Drew Tarvin

Work can be funny, too

01 May 2019   |   Culture

Andrew Tarvin
Drew Tarvin

Work can be funny, too

01 May 2019   |   Culture

Somewhere along the way, humor and work became enemies. But humor has an incredible amount of benefits that make you enjoy your work and be more productive. Talking with Drew Tarvin helped us realize how we can lighten up and start to bring more humor and levity into what we do.

Today, our guest is Drew Tarvin. He’s the founder at Humor That Works and this episode is Work Minus Boredom. Hi, Drew. How are you?

I’m doing well. How are you doing?


Doing very good. I’m excited to speak with you. You have a very interesting concept of Humor That Works that comes in that we’re going to get into. But I want you to tell us a little bit about your story and how you got into this business.

Sure. Yeah. Well, my made up job title is I am a humor engineer which people hear and they’re like, wait, is that an oxymoron? You know, us engineers aren’t typically known for our humor, but to me, there’s actually a natural fit. So, short kind of background is I’ve always been an engineer, kind of engineer mindset. I went to the Ohio State University, got a degree in computer science and engineering, started working at Procter & Gamble as an IT project manager after I graduated, and you know, as an engineer, I’ve always been obsessed with efficiency and it was at P&G that I realized you can’t be efficient with people because people have emotions and feelings and that kind of stuff. And so, instead, you had to be effective but I didn’t really have the skill set that I needed to be effective with people. But luckily for me, in college, I started doing improv and stand up and started to realize that the same skills you need to be effective as an improviser are actually some of the same skills you need to be effective with humans in the workplace. And so, I started to explore that intersection of improv in business and humor in the workplace and happiness and productivity and fell in love with it, saw that it was actually beneficial that there is research behind it. And so, I started internally at P&G for a little while and then created my own company and have been focused on really kind of that subset of how to be more effective using things like human improv since then.


So, you used two terms, efficient and effective, and it seems like you’re contrasting them a little bit. Can you dive into that?

For sure. So, I think of, you know, efficient is doing a task as quickly as possible, right? Doing it as quickly as possible. And effective is slightly different. It’s about getting the result kind of as quickly as possible. So, if you think of actually Peter Drucker, the great management guru, he said that efficiency is doing things right and effectiveness is doing the right things. So, something can certainly be efficient and effective. Something can be efficient but not very effective. Something can be inefficient but very effective. So, there’s all these different kinds of dichotomies. The other way that I kind of think about it is, as a project manager, I wanted to send emails that were like “just do this thing,” right? That’s it. But instead, we have to send the emails that are like, “Hey, so and so. Hope you had a great weekend. Anyway, I was hoping you could do this thing for this reason by this date. See you at the happy hour later. Cheers. Best regards. Sincerely, yours truly, XOXO,” all that kind of stuff, right? So, the second email isn’t as efficient but long term is more effective for building a relationship with people and being able to solve problems a little bit more effectively down the road. Does that make sense?


Yeah. So, you said that you found out that you didn’t have the skill set necessarily to be effective with people. Tell us what you mean by that. What are some of those stories that came up that you realized, “Wow, this is not something I was trained for”?

I mean, it’s just one of those things of, like, really focused on doing things as efficiently as possible, so, like, sending emails like that before or treating people like a task list, you know, I was an RA, a resident adviser, in university and I remember just kind of being like, alright, if I spend three minutes with every one of my residents that means I’m a good RA, right? And so, I’d go down the list and be like, aright, checklist, three minutes with that person, three minutes with that person, three minutes with that person, I’m done, right? This is great.

And we know that’s not how relationships work. Some people you’ll be able to chat and just kind of smile within the hallway and they feel good. Other people, you know, you want to invest, you want to have a longer conversation, you want to do things like, you know, for me, an introvert, the “dreaded small talk” and ask about the weather or how things are going, or you know, smile and chat with people in the elevator. And these are all things that are effective because they help you build a relationship and ultimately work as a system of human relationships but they don’t feel necessarily efficient. Or even things like a big one is multitasking.

So, a lot of people love to, you know, attempt to multitask and it’s an attempt at efficiency, right? I can do two things at the same time. But the reality is that humans are single processor computers, and so, they can’t do two conscious activities at the same time and what they’re doing is switching back and forth, and every single time you switch, there’s an opportunity cost. And that’s why in one study they found that multitasking had the same impact on your IQ as being drunk or being high.


