Episode 184 – Humor and How To Use It!

Steve Shallenberger: Welcome to our Becoming Your Best Podcast listeners, wherever you might be in the world today. This is your host, Steve Shallenberger. We are delighted to have you with us, and also, our special guest today, Andrew Tarvin. He is the world’s FIRST HUMOR ENGINEER, teaching people how to get better results while having fun. Welcome, Drew!

Andrew Tarvin: Thank you! Thank you so much for having me!

Steve Shallenberger: You bet! I’ve been looking forward to this! And before we get started today, I’d like to tell you a little bit more about Drew. Combining his background as a Project Manager at Procter&Gamble, with his experience as a stand-up comedian, he reverse-engineers the skill of humor, in a way that is practical, actionable, and gets results in the workplace. And through his company, Humor That Works, Drew has worked with more than 35,000 people, at over 250 organizations, including Microsoft, the FBI – they need a little humor, don’t they?

Andrew Tarvin: Yeah, absolutely!

Steve Shallenberger: And the International Association of Canine Professionals. Alrighty, that’s a good group! He is a best-selling author, he’s been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes and FastCompany. And his TedX talk, has been viewed by more than 4 million individuals. He loves the color orange, he’s obsessed with chocolate and can solve a Rubix’s Cube but it does take like seven minutes. So, let’s just get going, Drew. Tell us about your background and, especially, maybe any turning points or things that may have led you to be doing what you’re doing today. What’s your story?

Andrew Tarvin: Yeah, absolutely! People are often surprised by hearing the term humor engineer. They’re like, “First of all, you made it up.” And that’s true, I did. “Second of all, humor engineer seems like a little bit of an oxymoron.” But it’s very much kind of what I do and that background comes from two places. So, I’ve always been an engineer, I’ve always had an engineering mindset, I’ve always been obsessed with efficiency, how do I do the least amount of work, while getting the most amount of gain, so I went to The Ohio State University, got a degree in Computer Science & Engineering. After I graduated, I started working at Procter&Gamble as an IT Project Manager.

Andrew Tarvin: I remember pretty early on at P&G, one of my first meetings, I was in a meeting that was incredibly boring. It was kind of like you would rather watch the paint-on-a-wall-dry-type boring. And the problem was that I was the one leading the meeting. I was like, “Alright, well, if I’m bored while talking, they have to be bored while listening.” So I decided to start to incorporate a little bit of some of the things that I started doing in college. So, in college, I started doing improv and stand-up.

Andrew Tarvin: What I started to realize was, at P&G, I realized that you can’t be efficient with humans because humans have emotions and feelings and they have to eat and drink, and they get sick and tired and all those, you know, human things that they do. So, instead of being efficient, you had to be effective and as I started to incorporate more improv and stand-up or things that I learned there, I started to realize that that’s what was helping me be effective with people. So I started to explore that intersection of humor and the workplace, improv and business, happiness and productivity, and realized that I was getting better results for it.

Steve Shallenberger: Okay, good! And where did your desire, or vision, or idea, come from, to be an improv comedian?

Andrew Tarvin: Well, I wish that I could say that I was sitting there one day and decided I’d like to do it, but the reality is that my best friend in college wanted to start an improv comedy group, he needed people and forced me to join. Basically, what I didn’t have in comedy skill, I made up for in comedy Project Management. I was like, “Alright, you guys are more of the funny ones, so I’ll manage some of this stuff, and also perform”, but I was the one that was, “Alright, if we’re going to do this, we should practice three times a week, we should have business meetings every Monday, we should tape all of our shows and go back and watch it, to see if we’re going to learn anything from it.

Andrew Tarvin: That was my introduction to it. It was kind of someone pushing me into it, because, growing up, I was never the person that was like, “Oh, I’m going to be on stage” or “I want to be on stage.” It was more getting pushed into it and then discovering that I loved it and that I was bad when we first started but over time I started to get better.

Steve Shallenberger: It is amazing, Drew, how people can change our lives!

