John Morreall, a professor at the College of William and Mary, is the founder of Humorworks, a consulting firm for companies such as AT&T, Cisco Systems, IBM and Time Warner. He has written four books on humor and is working on a new one titled “Funny Business” with New Yorker cartoon editor Bob Mankoff.
You say that humor increases productivity, reduces conflict, and fosters change. Is this a joke?
Humor is healthy, especially the way it reduces stress. Humor is the opposite of fight-or-flight emotions — especially fear and anger. I can’t be laughing with you and angry or afraid of you at the same time.
How does it encourage creativity?
Humor makes us think more flexibly. People who think funny do better on creativity studies. To put it really simply, humor loosens up your brain to think of more possibilities and be more open to the wild and wacky ones. There is a guy at the State University of New York at Buffalo named Roger Firestien who has a center for the study of creativity. When he teaches brainstorming, he says you should put a joker in the group — somebody who will come up with preposterous ideas. Very often that will stimulate people to come up with ideas that will work. Let me give you an example. A bunch of paint engineers were moaning and bitching about how hard it is to get paint off a house. One guy says, “Why don’t we just put gunpowder in the paint and blow it off the house?” That led people to think, “What could we do that would be the equivalent of gunpowder?” They came up with a chemical they added to the paint and when you wanted to remove the paint you did a light wash with a second chemical over the first one. That didn’t blow it off the house, but it allowed it to drop off.
You cite studies that suggest the majority of executives rank humor as an essential attribute but the majority of business professors do not. What does that say about the effect of MBA programs?
MBA programs make people think more narrowly, not have as many people skills, and not be as widely educated as a business leader should be. It encourages too much specialization and makes people too serious and not flexible enough. So I think the overall effect of MBA programs is negative.
Who’s the funniest person in business?
Easily, Herb Kelleher of Southwest Airlines. In 1992, Southwest came up with a new advertising slogan and very quickly they got a call from another airline that had been using that slogan for about 10 years. Now, the standard way to handle that in American business is to turn it over to the attorneys. But Kelleher called the head of the other airline and said, look we can work this out much quicker: I hereby challenge you to an arm wrestling match in the in Dallas Sports Arena. They billed this as Malice in Dallas. Kelleher at this point was in his late sixties, a chain smoker who drinks a lot of bourbon. Kelleher comes into the ring and across his manager’s chest is a bandoleer, except instead of bullets in the loops he’s got airline-sized bottles of Wild Turkey. The guy from the other company was in his thirties, had been a weightlifter in college, was in great shape, and just whipped Kelleher. Kelleher was chain smoking through the thing, making jokes right and left. By the end of the thing, the guy from the other airline was laughing so hard he said, “You can keep the slogan.” Now this is not taught in business schools.
What’s the most humorless office you’ve ever seen.
It’s now called the High Falls Brewing Company, but the old name was the Genesee Brewing Company, in Rochester, New York, my hometown. The relationship between management and the employees was just dismal. The head of human resources was this big domineering woman and she talked to the guys in the brewery like bad little boys. I was brought in to do my presentation at 8:30 in the morning on a cold, dreary day in February. The employees were so disgruntled, so pissed off, so resentful that they sat turned away from me — they deliberately faced in the opposite direction! And these were not the guys who put caps in the bottles but line supervisors. They didn’t laugh through my whole presentation. At the end, this lady came up to me with a case of Genesee Cream Ale and said, “We’re not going to pay Dr. Morreall, instead we’re going give him this” — and she rams this case of 24 bottles into my solar plexus. I went “Oof!” That’s when the guys laughed — they found that funny.
These guys would like The Three Stooges, right?
Exactly. They’d root for Moe to hit Larry and Curley with a frying pan.
Speaking of the Stooges, what’s the difference between male and female humor in the office?
Male humor is often competitive. Males see humor like football or war. We’re out to score points, and if I’m successful, it’s at your expense. This is why males engage in practical joking that causes inconvenience and sometimes suffering. Female humor tends to be more supportive. Even when it’s focused on a stupid mistake, it doesn’t put the other person down. Here’s the ultimate example of a practical joke that females would never engage in. When we lived in Florida there was a utility company that had two guys out digging a trench. One guy finds a vine that’s a couple of feet long. For a joke, he tosses it onto the head of the other guy and yells, “Snake!” The other guy dies of a heart attack.
Heh, heh. When you tell that story to an audience, the men probably laugh.
They do. Moe, Curly, and Larry all laugh. The women go, “Ooohhh!” If you’re using humor with women and someone gets hurt, you can just write it off. They’re not going to find it funny.
Are authoritarian leaders afraid of humor?
Authoritarian types initiate the humor but tend not to accept it from an underling. In a meeting, if you initiate humor you’ve got the table. Authoritarian bosses tend to be distrustful of humor because they don’t want to give up their power.
If you’re the boss and somebody puts you down, what do you do?
I don’t have a formula, but if there’s any way you can take it, take it. Willingness to expose yourself to criticism in a playful way just makes you look so much better and so much more human. People will feel a loyalty to that person that an authoritarian boss just cannot command.
Heard any good jokes lately?
I don’t deal in jokes, which sounds weird for a humor specialist. My recommendation is always prefer a story over a joke — especially a true story that happened to you. A joke is highly artificial. If you tell me a joke, I know it didn’t happen to you, and I know you didn’t make it up. It has nothing to do with you or me. Jokes are very special pieces of language and require incredible economy. The punch line has to be in exactly the right place and changing just a couple of words wrecks the joke. According to many estimates, fewer than 10 percent of people can tell a joke successfully.
So stick to sonnets.
Stick to sonnets. I’ve got to use that line.