Yes, you can learn to be funny! Do you appreciate humour? Do you ever imagine what it’s like to be on the stand-up comedy stage? Listen as stand-up comedian Hillary Anger Elfenbein (also a fully tenured business school professor) shares her insights on learning comedy, and compares that experience to her experience teaching in the business school classroom.
- Key Learnings
- References & Links
- Andrea’s Commentary
- Interview Transcript
3 Key Learnings
- PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT – Most comedians were not born funny. They had to work very hard. And – confidence comes with practice. Whether you dream of stand-up or just want to be funnier in general, you will get better if you practice! Hillary said she even had it scripted down to the syllable…
- HECKLERS – I loved what Hillary said about hecklers. She says don’t worry about trying to win over the heckler. Rather — try to win over the rest of the audience! Of course! And this goes for stand-up hecklers, obstinate students in the classroom, and possibly even rude colleagues.
- COMEDY TECHNIQUES TO TRY
- Keep it personal – joke about what you know, even if it’s foreign to the audience. Just ensure you provide relevant context.
- The 1-2-Punch – Say one thing. Then you say another. Then you say something ridiculous. Or put another way, instead of 1-2-punch, it’s normal–normal–funny. Comedians do this all the time.
- Call-Backs – Also known as circling back. When you’re in a conversation, relate back to something that someone said earlier. You’ve probably seen stand-up comedians do this toward the end of their schtick.
- Be Self-Denigrating – Share embarrassing moments. Apparently people love to hear others put themselves down because they themselves like to feel superior.
- DO NOT – joke about religion or race or politics. And don’t ever say anything denigrating about someone when it’s something that they cannot help.
References & Links
Hillary Anger Elfenbein
- Washington University faculty page – http://apps.olin.wustl.edu/faculty/elfenbeinh/
- 6 minutes of stand-up on YouTube (** note explicit content) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bTgRecXW5S4
- Travis Bradbury’s Emotional Intelligence – https://www.talentsmart.com/
- “Here We Are” podcast with Shane Mauss (Hillary is interviewed in this episode – https://www.herewearepodcast.com/episode/16/hillary-anger-elfenbein
Comedy Resources & References
- “Mastering Stand-Up” – https://amzn.to/2No4BOo
- “Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage” – https://amzn.to/2JehoO7
- “Do You Talk Funny?” – https://amzn.to/2Jbis5m
Gloria Vanderbilt & Anderson Cooper laughing together:
How to be funny:
Benefits of laughter:
Nervous laughter – Stanley Milgram Experiments –
Talk About Talk
- Weekly Email Blog – https://talkabouttalk.com/blog/#newsletter-signup
- Andrea – [email protected]
- TALKING TO YOUR DOCTOR podcast episode with Dr. Tepper – https://talkabouttalk.com/20s2-talking-to-your-doctor-with-north-york-general-hospital-ceo-dr-joshua-tepper/
- COACHING podcast episode with Elite founder Stephanie Rudnick – https://talkabouttalk.com/8-coaching-with-elite-camps-founder-stephanie-rudnick/
Dr. Andrea’s Commentary
So, here’s the thing. I know I’m not very funny. Maybe I can be clever sometimes. Maybe. But I would like to be funnier. And I love comedy. I love watching stand-up.
The truth is that many of us would like to be funnier. I was thinking about this– have you ever noticed in conversations, when people are talking about their ideal mate, they list attributes – you know, tall, dark & handsome, or whatever. People will also often say “someone who makes me laugh.” We prefer to be around people who bring us up, not down.
Well, here’s your chance to learn what the research says about being funny. Yes, it can be learned.
You will also meet a stand- up comedian named Hillary Anger Elfenbein. And yes, ANGER is her real last name. Her maiden name, actually. That’s kind of funny, don’t you think?
I met Hillary when we were classmates years ago. Yes, she was funny then, and whenever I think of her, I see a smiling face and I hear laughter.
Since then, she has had a glowing academic career. A few years ago, Hillary, now Dr. Elfenbein, decided to take up stand-up comedy on the side. Gutsy, right? I thought she would be a great person to talk to about comedy, partly because, as an academic, she would be conscious of LEARNING how to be funny.
Before I introduce Hillary, let me share with you some research I have compiled about being funny, including types of humour and what the research says about how to be funny. Let’s start with the benefits of laughter and humour.
You may have heard that there are physical benefits as well as social and psychological benefits associated with laughter. I read about some of these physical benefits on the Mayo Clinic website.
(So Dr Tepper–the doctor I interviewed for the recent podcast about HOW TO TALK TO YOUR DOCTOR–-would approve. Yes, Dr. Tepper, I am referencing high quality online sources!)
According to the Mayo Clinic, Laughter is the best medicine! Laughing actually changes your blood chemistry. It releases endorphins, relieves pain, releases t-cells (that increase immunity), and it reduces stress hormones. Laughing also lowers your blood pressure. So if you have high blood pressure, maybe go watch some stand-up?.
Laughing also burns calories! I looked it up. Laughing burns calories at the same rate as walking. So – it’s not hardcore cardio. But think about this. If you spend the evening watching comedy and laughing, that would be like going for a walk, right? I’m thinking that’s a good reason to watch comedy instead of some sappy drama. We just need to make sure we aren’t sitting in front of that comedy with a beer and a big bowl of buttered popcorn! I’m also thinking that going for a walk with a friend and making each other laugh must be roughly equivalent to sprinting, right? Maybe not quite.