Andrew Tarvin: It is, it truly is. I tell that friend all the time, that in some way he’s ruined my life because I had a career that I wanted to, right out of graduating school, with the job at P&G, and then it was because of that improv that it led me to want to do something else. And of course, I’m much better for it, but of course, I have to joke with him and say that he’s completely altered that trajectory.

Steve Shallenberger: Right! And, are you still with P&G?

Andrew Tarvin: I am not, no. So, I left P&G seven years ago to do this humor engineer thing full time.

Steve Shallenberger: And here you are.

Andrew Tarvin: And here I am, yeah.

Steve Shallenberger: So, how is it going?

Andrew Tarvin: It’s going really well! So, every year, business-wise, the business has grown, and this year in particular, I’ve led a number of events, I’ve been to some really cool places. In my career, I’ve spoken or performed in all 50 States and in 25 countries and one planet, Earth, so far, but we’ve worked with over 250 organizations all around the world on how to use humor and so it’s something that I’m really proud to be able to be doing.

Steve Shallenberger: Good. Good for you! Congratulations! So excited to hear that, Drew! One of my early mentors and a wonderful man, by the name of Gartner Russel, also believed in humor and was interesting how he used humor. And I might add, Drew, that, just like your friend impacted your life, I think this podcast has a chance to impact all of the listeners, that they can do better in just across the board, by incorporating some humor. And just like Gartner Russel, I remember being in some very intense meetings and people were almost freezing up on some big, high-stakes issues. And Gartner would just throw out this joke, and it was a good one. It would change, of course, but then everybody would laugh and then when the laughter was over he’d say, “Listen! We can do this, let’s put our heads together and figure out how to solve this problem!”

Andrew Tarvin: Yeah, absolutely!

Steve Shallenberger: And bang! All of a sudden, we’re off to the races, so I’m so glad that we’re talking about it, it can have a very big impact on it. I love humor, I love to use it, but there’s a right way and a wrong way. So let’s talk about humor. How is humor a skill that really can be learned by anyone?

Andrew Tarvin: Yeah. Well, I would say that, to build what you’re saying is, with this podcast, yeah, can inspire people and that’s part of the reason why I’m so passionate about what it is that I do, is that it’s one thing to teach people comedy, when they’re interested in it, when they sign up for an improv class or take a stand-up comedy workshop or that kind of thing, but the work that we do is often going into organizations where some of the employees didn’t necessarily… They weren’t the ones that hired us, but they’re there to get better and improve their skills. So I feel fortunate that I can be kind of just like my friend was, the one that pushes or encourages people into using humor.

Andrew Tarvin: And along those lines, like you said, humor is absolutely a skill, which means it can be learned. There’s an art and a science to comedy, to humor, and we can teach the science piece, we can teach things like comedic structure – putting the funny part of a joke at the end, the importance of a pause or a delivery. We can talk about the different shortcuts or strategies of using humor. That’s the science part of it. And the art part of it is people having a chance to actually practice it, then developing their own sense of humor into something that’s a little bit more interesting or into a way that other people understand it. So, what we say is we think that we can help make anyone funniER, not necessarily across the board funny, you won’t necessarily get a Netflix comedy special, after some of the workshops or the book or whatever, but you should be at a place that you better now understand it. So, that’s what we focus on – on what are these strategies that people can learn so that they can get better results.

Steve Shallenberger: Okay, a couple of questions. You talked about both the science and the art of humor. Can you take a minute and talk about both the science and the art?

Andrew Tarvin: Absolutely! So, the science of it I would say, a couple of things are helpful to keep in mind around, particularly humor in the workplace is that humor is more broad than comedy. When we think of humor, we often think of laughter, we think of jokes, but it is more broad than that. It’s to find this comic, absurd or incongruous quality, causing amusement. So that means it is comedy, but it is also maybe something a little bit silly or something a little bit different. So, when we talk about humor in the workplace, we’re not talking about making the workplace necessarily funny, but making it a little bit more fun. And so, we can break that down into how we do that?

