As we settle into week 4 of the stay at home initiative, many of us are experiencing a strange feeling of limbo. We are beginning to develop routines while also counting the days until this is over. Yet the “end” is unclear. We have no way of knowing what the timeline for getting back to normal will be. And there are many people who can’t settle into a temporary groove: those who have been displaced, lost their jobs, or who have been thrust into primary caregiver roles that compete with other responsibilities. This moment is of course most challenging of all for those with COVID19 and their loved ones.
At CESR we have been asking ourselves how we can help one another with the stresses, distractions and anxieties we are all facing. We are lucky to have access to Leeds Professor Peter McGraw, director of the Humor Research Lab (HuRL) and author of Shtick to Business, a just released book about what business can learn from comedy and comedians, to help us identify key strategies for helping one another cope with today’s extraordinary circumstances.
In his book, McGraw argues that behind comedians’ ability to make us laugh lies a highly developed skill set in innovation and creativity, analysis and critical thinking, leadership and problem solving. We asked McGraw how we might use comedy techniques to help us all function at our best in this extremely challenging moment.
Lessons from Improv
“The existing Standard Operating Procedures are not well equipped for this present moment when we are needing to improvise all the time. The best leaders and teams will be the ones that embrace the principles of improv,” McGraw argues.
Those include creating a scene out of nothing, cooperation, and paying close attention to other people. A second lesson from comedy for the present day is the value of combining different perspectives. As McGraw explores in his new book, much of comedy is structured as a doubles’ act. He believes that good comedy comes out of having differences. “When things start to become less and less certain, diversity of opinion starts to matter even more,” he told us.
Changing your Mindset
In his book, McGraw notes that comedians are rule breakers, and that comedy works in part by first understanding the world as it is, then violating boundaries. Arguably, we are all living in transition these days and the rules we are used to no longer apply. These circumstances are perfect for thinking like a comedian.
For example, has anyone used Zoom backgrounds to go on a world tour? Or started a team challenge to identify each other’s location-of-the-day? And “quarantine beards” are a real thing - some people have committed not to shave until this is over. These small acts of subversion meet the criteria of comedy as McGraw explains it by breaking rules safely, leaning into constraints, and using them to innovate. They have a profound impact on our psyche by allowing us to laugh and poke fun, while acknowledging how difficult this really is.
McGraw’s starting point in Shtick to Business is that comedy relies on making an audience uncomfortable in a safe way. One technique is to recognize unspoken biases, and respond in the opposite way you would expect. This is called reversal. An example of this for the COVID19 era might be to change the mindset of “stuck at home” to “safe at home.” As McGraw explains it, inverting a thought to change perspective opens up new possible solutions to a problem.
“A comedic perspective doesn't need to be funny for it to be useful.” McGraw says. “You can turn ‘I’m stuck at home this is awful’ into ‘I'm stuck at home this is great - not only because I'm helping the world but also because I can spend more time with my family, or grow a beard.’ Looking to find the good in the bad is a very basic reversal.”
Another thing comedy does well, McGraw says, is address fear of change. McGraw makes the case that comedy embraces the unexpected - the old you zigged/I zagged joke structure. When you apply that to your work, it encourages risk tolerance and reveals opportunities that may otherwise have been hidden. By challenging the typical ways of thinking you invite creativity. If this pandemic doesn’t get us thinking in new ways about all sorts of things, large and small, nothing will.
A large chunk of McGraw’s new book is about teamwork. The lone genius is a myth, McGraw points out. In fact, comedians collaborate with audiences when developing a new stand up routine, they debrief each other’s acts to help make them sharper, and that one “star” performer in an improv group only shines because everyone else is supporting them. From this McGraw concludes that successful groups are reciprocal and focus on elevating the team as a whole, rather than on individual contributors.
“We are all supporting actors,” he explains. "Everyone has to have the perspective of helping make everyone around them a star. Doing whatever you can to help the people on your team excel is going to make the entire team better off.”
There are many additional lessons that McGraw covers in his book. He notes that comedians hone the ability to be flexible and responsive. They know how to make revisions on the fly. They are resilient and use lots of small failures, what McGraw calls “success by 1,000 cuts,” to identify their best ideas. And they are incredible communicators. While many people think comedians are naturally talented, “what seems like brilliant off the cuff comedy is the result of a strenuous writing process,” McGraw explains.
So what can we learn from comedians? According to McGraw: a lot. “While this book wasn’t written for a pandemic, it is surprisingly relevant for this present moment,” he told us. And we agree.
More Peter McGraw:
Sign up for his webinar April 8th and learn more about “What the Masters of Comedy Can Teach Us About Getting Through A Crisis and Building a Serious Career.”
More about Shtick to Business
Check out his Youtube playlist
I’M NOT JOKING, a podcast that looks at the lives of funny people from entertainment, business, science, and the arts.