Drew Tarvin: Funny
The hilarious Drew Tarvin shares his insight into the word “Funny”. Listen in on our conversation and enjoy learning from being a fly on the wall to our discussion.
The full transcript
Phil Jones: Hello and welcome. We’re back. It’s Words with Friends, and this time I’m here with Drew Tarvin. Hi Drew.
Drew Tarvin: Hello. It’s good to be here. I’m excited.
Phil Jones: Drew is a friend of mine, and I was wondering why on earth I picked you to talk about “funny”, because you’re not even funny.
Drew Tarvin: I know. Man, that is … What a weird choice to make, but I think that it actually works out well because at least I didn’t used to be funny, but I’ve learned to be funny. Maybe that’s partly the value is. I’m someone who has had to learn it, so maybe I can teach other people a little bit about what it means to be funny. Maybe, or maybe you just wanted to be ironic, I don’t know.
Phil Jones: Who knows, right? It’s funny that you say that it’s weird that I picked on you to be funny. It’s funny that sometimes funny and weird are confused as the same thing.
Drew Tarvin: Yeah, that’s true. It’s funny how it’s weird, and it’s weird that it’s funny.
Phil Jones: Okay, tell me what’s meant by the word “funny”, to you. What does it mean?
Drew Tarvin: From a background in comedy, funny is very clearly defined as whether or not something makes you laugh.
Phil Jones: Is that it?
Drew Tarvin: That’s the distinction. Yeah, that something makes you laugh it is funny. If it doesn’t make you laugh, it’s not funny.
Phil Jones: Okay. It’s something that makes you laugh. There are thousands of things that make you laugh. What are some of the things that are proven to be examples of things that make you laugh?
Drew Tarvin: From an intentional standpoint of course, there is punchlines, jokes with a setup and punchline. There are stories, and sometimes we laugh at stories. In fact, when it comes to day-to-day conversation, usually laughter doesn’t follow a joke. It follows an awkward moment, or an interaction between people, or maybe sometimes just a way that someone looks at you. There’s a lot that we as humans find as funny, and it’s interesting because there’s not a lot of theories … There are a couple of theories actually. There are a lot of theories, but there’s no exactly known reason why we as humans laugh. That’s what makes it so interesting.
Phil Jones: That must cause you some trouble right? Is the fact that you can’t scientifically prove what it is, because you’re an engineer at heart right?
Drew Tarvin: I am. I am certainly an engineer, but I think the interesting thing is that we don’t necessarily have to know why we as humans laugh as a whole to be able to learn how to make people laugh. We don’t have to understand what makes something funny in order to be funny, in a way.
Phil Jones: Okay. Why is laughter important though? What’s the point?
Drew Tarvin: Well, I don’t know. I think that most people think of it as a nice to have. No one dislikes laughter, as far as I know. No one hates feeling joy in their body. There are benefits to it, in a number of regards. There’s the physiological benefits of it, so if you think of laughter increasing blood flow to the body and increasing oxygen in the lungs, and helping to reduce stress and relax muscle tension, and burn calories, and all that stuff. There’s the scientific benefits of it. Then there’s also the social benefits of it as well. When you laugh with people, there’s a comraderie that goes on that says oh, okay we both find this funny. We find this interesting, and we have a connection through a smile, or through laughter.
Phil Jones: You’re a funny guy.
Drew Tarvin: Try to be.
Phil Jones: How do you try to be funny?
Drew Tarvin: Well, I think there’s a couple of different ways. I do intentionally in my programs, and I do it in standup comedy, and improv comedy as well. By making jokes, is one of the ways. That’s only one of very many ways that we can be funny. When it comes to a practical application of it, we don’t actually have to learn to try to be funny, we can be more spontaneous, more thinking on our feet, and use principles of improvisation as a way to make people laugh without necessarily going for a punchline.
Phil Jones: Okay. Tell me some more about that.
Drew Tarvin: The fundamental mindset of improvisation is something called, “Yes and.” It is how we as improvisers get on stage, and make things up off the top of our head and make it seem like it makes sense. If you and I do an improv scene, and I’m like, “Oh my God, there’s a dog right there.” You could be like, “Yes, but it’s really just a rock.” Then that’s maybe funny for a brief moment, but then you and I are arguing about something that doesn’t actually exist. It’s an improv scene, we’re making it up.
That’s very different if we’re doing an improv scene, and you’re like, “Oh my God, there’s a dog over there.” I’m like, “Yes, and there’s a monkey riding on it.” Now we get to see this scene about a monkey riding a dog, and what that means to these two people. As a mindset, it’s just about building off of each other, but the application to creating humor is, there’s a couple of them. One, it’s how we generate ideas. If you get together with friends, and they make a joke, you can “Yes and” that joke and further it, so that you’re not just laughing. You’re adding to the comedy.
Then two, within comedy there’s this idea of, if this is true what else is true? It’s a concept to explore something further. For example, I’ll sometimes share that it took me going to the state of Florida to realize that the rapper Flo Rida got his name from his home state of Florida, and he put a space in it.
Phil Jones: That’s funny.
