Improspectives

Improv skills lead to success

Posts Tagged ‘introversion

Please, Be Easy to Work With

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Comedians make a living by pointing out what’s incongruent, unfair, or simply messed up in society. The hack phrase “What’s up with that?” (you know the line’s overdone when The Jester character on The Fairly Oddparents uses it as his catchphrase) expresses the premise nicely.

You’d think that stand-ups, improvisers, and writers would have a better sense of how to avoid the social traps we make fun of. Not showing up on time, being rude to the gatekeepers who can grant or deny stage time at will, and ignoring time or word limits don’t make for promising careers. Very early in my writing career, an editor told me that hitting all of my deadlines would automatically put me in the top 10% of authors. That’s kind of depressing, but I’m glad the bar was set so low. Once I broke into the writing field, good communication and attention to deadlines let me build up my portfolio and my network.

In an article published on The Atlantic web site, Peter McGraw (the taller and more academic co-author of The Humor Code) cited one of his studies investigating the personality traits of successful improv comedians:

The [Humor Research Lab] once studied 600 novices and experts in the Upright Citizen’s Brigade, an improv comedy troupe, and found that the only difference was that the experts were more conscientious, McGraw said.

“The really screwed up people aren’t comedians, they’re criminals. They’re in jails, and they’re not funny. They’re sad and angry,” he said.

“No, there’s something else that predicts success in comedy.”

The article goes on to cite studies that indicate intelligence is a good predictor for success as a comedian. It takes smarts and a certain social adeptness to find bridges between concepts, identify the incongruities, and shape them into humor. It also turned out that, at least in another study that asked undergrads to create captions for New Yorker cartoons, guys were funnier. Why might that be?

Part of the answer, from a sociological standpoint, is that women often use humor as a proxy for intelligence when judging potential mates. If a guy can make you laugh by identifying and commenting on the incongruities in life, you might have found a match. The other aspect is the interpersonal version of stage time and reps: guys attempt a lot more jokes than women in conversation. That’s good and bad — the guys get more practice, but the other folks in the conversation have to suffer through some atrocious material. Golf pros love and hate “Pro-Am” days, where they play with local amateurs. One golfer said he has a “Wednesday Face” that he puts on for pro-am days. He knows he’s about to hear Bill Murray’s “It’s in the hole!” from Caddyshack and other hack lines a few hundred times from amateurs who use them to crack up their buddies on Mondays.

Repeating bits isn’t intelligence. At best, it’s mimicry. At worst, it’s a slow torture visited upon someone who takes his craft seriously. Show up on time and be pleasant. Be funny if you can, but please don’t try too hard. You’ll just make everybody feel bad.

Review of The Humor Code

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Title: The Humor Code

Authors: Peter McGraw and Joel Warner

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Copyright: 2014

ISBN13: 978-1-451-66541-3

Length: 256

Price: $26.00

Rating: 93%

I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book through the NetGalley service.

The Humor Code, written by Peter McGraw and Joel Warner, traces the pair’s global journey to investigate McGraw’s “Benign Violation” theory of humor. McGraw is a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder and the founder of the Humor Research Lab (HuRL). Warner is a professional journalist. Neither he nor McGraw had any significant performance experience, but they did have a taste for adventure that took them to some complex and potentially dangerous locales, such as remote Tanzania, Palestine, and Los Angeles. Neither author shied away from jumping into an unheated Peruvian military cargo plane with a load of clowns.

No, really—a planeload of clowns. More on that later.

Not Off to a Promising Start

When we first meet our heroes the Professor, sporting his signature sweater vest, is about to do a few minutes at a stand-up open mic night. The bad news is that the crowd is known to be tough and they’re expecting anatomy jokes. You probably won’t be surprised that the guy with the Ph. D. bombed in that environment. This expected and very forgivable failure is brought into sharper relief when you realize that the goal of the exercise is to help prepare McGraw for an appearance at the Just for Laughs comedy festival in Montreal.

Comedy is hard. Social interactions with comedians are exceptionally hard. A few pages after the introduction, the authors related how they took the wrong approach to their backstage meeting with Louis C. K. The comedian probably expected academic or thoughtful questions, but McGraw went straight for the anatomy joke, which probably conjured up bad fan interactions and led to an early exit. They were better than most amateurs in that they seemed to understand they’d crossed a line and it was time to leave, but what they didn’t get at that point in the narrative was the vulnerability required to step on stage and do Louis C. K.’s material. You have to be in the proper emotional place to get there as a performer; two guys interviewing a hungry comedian before a show and going all awkward fanboy will kill the mood immediately.

