David Nihill is the author of the best-selling book Do You Talk Funny? and the Founder of FunnyBizz Conference. His work has been featured in Inc., Lifehacker, The Huffington Post, Fast Company, Entrepreneur, Forbes, NPR, and The Wall Street Journal.
Listen to Episode #92 here:
The Irishman With David Nihill
Our guest is David Nihill. David is the author of the bestselling book, Do You Talk Funny? and the Founder of the FunnyBizz Conference of which I have been a member of. His work has been featured by Inc., Lifehacker, The Huffington Post, Fast Company, Entrepreneur, Forbes, NPR and The Wall Street Journal. He’s a sought-after international speaker. David also performed stand-up comedy and was the winner of the prestigious 43rd Annual San Francisco International Comedy Competition. He has lectured at Stanford Graduate School of Business, UC Berkeley, University of Oxford and University College Dublin. Welcome, David.
Thank you very much. It’d be wrong if I didn’t squeeze the University College Dublin in there somewhere. They’ve had them all over the place, but not where he’s from or not where he went to school.
This is long overdue. We’ve known each other for a long time. Almost as early as I got into the humor. David, if you weren’t working as a comedian, author or business consultant, what would you be doing with your life?
I am probably walking dogs. I have no idea. Before I went down this rabbit hole, I was working as a troubleshooter for the world’s largest private education company. It was working all around the world doing weird problem-solving stuff for them. It was quite a tangent to go down the humor road, to say the least.
Why? What changed? How’d you go from that to this?
They wanted me to move to London. I was a resident in San Francisco and I didn’t want to move to London. I needed an excuse, a bit of a side project, some random idea that would give me an excuse to say, “Screw it. I’ve had enough of working for a while.” It got to the point where I took a month’s holiday, I went to Bolivia hiking and I never told anyone at work because my job had got so ridiculous that I could go missing for months at a time and nobody noticed. When there was a big problem to solve something in the world, I had to be there. I was the first person they would call. I would have to do God knows what, make it all work pretty quick and dedicate a lot of errors to doing it.Comedians rise to the occasion if they’re in a room they love to perform in. Click To Tweet
When there wasn’t something happening, there wasn’t a bit of an emergency, nobody knew where I was or what I was meant to be doing. I went to Bolivia for a month. I remember when I came back, I only had one voicemail on my work phone number and it was a lady who’d found my dog, Murphy, and wanted to return him and I didn’t have a dog. I thought, “This is getting ridiculous. It might be the stage where I need something else to do it by existence.” A friend of mine, unfortunately, suffered a spinal cord injury and we ended up doing a bunch of fundraisers for him and one of them turned out to be a comedy show.
I suggested it because I happened to know a stand-up comedian. I remember thinking, “He wasn’t super funny. How is he doing this?” I don’t remember laughing at him. I don’t remember thinking he was funny in any way, but somehow, he was making his thoughts funny on a nightly basis enough to pursue a stand-up comedy. He’s a very nice fellow. The idea was to spark that if he can do this, I might be okay doing this. I’ve always been afraid of public speaking, but this seems like the most horrendous way ever but also the most sensible way ever to get over a fear of public speaking because it’s sheer repetition in the most difficult format you could ever throw upon somebody.
It was born out of trying to host that charity show for him and keep going with it. The experiment entered my mind influenced by the work of AJ Jacobs, Tim Ferriss and other writers who’d gone deep into topics that interested them or scared them and wrote about it. I thought, “Maybe I’ll do that for a year, write about it and see if anybody benefits from what I’m learning the hard way by doing this.” That project grew and got a bit out of control. At one stage, I was like, “I don’t have much money. I had $10,000. I’ll put that into a bank account and when that runs out, I need to go back and get a job.” It hasn’t run out yet, so I haven’t got a job.
Soon after that, I just started doing comedy. I remember seeing all these funny people. I remember thinking, “Wouldn’t the world of business conferences be a lot more entertaining if I saw people within these companies who had experience in stand-up comedy, more experience on stage at being funny as opposed to the most senior person I could get a particular company?” The idea was, let’s run a conference like a comedy show where we care about the quality of the speakers involved. We care about their ability to be funny and we want to limit the amount of time they’re on stage. We only want to have people on stage who we know are good at being on stage.