Did you know that laughing is also a good ab workout! Have you ever noticed how you can really feel your stomach muscles after a good laugh? Then there are the social & psychological benefits of laughing. Laughter mentally disarms people. Laughter also gets attention – people always turn to see what’s funny, right? They tune in, not out. And if you are the funny guy, people will think you are clever smart.
Ss there are many psychical and psychological benefits associated with laughter. Speaking of psychology, I have to say something about NERVOUS laughter.
If you google nervous laughter, you are bound to read about the Stanley Milgram’s obedience experiments from the 1960s. Do you remember Stanley Milgram from your psychology classes ? Let me remind you… Professor Milgram told subjects, (the people participating in the research) that they were to act as teachers, and they had to shock, physically shock the “learners” every time the learners answered a question incorrectly. The truth was that the “learners” were actors or confederates. The shocks weren’t real, but the subjects, (the teachers) didn’t know that.
As you might imagine, when they were administering the shocks to the learners, many of the subjects experienced extreme tension, stress, and conflict. Milgram noticed that many subjects laughed nervously when they heard the “learners'” screams of pain. Of course, the learners were acting. But again, the subjects didn’t know that. And many of the subjects responded with nervous laughter. Hmm…
This and other research highlights that laughter is sometimes used as a defense mechanism to project dignity and control and to guard against overwhelming anxiety.
People will even laugh to help others overcome awkwardness. Have you ever noticed that? But then ironically, the situation becomes even more awkward, because we are pretty good at detecting fake laughter.
And then there’s the whole question of whether we are laughing WITH someone versus AT them. It’s like – are you making the joke or – are YOU the joke?
And – sometimes – people like to make themselves the joke. You’ve probably seen comedians to this. This is sometimes called self-deprecating humour. There are many types of humour that comedians use. Let me explain a few of them to you.
In addition of self-deprecating humour, when people make fun of themselves. There’s also physical or slap stick humour. This is particularly appreciated by kids; you may have noticed. But many adults appreciate it too.
Then there’s word play. You know, like when someone uses a pun. I found that people tend to either love wordplay, thinking it’s very clever, or they absolutely hate it. They groan and accuse people of being punny. Personally, I am one of those people in the latter group.
The 3rd kind of humour is simple joke-telling. I say simple, but honestly, I am always impressed when people can just rhyme off joke after joke. I guess it’s just memorization, but it works. Maybe that’s a good place to start in my quest to be funnier.
The opposite of memorized joke telling is improv or improvisational comedy. Improv is unplanned, unrehearsed comedy. It can be particularly engaging, since the audience is feeling empathic anxiety for the person on stage. Hopefully the laughter is real, not nervous laughter.
If you ever watch stand-up, you would notice right away that many comedians focus on taboo topics: religion, bodily functions, race, sexism. This can be funny to some. It really depends on your audience. And again, it can be particularly effective if it’s self-deprecating.
Dark comedy, or comedy that focuses on depressing or morbid topics, is also appreciated by some, but definitely not by all. And again, that nervous, anxious laughter may be what you are hearing.
You’ve probably heard people say, when they are laughing about dire things, (like, say, illness or mortality), they’’ say “We had to laugh. What else could we do? Other than laugh?”
Just a few days ago, Anderson Cooper’s mother, Gloria Vanderbilt, died at the age of 95. I heard this clip on the radio when I was in my car. And it made me laugh. She was literally lying in her deathbed. And Anderson was recording her. She started laughing, then he joined in. Then she laughed at him.
It goes on and on. Anderson Cooper said he still laughs when he hears it.
So YES, laughter is contagious. We mirror laughter, just like we mirror many other emotions.
Now, I’m going to list several things that you can try, if you’re like me, and you’d like to be funnier.
- PRACTICE – First, practice. This is GOOD NEWS people. We can practice and improve our humour. As you will hear from Hillary the stand-up comedian, being funny takes practice. And it takes LOT of practice to be good on the stand-up stage. But there are some things we can do in our everyday life (when we’re not onstage) to be funnier.
Maybe start by asking yourself – what makes YOU laugh? If you find something amusing, other people probably do too. So go ahead – Amuse yourself.
- ARCHIVING This next thing is a big one. A great hack for becoming funnier. And I kept coming across this point over and over again when I was preparing for this episode. Can you guess what it is? It’s archiving. Think of things you have said that make people laugh. Or – that AMAZE people, in an amusing way. Archive them. Write them down. And don’t be afraid to use them.
For me, my funny stories are often related to my children. My 12 yr. old saw an ad for some designer perfume in a magazine. He did a double take at the word “eau de toilette” and announced, “they just call it that to make 12yr old boys laugh!” Everyone within earshot laughed. I posted his quote on social media and people LOLd!
People are also amazed at the large quantity of food that is consumed in my household every day. I get comments in the grocery store all the time – from cashiers and other shoppers. Like “are you stocking up?” No. This will take two days to consume. WHAT?!? And then there’s the length of the grocery story receipt. It’s shocking. And apparently it’s funny too – as long as you’re not paying for it!
- SURPRISES – Surprising people – going against expectations. Or going against stereotypes. This often makes people laugh. Similarly – Exaggeration makes people laugh.
- BE BRIEF – One piece of advice I read over and over again was this: Be brief. You probably know this from experience. But Long, drawn out stories aren’t funny. Sometimes the funniest jokes are just one sentence.