Drew Tarvin: Yeah, it blew my mind when I learned that. If this is true, what else is true, says that we could extend that further. We could say all right, well if Flo Rida did it, other places could do it as well. I feel like there should be a Hispanic travel agency in Dover called, De La Ware. There could be a female internet detective who’s married in Biloxi that goes by, Mrs. IP PI.
Phil Jones: I see.
Drew Tarvin: If this is true, what else is true? It’s a way for us to build comedic ideas.
Phil Jones: For the benefit of anybody who maybe missed a joke, because that happens sometimes right? You’re talking about Mississippi and Delaware, right?
Drew Tarvin: Yup, exactly.
Phil Jones: Just for the avoidance of any doubt there whatsoever.
Drew Tarvin: Exactly, in case we have people that are not from anywhere in the state, in the US. They’re like, “What are you talking about?” That’s the intersection of these two in converse ideas coming together, which is a lot of times what can help us to create laughter.
Phil Jones: Okay. What happens when we miss like that though? I think, great I want to be more funny. Great, being funny has some benefits, but we live so much in this fear of missing, or this fear that if I’m a “funny guy,” that you’re a joker. If you’re a joker, you can’t be taken seriously. What’s the deal with all of that?
Drew Tarvin: It’s just a missed conception, because they have done a number of studies that have found one, leaders who use humor are seen as being more on top of things and in control than people who are not. They have found that executives who use more humor are paid more. It was positively correlated, so that the more humor an executive used the more they were paid when they checked in on things later. Because we can use humor, because humor is a human element, it’s how we can be more effective with other people. That’s why as an engineer I care about it.
It’s an invaluable tool. It can improve our communication skills. We can use it to get people to pay attention to what we’re talking about. There’s a great quotation that says that, “At the end of laughter is the height of listening.” If you get people laughing, then you can tell them something afterwards. We can use humor to build relationships. Like I said, when we have positive shared experiences with people, we become closer together. Laughter is a great positive shared experience. We can use it to improve problem solving. Students who watched a funny comedy video 30 minutes before trying to solve a problem, they were four times more likely to be able to solve that problem.
We can use it for our own productivity in managing stress and leadership. There’s so many different applications to it. It’s the number one thing that people look for in a significant other. Is they say, “Sense of humor.”
Phil Jones: Right.
Drew Tarvin: Being funny, can make you seem more attractive. They’ve done studies where people who are seen as humorous, are seen as more attractive. Whether it’s work or life, there’s tremendous benefits to being funny.
Phil Jones: You’ve proved so many of things to be true, right?
Drew Tarvin: Yeah, most of them. I don’t know.
Phil Jones: Okay. What’s the funniest thing you’ve ever read about yourself, or you’ve heard that’s been said about you?
Drew Tarvin: Funniest thing? Well, I will say that I’m a big fan of understanding who people think I look like, in terms of celebrity doppelganger.
Phil Jones: Right.
Drew Tarvin: I used to joke that I look kind of like a skinny Hugh Jackman.
Phil Jones: Okay.
Drew Tarvin: Then someone told me that I kind of look like the intersection of Hugh Jackman and Conan O’Brien. My favorite, favorite thing that someone’s told me about me is that, they said that I looked like Justin Timberlake but from here to here.
Phil Jones: That’s pretty funny.
Drew Tarvin: Not the whole face, but just here. She even did this motion after this event. She came up to me and did this whole thing. I don’t know, that to me is hilarious that I’ve heard about me.
Phil Jones: Yeah, it’s fun things. I’m thinking on that. What does it make you think, at a later point in life, if somebody says you look like Hugh Jackman?
Drew Tarvin: Well one, I would be … If I actually worked out, maybe I’d be a famous movie star.
Phil Jones: Right.
Drew Tarvin: Because that’s the other thing, when people told me skinny Hugh Jackman, they’ve sometimes emphasized the word, skinny.
Phil Jones: Right.
Drew Tarvin: They’re like, “You’re not Wolverine Hugh Jackman. No, you’re far from that. You’re skinny Hugh Jackman.” Which certainly, I know I’m skinny. I’ve always been skinny. I was born 8.3 pounds, and then stayed that way till I was 15 years old. That’s a joke. That’s a little exaggeration there for an example of what’s maybe attempting to be funny.
Phil Jones: Okay. It doesn’t always work out though right? You’ve done the world of comedy. You’ve tried making joke after joke, after joke on stage. You and I have even attempted standup together, where you’ve tried to teach me. You’ve seen me fall on my sword quite embarrassingly. How do you get over that though? Because you have to mess some stuff up here surely, right?
Drew Tarvin: Yeah, absolutely. It’s like any, humor is a skill. Being able to make people laugh is a skill, which means that it can be learned. Two, the way that we learn any new skill is through practice and repetition. Just like when you’re first learning how to walk, you got up you tried to walk, you fell down. Then you got up again, and you tried to walk again. You learned, and I think sometimes as adults we forget that learning process happens. Just imagine, if you gave up on walking after the first time you ever fell, we would all be crawling around still.
Phil Jones: Right.
