Dr. Peter McGraw is just your run of the mill behavioral economist and global expert in the scientific study of humor. Yes, you heard that right. This is an actual job and it’s Peter’s job. It’s fitting that he’s also the author of the new book, Shtick to Business: What the Masters of Comedy Can Teach You about Breaking Rules, Being Fearless, and Building a Serious Career.
Stick around for this fascinating interview that is also not surprisingly very fun and probably a different slant on business than you’ve heard before.
Nikki Van Noy: I’m here today with Dr. Peter McGraw who has just released his new book, Shtick to Business: What the Masters of Comedy Can Teach You about Breaking Rules, Being Fearless, and Building a Serious Career. Peter, welcome to Author Hour.
Dr. Peter McGraw: Thank you, it’s great to be here. You know, when someone else says the title of your book, it sounds way better than when you say it yourself.
Nikki Van Noy: It’s a little bit more authentic that way, or official is the word.
Dr. Peter McGraw: I mean, I’ve been saying the title forever and so it’s just so nice to hear someone else say it and say it in such an exciting fashion.
Nikki Van Noy: You’re officially an author now. What a great title. I love it, Shtick to Business.
Dr. Peter McGraw: Yeah, it’s fun. I kind of fussed around with a few other titles and then when that came to me, it actually came through a friend and someone who shows up in the book briefly. I immediately grabbed it. I was like, “Okay, we’re done searching. This is the title.”
It is a really nice connection to one of the lessons in the book, if I could tell you?
Nikki Van Noy: Absolutely.
Dr. Peter McGraw: One of the things that I think people think of when they think of comedies, they think of that kind of lone wolf, the lone genius coming out with jokes. When you really look at comedy, what you find is, what I like to call group genius, that is a creative idea may come from an individual, but the execution of that idea relies on other people. I call this cooperate to innovate.
When you look deeply into comedy, you think about a sketch, for example. You have a sketch writer who comes up with a premise. You have a writing team that helps punch it up, then you have a comedy director who works with actors that turn that premise, those words into an actual sketch. Even a standup comic needs other comics to help with punch ups, needs comedy bookers and comedy club managers to get on stage and then they need an audience in order to try out new material.
When you see a standup comedian doing a Netflix special, all those jokes land because of the thousands of audience members who have seen various versions of those jokes over the previous year. A book like Shtick to Business is no different than that. Yes, I had my moments of lone genius, but the actual execution of the book, even coming up with the perfect title, I need other people.
What I encourage readers to do is to think about who you need in order to make your ideas a reality, in order to launch that new business, in order to gain new skills, in order to, as I like to say, build a serious career.
Comedy and Business
Nikki Van Noy: That is a perfect example of what you’re talking about. Before we dive into the book, I would love you to share with readers a little bit about your work because I have literally never heard of this job before. You’re a behavioral economist and global expert in the scientific study of humor. What is that job exactly and how did you get it?
Dr. Peter McGraw: Well, the best job, I didn’t apply for it. I’ll be honest, I’ve been highly influenced by this new set of friends that I have, these professional comedians. As I like to say, we can learn a lot from their peculiar practices and perspectives. I kind of started out as a run of the mill academic. I was doing research on things like what makes things wrong, like looking at moral psychology and why is the TSA such just a terribly wrong organization.
I was looking into those kinds of topics and one day, I was giving a talk and I made the audience laugh at something that they weren’t supposed to be laughing at. A hand went up in the back of the room and someone said, you know, you’re talking about moral violations, things that are wrong, that are disgusting and that are outrageous and yet we’re laughing, why? I had no idea, no answer to that question.
I went back to my home university, thought about it and said, “This is important, this is something that I should study, I’ve got the skills to do it, no one in my field is doing it, here’s an opportunity.” I just started small with one paper and then it blossomed into more or less a full-time job and so, I launched the humor research lab, I started collaborating with lots of people writing dry esoteric papers.