It was the premise for that. It was like funny TED Talks. We want people to learn, but we want them to laugh as well. That’s when I reached out to you. I remember seeing your TED Talk and going, “That would be a perfect fit.” Let’s start with the science of why and we’ll see how many funny people we can get in there. In that first event, we had Venetia Pristavec. She’d been the fourth or fifth hire at Airbnb, had been there, had to create a vote one stage, and she was appealing to us as a speaker. Not only because of that experience, but she’d been a stand-up comedian on the side, doing stand-up and doing improv comedy. We were like, “I wonder how many other speakers are like this? What incorporates incorporations to divide or give up on comedy, their dream of it or dabbled in it or still have a love for it and can instill some business lessons for our audience, but deliver it in a funny way?” That was where FunnyBizz came from. I got a bit carried away and did that for a number of years. It’s three of them, two in San Francisco and one in New York.
One of the things that I like about it is you’re great at finding a good venue. The San Francisco venue was amazing. It didn’t feel like a conference. It leaned into the entertainment side of things, even though it was done during the day, it helped that you couldn’t even feel like it was day time.
It felt different when you walked in. You’re like, “This might be good.” Whereas conferences you always walk in and they feel the same. You’re like, “Do you want Diet Coke or Sprite for breakfast and a cookie?” You’re like, “I don’t want any of those things.” It feels like a corporate cold space and they don’t have anything that you’d like and everything feels generic and the same. We’re like, “If we’re going for acoustics in the room and we’re going to create an environment that’s conducive to laughter, let’s find a place where comedy works well as well.” The venue we used was called The Chapel in San Francisco and Dave Chappelle did a show there. He was known for testing out new material there is quite a lot. A lot of other big comedians did the same thing. We’re like, “If it’s good enough for Dave Chappelle, it’ll be good enough for our folks.”
To answer your question is you probably would go back into the business in some way because what strikes me about what you’re doing, I don’t think of you as a stand-up first. Your experience as a stand-up, and it’s been fun watching you develop your comedic voice, you’ve landed on a perspective and material that works that feels different than the normal stuff. Comedy rewards novelty. What has always struck me as impressive about you is that you have this business acumen that you’re fusing with comedy. You’re using the comedy to be an offering. Unlike the average stand-up, you’re good at managing yourself. You’re good at managing other people. You’re good at marketing. You’re good at promotion. You’re good at making things. You naturally think like a business person.
It’s trained into you. It’s funny where a lot of people approach comedy without the business element of it and you’re like, “How are you going to make money? How are you going to stay in things?” When you get started as a comedian, probably the easiest single way you can get stage time is by having a good show yourself and consistently filling that show and providing an environment where other comedians perform it. Not only that, they’re going to have a busy crowd, but they love the room. The venue has a lot to do with what makes something a hit comedy show in life. I learned that pretty quickly. If I can find a room that comedians love to perform in, filling it should be easy enough because the comedians rise to the occasion. They love performing in that room.
When I started doing the Comedy for a Spinal Cause shows, we’d get six headliners to give up their time for free to raise money for people with spinal cord injuries. They would all agree to the show under the same premise. They’re like, “I don’t want to do this. It’s a charity show, but let me test out some new stuff.” They’d see the lineup and they’d see the person before them and that person, they know that person is good. They’re like, “I have to follow that.” All the notes would go out the window and they’d play the hits and everybody had a great show and everybody loved it. It’s the same business principles that you learned. Wherever you have a business education, you’re like, “This is marketing. This is word of mouth. I have to create a quality product in one way or another.” I was always trying to bring those things together.
When you got serious about comedy, did you start hosting your show?
It was the very first thing I did in comedy pretty much. I did a couple of mics. I did a couple of weird shows somewhere. I happened to be in Maui and somebody helped me spoof a little bit on my behalf that I was an accomplished comedian and got me on a paid show in Maui. I had no clue what I was doing. I had to do fifteen minutes. It still went pretty fine because I was never forcing opinions on anyone. I was defaulted into what Irish people do naturally, just tell happy go lucky stories. They’re not saying that and too mad most of the time. Most people seem to resonate with it.Comedy, sadly, is not a very lucrative business. Click To Tweet
All of that was to get through this charity show. That charity show became a regular occurrence and something we’ve done for the last few years. Having my show was pretty central to that, but I kept meeting these people with interesting backgrounds. When they had a visible skill or talent for writing, it was very apparent. It was like, “Where did you go to school? What were you studying?” A good case in point would be Sammy Obeid, if you remember him. He spoke at one of the events. He had done a double degree in applied mathematics in Berkeley. He turned down a job with Google and decided to do stand-up comedy for 1,000 nights in a row.