Wow. So, speaking of being high, let’s get to funny stuff. So, humor and work are not two things you usually put together but you are trying to make them skip and dance and have lots of fun together. Why have humor and work always seemed to be an awkward pair?

Well, I think that if you think about the way that we used to work, it kind of makes sense. So, you know, way back in the day, any kind of definition of productivity meant how much food could you produce, and your ability to laugh while like reaping and sowing in the field, maybe not all that important. And then we move into the industrial age where you work in factories and where everything is about efficiency, right? If you can shave half a second off of a process, you might save millions of dollars in a year. And so, we’re obsessed with efficiency. How do we streamline as much as possible? And then we get into a knowledge economy and now our emotions impact the way that we work, right? If you’re not in a good mood, if you had a terrible weekend, or you know, you’re hungover, or you know, upset about something in your personal life, that’s going to impact your ability to be present in a meeting or to come up with a creative solution for something or to actually enjoy your work. And so, it’s because of how work has changed, it’s why humor has become more and more important because our emotions impact our productivity.


So, when you think about humor, what is it that’s stopping humor from like being so accepted? Like you said, everyone loves humor, everyone likes to enjoy things but there’s always this wall at work that prevents it from getting in. What do you feel like is humor’s archnemesis, so to speak?

I think a lot of it’s around perception. I think that, again, you know, people feel like work is supposed to feel like work, right? I was talking with a client the other day and they were like it is an interesting perspective because she’s like, “My brother says that work is supposed to feel like work, otherwise it would be called fun and you would have to go to fun every day.” And so, we have this older mentality of like it has to feel this way, you know, we have this 9 to 5, we go in to work, it is work, it feels like work, and we leave and we live our life, but the world has changed. We no longer have that cut and dry work life balance. We’re now doing emails over the weekends or at night. We’re thinking about our work before we go into the workplace. We take our work with us. And so, we have to adapt with it and I think so a lot of it is around perception. Specifically with why not using humor, we run a study through our site because we wanted to answer that question and the number one reason why people didn’t use humor in the workplace is because they didn’t think that their boss or coworkers would approve because they didn’t see it as a culture in the workplace. And the reality is that 98% of CEOs prefer job candidates with a sense of humor and 81% of employees say that a fun workplace would make them more productive. And so, people are clamoring for humor. They want humor. They want to have fun. But they just don’t know necessarily that they can.


How do you handle humor in an age when some of the definitions of what is funny maybe have shifted or our culture has said, “Hey, that’s not funny anymore. We’re not going to laugh at those types of things.” You have those kind of age generational shifts and you also have different cultural shifts. So, what’s funny in one culture may not be in another one and you have all these multinationals that are around throwing sarcasm in there and that’s really difficult to understand. So, how do we still use humor but in a way that’s respectful to other people?

For sure. I think that certainly humor changes over time. It involves. We used to have vaudevillian slapstick humor. Now, it’s involved with like George Carlin and Richard Pryor becoming more storytellers and personal. So, humor is always constantly evolving and that’s why there’s no kind of set formula for humor but we say that there is a framework. And a couple of things to kind of keep in mind for using appropriate humor is, one, I don’t think anyone has ever been fired because of a bad joke, right? They’ve been fired because of an inappropriate joke but not a bad. And a bad joke is like one that I tweeted yesterday I think was not all artificial sugars are created Equal. Equal being the artificial sugar, right? That’s a bad joke. It’s not, you know, the top, it’s not the creme de la creme of comedy, right? But no one’s going to be fired because of saying a joke like that but they would be fired because of saying something inappropriate.

And so, typically, inappropriate humor takes the form of three things. One, it comes at an inappropriate time. So, if you’ve just like announced layoffs, not an appropriate time to then use humor in the workplace or if you’ve just fired someone, not a great time to make jokes about fire trucks or whatever, right? Two, it has an inappropriate target. So, using humor isn’t an excuse to talk about things that you wouldn’t talk about otherwise. And this is a big part of the shift that we’ve seen that we have culturally kind of said, “Hey, you know where we used to joke inappropriately about people and their relationships or sex or whatever? We’re saying no, we’re actually standing up to that.” So, the topic has become a little bit more refined.

