In the 1980s, Corporate Humor Consulting Was A Thing
Ken Jennings — yep, host of Jeopardy! Ken Jennings — is baffled by a bizarre comedy phenomenon. It took place during a very particular time in American business history, an era when people were paid good money to work as “corporate humor consultants.” During the 1980s, according to Jennings in his book Planet Funny: How Comedy Took Over Our Culture, these clowns “covered the plains like the buffalo.” Where did they come from, Jennings wants to know — and where the heck did these comedy buffalos roam off to?
The 1980s were “the perfect storm” for the corporate humor industry, writes Jennings. Behind its rise was a new generation of goofball executives (think Ben and Jerry and their ice cream empire). As younger bosses rejected the rigidity of older managerial models, they embraced, at least for a while, training methods that encouraged creativity, stress reduction and teamwork. You know, like improv!
For better or worse, improv veterans and less-qualified opportunists descended on corporate retreats, teaching sales teams how to “Yes and” their way to success. Second City introduced its improv training boot camp for business teams. Full disclosure: I have been on the teaching end of corporate improv training, generally a half-day affair that’s an unmitigated delight for extroverts temporarily freed from their desk shackles and a nightmare for the poor introvert who really would rather not act out a wacky sales call in front of their peers.
Comedian-comedians were part of the fad. Monty Python’s John Cleese saw dollar signs and started Video Arts, a company that tried to punch up boring training films with Python-esque humor. “Funny” and corporate training don’t often go hand-in-hand — at least not intentionally.
I have to admit Cleese did it better (in fact, much better) than most.
But not all corporate humor experts were professional funny guys. Jennings tells the story of Joel Goodman, a writer who specialized in business presentations. In 1977, he had the good fortune of riding in a Houston hospital shuttle driven by an especially quippy driver. The driver’s jokes eased family tension around Goodman’s father’s heart surgery, inspiring him to start the Humor Project to teach people and organizations how to “make sense of humor.” At its peak, Goodman received 20 requests a day from corporations who wanted to learn “the relationship between the funny line and bottom line.”
During this era, explains Jennings, working at the right company meant comedy was built into your day. Eastman-Kodak had a “funny room” stocked with Erma Bombeck books, Candid Camera videos and those annoying chattering teeth that someone last century decided were hilarious. I already mentioned Ben and Jerry’s — its employees had to watch out for the Joy Gang, springing fun on corporate drones when they least expected it. Apple handed out kazoos, so… whimsical, I guess? When I say “comedy” was built in, maybe “weirdness” was a better descriptor.
Aaaaaand you can probably guess why corporate humor consultants and Silly Squads mostly went the way of roaming buffalo herds. Turns out that comedy forced upon employees was rarely hilarious or even appreciated. “There are a number of people who do this (humor) business consulting who have no— how can I put it kindly? They don’t have academic credentials, and they don’t have any special insights,” John Morreall, a humor studies academic, told Jennings. Morreall also acknowledged something even more important: The “comedy” itself was pretty lame. “I don’t know how to describe it. It’s Reader’s Digest funny. It’s funny maybe for my parents’ generation. I don’t know what to say about the people who like that stuff, but it isn’t my stuff.”
And in the long run, it wasn’t Corporate America’s stuff either.