On the 1,001st night, he went on Conan and did a set. He was so regimented. He scored everything. He approached it from a mathematical style where he’s a tactician. He’s like, “This is C material. I’m going to turn it into A material over time, repetition and elimination.” I was fascinated by all those people, different approaches, clearly smart, clearly interesting. FunnyBizz and even comedy shows, everything I was doing was born in this. How do I spend more time with these people? How do I learn from them? Also, how do I do shows with them and make some money to sustain myself at the same time? Comedy, sadly, when you’re trying to figure it out, is not a very lucrative business.
You’re working for free. I liked that story because there’s a lot of people who talk about natural talent, but the natural talent comes from intelligence more than some specific sense of humor. Dave Chappelle doesn’t have to be a tactician. He’s one of the rare finds in the world where he can bumble through and work on stuff. It coalesces into something incredible. Most comics and also the ones who may not be naturally gifted but can be very successful, they’re taping their sets and they’re re-listening to it. They’re keeping notes. I had a guy on an earlier show named Mark Masters, who’s a middle-aged guy and he’s approaching it from this very tactical standpoint. He has Excel spreadsheets that he fills out and that he follows. He looks at the data.
The beautiful thing about having someone on the show like that is he comes super prepared. He’s listened to previous shows. He read through the transcript and corrected some transcription errors that were part of it. I was like, “You’re going to go far.” You do a lot of hosting. If you host a show, you get to use your material. I don’t think I’ve ever talked to someone about hosting a comedy show. What you do as a host is different than what you do as a performer. What have you learned about what makes a good host? What makes a bad host for a comedy show or even more generally?
I don’t know if I can speak from being a good one, but I get asked to do it a lot. I’ll take that as a sign. Ireland is different from the States in its approach to hosting. The Irish approach and the New York approach as well is similar and superior, whereas in LA, San Francisco somewhere you’ll see a host get up and rather than be conversational, welcoming and chatty, they go straight into pre-scripted material, which nearly comes across like a monologue. The audience hasn’t quite settled yet and they don’t know what they’re in for. How many comedians are ready for it? They’re not quite ready for those same quick laughs that you’re going for from topics that are maybe not about you straight off the bat. A lot of times, I watch a host die over doing comedy shows because of that approach. A good or bad host could impact the rest of the show. A good way of doing it is to get people to applaud quickly if they haven’t ideally three times or absolutely nothing or anything you feel like getting them to applaud from.
What might be a line you would use to get people applauding?
“Who’s excited to be here? Make some noise. Is it your first time here? Who’s here for the first time? Who’s here not for the first time?” Just so those people are included. It’s pretty classic stuff, but it’s not rocket science, but you’re trying to get them to put down their phone. You can’t clap with your phone in your hand, so you’re trying to reset the room in any way you can and get their attention. Ask if anyone is celebrating anything, any birthdays, anybody here from anywhere else. You, naturally, as soon as you hit something that allows you to jump into your material, it becomes a very conversational start to the show. You’re still getting them towards material because as a host you do need to get the audience set on material or content at some stage.
There has to be a progression to that to make it easy for the next person to come. As a host, you can do crowd work and kill, but you’ve now set an expectation for the room that this could be a spontaneous, fun show and a comic who’s prepared ten minutes of good quality written stuff that he’s about to come up and do, or she’s about to come up and do. They will struggle a bit because of all your crowd work if you don’t reset them to getting used to material in a slower cadence and pace. The easiest thing to be a good host is to watch the show. Like a lot of hosts, they do the introducing and they’re like, “That person has got fifteen minutes. I’ll be back in fifteen minutes.”
Whereas a lot of the comedic gold, your job is to create a narrative where none exists if you can pull all that show material together somehow. I love doing that and it usually kills. I will say, “Ladies and gentlemen, this hasn’t just been comedy. This has been an emotional roller coaster and a learning experience. We have learned that.” There’s no harm calling back to the best learning points and the best jokes and introducing the last person and getting out of there. It’s being in the moment, being present, acknowledging things, try and get a group of strangers to share experience and try and remind them that they’re in a shared experience and create a narrative and a story where there is none.
I like the idea that you’re a bridge.
