?” That’s a great way to use conversational humor. If someone says something that’s interesting, you can “yes, and” it even if it’s about the weather.
The stereotypical, “I’ll talk about the weather.” Someone’s like, “How about this weather?” “I’m here in New York City and it’s raining. It’s a little bit cold.” What’s your go-to strategy when it’s raining? If you weren’t at work right now, how would you be surviving the rain outside? I started watching The Witcher on Netflix and so I’d probably binge-watch a couple of episodes of those. “Have you seen it? Let’s talk about the books or the video.” You can then continue to “yes, and” that conversation where it’s less about, “Here are my punchlines,” and more about let’s generate some enthusiasm and some excitement and some exploration through what we’re talking about by building off of it with “yes, and” as opposed to looking at what’s wrong with it by “yes, but.”
You bring up so many important things. They talked about a lot of that in the improv and I love going through that. It’s funny as you’re talking about the weather, I noticed a lot of men love to talk about the weather in these conference calls online. I’m trying to figure out is that because nobody knows what else to talk about? It reminded me that Tripp Crosby was on my show and he had that conference call in real life. That video was so great. That’s how I see my life in a way of the comedy behind what it’s like to work in a virtual world. Somebody like Tripp does a great of making a clean video that’s funny. That’s a hard thing to do, but it brings in real-world thing. I’d see it with men all talking about the weather maybe because women do it too, but it’s seems the men do it more in my experience.Humor is constantly evolving. Click To Tweet
That speaks to and this is something that’s based on what you’re talking about and curiosity will resonate with you as is. If we think about the skill of humor, at least as we define it, it’s three things. It starts with the first, with your sense of humor. What do you find interesting? What do you get curious about? That’s a great observation. People talk about the weather all the time. That can be the starting point of like, “Why?” I love talking about the weather, not because I engage in small talk, but I joke because it’s fascinating. I don’t know if you know this, but there are 1,400 tornadoes in the United States every single year. I read that stat and I was blown away.
Where are you located, first of all, that that interests you?
It’s the nerd part of it. It’s the science behind it and everything. That becomes a curiosity. Your curiosity to us might be like, “Why do men like talking about the weather? Is it because they don’t have anything else to say? Is it because it impacts their plan? Is it because they’ll only be inspired by things they see outside their windows? They talk about the weather or they talk about construction workers, they talk about the sky and clouds. “The cloud next to me, it looks like a dog.” Your sense of humor becomes your starting point.
It’s interesting to me maybe because I’m in Arizona and the weather never changes. It’s always the same. It’s hot. When I talk to people, people feel uncomfortable starting the conversation and sometimes it’s a safe thing in what I find. To go right off trying to be funny or engaging in a way that when you don’t know someone, it can be challenging for some people. Do you deal with that when you’re talking to people?
I do. To bring in some of the other things that you talked about, psychologist Rod A. Martin defined four styles of humor. The first style of humor is what he called affiliative humor. This is positive and inclusive humor. It’s Ellen DeGeneres or Mr. Rogers. It’s team-building and it’s not trust falls because everyone can agree that those are terrible. It’s the, “We have a team happy hour,” or “We’re all going to do some applied improv together.” It’s a positive, inclusive humor that brings everyone together. It’s a great form of humor to use at work. There is self-enhancing humor and self-financing humor is a positive form of humor where the target is more yourself or your life. This is best expressed by Kurt Vonnegut. He has a great quote where he said, “Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration. I myself prefer to laugh because there’s less cleaning up to do afterwards.” It’s standing of life. It’s to say, “This thing happened to me. I could focus on why it’s terrible and awful or I could find the humor in it.” I could say, “This ridiculous thing happened.” Is that self-enhancing?
