Sunday, August 26, 2012

13 ways stand-up comedy ruins you for work

Work is funny, but not ha-ha funny.

On one hand, almost everything good that's ever happened to me at work happened because of stand-up comedy. The bottom line is that after trying to make people laugh onstage, everything else is a cinch.

On the other hand, work rewards a certain kind of person and stand-up comedy rewards a certain kind of person, and it's usually not the same person. When's the last time you saw a Fortune 500 CEO precede an important corporate announcement with a well-timed pratfall?

After I'd written most of this post, I caught this episode of Jerry Seinfeld's "Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee" in which he bounces the same idea off of Joel Hodgson. The discussion:
Seinfeld: "The idea of bosses and employees is just hilarious to us. Why is that so funny?"
Hodgson: "We don't have to do it, right?"
Seinfeld: "It's such a typically human attempt to organize what's unorganizable. We just see the hopelessness of trying to organize human endeavor into a building."
I teach for a living, which means that I can use many of the same techniques that work in stand-up comedy in the classroom. However, when class is out and it's time for meetings and desk work, I have a vague burning in the back of my skull telling me that, in the words of Adam Carolla, I may not be Taco Bell material.

I blame stand-up. Here's why:

1. You get used to saying what's on your mind.

Comedy is about finding the truth. Where "objective journalism" aims for some semblance of the truth and rarely finds it, stand-up comedy always finds the truth, because it's all about what's true to you, balance be damned. The best stand-ups find the places where what's true to them isn't what's true to the audience, and try to bring the audience around to the same viewpoint. The best employees do the opposite.

2. You get used to saying it with colorful language.

As Spencer Tracy says in Inherit the Wind:
“I don’t swear just for the hell of it. Language is a poor enough means of communication. I think we should use all the words we’ve got. Besides, there are damn few words that anybody understands.”
Your boss hasn't read, watched, or heard of Inherit the Wind.

3. You get used to reacting without thinking. 
Ad client: "I hate your creative."
Ad copywriter: "I hate you."
Hilarious stuff in the club - not quite as hilarious in the boardroom.

4. You laugh at things that other people don't find funny.

Comedians find jokes everywhere, even at funerals. So imagine how funny life is at the workplace, where pet peeves grow into full-fledged battles that last longer than most wars. Trouble is, the folks embroiled in these antagonisms rarely see the humor. So the next time Martha blows a gasket when someone steals her stapler, have the decency to laugh behind her back.

5. If you're not talking, you're bored.

Comics have trouble watching other comics onstage because they feel in their heart of hearts they should be up there. At work, the boss always has the floor. To a stand-up comic, this is the equivalent of the comedian who owns the comedy club: he or she gets all of the stage time, even if the jokes are terrible.

6. If someone in a position of authority tells you what to do, your default setting is to do the opposite.

For "the boss/employee" structure to work, everyone has to agree that the boss is the boss and the employees' best course of action is to do what the boss says. In comedy, if someone tells you that a joke is off limits, that's the place your mind constantly goes. The feeling only goes away after you inevitably go there. I give you Kramer and Daniel Tosh.

7. You like attention. 

In comedy, you succeed by getting noticed. At work, you succeed by not getting noticed.

8. You build friendships with the same kind of people as you. 

Familiarity leads to contempt, contempt leads to anger, anger leads to misery, misery loves company.  So, you team up with those people and become more emboldened about the things that bug you. Before you know it, you're firing cannons, shooting pistols, and screaming, "Storm the Bastille!"

9. You become used to immediate gratification. 
  • Comedy: You write a joke, you tell it, and you get a laugh. Total time elapsed: one hour. 
  • Work: You write an ad, you get the client to approve it, you get legal to approve it, you buy space to run it, and it runs. Total time elapsed: one year.
10. Your body needs rest after just one hour's work.

Build the George Costanza bed under your desk today. 

11. You groan out loud when you hear a cliche.

Yesterday's "happy camper" is today's "awesome sauce." In comedy, you try to say things in a way that "a normal person" would never say them. Since work is full of normal people, you must regularly resist the urge to roll your eyes when someone inevitably goes there and someone else inevitably says, "Don't go there, girlfriend!" 