Andrew Tarvin: Like the different styles of humor. So, psychologist Rod A. Martin defined four styles of humor. They are affiliative humor, which is like positive, inclusive humor, kind of like Ellen Degeneres or like Teambuilding activities within an organization; there is self-enhancing humor, which is using humor as a way to deal with any challenges in life and there’s a great Kurt Vonnegut quote that sums it up. It says, “Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration. I myself prefer to laugh because there’s less cleaning up to do afterwards.” It’s about looking at a situation and finding the humor in it, as opposed to the difficulty in it.

Andrew Tarvin: There is self-defeating humor, which is kind of a negative form of humor but the target is yourself, so this is like self-deprecating humor, it where you’re poking fun at yourself. This can be great when you’re in a high-status position or when used sparingly. And then, there is aggresive humor, and this is a negative form of humor that has a target, this is like sarcasm and satire and that can be really good for catharsis. It’s just less effective in terms of creating change in the workplace.

Andrew Tarvin: And so, simply by starting to understand these different styles of humor, people can then be more proactive about it, like, “Okay, if I’m leading a meeting, how can I create some affiliative humor? What are some things that I can do that is positive-inclusive, that brings people closer together?” Or, if I have a stressful day coming up, what are some things that I can intentionally do to then use humor as a way to relieve stress from the day? So it’s teaching people things like those concepts. So that’s what I’d say it’s partly the science of it.

Steve Shallenberger: Okay, how about the art side?

Andrew Tarvin: The art side I think is where everyone is going to have their own different perspective. So, every audience and every person is different. I personally love puns and the way that I think and I see the world as something that may happen it’s like, I think of the puns of it. I love the etymology of words. Every comedian has their own perspective, their sense of humor, their style, their persona. That’s what is up for other people to develop and we can help encourage that, but it’s like, I can’t tell you what’s going to be the funniest thing for you to be able to say. But instead, I can try to draw out what you find in terms of what’s interesting and how you go about achieving that.

Steve Shallenberger: That’s terrific! Now, what can leaders learn from a stand-up comedian?

Andrew Tarvin: I think that there’s a lot that leaders can learn in terms of overall using humor, but specifically, from stand-up comedians, there’s a couple of things that I would encourage, and sometimes I work with senior leaders to work on them, doing some stand-up so they get practice out of. So, for example, one of the things that we know as stand-up comedians, is you want to start strong. An audience would decide within the first really kind of the 15 seconds whether or not they think you’re funny. And so, just like any situation, if you’re a leader and you’re presenting in front of a group for the first time, if you’re just now promoted to a leadership position, or you’re talking to some clients or that kind of thing, you want to have the same idea of start strong.

Andrew Tarvin: So stand-up comedians will start and they’ll say one of their funniest jokes within, let’s say, the first 30 seconds, just to get people to laugh. And as leaders, we can do the same thing, of starting strong and starting with what in the corporate world, we call head-nodding. Starting with the things that everyone in the audience kind of already knows or agrees with. So, rather than giving a solution right away, you can get everyone on the same page, like, “Okay, this is the context, so what’s happening?” We’re all in agreement that there is a challenge here and that we need a solution for something before you jump into any type of influence that you’re going to go for.

Andrew Tarvin: So I think starting strong is one. I think giving credit. That’s interesting to me because I don’t understand the people who take credit for what their people do for them. The whole point of being a leader is to get good results from a team and if you take credit, you are discrediting your own service of being able to get more out of people. So, for example, at P&G, some of the higher, more Senior Leaders, part of their rating is how an organization does after they’ve left that organization because, at P&G, they don’t want you to be a rockstar leader and then leave an organization completely in shambles when you go to a different organization. They want to make sure that you’re building the leaders within that group.

Andrew Tarvin: So, similarly, one of the cardinal sins of comedy, is to steal material. So that’s the translation of, “Here’s an application of how leaders parallel stand-up comedians.” From a purely tactical standpoint, I think leaders can learn about brevity and succinctness. In comedy, the brevity is the soul of wit. How do you get something down to the bare minimum in terms of the message that people need to know that they can resonate with, rather than being convoluted in sharing way too much information?