There’s self-defeating. It is self-defeating humor as a negative form of humor where the target is yourself. That can be a great form of humor for reducing status differentials to show that you don’t take yourself too seriously. For example, a friend of mine told me that I look like US soccer star Megan Rapinoe, which is funny because it’s accurate. She and I both love soccer. We’re both in our 30s and we both get called ma’am on the phone. You can poke fun at that a little bit. You can make jokes a little bit about that. Self-defeating humor, call it to your point is it’s best when used, one, in a high-status position and two, best used sparingly if it’s the only type of humor that you use. That’s where you start to run into problems where people are like, “How is this? Are there self-esteem issues? Is this person throwing a pity party? Do I want to laugh at that?”
Make them feel better.
This is an important thing for women to recognize. In one study, they found that when men use humor in the workplace, they were met with a positive response of 90% of the time. Positive response for being a smile or laugh. When women used it, it was only met with a positive response of 20% of the time.
Maybe not that exact number, but I’ve heard that quite often and I hear a lot of that from speaking coaches and hall of fame speakers I’ve talked to after having them on. They said women are highly criticized when they’re on stage while the men won’t be for their clothes, their shoes, their hair, their jewelry, whatever it is. What can women do to get away from that? It’s a hard thing.
In that same study, when it comes particularly to humor, the source of the humor is important. We can talk a little bit about that, but specifically around self-defeating humor. In that same study where they found the 90% and 20%, 80% of the humor that men use was off the cuff conversational humor was the yes, and-ing of these ideas in conversation. 70% of the humor that women used was self-defeating humor. Self-defeating humor is great when you’re in a high-status position. One, we do have to recognize gender bias in the workplace and that’s absolutely something that we need to work towards solving and changing. For women to recognize if for whatever reason, they’re already perceived to be not as high as status either because their title is a little bit lower or because there are gender biases that they still have to overcome and all of that. Using self-defeating humor is only going to make that a little bit worse. The other thing is if anyone is constantly using self-defeating humor, that’s where you have that thing where you’re like, “It’s funny the first time they said a joke, but they every single day talk about blank.”
They Rodney Dangerfield after a while.
I don’t want to laugh at that. I feel bad almost laughing. Changing the style of humor that is used is important because your source impacts how something is going to come across.
As you’re talking about the women perception thing, I had a speaker on and he was a funny guy. He goes, “You could try this thing.” He was giving me ideas of different funny things. He goes, “You can get on stage and go, ‘I have one beautiful daughter and another one.”’ I’m like, “Women can’t say that, but men can.” Don’t you think it would come across differently if it was a man versus a woman?
There was a study that came out that when men use humor in a presentation, it was met as it was. They were seen as more confident and it was more positive and it added to the presentation. When women use the same humor, it was seen as distracting and was negative. Recognizing these gender biases, but also recognizing the humor itself. The joke that they shared was they switched something along the lines of, “I was talking to my wife and I said, ‘In my presentation tomorrow, I need to make sure that I’m smart and funny.’ My wife said, “I guess you’re screwed. You’re not going to come across.” They did that same thing, but they flipped it to women saying, “I was talking to my husband yesterday and I’ve got to be smart and funny and that he says, ‘I guess you’re screwed.”’ Because of perceptions, that changes. You said that exact joke. It’s more bothering, more of like, “Is your relationship safe? Are you okay?”
The perception becomes different. It’s about changing. For example, so the fourth style of humor is aggressive humor. This is a negative form of humor where the target is someone else. This is sarcasm. This is satire. This is George Carlin. This is a type of humor that men tend to often overuse as well. Because if you’re with your friends, you can be sarcastic and all of that things, but when you start to do that where there are status differentials in play, where if you’re the manager of other people and you’re aggressively making fun of people and you think, “It’s no big deal. We’re poking fun at each other.” Because of different statuses, it might come across as, “Our boss is really mean,” or “This aggressive guy is mean and I don’t want to interact with him.”
It’s who it’s coming from. It’s a matter of knowing what types of humor and generally focusing on the affiliative and self-enhancing humor is what’s going to help for everyone. We started this conversation or this question with how do you know what type of humor to use, especially with someone that you’ve met. Stick with more positive affiliative self and humor to start. As you go along, you’ll get a better sense of someone’s sense of humor so you can start to adapt your humor for it going forward.
