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." 


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