Drew Tarvin: Terribly inefficient. Humor is the same way, where we get up and maybe try some humor, we try some things that don’t ultimately work out all that well, but we learn from the process. One of the things that I’ve learned as an improviser is that failure is just data.
Phil Jones: Okay.
Drew Tarvin: It says that hey, the way that you did it that time did not work. Maybe when it comes to comedy, maybe I need to change. For example, in comedy one of the things is structure is important. You want to end on a punchline. There’s a great, I think it’s a Mel Brooks quote that goes, “Happiness is having a caring, close knit, tight family that lives in another city.” Great punchline, great observation. If that quotation was, “Happiness is having a family that lives in another city, that is tight, caring, close knit,” it’s not as funny because it needs to have a setup and punchline. Sometimes, maybe a joke or an idea is funny, but it needs to be restructured so that it has a clear setup and a clear punchline for the audience to know when to laugh. That you learn through the practice and repetition.
Phil Jones: If I want to be funnier, I’m guessing that I should probably try and find some safe places to start. I’m assuming your first date is not a great place. Maybe a funeral’s not a great place, or perhaps just even launching into your day at work tomorrow going, “Aha, this is the new me. Today I’m going to be funny me.” Where do you start this thing, if you want to try and insert a little more humor into your life?”
Drew Tarvin: I think that one, if you … Funny is certainly a very important piece. We’ll say that comedy is about creating things that are funny. We can expand the definition, we can then say humor includes comedy, but humor is also other things that are just maybe amusing. Something a little bit silly, or something a little bit different that maybe it’s not creating laughter, but it’s creating a smile. Sometimes when I was first starting to be, let me be a little bit more humorous in day-to-day conversations and stuff like that. Maybe that’s a good starting point.
Then two, if you do want to learn the skill of funny, I do think that accurate like you said, of learning it in a safe space. I think that standup is a great thing for everyone to try, because it’s the hardest form of public speaking you’ll ever do, which is why you got to go. If you can be funny in a standup crowd, you can be funny in a lot of other places, if you’re learning that skill. An improv class is a fantastic way to learn, because improv isn’t about learning how to be funny. Improv is more a practical application where it’s learning how to react honestly in the moment. That’s what a lot of humor is. That’s what conversational humor is.
It’s not about coming up with a great pun, or a one-liner. It is about reacting honestly in a moment, having a heightened reaction, or emotion to something. You can learn that in an improv class. Then I think the other thing that you can be aware of, is I think that a lot of people are actually are funnier than they give themselves credit for. When you’re wanting to learn to be funnier, one thing that you can do is just be more attuned to when you make people laugh. Check-in and oh okay, I just made people laugh in this conversation when I’m out having drinks with friends. What was it that made them laugh? Then you can start to learn a little bit more about the process.
Phil Jones: Gotcha. One of the things that I learned the hard way really, was particularly through speaking. You’d say something that would be funny, and you’re natural reaction is sometimes to want to continue the conversation and talk passed it. Sometimes, a laugh from others can be unnerving. You can be unnatural, you’re unsure where to go next, or you want to plow on. I learned to allow the laughter happen. Is that a good thing, a bad thing? What’s that all about?
Drew Tarvin: No, it’s a great thing. There’s something within comedy with this idea that’s called, you don’t want to step on your laughter, because laughter is part of a conversation. If you think about it in a standup comedy club, or even in a conversation, we laugh as part of a response. If you say something funny, I start laughing. If you keep talking while I start to laugh, I’m going to stop laughing because I want to hear what you say. It’s part of a contribution to the conversation.
As a performer, someone making people laugh, you want to allow the laughter to run its course. Because if I say a joke, and right as you’re getting ready to start laughing I go into the next thing, people won’t laugh because they’re like, “Oh I don’t want to miss this.” You want to allow people to have that laughter, because other things is some people get it very, very quick. I love wordplay and one-liners. Some of my jokes like the Flo Rida thing, you have to know the states. It takes maybe a half a second to get, that if I just move onto the next thing, it’s not allowing people a long enough time to register that something funny was actually said and therefore that they’re going to laugh at it.
Phil Jones: If I’m watching a comedian deliver a show, or certainly a Netflix special, something big that is produced, how much work do you think has gone into that 45 minute, that 60 minute set for that to look as effortless as it does?
Drew Tarvin: A tremendous amount of work. It’s hard to estimate, because every person is different, but within comedy we say there’s this rule of 90. Which most people suggest that 90% of what you write is going to be crap. Only 10% of what you write comedically is going to fit within that wheelhouse of really what is really, really good. If you think about an hour long special, then that means that maybe they’ve created as much as 10 hours worth of content to then whittle down and figure out what’s good, and work on, and refine, and all that. As you get better and better, you might get a little bit closer to that.
Even Seinfeld, or even Ellen, or even some of these top comedians, they are going to have what’s their best 10% versus the remaining 90%. It is a lot of practice and repetition that comes from it. A lot of times, people are intimidated by that. The reality is a lot of times, you’re getting that practice and reps anyway. Where if you’re thinking about adding humor to how you say, when someone asks you, “What do you do?” You’re going to constantly be working on that, so you might as well tweak it a little bit and see if there’s ways that you ultimately get laughter in.