It’s interesting that you’ve mentioned Carlin a couple of times. For its time, I don’t know if he would be able to get away with that in our society with Twitter and everything else that has changed humor. I always liked George Carlin’s humor, but I don’t like sarcasm that well. I don’t think of him as sarcastic necessarily. It’s interesting, but you put him under the aggressive category. I wouldn’t say that that humor flies very well at work.
Carlin, less sarcastic, more maybe satiric in some way, but also clearly very aggressive. One of the great quotes is, “Think about the average person’s intelligence and realize that in order to get that average, half of the people have to be dumber than that.” It’s an aggressive thing to say, but he’s doing it comedically. I’m a huge fan of Carlin as well. It’s also more of the negative. Aggressive humor is more of negative and is meant to manipulate or poke fun at someone very specifically that isn’t yourself. You’re exactly right. It’s a hard form to do appropriately in the workplace. Aggressive humor is great for catharsis. It is great for relieving stress. We do some work with some very high-stress roles, so emergency first responders, police officers, etc. They use aggressive humor with each other and dark humor that if someone outside of that circle were to hear, they might be like, “That’s dark,” or “That’s offensive.” They’re doing it as a way to relieve stress. They have to do it as a way to manage the amount of crisis and stress that they experience. By them doing it together, it can be affiliative in a way. A friend of mine from high school, we still constantly banter and poke fun at each other. It’s aggressive, but it’s also partially affiliative because that’s the group dynamic.
As you’re starting to use humor, you’ll start to learn that a little bit more of like, “This group, we tend to banter a little bit back and forth. I can do that a little bit more.” Oftentimes comedians, during a longer set or as a speaker, I will have test jokes at the beginning of my speaking. That lets me know what the audience is responding to. Do they like stories? I’ll tell maybe a few more stories. I love puns and wordplay, so I’ll do a pun or a joke up top. If the audience laughs and it’s like, “I’ll do some more punch.” If the audience groans, I’ll still do some more punch because to me, it’s fun to have that playfulness back and forth where they’re groaning but they’re reacting. If the audience doesn’t respond at all to the pun, then I know that I’m going to cut some of those jokes a little bit later. You can have a little bit of this test humor to give yourself a sense of, “They enjoyed this pun,” so I talk about 55% of Americans are unsatisfied in their jobs, which means that statistically more people believe in ghosts and what they do for a living. If people laugh at that, then it’s like I have a couple more ghost puns that I can do or puns later. If they don’t like that, then I’m like, “They don’t like the pun, so I’m going to go to a different type of joke.”
When I watch Big Bang Theory, I imagine you do if you have your background as engineering and whatever. That humor reminds me of Woody Allen humor. Every once in a while, that’s the self-deprecating type of thing. It goes off on a little side twist at the end when you’re not expecting them to say something. I guess that that falls into that group.Human experiences resonate across more cultures and languages than what all crafted wordplay could. Click To Tweet
In a way it does. There are a couple of different ways to classify humor. You can classify by its style. Affiliate of self-enhancing, self-defeating, aggressive. You can also classify by type of at least an hour of work of breaking humor apart. There’s association. Association is a combination of two unique ideas together. If you’re doing a presentation and you decide you’re going to relate all of your sales process to Game of Thrones, that’s an association to unique connections. There’s incongruity. Probably most popular within incongruity or most known is what they call a comic triple. A comic triple is a clear setup and punch where you have something in a list where two things in the list are set the stage and the third thing is funny. Sometimes I will joke that as a kid, you should to take things apart and put them back together again, things like clocks, radios and my parents’ marriage.
I used to comment you have two things normal on the list and then the third thing is unexpected. That creates a punchline. That’s incongruity. You have these different devices and then you also have a different format. A story can be a format for adding humor or an image can be a format or a sentence or a joke can be a format. You have different ways of classifying it. We talked a little bit about the skill of humor and it starts with your sense of humor. The second piece of it is your ability to humor. It’s the content and the delivery. It’s the ability to craft a joke in a way that people laugh. It’s using these kinds of devices as a way to create an idea. That’s where the logic comes in. There’s a great George Burns quote that says something along the lines of, “Happiness is having a caring, close-knit tight family in another city.” It’s a great joke but the structure is important. If you were to say, “Happiness is having a family in another city who is caring, close-knit and tight,” it’s not as funny. The ability to humor is the craft that you can learn over time of what is set up and punchline and how do I position things.
