A book about how to be funny that’s written by business school faculty? At first blush, it might sound unpromising, maybe even a little cringey. 

But it’s what Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas undertake in Humor, Seriously, their new book out this week. Aaker and Bagdonas teach a popular Stanford business school class called “Humor: Serious Business,” and in their new book catalog an impressive number of research studies about humor and examples of how to deploy it in business contexts. 

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Their core argument is that humor is a powerful tool—especially for leaders—as it builds trust and spurs creativity. Research shows that work teams communicate better and are higher-performing when humor is present in their interactions. Employees rate bosses with a sense of humor higher, and vice versa.

Given that, Aaker and Bagdonas observe that most people don’t incorporate humor enough in their professional lives. There are lots of reasons for this, including fear that they’re not funny or that they’ll unwittingly offend someone. 

Aaker and Bagdonas believe that humor can be learned, and you reap a lot of the benefits of humor from just trying even if your joke isn’t that funny. “It’s whether you have the gumption to tell any joke (which signals confidence), and whether that joke is appropriate for the context, that signals status and confidence,” they write, in the context of research around job interviews.

They share techniques used by comedians to construct jokes and elicit laughs, including:

  • Exaggeration—They cite John Mulaney’s joke about going for a massage and the masseuse telling him to undress to his comfort level. The punchline: “So I put on a sweater and a pair of corduroy pants, and I felt safe.” (p. 82)
  • Specifics—”British researchers are warning that one-fifth of the world’s plant species are at risk of extinction,” is how one Jimmy Fallon joke starts. “Even worse, kale is expected to survive.” (p. 85) Making the joke about kale is funnier than making it about vegetables more generically.
  • Analogies—A Jim Gaffigan joke illustrated this approach: ”Big families are like waterbed stores; they used to be everywhere, and now they’re just weird.” (p. 86)
  • Series of three—”I don’t know if you guys know this, but this past year, I’ve gotten very rich, famous, and humble,” is an Amy Schumer punchline, where the third item in the series is unexpected. (p. 89)
  • Incongruity—”Dogs are the leaders of the planet,” begins Jerry Seinfeld. “If you see two life forms, one of them’s making a poop, the other one’s carrying it for him, who would you assume is in charge?” (p. 76)
  • Strong emotions—”I hate parties,” Larry David tweeted. “But then to have to go to an after party? Are you kidding me?!?” (p. 77)
  • Delight—A joke told by James Breakwell: “My six-year-old just called ranch dressing ‘salad frosting’ and now I’ll never call it anything else.”

How can you actually deploy humor in the workplace? Aaker and Bagdonas have some suggestions:

  • Use humor in your emails. For starters, get rid of jargon and take a more human tone. They mention a colleague who makes a note with a star next to it when there’s any moment of levity on the phone with a new client. She then can joke about whatever prompted the moment in her followup emails, a comic technique known as a “callback.” Another approach is to add a lighter “PS” to the message.
  • Add levity to your bio or CV. Aaker and Bagdonas cite the bio of an MBA which ends noting that he hosts a podcast “affectionately described by my wife and two daughters as ‘long, boring, and utterly devoid of substance.’’” It signals wit, humility, and confidence, and is the first thing a hiring manager asked him about.
  • Use humor to acknowledge mistakes or defuse tensions. One woman was called out for being long winded by a client, and she closed a followup email “In future brevity” rather than “Sincerely.” It forged a connection with the client. 
  • Get people in a creative mindset. Astro Teller, the CEO of Alphabet’s X moonshot division, asks people to come up with bad ideas. He requests that teams brainstorm “the silliest, stupidest ideas,” and often, freed of the pressure to be brilliant, they generate funnier and better solutions. 
  • Celebrate peaks and ends. People over time remember most the emotional peaks and the endings to experiences, so adding humor to them can positively color colleagues’ recollections more broadly. In this vein, Apple executive Horiki Asai organized elaborate gags for all-hands meetings of his team, including once having a gospel choir emerge from among them to perform. 
  • Create traditions out of organic moments of delight. A Ford engineer once remarked that some problems are “harder than putting socks on a chicken.” Amused by the metaphor, his colleagues started presenting new hires and visitors with weird and chicken-themed socks. 