Theory of the Benign Violation

The given circumstances of the book are the authors’ attempts to investigate McGraw’s theory of the Benign Violation. I first learned about the theory from McGraw’s guest lecture for Dan Ariely’s online course A Beginner’s Guide to Irrational Behavior, presented through Coursera. The basic idea is that humor requires a certain level of discomfort. In this construct, a statement or concept can be:

Benign, which means minimal or no discomfort;

Violation, which maximizes discomfort by challenging deep convictions or evoking disgust;

Benign Violation, which involves enough discomfort to throw the listener off balance, but not enough to disgust or challenge deeply held beliefs.

McGraw argues that, once the listener is uncentered but not overly offended, the comedian can use exaggeration or another technique to twist the reality and generate laughter. It’s an eminently reasonable take on comedy in the English-speaking world, but the question is how well it would hold up internationally. Part of the answer could come from determining why people laugh in the first place.

Why Do We Laugh?

Nobody knows.

The Journey

To start, the authors sampled dishes from the U.S. comedy scene, including stand-up performances and an improvisational comedy workshop with an Upright Citizens Brigade teacher in L.A. I’ve been a professional improviser since 1993 (and, like McGraw, failed horribly at stand-up) and agree with the authors that stand-up and improv are two different worlds. Stand-up comedians go on stage by themselves and (mostly) deliver prepared material, but improvisers usually perform as part of a group, don’t have to carry the load themselves, and ego-involve the audience by using their suggestions.

As the authors note, improv classes often attract serial workshoppers who might have no hope of performing due to job or family demands or a debilitating lack of funny, but who enjoy the social experience:

Our UCB class lasts for hours, but the time flies. Improv is play, and it’s a lot of fun. Afterward, at a nearby coffee shop, the students seem ready to do it all again. “I love using another person to succeed or fail on stage,” one of them tells us. “It’s freeing,” says another. “It’s like therapy-light,” raves a third.

It’s not at all uncommon for participants in an improv workshop to go out for drinks afterward. I’ve certainly benefitted from the social aspects of improv and hope to do so for many more years.

From Boulder, L.A., and New York they went on to destinations including Japan, Scandinavia, Tanzania, and Peru. That last destination cast McGraw and Warner as clowns on a team led by Hunter “Patch” Adams (made famous by the movie starring Robin Williams). The team’s mission is to bring relief to a village in the Peruvian Amazon. McGraw started as a clown but transitioned to the role of civilian guide and overseer, as befitting his experience as an impartial observer of humor. Warner, the journalist, dug into his role as a clown…he is told and personally discovers that, when you put on the nose, you have permission to “go insane” in the sense that you become someone else.

That sentiment, of losing oneself in your clown character, echoes the thoughts of Keith Johnstone. Johnstone founded the Loose Moose Theatre in Calgary and invented Theatre Sports (the inspiration for ComedySportz, the organization I’ve performed with since 1996). In his classic book Impro, he described mask work as an opportunity to lose yourself in another entity. The pull can be so strong that everyone must agree to take their masks off when directed to do so. It’s a powerful technique and should not be attempted by beginners.

The Book as a Book

I enjoyed the progressive narrative, which chronicled the authors’ experiences and worked McGraw’s theories into the story’s flow. This approach stands in contrast to other recent participatory journalism titles I’ve reviewed, which alternate between the author’s experiences and history or theory. For example, Tower of Babel alternates between chapters about extreme language learners of the present day and the history of an Italian priest who was famous for his linguistic skills. Similarly, Moonwalking with Einstein alternates between the author’s preparation for and participation in the U.S. national memory competition and the history and practice of memorization. There’s nothing wrong with either framework, but I personally enjoyed a break from the strict alternating chapter approach.

I also appreciated the authors’ journey as human beings. Their work as part of the clown mission to the Amazon village came at the end of the arc that started in the developed world, continued through developing Africa, and ended in a subsistence-level community. Though they never explicitly stated that they understood at a visceral level where they’d gone wrong with Louis C. K., I bet they knew.

Conclusions

At the end of The Humor Code, McGraw goes on stage in Montreal and doesn’t bomb. I’ll leave the specifics of his solution as a surprise for when you read the book, but as a nerd who does comedy I appreciated how he solved the problem of presenting at a comedy festival without being an experienced comedian. Highly recommended.

Curtis Frye is the editor of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He is the author of more than 30 books, including Improspectives, his look at applying the principles of improv comedy to business and life. His list includes more than 20 books for Microsoft Press and O’Reilly Media; he has also created more than 20 online training courses for lynda.com. In addition to his writing, Curt is a keynote speaker and entertainer. You can find more information about him at www.curtisfrye.com and follow him as @curtisfrye on Twitter.