It reminds me of a George Burns quote, and I’m sure I’m going to botch this because I haven’t heard it in a long time, but he was talking to Jack Benny about how he didn’t sleep last night. Jack Benny asked him how he slept the night before. He goes, “Great.” He goes, “Then sleep every other night.” What joke would that be?
The format itself would be a clear joke. The type of humor, the style of humor I’d say, is almost in a way self-enhancing. This hardship of not being out asleep and finding a positive fun spin on it. I would say it’s probably in congruency because it’s an illogical but also a logical response, that juxtaposition of it doesn’t make sense at all, but it also makes sense.
They were great. Those are some of the best friends from that time. Do you have a favorite? One of my favorite Lewis Black rants was about pickles. He reads the letter a guy wrote about pickles and I hate pickles. He does a great job with that. You mentioned the delivery, who appeals to you as far as comedians and what style of delivery do you like?
There’s a whole mix of it that I like. What’s interesting is you see with each of these people, they’re different. Going back to that sense of humor, they have their own take on the world. They have their own perspective. Lewis Black is very much a rant and here’s what’s wrong with everything, even if it’s a pickle or here’s what’s wrong with my parent’s bits and the conversation he heard on a bus where it’s talking about the horse thing or whatever. I don’t remember the exact context. It is that mix of delivery. I’m a big fan of Eddie Izzard. He’s a fantastic storyteller. He gets into these fantastical types of stories that also still have this real logic to them.
It does very well. One of the other ways to write comedy is what they say, what I learned at UCB and improv school in New York and LA is if this is true, what else is true? Eddie Izzard has this great bit on the Death Star from Star Wars. He doesn’t express this, but the logic that he gets there, he’s like, “If there is a Death Star and it’s true that people live on the Death Star. If that’s true, then what else is true is that people have to eat on the Death Star. If they have to eat on the Death Star, that means that there’s a cafeteria on the Death Star. If there’s a cafeteria on the Death Star, then it is possible that Darth Vader has gone to that cafeteria.”
He does this 3 or 4-minute act out of Darth Vader going to the cafeteria, which is just hilarious, but it’s logic in a way. I’m a big fan of Eddie. I like Dave Chappelle. Some of his specials like The Bird Revelation I thought was very good. Hannah Gadsby was so great with Nanette. I thought it was brilliant. Ali Wong’s special, it’s very blue, which means that it’s around sex and drugs, more taboo topics but crafted very well. She’s very funny. I enjoy John Mulaney as a storyteller. There’s a whole wide range of people and you see, again, each of them has a different style, they have a different delivery, but it starts with that sense of human and then that ability to craft an idea in a way that resonates with others.
A lot of comedians tend to be serious. I’ve watched Steve Martin’s masterclass of how he deconstructs. I’m sure you probably have seen it if this is your level of what you’re interested in too. Do you think most comedians have more of a serious sense to them if you see them offstage as compared to what we perceive them to be?
There are some comedians who are very observational, very quiet. I’m more this way. When I speak sometimes in an event where I was the after dinner speaker. I sat down and I was having dinner with some people there and then they announced I was a speaker and then I went up and did my thing and people were laughing. They enjoyed, I came back and sat down and people were like, “We had no idea you were even the speaker.” It’s because I’m not on all of the time. I’m not trying to constantly make jokes. I’m more observational because I’m an introvert as well. I like seeing how people work and the dynamics. There are plenty of comedians who are like that. There are some comedians, especially improvisers as well, people that are that way a lot. They’re very funny. There’s a mix of both. There is something to being able to observe the world. Part of comedy is you have to be able to connect. You want to say things that people resonate with. Your observation of every conference call I’m on, people already start talking about the weather. Why is that? That takes you taking it back. If you’re so focused on yourself or so constantly talking all the time, you maybe not making that observation. Some of that observation never comes from being a little bit more reflective or being curious. Why is that? Let’s dig into that a little bit deeper and being willing to spend the time on it.