12. You'd rather deal with the awful truth than fanciful phoniness.

When someone is direct, you know where he or she stands right away. In comedy, you have to be direct or you'll lose your audience's attention. But when you're direct at work, people can actually understand what you're saying, and that can get you in trouble. This is why it's rare to have actual discourse in the workplace without a good helping of passive sentences and vagueries on the side.

13. You know that none of it really matters, because one day you'll be dead.
Doctor: "You only have three days to live."
Patient: "I'm going straight to work, because every day feels like a year." 

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

How to get a Winnipeg tree removed in 700 easy steps

"I think that I shall never see/ a poem ugly as a tree (services company)." - Joyce Kilmer.

A lovely, old elm tree in my backyard took a beating in the big typhoon that recently blew through Winnipeg. But little did I know that it was not the answer blowin' in the wind, but a question: where can I find a reputable tree services company in this town?

Day one: save the elm!

 "Oh no, there's a huge crack in the tree!" I said to my friend, the squirrel. With love for my tree on the brain, I called my friends at company #1 - the company that bands my trees. 

Its workers showed up promptly and promised to try to save the tree. Later that day, they called and said, "No, the tree is cracked in two places and has to go."

The other issue: the tree threatens my house on one side and hydro wires on the other, so an unplanned fall wouldn't be good either way.

About to go away on vacation, I accepted the diagnosis, we made a deal and with a heavy heart, I headed out knowing that when I came back, the tree would be gone. Sniff, sniff.

Day six: I hate you, company #1

Cue my cell phone ringing on vacation day five. It was company #1!

"Hi. A guy got injured when he removed a tree. Not yours. Huh-huh, huh-huh. And now I'm going on vacation for two weeks."

Like the student with the double-barreled excuse ("it rained and I had a toothache"), it had the ring of "I never really intended to do this job anyway."

After bidding the company a cold goodbye, I gave my dad and his partner a call and they called company #2 to provide a quote in my absence.

I can't complain about the speedy attention and expertise of company #2's representative, but the quote came in high, and the company wouldn't be able to handle the job for a week. I figured I'd get another quote when I got home, since it's always best to have three quotes.

Day 10: the tree whisperer

So, I called company #3. The rep agreed that the tree has to go, provided a quote that fell somewhere between the first two, spoke fondly of "a relationship with Manitoba Hydro," and promised to get on the tree "this Wednesday" and, barring that, removing the really, really cracked limb in advance. Deal!

Day 18: what the hell?

Somehow by the end of the very week he was to start the job, that promise became, "I'm not allowed to touch the tree without Manitoba Hydro. It's their delay."

The tree whisperer's earlier promises all but forgotten (by him), I called Manitoba Hydro. The representative told me that "a crew was out earlier today, but I can't see their report, because they've gone home for the day."

Meanwhile the tree had started to really crack and looked like it would soon come down on the house. So, I called back the tree whisperer. He wasn't happy, but he came out and tied up the tree, ostensibly so it won't fall on the house when it inevitably snaps. If the tree and I were fit to be tied when he arrived, perhaps we both felt a little more confident when he left.

Day 22

That was the last time I heard from the guy, begging the question: if a tree falls in your backyard, and there's no tree services company around to hear it, does it make a sound?

I'll let you know.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

I've unlocked my inner Bruce Hornsby on GarageBand

Me. From Wikimedia Commons. 

That's just the way it is.

I've been having a ball fooling around with GarageBand iPad app this summer, which makes music creation easier and more fun than anyone could have reasonably expected for $4.99.

Perhaps the best thing about the app is discovering what kind of musician you are: the instruments you prefer, the pitch, the beat, the mood, the style. As they say in the Rock of Ages musical: "the dreams you come in with may not be the dreams you leave with."

So, it's with great horror that I've realized that I'm no David Bowie or Iggy Pop, but Bruce Hornsby - the singer, pianist, and poodle-headed performer famous for his song, "The Way It Is."

My first instinct was to fight it, but instead I've decided to go with the flow by recording a 35-second tribute to the man called "Bruce Hornsby Rules."

You can download and play Bruce Hornsby Rules here if the Box widget doesn't appear below. Enjoy. Thank you. Good night.  

Monday, August 13, 2012

The literary allusions of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

It's been a rough month for my childhood cultural icons.

