Andrew Tarvin – Humor Engineer (TEDx Talk TRANSCRIPT)
Six years ago, I was sitting out with some friends in New York City when I got a notification on my phone. And I was surprised to find that I had a text message from my grandmother.
I was surprised, because my grandmother at the time was 78 years old, and she had never sent a text before.
And I will tell you the first text was adorable. It read, “Dear Andrew, trying out texting. Love, your grandma.”
I was like “Aw, she thinks it’s a letter!”
So I sent her a message back, “Hey grandma, it’s a text. You don’t have to include all that.”
Her response was “Dear Andrew, Okay. Love, your grandma.”
My favorite part is it’s always “Love, your grandma,” like if it was “Love, grandma” I’d be confused.
If it was like, “Dear Andrew, have a good time in Texas. Love, grandma,” I’d be like “Grandma? Who’s grandma?”
But my grandmother’s still figuring some things out.
A couple of years ago, I went to Switzerland for work, came back, sent a message to grandmother: ”Hey grandma, just got back from Switzerland.”
Her response was, ”Dear Andrew, Switzerland? WTF.”
All right, so I called my grandmother up, ”Grandma, what do you think WTF means?”
And she’s like, ”Oh well, someone at Bridge told me it means ‘Wow That’s Fun.”
I was like, ”That is exactly what it means.” I’m not going to explain that to my grandmother.
But over time, I’ve come to realize that I think the world would be a happier place if more people thought WTF — if more people were like my grandmother and thought, “Wow, that’s fun.”
Because in 2012, I left my corporate job at Procter & Gamble to teach people about the value of humor. I’ve worked with more than 35,000 people at more than 250 organizations on how to be more productive, less stressed and happier, using humor.
But when people hear what it is that I do, they are a little bit skeptical, because no one thinks of humor as a bad thing.
Is there anyone here that doesn’t like to laugh? Anyone that’s like “No, I hate feeling joy in my body?” No. People think of humor as a nice-to-have. Oh, if I enjoyed my work more, if I had some fun, it would be great, but if not, oh well.
The reality is that humor is a must-have. In today’s overworked, underappreciated, stress-filled, sleep-deprived culture, humor is a necessity. Because humor gets people to listen, it increases long-term memory retention, it improves understanding, aids in learning and helps communicate messages.
It also improves group cohesiveness, reduces status differentials, diffuses conflict, builds trust and brings people closer together. It does these things and this stuff and on and on and on… And it’s all backed by research case studies and real-world examples.
And these are some impressive benefits, right? Humor can help you to look better, live longer and make it rain, right?
Because people who use humor are paid more. And anyone can learn these benefits. Because when I talk to people about humor or comedy, sometimes they’re intimidated. That event that I went to in Switzerland a couple years ago that made my grandmother say WTF, it was to speak at a conference.
And one of the other speakers at that conference was this gentleman. His name is Kevin Richardson. He’s also known as the lion whisperer. If you’ve ever seen that YouTube video of a lion hugging a dude, that’s this guy. He lives in South Africa, he raises lions from when they’re really young, and they treat him as one of the pride. He’s basically the human version of Rafiki from The Lion King.
But Kevin and I were talking before the event. He found out that I did stand-up comedy, and he was like ”Huh, I could never do that, it’s too scary.”
I was like ”But you live with lions!” As if telling a joke is somehow scarier than living with lions.
But so many people have this perception as if the ability to make people laugh is somehow encoded in our DNA.
But the reality is that humor is a skill, and if it’s a skill, that means we can learn it. Because I am someone who has had to learn how to use humor. Because I’ve done over a thousand shows as a stand-up comedian, improviser, storyteller, spoken word artist. I’ve spoken and performed in all 50 states in 18 countries and on one planet.
I have fans in more than 150 countries, based on people who have accidentally come to my website. I’ve been called hilarious and smart, at least that’s what my mom says.
And I’ve been seen on The Daily Show with John Stewart, in the audience. I recently went to my high school reunion though, and when people found out that I did stand-up comedy, they said, ”But you’re not funny.”