The observational humor, I was thinking, I’ve had JP Sears here. He can be funny. He’s looking for people to almost get mad at what he’s saying. I think he is hysterical. It was fun to interview him because I get to see him when he’s not on stage and talk to them about serious aspects. What do you think of that type of humor? Where does that fall because he’s touching on absurd ways of looking at things?
It’s a balance. The absurdity falls into a heightened version of incongruity of you do not expect that logic or that type of action or that type of behavior. Shock humor for some people is because humor is partially predicated on surprise. Part of it is like, “I cannot believe someone would do that or say that.” Creating the laughter, in some ways, and it all depends on the execution and where people are coming from. It could be very affiliative of like, “Let’s have fun and do something different.” It could be very aggressive in poking fun of it. What’s interesting is that analyzing these types of things can certainly be helpful. It can give you more of a lens, so as you watch comedians look at them and say, “I laughed at that joke. What made me laugh about it?” It can help you to start to understand it a little bit more. You don’t necessarily need to know exactly how humor works. You don’t need to know the Benign Violation Theory or the incongruity theory of why people laugh. To be funny, it comes down more to that skillset of that sense of humor and building off of it. Yes, and-ing it for content and ability.
To wrap up that skill of humor, the third component of it is your agency with humor. This is something that people don’t always think about, but this is your ability to use humor to get a specific result. JP sometimes is doing certain things because he wants a certain reaction. He’s doing it a certain way because I want you to behave in this way. As people in the corporate world, we might not be like, “I’m going to do something absurd so you react.” You might say, “I’m starting a presentation so I’m going to start with the story so that people are leaning in, they’re listening, they’re laughing. Because I proved that I’m funny and engaging in the first three minutes of my talk, they’re going to want to pay attention to the rest of it.” “I’m going to use a little bit later as part of this association so that they remember this core concept a little bit easier. That way they can remember it tomorrow. When they’re sitting down to work for the first time, they remember this concept that I shared with them.”
You can be more intentional about how you use your humor and that’s also what helps people to be more appropriate. We talked about how you make sure you have appropriate humor. If you follow what we call as our humor map, which is your medium audience purpose. If you’re clear on why you’re using humor, a lot of times, you’re going to use humor that is more appropriate in that workplace. Whereas it’s like, “I’m not using humor because I want people to laugh. I’m going to use humor because I want to build positive rapport with this person. That means I should maybe use positive humor to do that.”
It’s interesting to dissect all these different comedians. There are so many who come to mind who are maybe a fringe type of humor. I’m thinking of Andy Kaufman for some reason, which was out there for his time.
It was aggressive. What was funny with the aggressiveness that he would have about the fairytale or the Mother Goose rhymes that he would do and how aggressively he would go after them or say them. That’s also that juxtaposition of that association.
Some of the stuff he did was funny to me. Other things, I didn’t get the alter ego character guy that much. I can’t remember what the name of that guy was that Jim Carey stayed in for that whole movie. It’s interesting that a lot of the people we think of are male comedians. Which women comedians stand out to you?
I’m a big fan of Ellen DeGeneres, and her special is pretty good. I like her older stuff as well which is very funny. She tends to be positive and inclusive in the humor. I like that. I mentioned Ali Wong is very funny. In the context of not stand-up, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler are hilarious and fantastic writers. I enjoyed Parks and Rec. They were two of my favorite hosts when they’re on SNL doing Weekend Update. 30 Rock I thought was hysterical and that character there I thought was so well done. I liked them. Wanda Sykes is very funny. She has great delivery. She has a very clear point of view and you watch to hear her point of view, you watch to see what she has to say and what her take is on these different things.