We've lost Donald J. Sobol (Encyclopedia Brown author), Celeste Holm (Tom Sawyer actor), Sherman Hemsley (George Jefferson himself) and now Mel Stuart, director of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory - one of the best kids' movies ever made (read my review on

The film's original screenplay was written by Roald Dahl and punched up by David Seltzer, who - according to Stuart in his behind-the-scenes book, Pure Imagination - enhanced the dialogue, added the Everlasting Gobstopper and the fizzy-lifting drink storylines, developed the Mr. Slugworth character, and changed Veruca Salt's punishment (in the book, she's attacked by squirrels).

Among the film's joys are its many literary references. It's unclear who inserted them into the screenplay, but they're not in Dahl's original book, which may mean it was Seltzer. Stuart says they're among his favorite parts of the film:
"Miracle of miracles most children had no trouble understanding and appreciating these references. If they didn't understand them the first time around, they caught up with them when they saw the film in later years."
When you start dissecting the dialogue, the film is as much a mashup as the Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique. Unlike the Beastie Boys, Stuart confirms that the filmmakers got legal clearances for each of the lines, but "happily, most of them are from our good friend, William (public domain) Shakespeare."

One thing for sure: that Willy Wonka is a well-read guy. 

The literary allusions of Willy Wonka:

1. Shakespeare
  • "Where is fancy bred, in the heart or in the head?" (the Merchant of Venice) - when I was a kid, I thought it was "fancy bread." D'oh!
  • "So shines a good deed in a weary world." (the Merchant of Venice, though it's "naughty" world)
  • "Adieu, adieu, parting is such sweet sorrow." (Romeo and Juliet)
  • "Spring time, the only pretty ring time. When birds do sing, hey ding a ding, ding, sweet lovers love the spring." (As You Like It)
  • "Is it my soul that calls upon my name?" (Romeo and Juliet)
  • "Bubble cola, double cola, double bubble burp-a-cola -" (Macbeth - the "double toil and trouble" line from the witches)
2. Ogden Nash
  • "Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker." (Reflections on Ice-Breaking)
  •  "99...44...100 per cent pure." (99 44/100% Sweet Home)
3. Oscar Wilde
  • "The suspense is terrible. I hope it lasts." (The Importance of Being Earnest)
4. John Keats
  • "A thing of beauty is a joy forever." (Endymion: A Poetic Romance)
5. John Masefield
  • "All I ask is a tall ship and a star to sail her by." (Sea Fever)
6. Hilare Belloc
  • "Oh, you should never, never doubt what nobody is sure about." (The Microbe)
 7.  William Allingham
  • "Around the world and home again - that's the sailor's way." (Homeward Bound)
  • "Up the airy mountain, down the rushing glen, we dare not go a-hunting, for fear of little men." (The Fairies)
8. Neil Armstrong
  • "A small step for mankind, a giant step for us."
9. Thomas Edison
  • "Invention, my dear friends, is 93 per cent perspiration, six per cent electricity, four per cent evaporation, and two per cent butterscotch ripple."
10. Arthur O'Shaughnessy
  • "We are the music makers. We are the dreamers of dreams." (Ode)
11. Lewis Carroll
  • "You should open your mouth a little wider when you speak." (Through the Looking-Glass)
12. Horace (or was this updated by someone else?)
  • "A little nonsense now and then is relished by the wisest men." (Carmina)
13. Samuel Taylor Coleridge
  • "Bubbles, bubbles everywhere, but not a drop to drink." (The Rime of the Ancient Mariner - that "water, water" line)
14. The Bible
  • "Across the desert lies the promised land."
  • "Swifter than eagles. Stronger than lions."
Any others?

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Grandpa Larsen yells at Lollapalooza 2012

Out here in the fields. I fight for my meals. I get my back into my...hey, stop shoving! 

It's official: I'm too old for Lollapalooza.

Lolla 2012 marked the fifth time I've attended Perry Farrell's music fest - the fourth time in Chicago, where it remains until at least 2018. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: it will likely be my last one, unless Kate Bush (last tour: 1979) decides to play there with a reunited XTC (last tour: 1982). 