- THE 1-2-PUNCH – Speaking of sentences. When it comes to comedy — have you heard of the 1-2-punch? It’s where you say one thing. Then you say another. Then you say something ridiculous. Or put another way, instead of 1-2-punch, it’s Normal – normal – funny. Comedians do this all the time. Bear with me while I give this a try. Here goes:
Why do I like podcasting? Well, it gives me a chance to research topics I am passionate about. And I love teaching. But most of all, I love talking without seeing my kids roll their eyes. Seriously, I LOVE That. It’s such a rare thing for me…
Here’s another. So what’s changed since I started podcasting? Well, (1) I notice sounds a lot more. Like construction and landscaping in my neighborhood. Or the bar fridge in my family room. I never used to notice them, but I hate those sounds now. (2.) my house is tidier. Because I often conduct guest expert interviews in my dining room. And (3.) I don’t raise my voice at my kids anymore. Not ever. I need to save my voice for podcasting. SO instead, I use a megaphone. I am NOT kidding. Don’t believe me? I used to yell “dinner’s ready.” Now they get the megaphone announcement: Attention, attention. DINNER’S READY. GET DOWN HERE BEFORE IT GETS COLD. Yes, I have a megaphone in my kitchen.
So that’s the one-two-punch. I’m not sure if you think that’s funny. But my kids’ friends think it is hilarious.
- CALL-BACKS – Another comedy technique is using call-backs. Call-backs are also known as Circling back. So, when you’re in a conversation, when you or someone else relates back to something that someone said earlier – this can be very witty and funny. You’ve probably seen stand-up comedians do this toward the end of their schtick.
- SELF-DENIGRATING – You’ve probably also noticed that a lot of stand-up comedians are self-denigrating. They share embarrassing moments.
Apparently people love to hear others put themselves down because they themselves like to feel superior…. Hmm.
That reminds me – I have a list of DO NOTs…
- DO NOT – When you’re trying to be funny, do not joke about religion or race or politics.
I heard some advice once that I thought was wise. This comedian said, “DO NOT EVER say anything denigrating about someone when it’s something that they can’t help.”
Good advice. I leave you with that.
Now, I would like to introduce comedian Hillary Anger Elfenbein. As I said, Hillary is an accomplished academic, who started doing comedy later in life. But I thought this made her the ideal guest expert for us, since she is very focused on the learning process, and learning to be funny.
Hillary (or Dr. Elfenbein) earned bachelor’s degrees in physics and Sanskrit, a masters in statistics and a PhD in Organizational behaviour, all from Harvard University. She has been a business school professor at the Olin School of Washington University in St. Louis since 2008. Previously she has worked at UC Berkley, Harvard Business School, and Monitor Consulting.
Dr Elfenbein’s research focuses on emotion in the workplace, with particular emphasis on emotional intelligence and cultural differences – as you can imagine, this gives her an incredible lens through which to examine comedy. Her work has appeared in many top academic journals.
In a moment you will hear Hillary share when and why she started doing stand-up. What you won’t hear is that she is also doing very well in the comedy scene. She was recently nominated, like since I recorded this interview with her, as a semi-finalist in St Louis’ Funniest person contest!
If you go to the shownotes on the TalkAboutTalk website, you will find a six-minute video of Hillary. She is awesome. (*** NOTE EXPLICIT CONTENT IN THIS VIDEO!)
One of the things that makes her so funny is how completely disarming she is. She is a genuine and lovely person. She is an incredibly accomplished academic. And. She is raw and real. I guess what I’m trying to say is that she swears like a trucker (as they say). But don’t worry – we bleep out the profanities.
Thank you so much, Hillary – for joining us!
Professor Hillary Anger Elfenbein: Thank you so much for getting me to sit down. I’ve been like so scattered all semester. And that was really a delight to just have this on my calendar.
Dr. Andrea Wojnicki: I think the listeners and I would love to hear, because I did not see this on your radar when I knew you. I think of you now as the student that always had a smile on her face. So I’m not surprised…. Oh, there we go. There’s the smile. (laughing). I’m not surprised that you’re a stand-up. But you know, I wouldn’t have seen it coming. So my first question is, when and how did you start doing stand-up?
HAE: you know, I didn’t see it coming either. I don’t think growing up I ever thought of myself as particularly funny. And what happened was that I fell in love with the classroom, and then being in front of the room. And I really think of myself as a natural introvert. I felt like I was introverted throughout elementary school. I was definitely the person who didn’t really understand what a party was. Isn’t it just the same people who already see each other, but now they’re in a room? I don’t get it. Right? What’s special about that? And it wasn’t until I started teaching that I started to really come out of that shell more. And, students would laugh a lot and tell me I was funny. And it really was one of these reflected self-moments, where it took other people to reflect that part of me, for me to actually realize it was there. I had it maybe in a little bit in the back of my mind. But never thought I would pursue it until I had this little bit of a …midlife… I don’t want to use the word “crisis,” because crisis makes it sound bad. But I would say a “midlife inflection.” So when I turned 44, I realized that 44 is not for most people a really big inflection point. But for me, so many people in my family… my mother was at the time ailing. And she passed away a year later. And she was in her late 70s. And my great uncle who I was helping to care for, he was actually getting close to 100. But he had had Alzheimer’s since he was 88. So maybe I’m making a short story too long. But there was something about that number 44 that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s when he was about 88. And I thought, you know what, this is my halfway point.
HAE: …in a scary way, but in a really loving way. I thought, Okay, I have as much as I’ve had, I have that much more.
AW: So when some people reach that midlife moment or realization, they go off and buy crazy things, or they have an affair. But Hillary turns to stand-up!
HAE: There was something else that happened at the same time to which was that I got an endowed chair, which as you know, in academia is it’s the highest promotion, the University offered
AW: Congratulations! I’m so proud of you. I’m so happy for you.