If you’re good at your job, you’re a bridge. If anyone does anything weird, your job is to acknowledge it. If anyone murders, your job is to acknowledge it and you become an audience member. You get laughs by acknowledging the obvious along the way.
It’s nice too because you have to do it then your subsequent comedians have to do it. It absolves them of having to address this thing that happened in the room.A good or bad host could definitely impact the rest of the show. Click To Tweet
You have that little bit of time between each one that if the opportunity presents itself to add something to the show that’s funny. I did a show. I had to introduce a Latin comic. He’s like, “You’re not going to be able to pronounce my name.” I was like, “No, I spent two years living in Latin America. I speak Spanish. I’ll get your last name.” Every comic had a Latin name before and I’d nailed it. It was a very Latino lineup. I went to say his name and I blanked on it. I screwed it up. His 1.5 minutes of material, when he got up, were abusing me, “White guys cannot say Latino names.”
When I went back up, I made sure I’d say his name properly, well done. That was funny. I properly acknowledged I screwed that up. I’ve gone out of my way to say his full name because Latin people often have a longer name than two names. I said his first name and I said every bad word I’ve ever learned together in Spanish in a row of 10 to 15 ones and I put in his last name. It killed because at that moment the audience didn’t know I spoke Spanish. They only figured it out at that particular moment. It murdered. It’s something you could only do at the moment. You couldn’t have preplanned it. It’s a very clear reaction with the audience that you are in the moment with them and you move happily onto the next thing.
What’s beautiful about what you did is I like to say that has the element to the perfect joke and that it has, “Ha, ha,” the going blue and either play on long names in Latin culture. It has the a-ha, which is the revelation of like, “This guy knows what he’s doing.”
It also uses a lot of joke structure on it and it hides the keyword until the end to break the sequence, so it still follows the same cycle. It’s an in-joke that could have been the only created in that particular moment or at least whether it does have the illusion or not. In this case, it was, I’d never done it before. In my mind, I was like, “Knowing what I know about comedy, I’m nearly 100% confident that this will be funny, so I’m going to do it.”
There is something special too about this one of a kind joke. The audience appreciates that that’s a moment in time that no one else is getting.
I had to go on after it. It was a comic much bigger and more successful than I’d ever been, but he’s like, “If you want to see more of me, I dropped a bunch of videos. My YouTube Channel has got eighteen million views, check it out.” I went up next and I said, “I’ve been having a tough day, to be honest, I’m not feeling great. I spent it watching that guy’s YouTube Channel eighteen million times.” It killed and you’re off to the races. A guy went down before me and he made a whole joke about being a Lyft driver and drinking eight beers while he was being a Lyft driver, which is not cool. It’s funny. It plays into the stereotypes that they might expect with me as an Irish person going up.
When I started my set, I say, “You never know if a country is for you, but I got it right here with a Lyft driver. He told me he got paid while he was drinking eight beers. I was like, ‘This is the place for me.’” It killed. You debunked a stereotype a bit around drinking and stuff and that plays into your set. Yeah, it’s creating those moments that are very much in the moment. When we did a conference, you spoke at it in New York. We ran out of toilet paper. The venue we used there were cool, but they were nearly too cool where they’d given up on a lot of logistics. They run out of toilet paper and we couldn’t believe it. In the end, if you acknowledge the obvious, people are very forgiving sometimes about you acknowledging that you have a problem and you’re working on it.
They should have been losing their mind that we had no toilet paper. We got up and we said, “We’re very sorry. At the moment, we’re a conference on humor. We might’ve gone too far because we fed you free Mexican food. We have unlimited quantities of free Corona and now somebody has hidden the toilet paper. We’re getting that one solved, but we’ll be back.” It’s a joke sequence. When you think about it, you’ve created a structure there and you have two elements, one, two and you break the fourth element. You get a laugh off it and everybody acknowledges the obvious and moves on. That’s a key part of hosting as well. If there are problems, you better talk about it. If the food was terrible, the lunch disappeared, the music has been horrendous, or the venue is too warm, you’re the voice of the audience to represent that and say, “We know this is happening and we recognize it. We’ll get it fixed or we’re going to poke fun at it all day, one or the other.” It’s that role to acknowledge the obvious.
I hear three things that you talked about. One is you serve as a bridge connecting these comics. You’re establishing that there is some material that’s going to be done. People are going to get up and tell jokes. You set the tone. The third one is how necessary it is for you to address the issues in the room.