And then the final reason why humor is inappropriate is it has an inappropriate target. And so, you know, humor can be more broad. It can be more positive and inclusive or it can be kind of a, “Hey, I’m making fun of this one person,” and if you have a great relationship with that person, me and my friends growing up, if we didn’t make fun of you, it meant that we didn’t like you. So, some people have that relationship so that’s one type of relationship. But if you’ve just met someone and you’re poking fun of them right away, that may feel like aggressive humor and so it has an inappropriate target. So, if you’re kind of conscious of your topic, your target, and your time, that’s typically how you can make sure that your humor stays appropriate.


So, in watching all of your videos and things, you kind of specialize in that the self deprecation type of humor, to kind of go out and tell jokes about yourself or saying, “Yeah, I told this bad joke.” Do you find that that’s pretty effective in being able to disarm people? Are there any downsides to that in the business context if you have a CEO who is constantly using self deprecating humor or anything like that?

Absolutely. So, self deprecating humor is a great style of humor, one, if it’s used sparingly, and two, if you’re in a high status position, right? So, when I go and speak, I use a lot of self deprecating humor because by function on me being the speaker on stage, there’s a certain status that comes with that. And so, you know, I will make fun of the fact that I’m in my mid-30s but still get called “ma’am” on the phone because I have a little bit of a higher pitched voice. Or I talk about looking like a skinny Hugh Jackman and that I’m a skinny person. I was born 8.3 pounds and stayed that way until I was 15 years old. So, I make jokes like that as a way to say, “Hey, I don’t take myself too seriously and because of whatever dynamics you might perceive me to be in a high status position.”

So, humor is good there and it’s good when like sparingly. If it’s the only type of humor that you use, that’s where people start to say, like, wait a minute, like, does this person have self esteem issues or are they throwing a pity party? Is this something that we don’t want to, you know, should we laugh at that or is it like actually encouraging that behavior more? And this is a big distinction because a lot of times women use self deprecating humor. And so, on one study they found that when men use humor in the workplace, they were met with a positive response, around 80% of the time. I don’t remember the exact numbers but I think it was 80% of the time. But when women use humor, they were met with silence 80% of the time. On that same study, they looked at the type of humor that was being used and something like 90% of the humor that men use was off the cuff humor, conversational humor, in the moment, building off of what other people said, and 70% of the humor that women use was self deprecating.

And so, again, if the only type of humor that you use is self deprecating, people won’t laugh as much. And if you’re already seen as being in a lower status position because maybe you’re a new hire versus your manager or because of gender bias potentially in the workplace, you know, that has an impact on whether or not the humor is going to be effective. So, again, it is great sparingly and in high status positions. And the last thing I’d say about self deprecating humor is that it can be great if it’s not kind of in direct correlation to what your job is supposed to be. If you kind of make a joke about, you know, me talking about being skinny, that doesn’t really affect my ability to be an effective speaker or trainer in teaching you on your skills, right? That has nothing to do with it. But if I make a joke about, “Oh, my god, I’m such a terrible trainer and I’m so bad at my job. Listen to me anyway,” right? People aren’t going to, like, they might laugh a little bit but then they’re, like, wait, why are we going to listen this guy if he doesn’t even believe in his own capabilities?


Let’s switch over and talk about the improv side of it and the principles you learned there. One of the big principles you’ve talked about is that Yes And principles. So, tell us about what that means in the world improv and how we can apply that in business, too.

For sure. So, Yes And is a fundamental mindset of improvisation. If you take an improv class, you will learn Yes And because it’s how we as improvisers make things up off the top of our head and make it seem like it makes sense. And that same mentality can help us in a lot of different avenues. So, you know, one of the things that as an engineer being an introvert knowing that I need to network, knowing that 70% of jobs come through networking, again, you know, I wish that job searching and even client building was efficient, right? That you could just email people and they would like respond and immediately just give you money. But we know that it takes for an effective networking.