Really, what ended up being the thing that mattered was that I ended up leaving the lab–spending lots of time in dingy green rooms, trying improv myself, trying standup myself and then forcing my friendship on the world’s funniest people and then seeing what they did. They don’t seem very professional but actually, they have really professional techniques to help them do one of the most challenging jobs in the world.
Nikki Van Noy: That is a great segue into something I wanted to ask you which is inherent to this book obviously. That is, what does comedy have to do with business?
Dr. Peter McGraw: At first, it doesn’t seem like it has much to do with business, but when you start to look at both of them, there are some really important similarities. I teach an MBA course in marketing management and in the first class I open the class, I put my briefcase next to the podium and I say, “Business is hard, business is hard.”
Anybody who has worked in business knows that that’s true. It’s hard to create products that delight customers and it’s hard to create marketing communications that cut through the clutter and it’s hard to climb the corporate ladder, it’s hard to start a new business and turn it into the next Amazon or Tesla or AirBNB.
Well, you know who has a hard job also are the people who are tasked with making us laugh on command. When you really start to look at what works in business, it’s escaping the status quo, it’s escaping the way we’ve been doing things for years because what business rewards is creativity, is innovation, is doing something in a way that no one has ever done it before.
Well, guess what? Every joke, every good joke, at least is a new way of telling a joke, right? It’s never been done that way before. Comedy places such importance on novelty, on creativity, that comedians have learned these tactics that help them excel at this very difficult task. What I’m saying in Shtick to Business is very simple–we can learn from the people who show up to work in cargo shorts.
Just because they don’t look like professionals, just because they don’t look like Elon Musk and talk like Elon Musk, we can learn a lot from them. I created this book to be this very fun way of getting a new perspective on a tough job.
Nikki Van Noy: What you’re saying makes so much sense but my mind would have never gotten there on its own. That’s fascinating.
Dr. Peter McGraw: I have to say that this wasn’t my first idea, which also happens to relate to one of the lessons in the book. Every chapter focuses on a big lesson and then in-between chapters, I’ve added what I call act out’s–these are sort of mini-lessons, kind of pallet cleansers in-between the chapters.
One of those act outs is called third thoughts and the idea is simply this–often, your first idea for a joke or a premise for a sketch isn’t the best idea. It’s sort of the obvious idea, so Lorne Michaels in Saturday Night Live, is on the lookout for what he calls first premises.
He quickly dismisses the first premise and tells the sketch writer, keep working on that. Because the first premise is the idea the audience would have also. It doesn’t feel special. Creativity is often the outcome of persistence. “I’m just going to keep creating ideas, keep creating ideas. Most of them are going to be bad. But I’m looking for that one special one.”
My first idea for a book was to write a book about humor and leadership, and how you can get ahead by being funny. I realized that’s not a very good idea. That’s sort of the first premise.
The reason is not that you can’t get ahead being funny, the problem is that the average person has a hard time getting ahead being funny. If I went out in the world and said, “Be funny like a comedian,” we’ve got to worry about that guy, you know? The guy who thinks he’s funny. We don’t want that guy running amuck in the workplace making jokes because those are going to be inappropriate jokes, HR is going to be really unhappy with me.
But, if I tell people to think funny, that is think like a comedian, now we’re cooking with gas, now there’s an opportunity to have real breakthroughs.
Nikki Van Noy: First of all, I appreciate you not endorsing a world full of Michael Scotts, which you’re right that could be the outcome of that.
Dr. Peter McGraw: Michael Scott, I don’t talk about Michael Scott in the book but I could easily, right? Michael Scott is the perfect example of that guy.
Nikki Van Noy: Totally. I love, as a creative person, I really love what you just said about creativity because I feel like there is this notion that some people are creative and some are not or that creativity is this thing that comes from the ether and you’re sort of struck by it.
In my experience, you’re absolutely right, creativity of any kind, whether you’re creating something material or it’s a way of thinking, it comes from just coming to the table over and over again and having lots of really bad ideas along the way.
Dr. Peter McGraw: No doubt. Yes. I like to say that one of the best predictors of a good idea is the number of bad ideas you come up with.