HAE: When you get an endowed chair, they throw you a party. So they invite – your whole family’s invited, and the top brass of the university come, and you get a half an hour talk. And I treated this like my first half hour comedy special.
AW: Oh, good for you.
HAE: I scripted it down to the syllable and made sure that it was perfect. I mean, it was it was really one of the best days of my life. It was one of those performances. I wish I could do it again. It was it really worked. But it was it was really down to the syllable. I was trying to just take the work that I do and, bring it out for people in a way where they could feel why it was fun to me. But at some level, it’s still there’s something very symbolic about it being the highest promotion, the last promotion. And so then the question is now what? Now what and so, where’s so I’m at my halfway point. I’ve got I’ve got no promotions left in my job. And then the question is now what? and it got me thinking…
AW: I love how you are one of those people that just follows your passion.
HAE: You have to, and this is actually why I don’t teach undergrads here in the business school. And part of it is that I don’t understand how you can be so boring, so young. I don’t relate to them.
AW: Says the physics, Sanskrit, OB, business and stand-up comedian, right? The Renaissance woman.
HAE: And I have a master of statistics.
AW: of course, of course you do. J So the first time you did it, you were, you said, highly scripted – right down to the syllable. And how has that evolved? Like, tell us, you know, what the journeys been like? And what have you done since then? In terms of stand-up?
HAE: The first time I tried it was just under three years ago.
HAE: It’s funny, I was just thinking about how far I’ve come at something. My first set was basically a disaster. When I got up to do it, I made the mistake I used to, I used to take a drink. I’d have a drink for my nerves before performing. Actually I stopped drinking,
AW: How long has it been since you had a drink?
HAE: So as of a few days ago, it was two and a half years.
HAE: Yeah. You know what it was? And it’s actually and I don’t mind if any of this makes it into the conversation. It was it was the day Trump got elected. So I’ll always remember that date, it was November 8, 2016. And I just felt like if I were to drink during the Trump administration, and I wouldn’t know when to stop.
AW: That’s definitely going to stay. That is funny.
HAE: So I used to take a drink. I’d have a drink for my nerves before performing. I will never do that, again. Because I was just really flustered, you know, and the place where I did my first open mic, what is this is this really loud bar where two thirds of the people are facing the other direction.
AW: So I have a question about that. Do you — knowing that two thirds of the people aren’t even listening — do you actively try to seek their attention? Or do you just ignore them and talk to the people that are listening?
HAE: Well, in this particular case, they’re facing away from you. So there is nothing, there’s nothing I could do, in that particular bar. But to your point, though, the other people who are facing in the correct direction, I think if I can make eye contact with anybody I try would try to seduce them into viewing the set. But I don’t think as a beginner – I didn’t know how to do that. I didn’t know how to how to win the crowd over the way that I feel now. Like, I feel now I have just more confidence. I don’t know how much more skill I have. But I’m more comfortable taking whatever skill I do have. And pushing the audience to try to be part of what I’m doing. If that makes any sense.
AW: It makes a lot of sense. Your learning curve is probably more advanced than most stand-up comedians, because of your experience in teaching.
HAE: I agree with that. I think it’s different. There’s something transferable about working with an audience. But then there’s some things that aren’t transferable, like some bad habits you get from being in front of the classroom. Like, I own the room in class, right?
AW: There’s a power dynamic. You’re grading them!
HAE: Yeah, I’m grading them. And I get to make the rules, right? The rules of the room. No devices, you know, laptops, no phones, you know, who speaks. It’s like conducting an orchestra. You get to point at which hands get to speak. So you had this huge power differential.
AW: You have a power differential, but you also have credibility, right?
HAE: that actually gives you some bad habits. Because in stand-up, you’ve got basically 10 seconds to build credibility, they owe you nothing.
AW: Right. they’ve paid to be there probably.
HAE: Yeah, they feel like you’re there to serve them.
AW: You’re not there to judge them. Right. They’re there to judge you.
HAE: So the way I handle hecklers in class and in comedy are very different from class. And it speaks to this difference in power that you have. What I do in classes, I very delicately say, “let’s talk during the next break”. And I say it so sweetly and softly
AW: love it!
HAE: …that it’s really clear to everyone else. I’m not giving into this person. But that we’re going to take this offline. It’s hard because you don’t, you’re actually not even trying to win that person over. You’re trying to win the everyone else. It’s how you respond. Because that person you assume they’re all they’re a goner. But now in comedy, I’m really lucky that I haven’t been heckled. Because St. Louis is so polite!
There’s, there’s really almost no heckling.
AW: You need to go to New York.
HAE: I know. I know. So I’m from New York. I’m from Brooklyn. I’ll go back, I know I will. I need to handle the Midwestern nice that I’ve grown accustomed to over the past 14 years.
AW: So my brain is exploding here with questions. So how would you handle that? Would you just throw it out there? “I grew up in Brooklyn. I know you guys are hecklers. I know you’re nasty. I know you’re aggressive. I’ve been doing stand-up in St. Louis, where everyone’s really sweet. Just bring it on. Do you do that? What would you do?
HAE: Well, I think my, my comedy style… I get introduced as “the sweetheart of St. Louis comedy” – a sweetheart. And I got told afterwards by a few of the people who were there that you have this really sweet delicate style that makes your heart edge completely unexpected.
AW: Oh, awesome. I love that.
HAE: I think people don’t want to heckle the person who’s being so kind. I actually have really dirty sets. They’re really dirty. A lot of explicit stuff, a lot of body parts, very explicit. I talk a lot about what happens to women in the workplace, what happens to women relating to motherhood, relating to the pressure to look younger and these kinds of pressures and, stresses that women go through. And almost all of my comedy has been under this broad theme that I call “——-“ that women have to deal with.”
