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/people-at-theater-713149/, Credit: Pexels / Monica Silvestre)
Due to the pandemic, more people than ever are working from home. You may already have a home office or have hustled to set one up. Whether you’re at home or returning to work at your company’s office building, it pays to put some thought into the design of your workspace.
Nobody understands the impact a room can have on the bottom line than a comedy club owner. If you’ve ever been to a good comedy club, you may have noticed that it’s set up in a particular way: a dimly lit room, often in a basement with low ceilings. The familiar red brick background, a stool on stage, and a single mic on a stand. Oh yeah, and it’s a little chilly.
In many ways, a comedy club is not so different than an office—either at home or at work. The purpose of both is to provide the best possible environment to thrive—a space that will complement and amplify the people’s efforts rather than detract from them.
For both offices and comedy clubs, design elements like lighting and wall color are purposeful choices. Comedy club owners engineer their space to maximize laughter. The behavioral sciences back these choices either theoretically or empirically, combining to make the perfect environment for jokes to land.
Here’s a look at how the design elements of the comedy club break down and the purpose each of them serves. By understanding how our environments affect our moods, decisions, and focus, we can take the same principles to help create a better workspace.
What Makes the Perfect Comedy Room?
Each component of a comedy club’s design—from low ceilings to the cold temperatures—serve a psychological purpose and contribute to the goal of making you laugh in different ways.
The ideal comedy-club room is dark because darkness helps create anonymity. The research on this is clear: people who are anonymous are more likely to behave without concern of what others think about them.
This is important when you have a comedian onstage making risqué jokes. And most comedians do—because they’re probing that line between benign and violation. They get away with saying things others would get slapped for in the streets.
As an audience, we’re socially conditioned to react to distasteful comments with disgust or disapproval, but with the lights down, no one can identify you as the person laughing at a risque joke.
Low ceilings bounce the laughter back down to spread through the room. And the research on humor shows just how contagious laughter is. With high ceilings, the laughter of the audience rises in the air and evaporates.
Hearing someone laugh can make you laugh without even knowing what they’re laughing about. The effect of laughter as a contagious phenomenon is so powerful that in laughter yoga (yes, that is a thing), people start out fake laughing. Then it transitions into real, genuine laughter—what’s called Duchenne laughter. That is true, joyful laughter.
The set on The Late Show with David Letterman was notoriously cold. Exactly fifty-five degrees. I know because I attempted to go one summer and received a stern warning not to arrive in shorts and a T-shirt.
I emailed Merrill Markoe, a brillant comedy writer and the behind-the-scenes genius of The Late Show, to ask why Letterman wanted the set so cold. She responded simply, “DL liked it that way.”
After some snooping, I found out that Letterman experimented with different temperatures. He found that the cold air made the audience more alert—something you want from a studio audience.
The cold temps have an added benefit: he wouldn’t sweat in a double-breasted suit under hot studio lights. So most good comedy clubs set the temperature low to keep the crowd alive and keep the comedian looking good.
Clean Red Background
The red brick wall is part of tradition, an homage to the first comedy club in the United States, the Improv in Manhattan. Theoretically, red is helpful because it’s more arousing than other colors.
The research hasn’t been done on red in comedy, but having a red background may enhance the audience experience, certainly more so than, say, having a blue background.
Your Workspace Design
The same consideration for context goes into designing the best places for people to work. As design firms like Gensler and OfficeUntitled know, a bad environment can stifle even the best talent.
Temperature and lighting are key elements in workspaces, just as they are in comedy clubs. Many of us have suffered through meetings in freezing or boiling conference rooms, and groaned under the pale and buzzing light of long fluorescent bulbs. But while anonymity is important for comedy, another factor for productivity is privacy.
You are probably aware that open-plan office spaces are all the rage. Cubicles and walls have been pulled out of offices around the world to make space for long, shared worktables. Dozens and even hundreds of workers may share the same open-plan space. This is all to encourage more interaction and collaboration among workers. More natural light is sometimes an added benefit. Also, they look much cooler than cubicles.
As it turns out, open-plan offices are mostly a bust. They’re generally loud and distracting. Most people resort to noise-canceling headphones just to do work. And recent research shows that both worker interaction and productivity usually go down when people or offices move to an open plan.
Nobody knows how distracting ambient chatter can be more than comedians. According to comedian Todd Glass, it’s not heckling that derails stand up and poisons the room—it’s table talk. Open offices suffer from the same constant background distraction that makes it hard for workers to be their most productive.
If you’re working out of an open office, you’ll want to put clear boundaries in place for employees. For example, one of Glass’s favorite comedy clubs, the Comedy Attic in Bloomington, Indiana, is polite but strict with approaching tables and asking people not to talk during the performance. The club has the best audiences because they’ve trained people to be quiet during the performance, and open office managers need to do the same.
But critically, open offices provide no privacy for sensitive conversations or calls. The best workplaces have the option for open and closed environments where people can quickly and easily transition based on needs.
Design for Results
As with the comedy club, the sum of the ideal office is greater than the parts. You must consider the tasks–creative, communication, collaboration–and decide on the design elements that support those needs best.
What’s more important: privacy or connection? Creativity or focus? Comfort or professionalism? Ask yourself and your team these questions and more. Keep searching for answers about the changes that will supercharge your team’s strengths and counteract their weaknesses until you can picture your ideal space.
If you are working remotely, what can you do to create a make-shift home office that will allow you to focus and separate yourself from the endless distractions of home—laundry, family, and the refrigerator? Get creative about where and how you work. These are unprecedented times, and many or most of your colleagues are likely struggling with the same adjustments of working remotely. Anything you can do to make your own work and collaborating with others easier, even if it’s as silly as working out of a closet, should be on the table.
Above all, don’t be afraid to think differently in order to create the atmosphere that enhances what you or your employees need to thrive.
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.