I enjoyed Nanette, which was from Hannah Gadsby. One of my favorite specials is Live from Tig Notaro. You’re seeing a little bit of an evolution with comedians, at least with some of their Netflix specials, is that it’s no longer about being funny the entire time, but there are more moments. Nanette has a bunch of ups and downs about this story and this experience that went through and it takes you on a little bit of this emotional roller coaster ride. To be able to take the audience there in multiple places is well crafted. The beginning of her special isn’t necessarily the best “stand-up jokes” with what she’s able to do with the attention and everything. When you get people laughing, you get them listening and when you get them listening, the question becomes, what are you telling them and what are you doing with that engagement?
That’s what I like is comedians who are using that opportunity to share a little bit more, to give a little bit of insight and encourage people hopefully to be better people or to think about things a little bit differently. Hannah Gadsby did that very well. Tig Notaro in her special Live was very authentic and real about her diagnosis of cancer at the time she had heard about. She was very authentic. I enjoy that style although I’m a huge fan of Mitch Hedberg, as opposed to Jeff Lasfus for the sake of a laugh. I’ve evolved more into having a little bit of a message with what people are saying.There's an art and science to humor. We can learn the craft of it. Click To Tweet
You mentioned Tina Fey and I love her. I was thinking about her in the Academy Awards when she had her line a few years ago. She said, “I’m the captain now,” to the guy from the Tom Hanks movie. I love that humor. She was hysterical. Some of the women who are funny are Kate McKinnon and Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy. Though they are geniuses when I watched them, it’s so fun to see. What comes to mind that I never understood was that Judy Tenuta had a very strange type of comedy. I think that there’s going to be a niche comedy. Everybody’s going to get drawn to different things. In the workplace, it’s sometimes very challenging to know what’s going to work. I love that you do the test line at the beginning, the test joke as you put it. It’s hard though. Is it different by generations of what we find funny or does humor go evenly across?
No, it’s different generationally and different regionally. What is universal is that people laugh, what is not universal is what makes them laugh. Some people love certain comedians. I know some people like Anthony Jeselnik and I can appreciate his craft. He is a fantastic joke writer, but he’s not someone who I typically want to watch the entire special of. It’s dry and it’s aggressive. It has good joke writing, but not my particular style of stuff.
Someone sent this stuff. We were talking about Carlin and who could replace Carlin. She sent me that and I thought it’s dry. It was funny. I’m with you. It’s not something that holds my attention. It’s hard to replace some of the old sense of humor and things that I found funny because you can’t say a lot of things you used to be able to say. Do you think that’s part of the problem?
It’s because humor is constantly evolving. When it first started, it came out of Vaudeville and so it was very much physical comedy and there are pratfalls. It was more about, “Take my wife, please.” That winking and nudging to the audience. You have people like Carlin and Richard Pryor who were some of the first. Richard Pryor was coming out and talking about, “Let’s talk about that time that I was on Coke and I shut up my car.” People being that real and authentic, you’re like, “We’ve never seen this before.” You have evolution from there. Now you’re seeing more and more people saying okay. Carlin did this as well. I don’t know if other people did it, but maybe not to the same extent. Now it’s like we’re going to make you laugh, but then also share a few messages as part of it. Part of that is it’s always evolving what’s appropriate and what’s not appropriate to say in the society. Eddie Murphy’s Raw is one of the classics and a fantastic special of that time. You go back and watch it now and there are some topics that he talks about and I cringe from having laughed at them because hopefully as a society, we are improving in our viewpoints on things change. Because all of those factors come into play of what people will laugh about and won’t laugh about, we see that evolution and from a workplace perspective.
The big thing for people to remember is it’s again less than the goal in using humor at work isn’t for people to be like, “You’re so funny. You should do stand-up,” but rather to be effective. What that means is that you’re going to evolve your humor depending on the situation and depending on who you’re talking to and what the audience is. That agency with humor, it’s medium audience and purpose that you need to understand. With your audience, you want to know, “What does that group know? What do they need?” The humor that you would use with a group of 50 to 60 senior leaders is very different than the humor that you might use with 23-year-old new hires sitting there? It might be very different if you are speaking to a group in Tokyo than if you are speaking to a group in Miami, Florida. Learning your audience and learning what types of things are interested in, that’s part of the research of any effective communication, particularly humor.