Nikki Van Noy: I think that’s my life motto, I just never realized it until now, absolutely.
Dr. Peter McGraw: Yes, so in the book, I have one of my comedian friends step in and tell little stories and make observations. His name is Shane Mauss and he’s a comedian who does jokes about science and so we’re kind of a perfect pair. A scientist who studies comedy and a comedian who jokes about science. So, I have these little sections called “Shtick by Shane” and Shane talks about the idea of what he calls that he writes long and talks short.
That is that he does lots and lots of writing about ideas and observations and just working through ideas, knowing that almost everything he writes, pages of stuff, is not going to be useful. He is looking for that one sentence that is that moment of brilliance and novelty that he can then turn into a joke.
Nikki Van Noy: Man that is dedication right there.
Dr. Peter McGraw: As it should be, right? For anyone who wants to improve their career, anybody who wants to build something meaningful, anyone who wants to get out of their job, which requires a long commute to an office park, that demands dedication. Anything that is worth doing is going to be difficult. Now I would say this, it doesn’t always have to be hard work. That is taking care of yourself, being in a good mood.
One of these comedy writers that I’ve met in Los Angeles, he said to me one day, “Hey Peter, do you want to know the secret to good comedy?” and I’m like, “Uh, yeah” and he said, “Long leisurely lunches.”
So, when he and his comedic writing partner get kind of stuck, they will go to a café and they’ll eat good food and they’ll get a little fresh air, maybe a little sunshine, and they’ll talk through their ideas and he says invariably the jokes start to arrive.
Because if we do want to think creatively, we want to try to be in a positive energetic good mindset. So, I think that is a good reminder that yeah, there is some persistence if necessary. You want to work on your craft in a daily fashion as I say, you want to work hard but then sometimes you want to hardly work. You want to release yourself from these activities and let your unconscious mind work on them.
Nikki Van Noy: Absolutely.
Dr. Peter McGraw: You know, I worked very hard in this book not to have the same old business examples that you read in every other business book. I can give you an example of that.
Nikki Van Noy: Yes, I’d love that.
Dr. Peter McGraw: One of my favorite lessons in the book is in chapter one. It is called, “reverse it.” That is how comedians often produce an opposing perspective. They think in reverse, it is comedy 101, and one of the nice things about it is if you want to think creatively, thinking in reverse is a great place to do that. Because when the world is zigging and you naturally are zagging, you are now in the blue ocean, so to speak.
Now a particular form of a reversal is turning a bug into a feature. That is taking a weakness and turning it into a strength. Comedians do this all the time with their self-deprecating comedy. So a comedian gets on stage and they point out how they’re too tall, how they’re too short, too fat, they’re too skinny, they’re too bald, they’re too hairy. They take something that is bad about themselves and they turn into something good, a reason to laugh, a reason to make a joke.
What is interesting is that smart businesses sometimes turn their bugs into features.
I will give you a quick example of this. There is a Canadian cough syrup company called Buckley’s. Back in the day, Buckley’s was in trouble. They were sitting around number nine in the cough syrup market and as you might imagine, if you are number nine in the cough syrup market you are in trouble.
Nikki Van Noy: Yes, that makes sense.
Dr. Peter McGraw: People aren’t variety-seeking when they are getting their cough syrup, right? They go with their go-to cough syrup and one of the problems that Buckley’s had was that it tasted terrible. It was just awful tasting. So, imagine you run Buckley’s, you are struggling, you have this terrible tasting cough syrup. You could go, “Well, we could change the formula, we could dump a bunch of sugar in there, we can try to mask it with some cherry flavor,” whatever it is.
Or you could see this bug as a feature and that’s what Buckley’s did. They started a campaign where they said, “Buckley’s: It tastes awful and it works.” The translation, it works because it tastes awful. People expect their medicine to be like medicine. When people are buying cough syrup they want the cough syrup to murder all the germs and the virus in the body and Buckley’s is making that promise indirectly.