Steve Shallenberger: Okay, those are good tips. I like those! I’m going to put you on the spot, just apologize in advance. So, let’s take that example, a leader starting off with a strong joke. What’s an example of one?

Andrew Tarvin: It’s going to be different for every single group or for every different context but a great joke is one that has some type of connection to the topic that you’re going to speak on. So, for example, in my TEDx talk, talking about the skill of humor, I open with a story about my grandmother, and my grandmother texting and some of the challenges with that. And it’s surprising, it gets people to pay attention, because they’re like, “Okay, why is this person talking about their grandmother?” But the story that I build up to is my grandmother’s lack of understanding of what the acronym WTF means, and that she used it in a text with me and she thought that it means “Wow, that’s fun!”

Andrew Tarvin: And so, I tell this entire joke, with a story around that, leading up to that punchline of her thinking it means, “Wow that’s fun”. But then I use that to set the stage and say, “Oh, okay, I actually think the world would be a better place if more people thought WTF like my grandmother. If more people thought – Wow, that’s fun!” And so, that’s now set up the thesis for my presentation and now I can kind of go into it. So, we encourage that, because sometimes when people hear you have to start with a joke, they’ll say one joke, maybe one that they read on the Internet, it’ll have nothing to do with their entire rest of the presentation, and the remaining 59 minutes and 30 seconds of that meeting will be boring. And that’s not effective humor in the workplace. Humor isn’t necessarily what you do but more of how you do it. You might start with a joke, but then you have that connection in some way to the topic matter and then maybe you call back that joke a little bit later, or you consistently use humor in different ways throughout the presentation.

Steve Shallenberger: Well, Kudos to you, Drew, because you’ve taken this subject of humor, which is so important, and you thought about it seriously. In other words, what’s the impact and so, as you think about an organization, what is the impact of using humor? What’s the benefit?

Andrew Tarvin: There’s certainly a number of benefits and we’ll start very simply, with a simple question I do want you to answer. It’s maybe a dumb question, but, in general, would you rather do something that is fun or not fun?

Steve Shallenberger: Yeah, of course, fun.

Andrew Tarvin: Right? Something fun. So that means that if you were to make a process a little bit more fun if you were to make your own work a little bit more fun, you’d probably be a little bit more likely to do that work a little bit longer. If you were to make the experience of working with you or other people’s work a little bit more fun, it probably makes sense that they will probably be more engaged in their work. And that’s what we see. There are over 30 business benefits of using humor in the workplace, backed by research, case studies, real-world examples, so this is things like you see an increase in employee productivity, you see a decrease in stress, you can use humor as a way to effectively get people to pay attention or to remember things longer. Humor can burn calories. In fact, 10 to 15 minutes of laughter burns as many calories as 5 minutes of aerobic exercise, 10 minutes of dancing or 15 minutes of milking a cow. So you can burn some calories. That’s what individuals gain from it.

Andrew Tarvin: As an organization, when you create a culture of positivity and a culture of using humor, you see an increase in employee engagement, a decrease in employee turnover, an increase in overall profit, because of some of these other benefits, so there are tremendous business benefits too, using humor at work.

Steve Shallenberger: Oh, great! Yeah. Well, given the stakes here of how important humor is and having fun and the increase of productivity, and how it makes people feel, what’s your perspective, Drew, why don’t people use more humor at work or individually? I mean, you see some people that are just downright dower.

Andrew Tarvin: Yeah. And that’s a great question. It was one that I wanted to understand, as well, so we ran a survey through our site, and we found that the #1 reason why people didn’t use humor at work was because they didn’t think that their boss or co-workers would approve. When you work in a culture where humor isn’t the norm, you start to feel like it’s unwelcome or that people wouldn’t like it, but the reality is that 98% of CEOs prefer job candidates with a sense of humor, and 81% of employees say a fun workplace would make them more productive.