So, I developed a three-step process for networking. So, in my head, networking is, one, you have to ask interesting questions, two, you have to tell compelling stories, and then, three, you have to continue the conversation, and a way that you can always continue the conversation and never run out of things to say, it’s just Yes And the last thing that the person said to you. So, even if they say something like, “how about this weather,” right? Quintessential small talk. You can say, “Yes, and if you weren’t at this event right now, what would you be doing to enjoy the weather?” If it’s nice out, you know, “What are you going to do to enjoy the weather?” If it’s bad out, you say, “What would you be doing to kind of like hide from all the rain? What Netflix shows are you watching? Or where would you go hiking?” Right?

You turn a conversation from weather into something more interesting like hobbies. So, that’s like a direct application of it. But as a mindset Yes And isn’t being a yes man. It’s not saying yes to everything. It’s not being Pollyanna about everything is amazing and perfect and everything is awesome like The Lego Movie song. But it’s about taking the thing that you like about the situation and building off of it. And so, to me, humor in the workplace is an application of Yes And because the average person will work 90,000 hours in their lifetime. That’s a long time. That is longer than everything on Netflix. And if you want to then, you know, if you’re going to take that mindset of Yes And, you can say, “Yes, I’m going to work 90,000 hours and I might as well enjoy it.” So, it’s that kind of leveling up mentality.


So, if I’m leading a team and I have little budget for training and I said, “You know what? Let’s do an improv class and see what that would result in that.” What kind of benefits would my team get from learning some these principles at improv?

That’s a great question and it all kind of depends. I mean, the pro and con of improv is you can certainly teach kind of basic principles of improvisation, but at least, for us, in our programs, is we consider improv more of a how than a what. You can take an improv class and learn kind of some of the basics which has a lot of different applications, but for us, it’s more about thinking about what do you want to learn, what kind of business skills so humor can help you, or improv specifically can help you in your communication skills because so often, you know, we spend 80% of our time in some form of active communication. The majority of that time is spent listening but we never practice the skill of listening.

So, improv gives you a chance to practice that skill or communicating clearly or thinking on your feet. You can switch to like innovative thinking. So, how do you think more creatively on your feet or how do you learn the principles of design thinking? You can apply for risk management. We have a program for project managers of how they can learn about risk management through improvisation. So, improv is more of a how and it’s more about thinking about the specific skills that you want to build. And the beautiful thing about improv is, in addition to building specific skills or leadership skills, we have a leadership program that uses improvisation to get better at, how do you then influence people? How do you create a culture of positivity? And improv allows you to practice the skills that people are talking about.

It also gives you a chance to do some team building. So, it’s not just like, “Hey, let’s go to happy hour.” It’s not the equivalent of “We’re all going to go bowling.” Not to say that those are bad things of a team guarding but this is a different type of team building where you’re also learning a skill. And it helps you to have those “a-ha!” moments yourself. So, rather than in an improv group or an improv program, you would do exercises around Yes And. So, rather than me talking about the benefits of Yes And, you would experience the benefits of Yes And so you can kind of have that “a-ha!” moment yourself and see how it’s going to apply to your own individual work.


Nice. Now, let’s take a little turn and talk about humor and energy. You’ve said that humor helps people manage energy when people are in more of a lighthearted mood, it’s easier to work, it’s easier to do more things. So, how does humor impact someone’s energy when they’re in the office?

Yes. So, I want to ask you a stupid question. It’s a dumb question but you give me your honest answer. Would you rather do something that’s fun or not fun?


I’m going to go… it’s a tough one… but I will go with fun.

Yeah, right? People want to do something that is fun. Well, I mean, it’s an own personal choice. There might be some people that say, “No. I hate fun. I hate experiencing joy in my body.” I don’t know. But the majority of people would rather do something that is fun. So, if you can find ways to make your work more enjoyable then you’re more likely to do it and you’re willing to do it longer. The other thing that I found regarding kind of using humor for productivity and energy is that, as an engineer, I’ve researched a lot about productivity, right? I know Pareto’s principles, Parkinson’s law, the Pomodoro technique, you know, all those different Ps of productivity, and I have found that it is very difficult to be productive if you are dead or if you feel like death, right? If you’re sick, if you’re tired, if you’re worn out, burned out, stressed out, it’s hard to be productive.