And in some ways they’re right because I would tell you that this is not the face of funny. There’s a lot that’s funny about this picture; none of it is intentional.
And I have the blonde tips up top like I wanted to be in a boy band. The theme was ”Into a Dream,” I am no one’s dream — in this picture.
Because, growing up, I was never the life of the party or the class clown. My senior year — my senior superlative, I was voted teacher’s pet. And this is going to surprise many of you, but it’s because I am a nerd.
And if you’re wondering what type of nerd, the answer is yes; computer, math, sci-fi, Dungeons & Dragons, Star Wars, Star Trek, Starbucks — all of them.
But most specifically, I’m an engineer. I went to the Ohio State University, got a degree in computer science and engineering. And after I graduated, I started working at Procter & Gamble as an IT project manager. And that’s what people expected me to do, because based on my personality assessment, that’s what it suggests I should be as a computer science engineer.
But I’ve learned that we’re not a personality assessment. Because my assessment is I’m a Type-A, blue square, conscientious, INTJ with the sign of Aquarius. That means I’m an ambitious, stubborn introvert who likes long walks on the beach, but I’ve learned we’re not our personality assessments.
They might give us insight into our behavior or tell us what motivates us or tell us which Disney Princess we would be — Pocahontas — but they don’t define us; instead, we are defined by our actions.
So I started doing comedy in college. My best friend there in the middle wanted to start an improv comedy group. He needed people and forced me to join. And as you can probably tell from this picture, we were not very good. At least to start out, we had no idea what we were doing.
We watched “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” and tried to repeat what we saw. And what I didn’t have in comedy skill I made up in comedy project management. “If we’re going to do this for real, we’ll practice three times a week, we’ll have a business meeting every Monday, and we’re going to go back and watch our shows as if it was game tape.”
And over the course of two years, we got better. We went from performing in the basements of residence halls to performing twice a week at a theater on campus, never really learning how to take a good picture. But that’s how you learn the skill of humor. It’s through practice and repetition. And anyone can do these things.
And you don’t have to become a professional comedian to use comedy, but we can learn from the professionals. For example, from stand-up, we can learn about how to share your point of view, because Louis C.K. has a very specific way of seeing the world, which is different than Ellen DeGeneres, which is different than Tig Notaro, Dave Chappelle or Chris Rock. Everyone has their own perspective.
Some people tell me that I kind of look like the intersection of Hugh Jackman and Conan O’Brien. Other people are like, “Ah, I kind of see David Tennant from Doctor Who.”
One woman told me, ”I think you look like Justin Timberlake but from here to here.”
And we’re going to ignore the guy that told me I look like Clay Aiken. Right, just completely. Everyone has their own perspective.
And we can use that perspective as a way to connect with other people, right? We can use it to say, ”Oh, we’re alike.” How many people here like desert? People love dessert. I love desserts. I am obsessed with milkshake. So it’s the most efficient form of dessert because of the deliciousness of ice cream in an easy-to-consume form.
But I don’t understand mint chocolate. I don’t know if we have any mint chocolate fan. I’ve never been eating chocolate and been like, ”You know what would go great with this? Toothpaste.”
We can share a perspective as a way to connect. We can also share a perspective as a way to make a point. Because I will tell you that I have always understood computers much more than I understand humans.
Because when something goes wrong with the computer, you get an error message. When something goes wrong with a human, you get feelings. Things would be so much easier if humans came with error messages, wouldn’t they?
Say you’re overworked, overwhelmed, a little bit stressed out, it would just pop up: “Warning! System overload. Please restart by taking a nap.”
Because we all know naps are the human version of, “Just turn it off and then turn it back on again.”
Some error messages you wouldn’t even have to change. Say, you’re out flirting with a waitress, she’s not really feeling it. It would just pop up: “Error. Unable to establish connection to server.” Things would be so much easier.
But the reality is that humans aren’t computers, no matter how adorable they are when they pretend to be. Because we, as humans, not only have to manage time, we have to manage energy.