I do think that there are still some universals. Storytelling is very helpful. When you can tell a story and express it in a way that people can resonate with it, even if they’re like, “I’ve never been in that exact situation, but I have felt lonely before I have felt scared or anxious about something.” I’m trying to learn German because my girlfriend is German. I joke that first time I’ve ever dated a German. It’s the most efficient relationship I’ve ever been in. People laugh at that. I talk about learning a language. Even if you’ve never tried to learn German, so many people resonate with trying to learn a language and how it’s difficult so they can connect with that piece of it. These human experiences with what tend to resonate across more cultures and languages than what all crafted wordplay.
A lot of leaders have to sometimes deal with post problematic situations and then address after you take something seriously, but then also draw out the elephant in the room. Richard Pryor made me think of after when he was on the fire thing and he got up in front of people, lit a match and ran it across the screen. He goes, “What’s this?” Richard Pryor was jogging and he made fun of himself. He knew that that was out there. Pee-wee Herman got up on stage after he got caught doing what he was doing and made the joke, “Have any of you heard any good jokes lately?” He knew he was the butt of all the jokes. Do you think you should do that in the workplace if there’s been a tense thing to lighten it?
You can. Humor is great for diffusing tension. It doesn’t even always have to be the most well-crafted joke. I remember being in a meeting at P&G and tensions were rising. We were behind on a project. We were starting to argue with each other. It was getting heated. My manager stood up and he was like, “We have to remember that at the end of the day we sell soap.” It was this observation that was very funny in the moment that gave us a second to take a step back. We’re like observational humor in that setting. It’s not hilarious, but it’s a pattern interrupt. Because so often with tension, we change from how do we solve the problem to, “I want to try to beat this other person. I want to try to win.” It can be that pattern interrupt and make us take a break to take a step back, take a deep breath, and we can start to approach things from a different perspective. The same thing after some tense situation, what it’s doing is in comedy, there’s this concept of calling the moment or calling the room. It’s a similar situation to if you’re a comedian or if you’re a speaker. You’re a speaker and you’re going and someone drops a glass and it shatters on the floor. If you don’t address the elephant in the room, if you don’t want to address what everyone is thinking about, then they’re going to be distracted by that thing and they’re not going to listen to what you’re saying because they’re going to be like, “Did they notice that someone dropped something? Are they aware of that?”
It’s the same thing even with appearance. Sometimes with comedians, they come out and start talking a little bit about their appearance because they know people are thinking about it. If they don’t say it, they’re going to get distracted the whole time. People with me, there will be this, “He looks like someone. I can’t tell who it is.” I’ll joke that I look like a skinny Hugh Jackman or Megan Rapinoe or whatever. That gets them to laugh and they’re like, “Now it’s been addressed, I can laugh and now I can focus on this other thing.” Even that person dropped the glasses. It doesn’t have to be a funny line. It’s sometimes a go-to line of, “See? Even that person, they agree with what I’m saying so much. They got so excited, they knocked something over,” and people will laugh. It’s not a great crafted joke, but it does say, “We’ve addressed this position in the room. They’re smart enough. They seem to have the emotional awareness that this is what we’re thinking about. We’ve now laughed about it and now we can focus on other things.”
When it bombs, also maybe thank you to the one guy in the back of the room who laughed. You see people do address that thing as well.
You can have floating lines. That’s what Eddie Izzard does well. He takes out an imaginary notebook and he’s like, “Never tell that joke again.”
Why do you think your TEDx Talk was so popular? You’ve touched on so many things that people find fascinating. You have over five million views. What do you think resonated with that?