Andrew Tarvin: So I think people are open to it, they want humor, they just don’t think that they can because historically we’ve always felt like work has to feel like work. And maybe that made sense in the industrial revolution or in the industrial age when you worked to set 9 to 5, where efficiency was the most important thing and where you actually could leave work. If you worked in a factory, you don’t bring your work home with you, you can’t bring some of the machinery home and get some extra productivity in.

Andrew Tarvin: But in today’s world, we don’t have that same work-life balance. Instead, we have to deal with this work-life integration, we have to deal with a world where maybe we leave work a little bit late, but then also do some emailing at home, or when we’re over the weekend, we’re starting to think about our work as we go in and so, our emotions impact our ability to get work done even more so. And so I think it’s partially that we just haven’t adapted to that yet. So we just need to encourage people that there is benefit to using humor at work.

Steve Shallenberger: Okay, so how can a leader make it okay to use humor?

Andrew Tarvin: I think that there’s a couple of things. One, I think the best thing that a leader can do to encourage more humor in the workplace is to use it more themselves. People tend to replicate or they tend to follow what they see other people doing and so if a leader uses humor then they’re much more likely to do it. That’s part of the encouragement that I had when first starting to use humor at P&G was my manager used humor. My manager was willing to joke a little bit and have fun, so I thought, “Okay, that must mean that it’s okay to do.”

Andrew Tarvin: I think the other thing that leaders can do more to encourage humor is to laugh more. There is no limit to laughter, there is no if you laugh at somewhat -not-all-that-funny-but-only-kind-of-funny joke now, it’s not like you’re not going to be able to laugh a little bit later. So I think laughing a little bit more and certainly smiling more can help encourage people to use humor. And then I also think promoting it. Just in the sense of, you know, if someone does something humorous, calling that out as a positive thing. Say, “Oh, I really appreciate how you used a story to start the presentation as a way to get us all on board”, or “I really liked that you used images as a way to keep us more engaged.” I think that level of promotion certainly helps.

Steve Shallenberger: So, give us some tips. For example, how to use humor to defuse office conflict.

Andrew Tarvin: This is a big one and it’s similar to the story that you shared a little bit earlier. Sometimes, just any type of humor is a way to get people to take a break. I remember being at a meeting at P&G and we were coming to blows a little bit, like our tensions were rising and all of that, and my manager kind of just stopped everyone and was like, “Listen, we need to remember that at the end of the day, we sell soap.” So we were working at P&G, it was just a context in it, it was something that all made us a little bit laugh and take stock of the situation and perspective. And that’s not to say that we didn’t find what we were doing important or serious, but it was just that moment to say, “Hey, you know, this is something that we need to take a step back from and relax.”

Andrew Tarvin: So, I think sometimes, just any type of that observational humor can help to defuse conflict. Anything that just gives you a different perspective into the situation that will make people laugh, to remind us of our humanity because sometimes that’s what we need to relieve that tension or defuse that conflict is a reminder that typically, at the end of the day, it’s not like people secretly hate you or want you to do terribly. It’s their doing what they think it’s best or what they know how and so, when we laugh, when we come closer together on the same side, it gives us a chance to remind ourselves of that reality, so that we can come back and say, “Okay, how do we approach this from a fresh perspective?”

Steve Shallenberger: Right. It’s such a commonality, isn’t it, to be able to laugh together?

Andrew Tarvin: Yeah, and when we laugh together it shows that you know you’re standing on the same side and maybe you’re in conflict, you’re butting heads, but we take a break to laugh and go, “Oh, that’s right, it’s a human experience that we’re going through, let’s have a little bit of fun while we do it and recognize that we’re not out to get each other.”

Steve Shallenberger: Well, time goes so fast, Drew, I’m always amazed of that, and this has been a fun discussion today. And so, as we go into the final stretch here, do you have a favorite joke? Something that you like?

Andrew Tarvin: I have a lot of favorite jokes. So, do you want one that I’ve written or one that someone else has written? I don’t know if it’s weird but I do have my own favorite joke.

Steve Shallenberger: Oh, whatever! Either one, yeah, you take it from there.