My reports from festivals past:

1. A grouchy Lou Reed smiles upon Lollapalooza (2009)
2. I'm not so gaga for Lolla 2010
3. Lollapalooza turns 20, my sneakers die at two (2011)

Like Lolla 2010, this year's fest brought out the grouchy grandpa in me. It was hot, oversold at 300,000 people, and filthier than ever (don't believe the eco-friendly hype). And that was before the typhoon moved in on Saturday, temporarily suspending the festival and leaving it smelling like one, giant outhouse.

The fest wasn't without its thrills. The best band of the festival, Florence + the Machine, was dynamite. I have the band's first album, but that didn't prepare me for the performance, which was funny, engaging, upbeat, and riveting. Should the band one day visit Winnipeg, I'll be first in line to buy tickets.

I also credit the festival for introducing me to my new, favorite band, Chicago's JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound. Purveyors of funky and retro R and B, and featuring one charismatic lead singer, the band was full of delights and surprises, like this awesome cover of Wilco's "I am Trying to Break Your Heart:"

Sadly, two great bands does not a festival make. At the top of my list of disappointments is one of my favorite bands on record, Iceland's Sigur Rós. The band played a set so mellow, its members might have very well evaporated from the stage before it was all over. Maybe they did: by then I was lulled into a heat- and music-induced trance.

The festival's rock bottom had to be the Black Sabbath reunion (its only performance in North America). Anyone who says it was great (Rolling Stone?!) is either on heavy drugs or a corporate shill. The only way to describe it is "sad."

The band opened its show with a seven-minute video of its greatest hits, which ultimately only served to be a depressing comparison between then and now. Within moments of the band taking the stage, you had to wonder if the show should have been called off on compassionate grounds. Ozzy Osbourne looked sick, thin, and sweaty, and he huffed and puffed his way though the songs.

The rest of my beefs:

1. Wristbands

Anyone over 15 who wears a wristband is, in the parlance of Iron Maiden's Bruce Dickinson, a wanker. I joined the wanker ranks with my Lolla three-day wristband, which can't be removed for the duration of the fest no matter how damp, smelly, and diseased it becomes.

2. Overselling

Each year, Lollapalooza increases its possible attendance by ostensibly creating more space. Technically speaking, this is true. However, the areas around the stages are always exactly the same size. This means that every year more people are being crammed into the same-sized concert space. For the first time in my Lolla-going history, the crowd felt like a dangerous place to be. The band playing at the time: M83.

3. Trash

There's lots of it. It's all over the place. It's gross. It smells. The Lolla brochure: "Explore the green scene at Lollapalooza!" If you're looking for it, it's under the garbage.

4. The kids

Drunk, high, obnoxious, gabby, texty, fist-fighting fence jumpers and booze smugglers, all. Parents: you've done a terrible job. 

5. The heat

It was 38 to 40 degrees each day. The line-ups at the free water stations are longer than the line-ups at the autograph tents. A glass of lemonade costs $8. Each person is allowed to bring in but one bottle of water. I'm thirsty just thinking about it.

6. The stages

It's hard to see bands at outdoor festivals at the best of times, but why are the Lolla stages big, enclosed boxes? The video screens also look like 90s technology (especially after recently seeing the Roger Waters tour) and are almost invisible in daylight. An upgrade is long overdue.


These things aside, Lollapalooza 2012 was totally awesome. Especially the part where I left the festival for the last time, cut off my wristband, and headed off to Portillo's for a hotdog and ice-cold beer - always a guaranteed way to calm Grandpa Larsen's ire. 

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Client-Agency Relationship on Educreations

Have you told your ad agency lately that you love it?

Today I tested the Educreations' screencasting app on iPad with the client-agency relationship (oops, sorry, I called it "Educreation" in the lesson).

Like ShowMe, this app lets you make and watch lessons to teach, inspire, and entertain. The two apps are very similar, but I'd give ShowMe a slight edge for its eraser icon (a bit easier to understand than the squiggly undo line on Educreations).

The source material (the stages of the client-agency relationship) are as they're defined by: Arens, William, Contemporary Advertising Ninth Edition, McGraw-Hill Irwin, 2004.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

How to improve bad customer service - on ShowMe

I'll ShowYou, bad customer service!

I've been testing ShowMe - an awesome iPad app and website that lets you screencast (teach!) or watch screencasting (learn) for educational, entertaining, and inspiring presentations. Like mine!