Acknowledge the obvious, whether it’s good or bad, but if they’re thinking it, you get marks for saying it. It’s probably the easiest laugh you ever get in comedy is to acknowledge what they’re thinking.
This is a good segue way into your book. Your book is designed to help people not be stand-up comics, but to be more entertaining speakers, to be more effective speakers.
The premise of it was what was I seeing was comedians surely are the world’s true masters of public speaking because they’re racking up more hours doing it than anybody else. They’re making Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 errors that he says will make you a master and they’re doing it in pretty horrendous conditions. It was like nobody seems to be asking them anything about what they’re learning the hard way, who isn’t solely interested in comedy. Nobody from the business world was coming and going, “Tell me about all you’ve learned and maybe I can apply that to public speaking.” It seems such an obvious disconnect that I was like, “Maybe I’ll write a book about this.”A lot of the comedic gold is to create a narrative where none exists. Click To Tweet
It’s not to be funnier in comedy, in life because you don’t know if you can teach that in any way. There are certain principles there that will certainly make your life easier, but it’s not going to turn you into a great stand-up comedian. You either have a little bit of a gift or not. You can get to a certain level, but that’s the end of that with techniques. The book was to help business speakers or any speakers out and to say, “Here’s a couple of things you didn’t know.” I was amazed when I put it out that other people were reading it was people who had written books and public speaking.
They were like, “I never knew this.” It was all these Toastmasters-like people who are into public speaking. They were all like, “I never knew this. I didn’t know a single one of these tips.” I reached out to all the comedians I knew and I say, “Give me your one best tip you’ve learned the hard way.” I compiled and listed those. Initially, I put it in Inc. Magazine as an article and it had a few million views by the end of the week. I was like, “That was crazy.” It made sense. I was like, “Nobody’s heard any of these before. This is nuts.” Nobody, at least outside comedy.
As you know, I’m finishing up a book myself that does this in a different way. What can we learn from these very funny people not about being funny, but about thinking differently, being more creative, more innovative, better at making things, having a marketing mindset, developing a career? They have a tough job. They have state of the art and we can learn from their state of the art. Your book does that with communication skills. Let’s tease the audience a little bit so they’ll buy your book.
You could read the Inc. article. It’s free and easy.
You already alluded to one, this Rule of Three.
I’d be amazed how many people know it, but don’t apply it in the world of speaking where you create a logical sequence and you break that sequence. Humor is usually the break in that sequence. Think of it like apples, apples, oranges. There’s a lot of stuff in there. Callbacks are probably my single favorite.
Before we go to the callbacks, I’m going to give you a little glimpse. I talk briefly about this shtick to business. I don’t think you’ve met Shane Moss. We’ve talked about him. Shane is a good friend and he’s a comedian. I’m a scientist who studies comedy. He’s a comic who jokes about science. We’re meant to be friends. Shane’s voice is in the book. He pops in to give a comedic POV at different points of time, adds a little bit of levity and also gives you a little inside glimpse into the world of a comic, which as you know, is not always glamorous. The lesson I call it not two, not four, but three as a reminder about the Rule of Three. Shane says, “I often use the Rule of Three. I create a premise. I set an expectation and I talk about my genitals.” That’s a perfect example. You’ll never forget that once you’ve heard that. Let’s talk about callbacks. The average person has experienced callbacks in a stand-up set, but they don’t know how they work.
You had mentioned Dave Chappelle. He does use a lot of techniques in his stuff that’s very clear to see for everyone and comics certainly appreciate his work. He’s one of the few that always constantly builds in a good callback to set at the moment if you ever want to see action, but the callback is usually a reference to something that’s already funny whether within your set or said by somebody else. The thing if you want to get laughs as a speaker or you want to get laughs as a comic, more so as a speaker but pretty easy as a comic as well.
Watch the people that went before you and reference their stuff. You either build on the logical argument or somehow find a way to build it into your material. That comes back to your hosting question was a good host too. Callbacks are the single easiest way to get big laughs within a hosting set where you couldn’t have planned it. I remember doing a TEDx Talk. It got featured by TED. You never know if it’s a TED or TEDx Talk anymore, they’ll disappear. It’s high stakes. There were 2,400 people there. It’s being video recorded. The lady who went before me had her body adapted, so it had sensors within it.