They had these great marketing communications such as, “Not new, not improved,” or, “Our largest size is 200 milliliters, any larger would be cruel.” And so it is just a really genius way to take something and flip it from bad to good. Buckley’s went to number one in the market and was later purchased by a big pharmaceutical company.
Nikki Van Noy: What an amazing example. I love that story. Due to the nature of what you’re talking about I am very interested–talk to me a little bit about your process writing this book. Was it a fun experience for you?
Dr. Peter McGraw: I loved writing this book. I had a ton of fun with the research. The first thing that I did when I wrote this book is one of the lessons in the book. I talk about writing a one-pager and the value of writing a one-pager for developing ideas. So, I wrote that one-pager almost faster than anything I have ever written. It just flowed out of me because I had been training for ten years to write this book. You know I had been teaching MBA’s by day and decoding comedy by night.
I was smooshing those two worlds together and so once I had the one page, I knew what the book was going to be like. I know exactly how it was going to be positioned. I knew that it was going to be these serious business lessons from the masters of comedy. I knew that it was going to be a little cheeky and fun. It was going to be super entertaining but with these really valuable takeaways.
Then once I started doing the research on it, I actually grabbed the folder for each of the potential lessons that I was developing. And I was sticking notes in there, sticking newspaper articles in there, cocktail napkins from comedy clubs with scrawl on them thrown in there and so on. It was just a lot of fun to write. You know, every chapter opens with a case study of a comedian and how they are approaching their craft in a unique fashion. I got to work with this special contributor, one of my good friends who is a very funny comedian, to add a little extra levity into the book.
I think one of the most enjoyable aspects of the book is that I have written something that I truly believe is helpful to people and I am eager for people to read the book. Of course, I want them to enjoy it but I actually think that if they do the things that I put in there–I have made a workbook that I am offering for free on my website, petermcgraw.org, for people to download if they want to dive even more deeply into some of these lessons.
So, it is this nice sort of one-two punch. It is satisfying to have this book and it is satisfying to have used some of the lessons in the book to create the book and then of course, it is just satisfying to talk about business successes and to talk about funny stories and anecdotes.
Nikki Van Noy: I feel like the word authenticity at this point is very much overused. However, I have to say that one of the things I have noticed in talking to so many authors is it bodes very well when the topic of the book becomes part of the process of the book in some way. That doesn’t happen in a lot of cases. So, it is very cool to hear that answer.
Dr. Peter McGraw: Yeah, thank you so much. You know authenticity is like a cheat code for comedy. When comedians find themselves scared to talk about something, they often force themselves to talk about it on stage because it is that titillating stuff that ends up becoming very delightful for the audience. Also, in a world where everybody’s hiding and disguising who they are, this is new novel information. One of the things that I have been trying to work on is being more authentic.
I actually help wrap up the book in the final chapter and that’s called take a bigger stage where I talk about my own personal process and how I learned to take a bigger perspective. I tell a story about a dinner that I hosted with a bunch of academics from their very fancy private schools and how I felt like an outsider at that table. I started to think one day–I started to think like a comedian who said, “Why not me? Why can’t I learn to think in a new way? Why can’t I learn to take my professional life to a new level?” I do a little bit of disclosing in a way that wasn’t completely comfortable for me, but what I hope is that the reader will find it not only interesting but inspirational.
Nikki Van Noy: Dr. Peter McGraw, thank you so much for joining us today. You are so much fun to talk to and there is so much novel information in here. Again, the book is Shtick to Business. Peter, you mentioned your website, which is petermcgraw.org. Where else can listeners find you?
Dr. Peter McGraw: They can find me on Twitter @petermcgraw, on Instagram @petermcgraw. I am on LinkedIn and I am happy to accept your LinkedIn request. I have a YouTube channel in which I have created a playlist of a bunch of YouTube videos that are related to some of the stories that are in the book. So, when I talk about a joke that a comedian tells I have, wherever possible, put those jokes on my YouTube station. Then of course, the book can be found on Amazon, which is probably what you were just about to say, right?
Nikki Van Noy: You’ve said it for me so that’s perfect.