AW: Oh, I love that. I was going to ask you what your best joke is, but it sounds like you have a whole riff about how it sucks to be a woman and what we should do about it?
HAE: Yeah, well, what we should do about it, for sure. Some of what I perform about is trying to put for myself a pleasant or, you know, a happy ending on things that are very stressful in real life. I have a new set that I’ve been performing about teacher ratings. And the things that people write in their teacher ratings. What women get, and men don’t get. And at one point, I say in the set, “you know, I envy the men, I really envy the men for their topic-relevant feedback.” It was so cathartic saying that. And I you know; I don’t know how funny that is to somebody outside of that experience. But I think for someone inside that experience, the idea that, that you would envy men for having professional-developmental feedback actually being developmental,..
AW: and professional!
HAE: …and professional.
AW: I got two pieces of advice when I was first teaching at the university. One was if you want to do well, in your teacher ratings, make sure all the students think they’re going into the final exam with an “A.” Have you heard that? I didn’t believe it. And the first time I taught it didn’t go so well. The second time I taught, I took that into consideration. I got a teaching award. (laughter) It is my understanding – is that self-deprecation, personal, and taboo topics are typically sort of the low hanging fruit. Do you agree?
HAE: I do. Well, I think some of it is easy. It can be hackneyed. So things like, you know, taboo, breaking taboos, just for the sake of it, I think, you know, you can see through that. But what I love other people doing and what I love to do myself are the are the truly personal pieces, like really digging in there and getting to the core. What’s painful, right? And you can see when stand-up is better than therapy, right? Working through your pain, by being able to reframe it and laugh at it.
AW: I would love to see you. Are there any videos on YouTube of you doing stand-up?
HAE: Well, I keep getting told to take them down. Before I got started doing this, I was a little bit worried about it, because I thought, you know, here I am about to identify myself – and I do identify myself as a professor at Wash U during the set, because part of how I start is by introducing myself as a psychologist. And that as that one of the interesting things about being a psychologist is that it professionally qualifies me to notice a lot of “——-“.
AW: That’s awesome.
HAE: So I identify myself, my place of work. And I first before I started out, I actually asked the provost, I asked him whether he thought it was okay for me to be doing this. And he said very professionally, that, you know, he stands by freedom of speech for academics and, and all this, but I don’t I don’t think he realized that the time that I was going to be in public talking about my “——-“
AW: You didn’t give him an example? So for example, if I said this, or if I said that, would that be okay, you didn’t do that?
HAE: yeah, I should have. I should have given him a list of what if I talk about. I’ve been doing this around town, and for a while, the only people who knew were just my Facebook friends. But then at some point, it got to be known in the school in a way where current students knew, and current students had sometimes seen pieces on YouTube and distributed them. And that’s actually when I took it down. It’s different if someone comes and sees me in person, but … I had a performance a few months ago, where a whole group of my current students had found out — I have no idea how they found out when and where it was, but they were all there.
AW: Oh, wow, that must have been bizarre.
HAE: It was really the two worlds colliding. Yeah. But it’s one of the things that’s been really fun about stand-up is that it’s gotten me out of my bubble. Most of the people I know here are academics, right? They’re academics or they’re my kids’ friends’ parents, right? These are the two ways that I know people, right? And so I’m in a bit of a bubble. And, and now all of a sudden, I have this other life where my best friends in comedy are these 20 something year old hipsters.
HAE: I feel like they’re mentoring me. So some of my closest friends in comedy are people who, you know, they’re mail carriers. They work at Pizza shops; they do all kinds of things. They’re in college. They’re just, they’re just doing everything.
AW: You know what it is about you Hillary, you have an incredible growth mentality. You’re talking about learning something from 20 something year old postal carriers, right? And you mean it? So who are your favorite comedians?
HAE: My very, very favorite comedian is Amy Schumer. And when I first started — that was before she became a mom. And I used to say that, that I didn’t like to box myself into a particular style. But if I had to say one, that it would be if Amy Schumer had kids. Now she does have kids. So that’s exciting for me, too. I would say the people, we don’t necessarily think of as comedians, but people we think of as quote unquote “humorists,” which I’m not sure exactly what the difference is, but my biggest inspiration of all, is David Sedaris. I’ve seen him read his work a few times, he’s come through St. Louis, and I had the chance to get an autograph, and it was like this hero worship moment.
AW: So how do you prepare? you’ve gone from, as you said, preparing literally every syllable to – how does it look now?
HAE: Well, I’ve probably written about 10 different pieces that have worked. The way I start writing is that I think about something that I’ve told people that they’ve laughed at. Like with the teacher evaluations that I used to joke about, about my friends. Actually, I have a good friend who used to get comments on her teacher evaluations about her “——-” right?
AW: On her teaching evaluation?
HAE: Definitely. Did somebody ever do that to you?
AW: I got the this — And this is going to be edited out. I got the “Andrea is the biggest “——-“in the university. Good thing, she has a nice “——-“.”
HAE: Oh my gosh, we don’t edit that out. People need to hear. That’s just, that’s that this is what we go through. Right? I mean, I have to say and don’t edit this or edit out if you feel like it. But um, but back on the record that um, you know, when I when I was growing up, I just assumed I was in the free to be you and me. Gloria Steinem. Ms. magazine generation. Where I just assumed that all of these things barriers had been broken through for us. Yeah, I thought the glass ceiling was over. No. And that we were going to be able to benefit from all these heroes that had come before us and paved the way for us. And I was unprepared.