In this ShowMe presentation, I come back to one of my favorite topics - how to improve bad customer service at the drugstore and beyond.

I've somehow resisted the urge to name the worst offender in the screencast, but you and I both know it's _ _ _ _ _ _  _ _ _ _. Hint: the customer service is the minus in the plus.

I'm quite certain that this isn't what Bob Dylan had in mind when he sang, "The first one now will later be last..." but you can ask him when he plays Winnipeg in the fall.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Good and bad interview advice from the 80s

I ran across a stack of folded, stapled papers the other day.

Usually, they'd be unpaid parking tickets and requests to appear in court, but I was surprised to find that they're typed (on a typewriter!) "interview preparation" notes.

I'm not sure if my father gave them to me, I attended a seminar at some point (they're subtitled "Session IV"), or I typed them out in my sleep, but I found the advice to be surprisingly:
  • Good - the notes remind us of some of the in-person basics we may forget in a world that's gone all in on online.
  • Bad - some of the advice is so obvious, you can imagine a bumpkin hitting himself in the head and saying, "Gawwww-leee!" upon hearing it.
Unfortunately, the sheets aren't credited. If they're yours, I'd be happy to give you credit and return them for a gigantic finder'' fee.

This list is summarized from the handouts. When there's a second line, these comments are my own. 

Good advice:

1. Employers hire to make money, save money or save time. The applicant's ability to contribute to all of these basic needs is a major factor.
Remember: it's not about you, it's about the employer. 

2. Research the job. Know products and services, key people, industry issues and legislation, profitability and the company's prospects.
If you have an interview at a radio station: LISTEN to the radio station beforehand. 

3. Dress appropriately.

4. Speak clearly.
Is it just me, or are young men these days mumbling their way through life?

5. Arrive early.
If you're not 10 minutes early, you're late. 

6. Be confident.
But not arrogant. 

7. Ask questions.
My trick: bring a list, so you don't forget anything. 

8. Be truthful.

9. Thank the interviewer at the end of the interview.
Consider dropping off a thank-you card. 

10. Smile.

11. Sit up straight.

12. Let the interviewer lead the discussion.

13. Look at the interviewer.

14. Sell your qualifications rather than your need for the job.

15. Don't criticize former employees or workers.

16. Don't tell jokes.
But show a personality and a pulse!

17. Don't be a self-centered know-it-all.

Some of the questionable advice:

1. Visit the Better Business Bureau.
In person?

2. Know the name of the person you're going to meet at the interview.
"I'm supposed to meet with some dude or something."

3. Don't walk in with a lit cigarette.
Walk in with an unlit cigarette.

4. Say the interviewer's name at least twice during the interview.
"So, Alan, I hope that I get the job, Alan."

5. Leave when the interview is finished.
"I'll just sit here until you've come to a decision."

6. Call back.
"Are you ready to hire me yet?"

7. Show your eagerness by your walk.
Watch Benny Hill for inspiration. 

8. Give all the information requested, even if you think it's too personal.

9. Display documents only when more facts are requested.
"You say you were incarcerated for five years. How do we know this is true?"

10. Be yourself.
Unless you're a jerk. 

11. Make a written note of time, date, place when asked to call or return for another interview.
Naw, just try to remember it. 

12. Remove your hat.
But leave the monocle right where it is.

12. Don't sit unless you've been invited to do so.

13. Don't call yourself "Mr." or "Miss."
"Mr. Larsen would like a job. I'm Mr. Larsen."

14. Don't walk in as if you were on a Sunday afternoon stroll.
Unless the interview takes place on a Sunday afternoon.

15. Don't shake hands like a dead fish.
Shake hands like a live fish.

16. Don't appear with the smell of liquor on your breath.
 Cover the smell with mints.

17. Don't squint - wear glasses if you need them.
"Who said that?"

18. Don't apply for a job when you have an unpleasant cold.
Apply when it's more pleasant. 

19. Don't wear lodge emblems, political buttons, or insignia.
"We know you're a fan of Frankie Goes to Hollywood, but the shirts have to go."

20. Don't wear sunglasses during the interview.
"Mr. Nicholson, we've decided to hire someone else."