Phil Jones: Right, okay. One of the things that I observe about humor and being funny sometimes is this need for other people to be funnier, like it’s a competition. There’s levels of funniness. You must’ve come across this. I’ve always been intrigued and meant to ask you other times really is, in the comedy world, what do comedians think when the guy in the audience decides that he or she wants to be funnier than the person on stage? It could be your opinion, and some of the opinions you’ve collected of others I think would be great.
Drew Tarvin: Yeah. I think that the idea of heckling or crowd interaction, it depends on whether you want it or not. The truth is that most comedians, once they’ve become established, they recognize that they have the all the power in the room. They’re the one with the microphone. They’re the one with years of experience doing it. Very rarely will someone in the audience actually be funnier than the person on stage. It almost never happens. Often times, the only time that people have the courage to do that is usually when they’ve been getting a little bit of liquid courage, in which case they’re not going to have their full wits about them, and they’re not going to do well.
Some people have the angle where you just ignore and it’ll go away. You don’t give the attention seeker any attention. Some people will be, Seinfeld’s whole thing is, what compelled this person to yell out? What’s going on wrong in their life that they need to do it, that they need to yell? He’ll do it as more of a conversational. Some people go to the person into talking a little bit more, because the other thing is because of the power that a comedian has in the room with the microphone is, they can’t respond too aggressively because they don’t want the entire audience to turn on them as a comedian. They need to make sure that the audience is on board with hey, we all don’t want this guy talking so then let’s now … Once we’re all in agreement on that here, now let me destroy this person with credibility.
The reality is, I think a lot of people think about it from the standpoint is that people paid money, or their giving their time to see this comedian perform, not for this person in the audience to get up there and shout things. Now different people have different styles. Jimmy Carr in the UK, he wants people to yell things out, because part of his show is how quickly he’s able to respond to people. Yeah it all depends on the individual comedian. For me personally, I have points of interaction intentionally in my show to talk with people so that I can riff, and that we can have fun together. I try to keep it positive and inclusive.
But if I’m in the middle of setting something up, I would like for you to be quiet so that I can execute this thing that I know will … At least I know based on previous shows has gone well, so that we can entertain the audience and give them what they hopefully came for.
Phil Jones: What you’re really saying is, “Get out of my way please because I’m going this way.”
Drew Tarvin: Yup.
Phil Jones: Okay. In the world of comedy, I’ve always been intrigued about this situation that, you can decide something’s going to be funny ahead of time. I’ve seen a lot of great comedians who did one run of shows, and they were hilarious and brilliant. Then I see them do repeat performance after repeat performance of later acts, that maybe to my degree don’t have the same level of humor attached to them, but I hear people laughing at the very first thing that comes out of these people’s mouths. I’m bemused and baffled by that, is that it almost tells me that we are in control of our own ability to find laughter, more so than it be triggered by other people through deciding something’s funny ahead of time. Is there anything in that, or am I just crazy?
Drew Tarvin: No. I think that part of it is, yeah there’s in a sense a choice about humor. There are some things that are just so funny that sometimes it happens in an inappropriate moment where you just can’t stop laughing, and you don’t want to but you can’t just because something tickles you in certain way. Then there’s the other end of the spectrum where if a kid, if your little niece or nephew comes up and they want to tell you a joke that they read from a joke book, or that they learned from school. It’s one of my favorite kids’ jokes of like, “Why was six afraid of seven? Because seven, ate nine.”
Then you start to laugh a little bit, where it’s, is it the best joke in the world? No, but maybe you’re laughing about the experience of a little kid and you want to give that positive feedback and reinforcement. I think that’s certainly part of it. I also think that part of it is, if you watch a Comedy Central special, they get tremendous amounts of laughter, and they get a lot of applause breaks where that joke was not worthy of an applause break. It’s just that it’s a Comedy Central presentation, people are amped up to laugh more than they normally would, and they’re encouraged to applaud and be overenthusiastic about how they feel about something.
I do think that there’s a little bit of a choice to that perspective, and that’s why when you find a comedian that you absolutely love, even if their material later isn’t as good like you’re talking about, maybe you’re going to laugh because you like their persona. Because it’s not always that we’re laughing at a specific setup and punch. I know for a lot of times, people laugh at me. I do a bit where I do math pickup lines. I know that half of the audience is laughing because they remember basic trigonometry and understand the joke. The other half is laughing at me being a nerd, and trying, even attempting pickup lines in a bar setting. There’s multiple reasons why people might laugh, and part of it might be, you might be endeared to that person and want to give them the benefit of the doubt.
Phil Jones: Let’s go over some of these math pickup lines. Help me understand them, because I’ve heard you do this before, and they’re great. You can’t keep them to yourself.
Drew Tarvin: Right. Math pickup lines. The context to this, the setup for this joke is that women or men, people want to date someone who is confident. What they don’t tell you though is that they want that confidence to be in certain areas. No one wants to date someone who is confident in math. That’s what I got. I’m confident in math. The setting is bar, I see a beautiful woman. My friend’s like, “You should go and talk to her.” I’m like, “I can’t.” They’re like, “Just be confident.” I’m like, “All right.” If I’m going to be confident, I’m confident in math, so I’m going to try a math pickup line.