Because it doesn’t matter how much time we have if we’ve never had the energy to do anything with it. From improv, we can learn how we can explore and heighten a point of view.
Because the fundamental mindset of improvisation is “Yes, and…” It’s how improvisers at UCB, Second City and ComedySportz make things up off the top of their head. And we can use that same thing, take what they do, accept and build, explore and heighten and say, ”If this is true, what else is true?”
Because it took me going to the state of Florida to realize that the rapper Flo Rida got his name from his home state of Florida, and he put a space in it. That blew my mind!
We could say, ”If this is true, what else could be true?” We could say, “I think there should be a Hispanic factory in Dover that goes by De La Ware.” Or like, “There could be a female internet detective in Biloxi who goes by Misses IP, PI.”
And if this is true, what else is true? If we can use ”Yes, and” to create humor, we can also use ”Yes, and” as a way to connect with other people. We can think of that stereotypical small talk conversation where people are like, ”Ah, how about this weather?”
You say, “Yes, and if you were not at this event right now, how would you be out enjoying the weather?”
And we can turn an awkward conversation into something more meaningful where you learn about the person. ”With beautiful weather, I go outside, or I go hiking or swimming.” If you’re me, you stay inside, because you’re very pale. I like to use SPF building; it’s the best protection.
We learn about people through ”Yes, and.” We can also use a yes-and mindset to have more fun, because the reality is that the average person works 90,000 hours in their lifetime. Ninety thousand hours! That’s the entire length, the entire discography of Netflix. That is a lot of time.
And we can say, ”Yes, I’m going to work 90,000 hours, and I might as well enjoy it.” Between my junior and senior year of high school, I worked in a factory, and I will tell you what was not a very exciting job. And at the time, I thought that I might, in the future, want to become an international hip-hop superstar.
So, to pass the time, I would think of rhymes in my head, then I’d write them down in a notebook a little bit later. And I recently found one of those notebooks and discovered why I never became a hip-hop superstar.
Because one of the rhymes was, “Hydrogen plus hydrogen plus oxygen too, bonded together with covalent glue. What do you get, just a thing called water, yeah, it’s teaming up and it’s only getting hotter.”
It’s the reason why I never became a hip-hop superstar. But it still helped me to pass the time to create humor, to create fun.
And finally from sketch, we can learn about the importance of commitment to performance. Because the characters from Saturday Night Live, Key & Peele, Monty Python, they’re so enjoyable, because the actors are committed to the performance. And they’re confident in their presentation, because it’s like dating, right?
People tell you that they want to date someone who is confident. A couple years ago, I was with some friends at a bar, and I saw this beautiful girl at the bar.
”You should go talk to her.”
”I can’t do that.”
”I don’t have ‘game.”’
”You don’t need ‘game,’ you just need confidence.”
But they don’t tell you that they want that confidence in certain areas. Because no woman wants a man who’s confident in math. That’s what I’ve got.
So I was like, ”All right. I’m going to try a math pickup line.” So I went up to the girl and I was like, ”Hey, girl. Are you a vertical asymptote? Because your beauty has no limits.”
She was like, ”What did you just say?”
So I tried again, and I was like, ”Hey, girl. Are you opposite over hypotenuse? Because you’re making me want to sin.”
She was like, ”I think you should probably leave.”
So I left, right?
But then a few hours later, I was like, “Oh, what I should’ve said was, ‘Hey girl, you’re way above average, don’t be mean.”’
Has that ever happened to you, where you thought of something like four hours after the event? That’s actually a good thing, it’s called staircase wit. The idea of ”this moment happens here,” and then you think of this idea in the staircase. That’s a good sign, because that means you have comedic instinct.
And through practice and repetition, you can shorten the time it takes to have that a-ha moment from being four hours later to only three hours later, to only two to ten minutes to, then, happening in the moment.
Because a reflection on the past leads to action in the future. And so we become more comfortable, more confident using humor, the more that we actually do it. It’s like Amy Cuddy says: ”Fake it until you become it.”