And so, humor, one, can make a task itself through things like gamification can make the task more fun but even if say your work is very stressful, you can’t actually find ways to make the work itself more enjoyable, you can at least intentionally use humor as a way to relieve stress. You can intentionally kind of take a break throughout the middle of the day and watch a funny YouTube video or watch a funny TEDx talk or to call up a friend that’s going to make you laugh, or you know, listen to a comedy podcast on your way home from work so that you relieve some stress and show up more present for your family when you get there.

And this is why I think one of the reasons why I’m so passionate about what we work on is because humor isn’t just about improving the workplace but if you can improve the workplace then you can also improve life outside of it because, like, we spend so much time on time management but it doesn’t matter how much time you have if you never have any energy to do anything with that time. And so, humor and managing that energy and using kind of intentional humor to reboot stress allows you to have more energy and more focus for the things that you want to do, whether that’s at work or at home.


Leave us with this one. Let’s say you’re speaking to a manager. They’re all on board with this. They want to have a more lighthearted, humorous environment. What do they do? Does that mean they got to bring a joke to work every day and tell something funny or how can they bring this attitude, instill this culture of humor?

Yes. So, it’s certainly not… when we talk about humor in the workplace, we’re not talking about becoming a stand up comedian. You know, we’re talking about just finding it’s not making the workplace funny, it’s making the workplace a little bit more fun. It’s about finding kind of different ways you can bring in, I think, as a leader, as a manager, a couple things you can do to help, one is to encourage it. You know, a big reason why I was so happy to have the TEDx talk come out, why we have a book coming out soon, is just to be able to give people different resources so that if they don’t have the skills that they need, they can kind of go and learn it or they can kind of share. They can at least say, “Hey, look, here’s this article on 30 benefits to using humor in the workplace.” We want to start to encourage that a little bit more.

A very simple thing that they can do is laugh. If a coworker or something like that says a joke, even if it’s not the funniest joke in the world, laugh or smile. Like, there’s no limit to that. You know, you don’t have a certain number of laughs in your lifetime. So, if you laugh at a slightly cheesy joke or something that’s not the funniest thing in the world, it’s not like you’ve used it up and can no longer laugh at a comedy club. You can do that as a simple way to support. And the thing that I encourage every group, whether you’re the manager kind of starting out and helping to disseminate that or you’re an individual because you can still individually choose to use humor, even if no one else in your organization is doing it, you can do it for yourself. But what I encourage everyone to think about is one smile per hour. What is one thing you can do every hour of the day to you make yourself smile or bring a smile to someone else, right?

Think about, “Oh, hey, I have an hour-long commute. What can I do during my commute that’s going to make it more fun? Let me rock out to some Queen or let me listen to a podcast that I really like. Or if I’m getting ready to go into a meeting, what’s one thing I can do in this meeting to make it a little bit more enjoyable for everyone there?”And I think if you start to do that, you start to develop this humor habit and you recognize that people use humor, it’s not that funny things happen to funny people. It’s that funny people see the world in a funny way. And the more you start to do it, the more you start to see opportunities for it.


Nice. I like that. It’s a good thought to leave us with. So, Drew, where can people go to stay in touch with you, your work, upcoming book?

Absolutely. So, you can find out more at humorthatworks.com. That’s where we’re sharing kind of… it’s meant to be a guide for anyone. Our goal is if anyone in the world wants to learn a little bit more about humor, we want to have some type of resource for you. So, humorthatworks.com. There’s blog resources, articles that you can share with yourself or for others. We have a book coming out that’s all about the what, why, and how of using humor in the workplace. We do hands on training programs. We do virtual programs, speaking engagements, all that kind of stuff. The goal is that if you decide, “Hey, I want to learn to use humor in the workplace,” we want to be able to help in whatever way. The starting point is humorthatworks.com. And you can reach me at [email protected]. Or if you love puns and bad jokes every now and then, you can follow me @drewtarvin on all of the social media.


Wonderful. Well, Drew, thanks a lot for being on the show. We look forward to having you on again later.

Yeah. Absolutely. Thanks for having me.

Andrew Tarvin is the world’s first Humor Engineer teaching people how to get better results while having more fun. He has worked with 35,000+ 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 a best-selling author, has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and FastCompany, and his TEDx talk has been viewed over 4 million times. He has delivered programs in 50 states, 20 countries, and 1 Planet (Earth). He loves the color orange and is obsessed with chocolate.

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