Andrew Tarvin: Alright, so I’ll say my favorite joke – and this got pretty popular on the Internet, so some listeners may have heard it, but I am the originator of it. The joke is set in the context of my boss asking me, “How good are you at PowerPoint?” I say, “I Excel at it!” And he said, “Was that a Microsoft Office pun?” And I was like, “Word!”

Steve Shallenberger: Good! Bravo! That’s a good one! I was at, talking about this commonality, Trader Joe’s, which is a grocery store, like world-class, amazing. I was checking out and the young lady said, “Do you have any good jokes you’ve heard recently?” And I said, “Well, yeah, sure. You probably heard about the fellow that was doing a survey and he was talking with this woman and he said, ‘Ma’am, I’d like to ask a multiple choice question: a) you would like to live with your husband for the rest of your life? b)” “B”. She laughed and looked right back. I said, “How about you? Have you heard any good jokes recently?” She said, “Well, yeah. You heard about the janitor that came out of the closet?” I said, “No”. “Supplies!” There you go, they’re dumb.

Andrew Tarvin: That’s great!

Steve Shallenberger: But they were fun. We laughed and had a good time.

Andrew Tarvin: That’s a great example of someone taking a proactive approach to having fun in her job. There’s no job requirement that says, “As a cashier, ask your customers about a joke”, but it was a fun way for her to engage with people coming through, and I think that is one of the big, at least beliefs that we have, is that humor is a choice. You choose every day how you’re going to do your work, and so my thought is that if you’re going to work, you know, the average person works 90,000 hours in a lifetime, if you’re going to work 90,000 hours, you might as well choose to enjoy as many as those 90,000 hours as you can.

Steve Shallenberger: Yeah, absolutely! Now, any final tips you’d like to leave with our listeners today?

Andrew Tarvin: Yeah, I think the biggest one is kind of along those lines and what we encourage is for people to think one smile per hour. Think about what is something that you can do each hour of your day, that brings a smile to your face or the face of someone else. So, if you’re getting ready to go into an hour-long meeting, how can you start with a joke or incorporate a little bit of humor into that meeting? If you have an hour-long commute that you’re about to sit through, what can you do to make the commute a little bit more fun yourself? So that you relieve some stress and you’re more present for your family when you get home. It all starts with a habit and I think once you start developing that habit, maybe it starts more broadest humor like we talked about at the beginning, but then you learn kind of the more comedic side of things, as you go through.

Steve Shallenberger: Well, great! And how can people find out about what you’re doing, Drew?

Andrew Tarvin: If they want to learn more about humor in the workplace, they can go to We have all types of different resources there, from free blog posts and a free newsletter to more information about the book that just recently came out or some of our workshops. If they just like puns or they want to connect with me or follow me, I’m drewtarvin on all social media, so they can connect with me on LinkedIn, Instagram, Facebook. I think I still have a MySpace page for some reason, so if MySpace is your jam, you can connect there. That’s where they can find me.

Steve Shallenberger: Thank you, Andrew Tarvin! It’s been fun having you on the show today!

Andrew Tarvin: Thank you for having me!

Steve Shallenberger: We wish you all the best as you’re making a difference in the world. And to all of our listeners, this is an amazing group, Drew, that’s listening in today, and they are truly making a difference in the world and this gives them some more arrows in the quiver of ways that they can do that, to lift and build and inspire others. I’m so impressed by them, so appreciate the contribution you’ve made!

Andrew Tarvin: Yeah, absolutely! And I’m excited for people to be able to use it in any way that I can help them, as they reach out to those very cool goals, I’m happy to help.

Steve Shallenberger: You bet! And there’s people working on Becoming Their Best. What we’ve been talking about today is right in the heart of these 12 Principles. Our Vision and Goals of being the best we can and incorporating these kind of things and to apply the power of knowledge. This is just like Drew said, it’s a science and it’s an art. As we master these 12 principles, they do help us to get to a whole other level of making a difference, and that’s why I’m so impressed with you, the listeners, because I know that’s what we have in common, that’s what you’re trying to do. It’s been great to be together! This is Steve Shallenberger, with Becoming Your Best Global Leadership, wishing you a great day!

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