AW: I was too. Back to the how you prepare. Say, a week from today, you’re going to be on stage. What do you do?
HAE: I do – actually, I script it out to the syllable still. Doing that allows me freedom, ironically. And I tell this to I tell this to students who are starting to teach for the first time, starting to do presentations for the first time, that the more you practice something the more you get it down, then then the more than the more extemporaneous you ironically get to be.
AW: Yeah, I understand that even from podcasting, because I will write out a script and I used to read the script. And now I look at the script. It’s like, it’s a crutch, but it’s actually helped me prepare,
HAE: yeah. It’s how it helps to prepare and, and then then because you’re prepared, you don’t need it. You don’t need to read word by word, but you understand the pathway. You know, for me, because almost all of my stand-up has been feminist humor. I have so primarily one transition, which is, “okay, other “——-“about being a woman”…
HAE: Something that’s been scary for me in this comedy topic has been: where do I want to go with it? What’s scary about it is that I think, if you really want to do this for a living, you have to work very, very hard at it. And it looks so effortless. And when you see comedians on TV, they just look like they just show up and talk for a few minutes. And you talk for half an hour. How hard could this be? And it looks easy. When you watch people who are the very best in the world at it, right? But I think the best stand-up comedians, they’re constantly trying things 100 different ways. They’re playing, they’re playing the same joke. And writing down every inflection that makes it go over better versus worse. And I’ve been actually a little bit scared about, you know, do I really want to do this to that level and invest like that? And, I don’t know. I actually don’t know the answer. But one thing I do know, though, is that as a profession, I already have my dream job. So I think that’s what holds me back a bit in comedy. Because there are these 20 something hipsters, right? This is what they want. And they live for those moments that they’re on stage. They’re investing in it. Yeah, in a way that, you know, first, I don’t have the time. I’m a mother of two and I have a full-time job. That’s kind of a full-time plus type of job. But there’s also something I guess that holds me back. And I’m not sure how to articulate it. But I think part of it is when I read books about the career-side of stand-up…
AW: Can you tell me what those books are?
AW: Okay, I’m going to put links to those in the show notes.
HAE: And one thing that I found really hilarious in these books was how practical they were. So they talked about things like how to save money when you’re touring on the road. So they talked about going to the grocery store versus eating fast food when you’re touring on the road, and where you’re going to stay when you’re touring, who you’re going to be staying with.
AW: What are some of the things that are, I guess, common knowledge amongst comedians, the do’s and the don’ts. So, for example, self-deprecation is a do but putting down a minority, probably is a don’t?
HAE: Yeah, nobody does that anymore. Right? Nobody makes I mean, that the amount of openly sexist jokes are fewer. You don’t hear rape jokes anymore. You just don’t hear them. One time, I was one of the only two women in a program. And somebody said introduced me as “bringing more estrogen into the room.”
HAE: But you know, it’s interesting. Members of minority groups make fun of their own group.
AW: Right. So it’s like self-deprecation. So you said, you know, you’re mentoring new professors when they’re teaching in the classroom? If you were mentoring a beginner stand-up comedian, what are some of the things that you would share with them?
HAE: Interesting. Um, I would say first – to practice. I think the same thing I say to the new professors. Case teaching, the kind of teaching we do, where we go through case studies is very much like improv. Whereas giving a presentation of like these 15 minute presentations at conferences, of your research projects, that’s probably the closest to stand-up. I give the same advice of practice in front of the mirror, practice standing up and holding a cucumber as your microphone. I actually stand holding my hand up in the air, just to really mimic, and to try to practice as many times as you can. And time yourself and record yourself. And this is this is advice that everyone gives. Record yourself and listen to it. That’s how you know the difference between people who are working hard and people who aren’t working hard, is if you record yourself and listen to it. I’ve taken the recording I’ve made and watched it, listened to it and typed out transcript of it, and made notes about where people laughed. And that’s how, you know, you’re a hard-working comedian. I think I actually despaired a little bit after reading these books and realizing that, you know, if I were to really succeed at this succeed wildly at this, my life would be actually tangibly worse than it is right now. Very successful people are on the road, 30 weeks a year, and they go to they go to places like Boise, Idaho. And they perform Thursday, two times, Friday, two times, Saturday, and then they drive home? Well, and so my upside is actually very limited right now by the weird fluke of already having my other dream job.
AW: When people learn – who are in other spheres of your life, be it you know, other academics and or your kids’ friends’ parents – do they treat you differently? When they find out that you do stand-up? Do they suddenly expect you to be funny?
HAE: Oh, that’s so interesting. Well, I do think that when people find out there’s a certain amount of street cred. I do feel like people think that’s a cool hobby. Right? I feel bad to say it, but it impresses people. And I kind of feel a little bit ambivalent about that. Because I wonder sometimes, should I be more like, is it immodest of me to go around telling people that I do this thing that has this kind of cachet to it? Sometimes people will say, oh, tell me a joke, then what I’ll have to say is, “it kind of has to be somewhere dark where people are drinking. And, it has to be dirty stuff.” I’ll warn people that it’s dirty stuff. It depends on who’s asking. People are like Whoa. I invited someone once who then invited a lot of other people, including the former dean of the business school. And he brought his wife.
AW: Oh, geez.
HAE: And then they brought a big donor to the university, who’s got to be in his 90s or thereabouts. And, his son was there to help him with his walking. And I just thought, I just thought Oh, no, I hope they realized that this is dirty stuff.