I go up to her and I’m like, “Hey girl, are you opposite over hypotenuse? Because you’re making me want to sin.” Like, “What did you just say?” I’m like, “Hey girl, are you a vertical asymptote, because you’re beauty has no limit.”
Phil Jones: Baboom.
Drew Tarvin: It’s like, “Ah you should probably leave.” “Hey girl, you’re way above average, don’t be mean.”
Phil Jones: That one took a second right? Took a second to catch that one.
Drew Tarvin: Yeah, exactly. It takes a second like, “Average and mean.” All of those, opposite over hypotenuse is how you calculate sin. Vertical asymptote, things actually approach not limits at all. Then the joke comes from, do you actually remember it, so that people remember vertical asymptotes they’re like, “Oh okay beauty has no limits, I get the connection.” Other people are just like, “Who would ever say vertical asymptotes in an attempt at a pickup line?” We’re laughing at him being a nerd in this setting.
Phil Jones: Right. You’re trying to take everybody with you?
Drew Tarvin: Right. Exactly, yeah. You want to, as a comedian you certainly want to do that. The bar for being funny in a standup comedy club, is the highest bar that there is. If you’re trying to be funny in day-to-day conversation, if you’re trying to do it whether it is to build rapport with someone at the grocery store, or to use it as a leader, the bar is much lower in terms of what it is that you need to do. From a comedian’s perspective, yeah you want to be able … One, you want it to be very funny, and you want to try and bring as much of the audience with you.
That being said, I will say that as a speaker there are certain jokes that I do that sometimes are just for me, or sometimes for one person in the audience. My recent TEDx talk that I did, TEDx talk and sometimes my speaking engagements that I do, I say that humor is like the salt of a meal. You wouldn’t eat an entire meal of salt, because that would make you a horse. Do you want to be a horse? I say nay.
Phil Jones: Baboom.
Drew Tarvin: Baboom. When I do that in a speaking engagement, often times one person will laugh. Then I’ll make the joke to the audience to be like, “That joke is just for me and that one other person.”
Phil Jones: Yeah.
Drew Tarvin: It doesn’t have to be for everyone, it’s for me. Sometimes no one will laugh, and I’ll say that joke is just for me. I don’t know why. I love it. It’s a dumb joke, I love it. I do it, I incorporate that type of humor into my presentations, because it makes me laugh.
Phil Jones: Which is a good enough reason I guess.
Drew Tarvin: Yeah, I think so. Because if you are having fun with what you do, if you’re being passionate, and you know this from the speaking side. If you show that passion for what you’re doing, and you have a good time, the audience is more likely to be passionate about it, and have a good time as well. If you think about the flip side of it, if you barely care about what it is that you’re talking about or if you’re bored by what you’re talking about, the audience is going to be bored as well.
Phil Jones: How does Andrew Tarvin find his love for funny?
Drew Tarvin: How did I find it?
Phil Jones: Yeah.
Drew Tarvin: I stumbled into it. I always enjoyed humor. I remember reading Calvin and Hobbes growing up, and the Far Side. I loved comic strips in that way. For me, actually becoming funny was my best friend in university wanted to start an improv comedy group, and he needed people, and forced me join. We were terrible at first. We watched, “Whose Line is it Anyway”, and tried to repeat what we saw. We had no idea what we were doing. Over time, with practice and repetition, we got better. From improv, a bunch of us that did in improv in university, about a year after doing that we were like, “Well …”
There was a standup comedy competition. We’re like, “Hey, if we can make people laugh when we’re making it up off the top of our heads, we’ve got to be able to make people laugh when we do standup.” It turns out that standup is much harder than improv, at least for me, but I fell in love with it. Because I got on stage, and I got people to laugh based on things that I thought of. I was like, “Oh wow, this is really cool. I want to do this more.” There’s something addicting about making people laugh.
It became this obsession of mine to do it more and more. Then I found out later that humor is effective with humans. The engineer got really excited by the fact that, humor and being funny actually improves your ability to get work done and to build relationships with people, and X, Y, and Z. Yeah, so then it was oh, that’s a beautiful marriage. Not only is it fun to do, but also really exciting, and it actually gets better results? I’m sold.
Phil Jones: Winner. What are some steps I could take? I want to be funnier. What could I do?
Drew Tarvin: I think that one, is you can do “research.” Some of the best “research” I would do is to watch more things that are comedic. I do think that we learn through osmosis and ascent, where if you start to watch Netflix specials. You and I have talked about James, was it James? What’s the guy’s name?
Phil Jones: James Acaster.
Drew Tarvin: Yeah, James Acaster, that is a phenomenal bit. Neal Brennan’s, “Three Mics” is great. Hasan Minhaj’s recent special is so good. There’s so many great specials on Netflix that you can watch. You can go back and watch some of the older ones as well. By watching it, just have a slight eye to okay, why am I laughing now? What is it about this joke, or this story, or this way that this is being performed that I’m laughing? You start to learn that way through osmosis. I think certainly taking an improv class, you get practice and reps of doing it in a very safe environment. Trying standup, you’ll learn a little bit more about it.
