The following is adapted from Shtick to Business: What the Masters of Comedy Can Teach You about Breaking Rules, Being Fearless, and Building a Serious Career.
(Royalty free image: https://www.pexels.com/photo/interior-of-office-building-325229/, Credit: Pexels / Manuel Geissinger)
The industrial revolution is in its fourth phase. The first phase introduced the steam engine. The second, electricity. The third radically changed the world with digital communication.
The fourth phase goes by many names: robots, computers, algorithms, artificial intelligence, and AI. For a few years now, there’s been a growing concern that AI is going to replace jobs and leave millions of Americans unemployed.
If that happens, the machines won’t look like those in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 1984 sci-fi classic The Terminator, or like Agent Smith in The Matrix, or like Dolores Abernathy from Westworld. It will simply be a bunker filled with nameless, faceless computer servers who don’t fight over the corner office.
But AI’s strength is also its weakness. AI can perform calculations, automate your marketing, or predict the wording in your emails, but because these programs follow rules to be effective, they can’t be creative.
In other words, AI can’t break rules—and it can’t break wind. As a result, guess who will be the last person to lose their job to the AI revolution?
That’s right, none other than the world’s least-professional professionals: comedians.
As AI threatens increasingly sophisticated jobs, business professionals need to adopt the same skills that make comedians irreplaceable to continue providing value to their employers. Let’s take a look at those skills and how you can shore up your talents to compete with the machines.
It’s Tough to Automate Comedy
AI is coming for white-collar jobs—often highly skilled work.
In a test that pitted lawyers against AI to identify problems in a contract, for example, the lawyers scored 85 percent on average, and the fastest lawyer finished in fifty-one minutes. The algorithm, on the other hand, scored 94 percent in a mere twenty-six seconds. How do you stand a chance against that?
The answer: by doing things that computers can’t.
Based on the threat of AI, a 2018 World Economic Forum report forecasts the top skills for the forthcoming workforce. Among the top ten are: analytical thinking and innovation; creativity, originality, and initiative; critical thinking and analysis; leadership and social influence; and reasoning, problem-solving, and ideation.
These skills also happen to be the hallmark of successful comedians. The skills are difficult—nearly impossible—to replicate, which is why comedy is the gold standard used to evaluate AI.
Computer scientists are constantly inventing and refining joke-telling algorithms. It turns out that making people laugh is so incredibly complex and nuanced, if a computer can be programmed to do it, it can do nearly everything else.
Thus far, AI’s comedy successes are, well, laughable—limited to simple quips, wordplay, and puns. Good comedy, however, includes more than joke-telling—just look at Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton’s silent films. A computer can’t produce physical gags and can’t create satire.
Not only that, but context matters in comedy. Tell a baker that he has “Nice buns,” and you get a laugh. Tell a banker the same thing, and you get a lawsuit.
Even if a comedian is clever and context-aware, the one skill that ties it all together is creativity. Comedians need to keep their humor fresh or it will come off as tired and predictable—the same old joke. They need to stay relentlessly innovative, and to tap into this creativity and translate the skill to the business world, you need to start thinking like a comedian.
A Comic’s Mindset
Great comedy is based on novelty, and so comedy as a craft is constantly evolving—faster than businesses innovate.
Starbucks can sell you the same pumpkin spice latte day in and day out, but a stand-up comedian can’t tell the same joke to the same audience twice.
A good joke might get a hearty laugh from someone on the first listen, a half-hearted chuckle on the second, and a yawn on the third. Therefore, comedians must work constantly to generate new jokes, which takes creativity—finding an appropriate, original solution to a problem. That is, you successfully solve a problem in a new way rather than stick to the status quo.
Comedians are constantly looking for what’s wrong with the way things are. They seem to recognize what most people (and businesses) don’t: the status quo is something to be loathed and avoided at all costs.
Reject the Status Quo: Reverse It
Most of the time, people (non-comedians) seek to maintain the status quo. The desire to cling to the status quo and avoid change is so pervasive and problematic, scientists have given it a name: the status quo bias.
Behavioral economists, entrepreneurs, and CEOs are (or at least should be) particularly concerned about the status quo bias because it inhibits risk-taking and disguises opportunities. To think like a comedian and make a creative mindset your default, you need to look for ways to reverse the status quo.
Thinking in reverse is comedy 101, creating a path that deviates from the status quo in a direction that few people are thinking. Consider the movie Trading Places, where a street hustler, Eddie Murphy, and a wealthy banker, Dan Akroyd…trade places. Or this joke from comedian Ali Wong: “I tried being a stay-at-home mom for eight weeks. I liked the stay-at-home part. Not too crazy about the mom part.”
Reversing the status quo often makes people uncomfortable, but extraordinary results do not come from ordinary thinking. Take a lesson from a man who crossed from the world of comedy into business: Tony Horton. In the eighties, Horton was a struggling actor and aspiring comedian living in Los Angeles. As he pursued acting, he also got serious about fitness. He became a personal trainer and, eventually, launched his product, a fitness program called Power 90 Extreme (P90X).
Here’s where the reversal comes in: at a time when almost every other fitness product promised an easy shortcut to shredded abs, P90X celebrated how hard the program was. A session can take ninety minutes. You won’t see results in just ten days. It costs more. Yet the program sold over four million DVDs—and is worth $200 million to its parent company, Beach Body. The business succeeded because it went against the status quo, not in spite of it—and that’s the sort of rule breaking robots aren’t programmed to handle.
Break Out of Your Comfort Zone
Your competitive edge is how well you can fight off the fear of loss in favor of the bold possibilities that lie outside your (and everyone else’s) comfort zone. Remember, AI follows a set of rules—it adheres to the status quo—but you don’t have to. Your ability to break the rules and find creative, novel solutions to your problems is your greatest strength.
By breaking the status quo and honing your creativity, understanding context, and striving for novel ideas, you’ll exceed any computer’s capabilities and make yourself—and your very human brain—irreplaceable in the marketplace.
For more business advice from the genius and madness of the world’s funniest people, you can find Shtick to Business on Amazon.
Dr. Peter McGraw is a behavioral economist and global expert in the scientific study of humor. He directs The Humor Research Lab (HuRL), hosts the podcast I’M NOT JOKING, and is the co-author of The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny. Peter’s work has been covered by the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Harvard Business Review, NPR, and CNN. He’s a sought-after speaker and professor who teaches MBA courses at the University of Colorado Boulder, University of California San Diego, and London Business School.