AW: Do you ever adjust your content when you’re on the fly?
HAE: You know, I think some people are better at that than I am. I’m modular, so I could do a completely different set, but I don’t think I can make adjustments to my sets very well. Because I practice them too much to be spontaneous. And I know that’s a beginners flaw that I need to work on. But it’s not it’s not a place where I’ve gotten to yet where I can really adjust on the fly – the way in teaching, I can. In teaching I totally can. I do have certain jokes that I don’t do if they’re not with me. You know, there’s certain things you can pull off if the audience is with you. But if the audience isn’t with you, then then you have to be more subtle and you can’t really joke around with people who aren’t on your side.
AW: Well, that’s generally good advice. I think, even outside of the realm of stand-up. Do you have advice for people who want to be funnier?
HAE: Well, people who want to be funnier… What I try to do is I think about times when people did laugh at things I’ve said, and then I try to build content around that.
AW: So here’s another question. What are the differences between telling one person a joke or making one person laugh, versus making a room laugh?
HAE: Interesting. I think that with one-on-one, I’m really laser-focused on the other person, trying to just be one with them. When it’s a whole room, I assume that I have nothing in common with anybody there. I have to assume that I have to start from scratch. And this was something my one of my mentors early on, told me that (actually, and this is that the mailman I was mentioning before), he I was telling him that there were things I wanted to talk about, but I just didn’t think they would be relatable. And he said “no, don’t be relatable”. He said, “Don’t do what you think other people can relate to.” Because it’s a it was a bar full of 20 something year olds, and I kind of wanted to talk about motherhood, but I didn’t think anyone would relate since no one else in that room was a mom. And he said “no, you don’t understand. Don’t try to start out relatable. Try to bring them into your world.” It was mind blowing advice. Because then I started talking about all kinds of things. I don’t just say “course evaluations.” I point out that, you know, the end of the semester, I get these teaching evaluations … Even just little things – so that if anybody hasn’t been to college, they wouldn’t know offhand what you’re even talking about. You have to add a little phrase for context. I tried to make the context even funny. So when I talk about the course evaluations, I say, you know, at the end of the semester, I get these teaching evaluations. And then I add, “and this is supposed to be my professionally-developmental feedback.” Yeah.
Well, you know, so actually, and this can be on the record. So um, I really was on the defensive, the first time I taught. So I had gone and done the MBA program at Harvard, where the students really were out at bars late at night talking about how to get their female professors to cry. Yeah, they really were. So there’s none of this paranoia like, wow, I wonder if they’re trying to make me cry. No, they were. They were. Yeah, they were out at bars talking about it. And so I was really on the defensive when I first got to
to Berkeley as a professor and thought, all right, I’m not going to let these mother “——-“make me cry. And they were actually very, very nice people.
AW: So do you tell that story when you’re on stage?
AW: you should! That’s funny!
HAE: Well, I’ve mentioned a little bit, the part of how I got myself out of that problem, though, which was that when I first started, so I did go on the defensive. So I mentioned in the routine that the problem with being a woman in the MBA classroom, is that “they either want to “——-“you don’t even want to “——-“you. Which is worse?” So I went on the defensive though, because I thought you know, I’m not going to let these mother “——-“bring me down. And then I was pregnant, and I was — right before the semester began — I popped out. I was showing when the semester started, and I thought, oh, they’re going to smell weakness, it’s like sharks smelling blood. But it turned out to be the opposite. They were very, they really treated me like, like I was their aunt. You know, like, their older sisters. And there was none of that. Like, did they want “——-“you dynamic? Because you’re pregnant. I actually go into this in the routine, like, whom do you never want to “——-“? They either want you or they don’t want you — and which one is worse? That who do you never want? Well, you don’t want somebody who, you don’t want your mom.
AW: So you swear, like a “——-“on stage? Do you swear in the classroom?
HAE: Never No. I don’t feel like it’s appropriate. I feel like it’s a line for me. I’m not sure why. But on stage on stage, man, it’s all bets are off.
AW: Fascinating. So is this cathartic? Is that the word for you – being on stage – cathartic?
HAE: Very, very much. Yeah. It’s like floating in air. It’s weird. Like, the only way I can perform is if I’m in flow. Like if I even overthink it, if I think for one moment about anything, it’s all over. It has to be like this. It’s like an out of body experience.
HAE: Yeah. Part of why I like to practice so much is that I hate the timing lights. So when you’re performing, they give you a light when you have one minute left, and then they give you a light when you’re supposed to be done by now. And I really don’t like paying attention to the lights because there’s nothing I can really do about it. It’s not like I can change up anything. I mean, I can’t really go faster, I guess. So I try to practice in advance, rehearse in advance so that I’m going to be within time, and I can ignore these outside stimuli.
HAE: So one of the hardest things I learned actually was how to let people laugh, believe it or not, because I would just keep going. You know, so I would just be talking over them laughing. And it actually took reading this book, this “mastering stand-up” comedy book, where they talk about how laughter, first it rises and then it falls. And you want to wait until you’re past that crest. You can’t wait until all the laughter is gone. Because then you’re in dead space, then you have you have silence for a moment. But you want to wait until the laughter is on its way down. So it’s a little bit hard to know exactly where that moment is. But I was talking over people who were trying to laugh. And so I’ve had to time it in a different kind of way. I know that seems weird. That’s one of the rookie mistakes.
AW: I have heard that comedy is all about timing. Do you agree?
HAE: Yeah. I don’t think I have the best comedic timing of working on it. Work in progress.