Aaker and Bagdonas acknowledge that humor can sometimes be inappropriate and offensive. They offer some guidelines for telling if jokes cross the line, including whether a comment would be offensive if you removed the humor. And they provide tips for recovering when you tell a joke that offends or lands flat. “As you move up the old totem pole, make fun of others less, and yourself more,” they also counsel. (p. 210)

To be sure…

  • People looking for a joke book, or script they can use with their colleagues, will be disappointed. I never quite laughed out loud reading this—it’s admittedly more entertaining than your average book written by business school professors (of which I’ve read a few recently), but it’s still as much about research as it is about comedy.
  • A lot of humor—including in the workplace—originates in or spreads via social media like Twitter and messaging platforms like Slack. Aaker and Bagdonas don’t discuss this, focusing instead on the more traditional tool of email. For both brands and individuals, a great tweet or a knack for messaging with humor can have some of the benefits they discuss in other contexts.
  • Humor is harder when so many of us are working remotely. It’s more challenging to read body language and to convey nuances of humor in writing and avoid seeming corny. Also, the risks for falling flat feel greater when you’re sticking your neck out there with a joke on Zoom.

Memorable anecdotes and trivia:

  • “The average four-year-old laughs as many as 300 times per day. (The average 40-year-old, by comparison, laughs 300 times every two and a half months.)” (p. 23)
  • In one experiment simulating a negotiation around the sale of artwork, when the seller said “My final offer is X” and added with a smile “….and I’ll throw in my pet frog,” buyers were willing to pay 18% more and got greater enjoyment from the sale process. (p. 48) 
  • Viewers of humorous shows like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report remember more about current events than people who get their information from newspapers or regular news programs. (p. 49)
  • President George W. Bush poked fun at Ben Bernanke on his first day on the job in 2005 for wearing tan socks with his dark grey suit. So the next time Bernanke, then chair of the Council of Economic Advisers, came for an Oval Office briefing, Bush’s senior staff all showed up with tan socks on. (p. 52)
  • Secretary of State Madeleine Albright sang a comic duet based on West Side Story with her Russian counterpart during a tense ASEAN summit in 1998. Albright would cheekily wear symbolic brooches, sporting an enormous bug pin when she met with the Russian foreign minister after discovering that the Russians had bugged the State Department. (p. 149)
  • Stevens Aviation CEO Kurt Herwald and Southwest Airlines CEO Herb Kelleher staged an elaborate arm wrestling match in a sports arena to ostensibly settle a trademark dispute over a slogan they’d both been using—pretending to wrestle each other and then agreeing to share the slogan. Humor defused the conflict. (p. 151)

Choice quotes:

  • “Words matter little; behavior and attitude are what count.”—Ed Catmull, co-founder of Pixar (p. viii)
  • “If you’re leading and no one is following, you’re just taking a walk.”—John Maxwell (p. 15)
  • “Our sense of play is repressed by a dizzyingly complex and dynamic professional environment, full of social land mines that are difficult to gauge and feel safer to avoid.” (p. 23)
  • “The easiest way to have more humor at work is not to try to be funny—instead, just look for moments to laugh.”—Dick Costolo, former Twitter CEO (p. 30)
  • “Never look for what’s funny. Look for what’s true and go from there.”—Sarah Cooper (p. 73)
  • “Laughter is good for thinking because when people laugh, it is easier for them to admit new ideas to their minds.”—the Dalai Lama (p. 131)
  • “Fun is not a top-down thing.”—Ed Catmull (p. 177)
  • “People’s laughter is often less a response to the joke itself than a reaction to status and hierarchy. Maybe you’re funny, or maybe you’re just the boss.” (p. 211)

The bottom line is that Humor, Seriously convincingly argues that there are tremendous advantages to having a sense of humor as we go about our work. Can it help you translate that into being a funny colleague? Maybe. And it certainly has some tips and examples to make you more confident about giving it a shot. A year into this pandemic, we could all surely use more humor where we can get it.

You can order Humor, Seriously at Bookshop.org or Amazon. (We may make a commission when you buy a book.) All page numbers referenced above are for the hardcover edition.

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