Drew Tarvin runs Humor That Works, a website and consultancy dedicated to the idea that bringing a little levity to your workplace can only increase your bottom line. He left his job at Proctor and Gamble at the end of June to go it full-time as a humor/business guru. A self-published book is forthcoming in the fall. We spoke with Tarvin to trade quips and witty repartee, all while sustaining a higher-than-average level of productivity.
FAST COMPANY: Who are you?
DREW TARVIN: I go by Drew, though the name out there is Andrew Tarvin. Through Humor That Works, I teach people and organizations how to use humor to be more productive, effective, and awesome. So far I’ve worked with more than 50 different organizations, including Proctor and Gamble, GE, and others.
When did you realize the power of humor in the workplace?
Over time, it happened. I’m an engineer by mindset and degree. However while in college, my best friend convinced me to start an improv comedy group. I didn’t have any type of performance background. I continued doing that while working at Proctor and Gamble after college. Over time I realized that a lot of the success I was having at P&G was due to stuff I’d learned at improv: the ability to think on my feet, not to be nervous at a presentation, connecting with people, and creating rapport. I started researching humor, and found out that it’s not just this soft skill—there’s real business value to it. Studies showed that it increased productivity in employees and enhanced creativity for problem solving.
Can you teach it? Aren’t comedians born, not made?
I disagree. A broad definition of humor is something that causes amusement—it may not cause laughter, but it may cause you to smile. It could be as simple as using pictures instead of words in a presentation, or including a personal story—something a little bit different that gets people to perk up, pay attention, smile, and stay invested. I think in large part, because of how dry a lot of workplaces are, there’s a much lower bar in terms of doing something humorous.
It’s sad that so many workplaces are so dry that all it takes is a shred of humanity to qualify as "humor."
It is sad. It’s one of those things where, I wish I didn’t have a job—I wish what I did wasn’t needed, that people didn’t need a coach to say, "Hey, use humor." People don’t realize the benefits of humor. One study showed that people who used humor in an initial interview, actually were making more money years later. There was a positive correlation between humor in the job interview and how much they were compensated later after having gotten the job.
Willy Loman in "Death of a Salesman" thinks that to get ahead you just need to be "well liked." That doesn’t work out so well for him, but it sounds like you’re saying he might have been on to something.
That’s part of it, but the base assumption here is you still have to do good work. If you’re a salesperson, you can’t be bad at sales and just be likable. You still have to do the work, to have results. But humor can be a way to improve results. It’s like dating—most people say a sense of humor and personality is most important. But there has to be a base level of attraction.
What do you say to the argument that some workplaces are too serious for humor?
If I’m getting heart surgery, that’s not necessarily the time I want the surgeon to add a bit of humor. "What would happen if we made his aorta into a balloon animal?" But one of my favorite anecdotes on this is about Abraham Lincoln. The story is that in the middle of the Civil War, Lincoln gathered all his cabinet members and brought them together to share an important document. But before he did that, he read a bit of Artemus Ward, a humorist at the time.
While he was reading it, he was cracking up—but he looked around and saw that no one else was laughing. He read another piece, and still no one was laughing. At this point he said, "Gentlemen, why don’t you laugh? With the fearful strain that is upon me night and day, if I did not laugh, I should die. You need this medicine as much as I do." The document he read after that was the first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation. One of our best presidents, at a crucial time, was presenting an important document—and he opened with humor. So my response when people say their organization is too serious is, "Is it more serious than the Civil War?" To me, no place should be completely devoid of humor.
Tell me a workplace humor joke.
I came up with a fake conversation. "How good are you at Powerpoint?" "I Excel at it." "Was that a Microsoft Office pun?" "Word."
That’s pretty funny.
Give me a subject, and I’ll try to come up with a pun on the spot.
Did you hear about the IPO for corn on the New York Stock Exchange? It was a really bad stalk option.
Ooh. That one's timely.
Exactly, because of the drought! I needed to work that detail in.