It’s probably either funny stories about my grandmother because my grandmother is hilarious. What resonates with people is that the idea that humor is a skill that we can learn. I was not someone that saw stand-up comedians and I was like, “I’m going to do that.” I was not the funny person. As I joke in the TEDx Talk, the people from my school who I went to high school with, when they found out that I did comedy, they’re like, “You’re not funny.” They didn’t understand it. Even people reading this, they might be like, “There are some humor things there, but he’s not the funniest person that I’ve heard.” I’m not the stereotypical person that makes people laugh.
For me to get articulate and say, “No, there are art and science to humor. We can learn the craft of it. Anyone can start to improve their skill of humor,” that resonated with people. I’ve gotten a lot of messages and what’s been very cool about it being with so many views is that it’s global in nature. People from all over the world have reached out and said either one, “Thank you for validating that humor is valuable in the workplace. It’s been something that I’ve been wanting to do but was scared to. I like having fun and making jokes and I like adding images. Thank you for some validation.” Some people were, “I’ve always been a little bit insecure. I’ve never been comfortable speaking in front of people, but the fact that you learned this and through practice and repetition, it sounds like now this is something that I can learn as well.”
People have resonated with that. When people resonate with this idea that they can learn it, it’s an empowering skill to learn. I’m sure as you experienced with as a speaker. When you get that first laugh on stage, ease into the presentation a little bit more. It makes you more confident and more comfortable. If you can go into a networking room and make people laugh because of these conversational humors, because you’ve got a good elevator pitch that has a good punchline in it, it makes that easier to do. People resonated with that process and hopefully, they resonate with the structure of breaking it down so that it’s like, “I can get started with this.”
If people want to get started with this and they want to get your book Humor That Works or contact you, is there some link or something you’d like to share?
We set up the organization Humor That Works. HumorThatWorks.com is a great resource. We try to make a bunch of free resources, so if people want to learn more about the map that we talked about or that thing, there’s a bunch of free articles on the website. We also have a free newsletter that we send things out to. The book is available. It’s more on how to use humor specifically in the workplace. A little bit less on how to be funny, but more about here’s how humor applies and different skills at work. There’s information about that. We have online courses and workshops that we do hands-on stuff at organizations. If they want that, they can do that. If they want to reach out to me, if they have specific questions of how do I use humor in that particular way or if they’re like, “I also love puns. I want puns in my Twitter feed or social media.” They can follow me at @DrewTarvin. I tweet out mostly puns and jokes and stuff like that, but also I’d be more than happy to respond to people if they have specific questions.
Thank you so much for being here. This was so much fun and we need more humor, so I loved it.
Thank you for having me. If I can encourage one as an engineer, someone driving towards action, if you’re looking for one thing to do to start your humor journey, is to start a humor notebook. Start capturing anytime these interesting ideas or thoughts. Almost every comedian has a humor notebook. It’s a repository where these funny jokes or these ideas go. That way, when you want to work on humor, when you want to add it into a presentation or you want to share a story or something like that, you have a starting point to go from.
That’s great advice. Thank you. This was so much fun. This was so fun, so interesting and funny and I always enjoy my guests. I get so many great guests. We are on iTunes, iHeart and everywhere else podcasts play. If you go to my site and you want to find out more about Curiosity, it’s at the top or you can go directly to CuriosityCode.com. I hope you enjoyed this and I hope you join us on the next episode of Take The Lead Radio.
- TEDx Talk – Andrew Tarvin
- Humor That Works
- Tripp Crosby – past episode
- JP Sears – previous episode
- @DrewTarvin – Twitter
- iTunes – Take The Lead
- iHeart – Take The Lead
About Andrew Tarvin
Andrew Tarvin is the world’s first Humor Engineer teaching people how to get better results while having more fun. He has worked with 45,000+ people at 250+ organizations, including Microsoft, the FBI, and the International Association of Canine Professionals. Combining his background as a project manager at Procter & Gamble with his experience as an international comedian, Andrew reverse engineers the skill of humor in a way that is practical, actionable, and gets results in the workplace. He is the author of Humor That Works: The Missing Skill for Success and Happiness at Work.
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