Then like I said earlier, just have a little bit of an ear out to what makes you laugh day to day in a conversation, or what you say that makes other people laugh. Because if you’re telling people a story, and they laugh at the story, then you can be like, “Oh okay. When I tell the story this way, people laugh.” Then the next time you tell that story, tell it that way and maybe add a little bit more to it, add a little bit exaggeration or something like that there. If it works better, great keep it. If it doesn’t, then try something different the next time. I think those are all different ways to do it.
Then certainly, part of what I’m trying to create for people is the opportunity for them to get funnier. To give them resources so that they can try things out, so that they can learn about. Because there’s certain kind of, we’ll say shortcuts or tools that comedians use. Things like incongruity, it’s simply saying something a little bit different is a way to create humor. My programs, instead of taking saying, “Oh we’re going to take a five minute break.” I’ll say, “We’re going to take a 300 second break.” It’s not hilarious, but it is something different that gets people to pay attention.
There’s certain shortcuts and things that we can learn, that people will pick up on and stuff. The big thing is just to get out there and try things. To see what makes you laugh, to try it a little bit more. What I encourage at least for my corporate clients, is to think about one smile per hour. How can you think of one thing that you do each hour that will make you smile? Whether that is watching a comedic, quick five minute video as a way to relieve stress, or maybe it’s reading your emails in a different accent in your head so that you don’t get bored while reading the email. Maybe it’s including a joke or a punchline at the end of an email. For me, I tweet out a pun or a wordplay every single day, just as a way to keep myself fresh. Think of one thing you can do each hour to create more levity in your life. Some of that will create humor, and it will create a habit.
Phil Jones: I love your puns though as well. Anybody else that’s a fly on the wall in our conversation right now, you got to tune into Drew’s Twitter. He just, I’d say seven out of 10 of them are great.
Drew Tarvin: Yeah, and that’s the thing. The other three out of the 10 I’ve got to learn. I’ve got to learn the ones that are good, and the ones that aren’t. They can’t all be winners.
Phil Jones: You told me something about the idea of a comic triple. Then you told me something about nine. I remember something about, getting something nine times. Those two rules stuck out for me, and things that I’ve tried to do more of. Just help unpack those rules a little, see if anybody else can benefit from them in the same way that I have.
Drew Tarvin: Yeah, for sure. Those are other examples of tools or shortcuts. I think those are the things that can help people get started. A comic triple is a very common way to create a joke. It’s based off of the premise that you’ve heard the rule of three a lot. Three is the minimum number to create a pattern. The first thing exists. Then you hear it a second time. Then you’re like, “Okay that maybe is a pattern.” Then you hear something a third time, and it establishes something as a pattern. That’s the minimum number to create a pattern.
You can use a comic triple as a way to break that. For example, I’ll sometimes joke that as an engineer, I’ve always been an engineer. As a kid I used to take things apart and put them back together again. Things like clocks and radios, and my parents marriage. That’s a comic triple, where the first two things are setup a normal list. It creates an expectation in the audience. Then a third thing is something different from that list. That means it makes people laugh, because it’s breaking that expectation.
Anytime you’re writing out a list, whether it’s in your biography or in an email, or something like that it could be an opportunity for a comic triple. Because you created the first two things, and now you can just think of something that’s a little bit outside the norm. For example, in my bio I mention groups that I’ve worked with include Microsoft, ESPN, and the International Association of K9 Professionals. Something just a little bit different, that makes people pay attention maybe a little bit more. That’s a comic triple.
Then the rule of nine, is also called the rake bit. Which basically is the idea that you can call things back three times and it’ll be funny. If you say a joke, then you can maybe make a reference to that a second time and it’ll be funny. You do it a third time, and it completes a pattern, and it feels good, and people laugh. If you do it a fourth time, people are like, “Okay I already got the joke. You’ve already said this.” You do it five times, it’s all right, really. We get the point. Six times you’re starting to get upset with the person. Seven times, you’re like, “This is ridiculous. I’m about to leave.” Eighth time, it’s I’m getting up from my seat. The ninth time, for some reason it becomes funny after nine again, or 10, or 11.
It’s this idea that you’re breaking expectations that you’re going to keep on going. People are like, “Surely he’s going to be done, or she’s going to be done with this thing by now.” The fact that you keep going, makes people laugh. This comes from a Simpsons episode, where Sideshow Bob rolls out from under-
Phil Jones: Oh yeah.
Drew Tarvin: He takes a step, and a rake hits him in the face. Then he takes another step and rake hits him in the face. Then another step, and he does it nine times, and becomes funny again after wow, how long is he going to step and get a rake hit in the face? Family Guy does this a lot with the chicken fights and a lot of jokes that they use. It’s again breaking this expectation. That’s another thing, is that repetition to number of times, can help to create humor.