I know there’s a couple of people that are like, ”All right, Justin Timberlake eyes. What if I’m not funny?”
The truth is if you have ever made someone laugh, even if it’s because you tripped up the steps while going up the steps, you would still use humor.
But even if you’re not ready to try creating humor, you can still benefit from humor by being a shepherd of humor. You can share quotations out, you can share a TED talk that you enjoyed, or you can use images in your presentations.
Because I did not take this picture. I did not go to Sri Lanka. I do not know this shepherd or any of these goats. I found it on Flickr under a Creative Commons license and shared it with all of you, because I enjoyed it.
But even if you’re not ready to create humor, and you don’t think that you can find something interesting on the Internet, you can still use humor if you know how to smile.
Because when we see someone else smile, we are primed to mirror that behavior with mirror neurons in our brain. And when we smile, they smile: we create a human connection. Other people are like, ”But what if no one laughs? What if I try humor, and there’s an awkward silence?”
Well, it’s really only awkward if you spend time on it, if you dwell on it. And the reality is that no one has ever been fired because of a bad joke. An inappropriate one, maybe, but not a bad joke.
Because a bad joke is something like, “I once had to miss class because of hypothermia, I was too cool for school.” That’s a bad joke.
An inappropriate joke is one that has an inappropriate subject, has an inappropriate target or comes at an inappropriate time. But as long as we are positive and inclusive, we’ll be okay.
Because then if no one laughs at our joke, it’s just now a positive and inclusive statement.
Finally, people are like ”What if no one takes me seriously? ‘What if people think of me as a jester or a clown?”
If you’re going to use humor at work, recognize that humor doesn’t replace the work. Humor is like the salt of a meal. You wouldn’t eat an entire meal of salt, would you? Because that would make you a horse. Do you want to be a horse? I say nay.
But you can still use humor as long as you’re making it more productive. Managers actually want it, because they know you’re going to be more engaged and get better results.
But let’s say you work for an organization that says no fun whatsoever. The reality is that no one can control how you think. No one can prevent you from listening to a comedy podcast on your way home from work so that you relieve stress and show up more present for your family.
No one can stop you from creating a Twitter account to write puns. No one can keep you from coming up with chemistry raps while you’re working. The reality is that job satisfaction, your outlook, your way of managing stress is entirely your responsibility and is the choice that you make. And this is a skill of humor.
It starts by sharing your point of view, and then we explore and heighten that point of view. And we yes — and both our work and our life, and finally we practice, perform and repeat, because that’s how we get better.
And people can take an improv class, or you can try stand-up comedy, but we can also just be more aware of how we create humor every single day. And anyone can do these things.
I’ll tell you, the funniest person I know is my grandmother, the one that texts me. And she’s elevated her game from texting to Facebook. She’s now on Facebook and she comments on every single one of my status updates.
And I can’t tell if my grandmother is the nicest, most sincere grandmother in the world, or if she is secretly trolling me.
A couple of months ago, I posted, ”I’m trying to decide if I should become an athlete or a criminal, so I made a list of pros and cons.”
My grandmother’s response was one word: ”Funny.”
I was like, “I don’t know.
Does she think it’s funny, or is she messing with me?”
A couple weeks later, I posted, ”I think a cozy bar that serves figs would make for a plum date spot.”
My grandmother’s response was, ”Ha, ha.”
And I was like, “There’s something about the comma.”
And I’m like, “She’s messing with me.”
Then a couple weeks ago, I posted, ”Converting the numbers 51, 6 and 500 to Roman numerals makes me LIVID.”
My grandmother’s response was, ”Hey, this one is actually good.”
Trolled by my own grandmother.
It doesn’t matter, your age, your income, your perspective, your personality assessment, your senior superlative or your celebrity doppelganger. Anyone can learn to be funnier. And it all starts with a choice, a choice to try to find ways to use humor, a choice to be like my grandmother, to look at the world around you and think, “WTF – Wow, that’s fun.”
Download This Transcript as PDF here: The Skill of Humor_ Andrew Tarvin at TEDxTAMU (Transcript)
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