Diversity Doesn’t Always Look Different

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In my last post, I talked about the bullying that went on between Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin. The two men play football for the Miami Dolphins…or rather, they did. Martin left the team as a result of what he termed “harassment” and the Dolphins have suspended Incognito indefinitely for conduct detrimental to the team. They reportedly plan to cut ties with him.

It’s come out in the last couple of days that Incognito might have been given instructions from the Miami coaching staff to “toughen up” Martin. Martin grew up in a well-off household and went to Stanford, which doesn’t cut athletes too many breaks on GPA and academic performance. He’s quiet and thoughtful. Incognito, on the other hand, is a brasher, tougher person who didn’t grow up in the nice part of town.

Martin is black and Incognito is white, but there’s an interesting racial dynamic to the situation. On the November 6 episode of ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption, Michael Wilbon, who is black, pointed out that there’s an ongoing conversation in the community about what it means to be black. That conversation takes on a special meaning in the context of the super-macho NFL. According to media reports on ESPN’s web site and Wilbon’s commentary on PTI, Incognito is considered an “honorary” black person who could use the n-word casually in the locker room without offense. In fact, again according to Wilbon, Incognito was seen as “blacker” than Martin because Incognito’s behavior fit into the team’s cognitive model of what an NFL, and more specifically a black NFL player, should be like.

And that’s where the problem lies: the stereotype of how an NFL player should act. A thoughtful, sensitive, introverted person like Martin plays the game differently than his teammates. Maybe he’s not as forceful as his fellow linemen, but he wasn’t voted the second dirtiest player in the league like Incognito was, either. The stereotypical means of “toughening up” a player drove Martin from the team and to document his teammate’s behavior. Veteran Dolphin players have backed Incognito’s actions, calling him Martin’s “big brother” and characterized him as a person who always had Martin’s back. By contrast, when asked if Martin would be welcome in the Dolphins locker room, most players declined to answer.

I have to admit I have a lot more sympathy for Incognito than I did after I first heard about his conduct. Rather than acting as a rogue agent, he appears to have behaved in a manner consistent with the team’s culture. Whether that behavior is “right” or “legal” is up for discussion.

It’ll be interesting to see how this situation shakes out. I characterized the issue as one of diversity in the post’s title, pointing to the difference in cognitive style, personality, and approach Martin takes to life and the game. He’s a minority within the NFL, so there’s a question of whether he and (presumably) his attorney choose to make a hostile work environment claim based in whole or part on his status. Certainly the allegations in the case point to consistent behavior that might be contrary to the law, but I’m not a lawyer. I have a feeling we’ll all learn more about it in the coming months.

Finally, let me conclude with something that, thankfully, doesn’t apply to anyone with whom I currently work: If you think I need toughening up, you’re welcome to try it. I will become more aggressive, but it’ll be in your direction. I do what I do and I’m good at it. My approach works for me. If you think I’m doing it wrong, that’s your problem, not mine. Maybe you screwed up when you hired me.

Don’t Tolerate Abuse

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I’m not sure how many of you follow American sports, in this case the National Football League, but something important happened yesterday. The Miami Dolphins suspended Pro Bowl offensive lineman Richie Incognito for conduct detrimental to the team. The suspension resulted from an investigation after a Dolphin player left the team as a result of constant abuse, allegedly at the hands of Incognito.

NFL teams, like many sports teams and other organizations, has a tradition of hazing rookie players. Some examples include making rookies carry veteran players’ shoes, sing songs, duct-taping them to goal posts, and so on. If published reports are true, Incognito’s threatening text messages and at least one voice mail went far beyond what’s considered acceptable within the league. In a possibly related note, an ESPN.com article noted that an anonymous player survey tagged Incognito as the second dirtiest player in the league.

Bullying cannot and must not be tolerated. Yes, we all need to be mentally tough enough to make it through stressful times, but constant attacks on sensitive individuals will probably erode their base, not strengthen it. Also, just because someone can take abuse doesn’t mean they should have to.

If you find anyone in your organization who makes a habit of trying to “build others up” through bullying or other abuse, take decisive action immediately to put a stop to it. If you don’t, you could be responsible for team dysfunction and get your own dose of suffering when the inevitable lawsuit comes. I think you’ll enjoy defending a firing for misconduct a lot more than defending a lawsuit for failing to stop abusive behavior.