Phil Jones: You weren’t born funny. You talked earlier about the fact that you were in this improv troupe and you were awful. Where was the tipping point where you went from being like, “I’m not funny, but I’m trying,” to, “I might be kind of funny.”
Drew Tarvin: It’s kind of like, do you play golf?
Phil Jones: Badly.
Drew Tarvin: Badly, yeah. At least golf for me is, you play golf for … You have the 100 bad shots, but you play golf for the three good shots that you have in a round. Where the three times where you feel like, “I’m getting the hang of this.” That’s how comedy was for me when I first started. I would maybe do a bad show, but maybe I’d have one or two lines in an improv that made me laugh. Then those one or two lines became, maybe I have five or seven lines, or maybe I have one to two lines in every single scene. Over time, it became … I don’t think there’s any set point that this happened, because I’ve done over a thousand shows.
There are shows that I do now that I’m like, “Oh my God, I crushed it. Nailed it.” Then there are still shows that I do where it’s like, “Ugh. Oh. Got a lot of data that round because I failed a lot.” It’s an evolution, and it changes. It certainly, I would say after probably … I don’t know, my very first show, I did get a laugh. That’s what encouraged me to keep going. I would say, certainly within after a couple of years of doing it, I wanted to get to the point that I could be walking down the street, and someone can be like, “Hey we need you to do 10 minutes of standup, can you fill that time?” I wanted to be comfortable doing that.
It took me probably four or five years of doing it, because otherwise … I used to be like, “No, I would need all the time in the world to plan out 10 minutes,” and all that kind of stuff. Now it’s like, “Entertain this group of people for 10 minutes,” I’d be able to like, “All right cool, yeah. Let’s do it.”
Phil Jones: Nice. If I’m an individual right now, and I’m thinking I’d like to learn to be a bit more funny, where shall I point them? Where should they go?
Drew Tarvin: Like I said, just find the things that are funny around you. If they want to learn, if they like the engineering approach. Because some people like the approach of where it’s, no let me just get out there and try it, which is fantastic. Some people like, “Wait, if you’ve already decoded a lot of this stuff, and I think in terms of that. I want to hear these shortcuts and stuff.” Then certainly they can find out, my training company is Humorthatworks.com. There’s a ton of free resources there available on how to start to get into humor. There’s an online course as well that people can take, that learn more about these shortcuts.
Like I said, in person stuff is really, really valuable. Googling improv class in whatever city, can be a great spot. Standup open mic in whatever city can be a great way to do it. Even if you just go and watch an open mic, you will learn a lot. Because if you’re used to seeing comedians that are very good, they make it look so easy. You’re like, “They’re just talking on stage.” Go to an open mic where they are not that polished, and you start to see the work that goes into creating laughter.
Phil Jones: Yeah, it’s fun sat there watching somebody with a notepad on a stool that has to keep referring back to it like, “What am I supposed to say here again?”
Drew Tarvin: Yeah, “What did I want to talk about? Oh right, why did I think this was funny? I don’t know.”
Phil Jones: Yeah, that’s all good stuff. Drew, what about if I’m a company, and I’m looking at this and I’m thinking, “This is a thing. I want my people to laugh more. I want to embrace some of these things. I want less stress. I want more productivity. I want happier workforce. I want people to lead with more authority. I wanted some of those things.” Where would I point those people?
Drew Tarvin: Yeah, so they can also find out. On my website it’s divided by two things. There’s for individuals, and that’s where you’re going to get resources at an individual person if you want to learn benefits. Then there’s for organization, that’s where we have a lot of workshops and programs. The value of doing a program for a group of people at an organization is one, it provides team building. It’s not just, let’s go to a happy hour team building. It is actual learn a valuable skill, and actually get to know people a little bit better and team building.
Then it’s also that piece of practice and repetition in a safe environment, where they’re learning these skills. From the organizational perspective, we do a lot of work on how do we use this to solve very specific challenges in the work place? It’s not just, let’s just be funny for the sake of being funny, but how do we improve employee engagement using humor? That’s one program. How do we improve stress management using humor? That’s a different program. That’s a starting point. In general for me, I do a lot of larger events. That’s AndrewTarvin.com.
Phil Jones: Gotcha. I’m going to check your ability to improvise.
Drew Tarvin: Yeah, great.
Phil Jones: My final question, what’s your favorite word, and why?
Drew Tarvin: Favorite word, and why? Two things come to mind immediately. The first one is more of a slightly jokey answer in the sense that . . . “milkshake”.
Phil Jones: Yeah.
Drew Tarvin: Love the word “milkshake”, because I love milkshakes themselves. Because I love desserts, and milkshakes are the most efficient form of dessert. I love milkshake as a word, because of what it entails. I would say, “engineer”. “Engineer” is my favorite word in terms of what it creates. Those are two heady words. I’ll give you one more that’s maybe just a good word. I love the word, “subtle”.
Phil Jones: Okay.
Drew Tarvin: Because it has a B in it, but it’s subtle. Right, so the word itself is subtle. Versus, my least favorite word is “palindrome”. Because palindrome is not in fact a palindrome.
Phil Jones: You’ve spent time on these right?