AW: Pregnant pause. (haha) I’m going to move on now to the five rapid fire questions that I ask every guest.
AW: First question, what are your pet peeves?
HAE: This is going to sound horrible but ending a sentence with a preposition. And splitting an infinitive. I can’t help it. I can’t help it. I became a grammar snob later in life. So I’m one of the converts. You know, converts are always the worst, it wasn’t until college that I really learned grammar. And then I just can’t help it. Every now and then I add something to the end of a sentence just so that the preposition wasn’t what it ended with. See, I just did it. I ended a sentence with a preposition.
AW: second question, what type of learner are you?
HAE: Definitely visual. So in class, for example, I have people sit in the same place every time. Because I’ll remember what they said throughout the whole semester, but I won’t remember always who said it, but I’ll remember what seat it came from? What direction it came from?
AW: Does that affect you when you’re doing stand-up? Being visual?
HAE: When I’m doing stand-up. I’m trying to make eye contact with people. I’m trying to, or trying to at least to seem like I am. It’s dangerous. Because if you actually make eye contact with somebody who isn’t into it, you’re worse off than if you just seem to be looking out at the at the audience.
AW: Yeah, I can imagine. Okay, question number three, introvert or extrovert?
HAE: This is an interesting one. So I grew up an introvert, but I became an extrovert. I’m not sure exactly when it happened. I still have a sense of myself as an introvert. And every now and then people correct me. Because I do go to this conference that we go to every year, right? Academy of Management. And it’s 10,000 people. And I actually look forward to it.
AW: Wow. So I know that you’re outgoing, and you’re confident now. Maybe it’s that your confidence has increased? But where do you get your energy from? Is it from being alone and writing and researching, or is it from being at those conferences with 10,000 people?
HAE: being alone.
AW: You’re an introvert.
HAE: I’m an introvert.
AW: Okay, question number four. What’s your communication preference for personal conversations?
HAE: This is going to sound weird, but I’m really old fashioned. And I like a good phone call every now and then. I’m realistically on a more day-to-day basis, I tend to use Facebook Messenger actually, of all things. I don’t use regular text messages. Because real texts are bit too immediate. Right? They show up on your lock screen and you have to answer them. So I grew up at a time when people just talked on the phone all the time. I don’t even know what we were saying. But this was before call waiting. And my mother actually got me my own phone line with my own separate phone number because she was tired of missing calls.
AW: That’s hilarious. That’s funny. I forgot about call waiting. We thought that was so modern.
HAE: It’s funny, but we instead of waiting, when I was in high school, you could tell the operator that you needed an emergency interruption to someone else’s call, and we used to do that. If my boyfriend’s sister was on the phone too long with her boyfriend, then I would do an emergency interruption.
AW: Hello, operator. This is a teen emergency, a teen telephone emergency. You need to make an interruption on this phone call. Nice. Okay, last question. Is there a podcast or a blog or an email newsletter that you find yourself recommending the most?
HAE: So on email, I really like Travis Bradbury’s Emotional Intelligence blogs, and he has an email that that links you to his blogs on LinkedIn. And then as for podcasts, there’s a comedian named Shane Mauss and he has a podcast called “Here we are.” Okay. And I was on it was so of course I liked it.
AW: Oh, I’m going to go listen to that one.
HAE: It was really fun know you, you will enjoy it. He’s a professional comedian, he tours, he does all kinds of great work.
AW: As always, we’ll put links to those in the shownotes so people can check them out as well. So thank you. Thank you. I appreciate it so much.
HAE: This was a lot of fun. So thank you. Thank you for giving me this wonderful morning. It’s been a pleasure.
AW: Yeah, really a pleasure. It was great to reconnect, and I have to say congratulations on everything– on the chair, the endowed chair, and on being a stand-up comedian and a mom!
What an amazing woman, right? I would characterize Hillary as a lifelong learner. And obviously she is happy to share her learnings about comedy – and how it compares to teaching in the business school – with us. THANK YOU, Dr Elfenbein!
Did Hillary surprise you with the tone of her humour? Disarming, right?
That reminds me. We will be focusing on the topic of profanity in an upcoming podcast episode. I interviewed a knowledgeable linguistics professor from the University of Calgary named Darin Flynn. He was fantastic. I learned SO MUCH. That episode will be coming up soon.
There were several things that Hillary mentioned that I want to quickly summarize for you.
PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT – Most comedians were not born funny. They had to work very hard. And – confidence comes with practice.
On a related note, learning to do stand-up is similar to learning how to give presentations. You might recall in the COACHING podcast with Elite founder Stephanie Rudnick, that Stephanie, just like Hillary, talks about running through timed speeches or stand-up gigs, with no audience, over and over, until she nailed it. Hillary said she even had it scripted down to the syllable…
HECKLERS – I loved what Hillary said about hecklers. Off tape, I had shared a story with Hillary about how an MBA student in one of my classes heckled me once. I wish I had heard her advice about how to handle that situation. She says don’t worry about trying to win over the heckler (or in my case, the obstinate student.) Rather — try to win over the rest of the audience! Of course!
JOKE ABOUT WHAT YOU KNOW – Another important thing that Hillary said was about the context or topic of the humour. She was worried that some audience members might be alienated by her stories about teaching in academia or about motherhood. She followed the advice of a fellow comedian who encouraged her to use that material that was so personal for her. She does that now, with great success, being careful to include relevant context to make it relatable.
Ok that’s all I got for you today. I hope this episode made you laugh and smile. And I hope you learned some pointers about how to be funny.
Thank you, Professor Hillary!
And THANK YOU for listening (& reading)!
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