Improv Should NOT Be a Surprise

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My friend Rick Maue, a talented performer and innovator in the branch of stage magic called mentalism, identifies three types of performances:

  • Theater, which is a show people come to see in a formal setting
  • Entertainment at events such as banquets, where the performance is part of the overall evening’s activities
  • Filler, where the audience has absolutely no idea you will be there or that there will be any kind of show

I’d like to add a fourth type: Hell, which is a Virgin Atlantic flight with musicians and improv comedians roaming the aisles. Don’t believe me? Here’s part of a Fast Company article describing the scheme:

Virgin Atlantic Little Red, a U.K. domestic rebranding of Virgin Atlantic, will feature “in-flight gigs” on selected flights that include live music and improv comedians. Entertainment will take place on flights headed to Edinburgh and Manchester, and performers will be selected from the talent pool at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

But here’s the kicker: While the acts will be mentioned on Virgin Atlantic’s Facebook and Twitter pages, the flights they will be performing on will be a surprise. We’re guessing that business travelers, improv comedy, and a confined environment will be a volatile mixture, but that’s just us.

I do improv and stage magic and think I’m pretty entertaining, but I only take a few strolling mentalism gigs at company parties a year. I want to be sure I’ll be a good fit and often look for reasons to break off from a group early rather than overstay my welcome. I don’t want to be what sports commentator Joe Buck refers to as “the guy at parties who insists on doing card tricks no one wants to see”. I don’t mind stopping to watch a street performer for a few minutes. In fact, I tipped a terrific human statue when my wife and I were in Tallinn, Estonia, in July.

livingstatue

I’d rather donate three pints of blood in an hour than be on a flight with a live musician or improvisers. I’m one of you, guys, and I don’t begrudge you the money, but I will not interact with you.

I think someone in Virgin corporate learned the wrong lesson from the funny PA announcements some Southwest flight attendants make. Those presentations work because they’re fast, they’re hilarious, and they’re over.

Improv and Gamification: Motivation

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In my previous post, I mentioned four basic elements of gamification put forward by Wharton School faculty members Kevin Werbach and Dan Hunter. Those elements are:

  • Motivation
  • Meaningful choices
  • Structure
  • Potential conflicts

Motivation is tricky. I’ve stated my belief that all motivation is internal, but I  admit it’s a reductionist and curmudgeonly view. Many individuals, particularly extroverts, gain energy by interacting with others. Yes, you can argue they use these interactions to stoke their personal fire, but the truth is that the external forces affect their performance.

I’ll still use my “all motivation is internal” line at parties, though. It’s fun to argue and often leads to interesting discussions.

Gamification uses game elements such as points, badges, and leader boards to set goals, measure performance, and reward individual and team success. One example, which is near to my heart because I’ve written books for Microsoft Press since 2001, is how Microsoft used gamification to get their employees to identify errors in Windows 7 dialog boxes. Windows 7 is available in 35 languages, meaning that the dialog boxes and other text was translated into tongues as diverse as Chinese, Swedish, and Polish. Microsoft tracked which teams (usually members of the same business group) discovered the most errors and posted their names on a leader board displayed in the tool. Some team leaders decided to focus their efforts on the contest, which led to impressive performance.

Improvisers receive feedback from their audience immediately, usually in the form of laughter, but also as appreciation for what’s been done. Some performers can be thrown off by a quiet crowd, especially if they feel they’re having a good night but the audience just isn’t laughing. If you’re not getting the audible feedback you’re used to, check for eye contact. If your spectators meet your gaze and smile, you’re doing fine. They just prefer to express themselves quietly.

Introverts and Goals

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One frequent mistake introverts make is to frame our goals in terms of how others perceive us. Doing so gives others control over our feelings of self-worth, which is exactly the opposite of what we should be doing. The other side of the coin is that we have to be honest with ourselves about our contributions. If we don’t add value to a relationship or a business, we shouldn’t expect to be rewarded.

Over the past 12 months, I’ve started using “To Do” lists to track my tasks for a day. Yes, they seem outdated and hokey, but they have helped me focus my efforts. Some of the tricks I use to create beneficial lists are:

  • Make it easy to tell when you’ve finished a task.
  • Make your goals personal. You can’t control how others perceive you, but you can control how you perceive you. Goals such as “I’ll work out for an hour four times a week” are personal and measurable.
  • Write down other things you accomplish and make them part of the list.
  • On a calendar, check off each day you complete your list. This is Jerry Seinfeld’s technique–he wants to write for an hour every day and draws an “X” in the box of every day he does so. Now he doesn’t want to break the streak. In a similar vein, one of the keyboardists from ComedySportz Portland has completed over 800 New York Times crosswords in a row, the seventh longest active streak.
  • Forgive yourself if you don’t quite make it through your list. You’re human. Be kind.