Drew Tarvin: I’ve thought about this. “Camouflage” is a good word. It’s got a hidden U, it’s good. The letter Q, not a fan. Yeah, I’ve thought way too much … Sometimes, it’s similar to what our buddy, Vinh says about magicians. Is that sometimes magic is about willing to invest more time in a magic trick, than anyone feels like is worthwhile. Sometimes that’s what comedy is, is spending a lot of, is doing a thought exercise on one particular idea far longer than anyone else would. You dive into the intricacies of it.
Phil Jones: Milkshake, palindrome, subtle.
Drew Tarvin: No, so milkshake, subtle, and engineer. Those are my three.
Phil Jones: Okay, I never thought I’d get them in the same answer. Yeah, that’s Andrew Tarvin for you.
Drew Tarvin: They’re all connected together right?
Phil Jones: Right.
Drew Tarvin: You can see that.
Phil Jones: What did I miss? What have I missed? What should I have asked you, and didn’t? What else did you want to share with anybody? Should we call it a wrap?
Drew Tarvin: I think what I would love to hear from you though, is from your perspective from having done a little it of standup now, but also certainly having been a speaker. I would say a funny person, because like I told you one, great shoutout at your wedding. Hilarious, off the cuff humor there that you had. Just in day-to-day conversations, you’ve made me laugh. Within your programs have made me laugh as well. What’s your perspective on funny? Can people learn it? How did you learn? How have you made people laugh in the past?
Phil Jones: Oh man, I didn’t ask you a question, expecting to get one thrown back in the other direction. This is me teaching you that it’s the questions that are the answers right? What was the question again? How did I-
Drew Tarvin: I would say two questions. How did you one, become funny? Because I would categorize you as funny, as a humorous person. Answer that one first, then I’ll give you the second one.
Phil Jones: I guess consciously, when I learned how good a tool it was to be able to enhance the levels of communication. Particularly as a speaker and a trainer, what I could do is I could win friend far quicker with something that would make people laugh. If my opening of a training was in some way triggering a laugh, or getting a response back in the other direction, I knew that I could break down barriers when I would have to get uphill within a leadership position, or when I was looking to win over somebody in my audience by making them laugh. It became this common place.
I would work to be able to achieve that, and I’d look to be able to present points with humor attached to them. Instead of me trying to say, “How do I make something funny?” It was, what’s the point I’m looking to make, and can I make it funny?” Can I add some spice to it? That would be I guess where I started to really put some emphasis on it. You met my dad actually at my wedding as well. My dad’s probably going to come into this in some ways. My dad would stand and speak at family functions. I would see him try to be funny, and sometimes fail miserably, but still understand there was support and appreciation he would get from everybody in the audience, even though that sometimes he would miss by a country mile.
That was endearing to me. It was like, “No, good for you.” It becomes a giant challenge. My quest for wanting to be funnier I guess is similar to yours. It’s, I like puzzles. The reason I love sales, is because I just think it’s just this situation of unanswered questions. We need both sides of this equation to be able to equal each other. There’s some missing pieces of algebra here that we need to be able to plug the gaps in, to get everybody on the same side. Humor is the same thing to me. How do I figure this puzzle out? From early days, even my exams I called quizzes and puzzles. I just feel it is as another puzzle that I cannot solve, so the curiosity makes me want to chase it.
Drew Tarvin: Yeah. I think that’s a great point. For me, I didn’t consider them math problems. I called them, math opportunities. Yeah, I think it’s very much a puzzle. I think that speaks to one, I would say two things to what you talked about. Is one, I think that sometimes people look at it and is like, “Oh well if your family, or if your dad, or your mom, or that kind of thing was funny then maybe it’s a genetic thing.” Maybe it is something you’re just born with. I think it’s a learned observed behavior. That sometimes people that are funny because their family is, is just they’ve observed them do that.
Like you said, you observed him in speaking environments. Try it, and create a persona or have a persona that was engaging. I think that’s another key, is as you get more clear on who you are in a stage, and what you’re perspective is, writing and creating comedy becomes a lot easier. When I accepted that I am a nerd, and that people see me as a nerd, part of my persona on stage is what is a nerd’s viewpoint on the world? How does an engineer look at all these different things? How do they look at emotion and communication, and productivity, and dating, and all that other stuff?
I became a lot funnier, and it became a lot easier to write, because I became my persona or perspective certainly helps. I think the other thing that is maybe probably true across most comedians is, this idea of curiosity. That you spoke to of this puzzle, and I want to solve this puzzle. I think there’s curiosity in humor of exploring, let me explore this topic a little bit more. Why is this the way it is? Let me ask what that question is, and what the deal is about this? What’s the etymology of this word? Why do we say this? Why do we do this? That can create humor because we do a deeper dive into it from a curious standpoint.
Phil Jones: Ladies and gents, I hope you’ve enjoyed listening my friend, Andrew Tarvin talk about the words, funny and milkshake, drinking, subtle …
Drew Tarvin: In a subtle engineering way.
Phil Jones: Hmm. I think that’s enough for now. Take care buddy. Catch you soon.
Drew Tarvin: Yeah, thank you.