Does your company have a sense of humor? No, we didn’t think so. People are funny, but businesses tend to hide their humor gene in a locked supply closet, behind those old typewriter ribbons. Second City Communications (SCC), a division of the Chicago comedy theater, wants to help. (It also wants a piece of the action, but who doesn’t?) Since 1990, SCC has brought humor and improv skills to companies such as Coca-Cola and Motorola. Fast Company spoke with president Tom Yorton, writer-actors Ed Furman and Greg Mills, and writer-director Tracy Thorpe about improv, stiffs, and Enron.
Fast Company: You guys have performed for a lot of big clients, like Bank One and Major League Baseball. Can you tell me which was the least funny?
Thorpe: Not if we want to work for them again.
Thorpe: Oh yeah, they were stiff.
Furman: The most fun is usually with smaller companies where everyone knows one another. Those are easier to write for and ergo, the most fun.
FC: Does your act ever offend anyone?
Mills: Actually, it’s the opposite, because there are so many watchdogs, gatekeepers, and buffer zones, especially in the last year. There’s usually some assistant who goes, “Oh God, you can’t mention the color blue because Jack has a blue desk.” I had one client who wouldn’t let us use the word “bikini” because there were women in the audience and, God forbid . . .
Yorton: Yeah, 9 times out of 10, the boss is happy with it.
Mills: (imitating the boss) Bring back that scene with the blue desk–that was funny!
FC: I want to be funnier. Can you make me funnier?
Mills: The thing we try to show people is that if you are trying too hard to be funny and the center of attention, it may not be as good as giving it up for the ensemble. That’s one of our MOs for improv: Make your partner look good, because there’s nothing worse than a spaz who’s trying to be funny. Sometimes, though, I am that spaz.
Yorton: You’re right, there’s nothing worse.
Furman: Often, getting a laugh is just a by-product of good listening.
FC: Business doesn’t seem so funny these days. So why would a company want to hire you?
Furman: Humor is a way of looking at something, viewing something from a different angle. And if you can look at your business–the way your management team works, for example–from a slightly different angle, you’ll get the initial laugh. But you’ll also get a fresh perspective that may increase efficiency or generate an idea.
FC: What would you do if Enron invited you in for a gig?
Furman: Get cash up front.