It made her a human cyborg and she was able to feel earthquakes anywhere in the world at any moment and register them within her own body by standing still, which is phenomenal stuff. She’d been on the cover of every magazine. It was a big viral story. There was no context given in her introduction that she was about to give a talk about that. She walked out. She was the very first talk in the morning, 2,500 people are focused on her every word. There’s a smoke machine going off and it’s a bit too much smoke, so it looks a bit weird. She stands there and she’s like, “I will start this talk when I feel an earthquake.”
The whole place goes, “What?” As they’re waiting for her to speak and she is not saying anything, the tension has only grown. The smoke is out of control. Now it all seems a bit mystic and wacky. It went for more than 45 seconds to the point the tension in the audience was paddle and they broke it by starting to show an earthquake. Somebody else shouted and then it was a bit of a laugh. She finally said, “I felt one,” and she showed them on the screen where in the world there just been an earthquake and now the talk kicked in. It was fascinating.
When I came out, I’m watching this and I’m like, “This is a good opportunity here.” I’m three speakers after her to play around with the room a little bit when I come out. When I walked out, I was a little bit nervous. I’m not going to lie to you because I plan to start this talk when I felt an earthquake, but that’s already been done now. I was like, “You guys are obviously a great audience because when she said there was an earthquake, I left the building and you were like, ‘No, we’re staying here and getting our money’s worth.’” There was a riff on that. The first joke got an applause break and the three next ones also got big laughs.
They’re like, “This is a TED Talk that’s pretty high stakes. This guy is goofing around talking about earthquakes.” They responded to it massively. It’s a callback. It was quite systematic. I know that we can cut this out of the video, so it doesn’t matter and I know it’ll help me in the talk because it’s already got the audience laughing. A lot of the time it’s nearly your easiest opening line to reference something memorable, wacky, interesting or funny that’s already happened. A callback is exactly that. It’s a reference to something memorable or funny between the audience and either you or somebody else.
In your case, you acknowledge that thing that was in the room before.
There was such a tension where they all went way out. This is weird. Somebody needs to say something and if there’s an opportunity to do them. I wrote a few jokes specifically in comedy that allow me to build in callbacks from older people’s jokes, so it allows me to create a story out of disconnected things that I can make connected that appears very much in the moment but realistically is not in the moment. I had a bit about an American calling a suicide prevention hotline and getting an Irish person on the other end. The premise is we’re so negative we would tell them to go and kill themselves no matter what they say.
All the things they say, the problems they list, I list off problems that other comedians have listed within their jokes before me. We’re all American, so they’ve proven my premise. I’m pulling all the elements together. The setup is the same. The punchline is the same. The elements will change, but they’re all callbacks. That joke will get a bigger reaction than any joke ever just because of the callbacks within it. It normally can’t be beaten on reaction. I can do anything in a moment. I can goof around. I can write something. Something that incorporates a certain amount of callbacks and the right order is strangely pleasing to the audience in a way that you usually can’t top.
It helps them feel smart. Callbacks often help people feel smart because they knew that it happened as it’s happening. It feels right.
It’s like that moment at the end of a movie where you’re like, “I see what’s happening. Is it going to come full circle?”
What about a third tip? What’s one of the ones that you get positive feedback about the people, the average experienced speaker goes, “Ah,” and thought about it that way?
It is a number of things like the average experienced speaker doesn’t realize, number one, the talk begins with their introduction. It’s very important. If you go to a comedy club, they never go, “John is our next comedian. John is a great guy. John is funny. John and I have known each other for years. Give it up for John.” No one cares about John anymore at this stage. It’s to build up and reveal the same part of comedy structure applies where you’re like, “Ladies and gentlemen, our next comedian has been on tour with Jerry Seinfeld. He’s been all around the world and back. He’s number one on iTunes at the moment. She’s this, he’s that, whatever it may be, please welcome.” You say their name and only once. It’s getting off to a good interesting start where the audience is on the edge of their seat.
The host has sold you in your introduction, so you don’t have to come out and say, “I’m Peter. This is what I do and this is what makes me amazing.” He or she who did the introduction for you has already established your credibility so you don’t have to. That combined with little things like not finishing on a Q&A. You wouldn’t see a comedian finishing on a Q&A. That would be insanity. Speakers tend to do it a lot at the time and that leaves the finished end of the show. It’s treated like a show. A comedian would never go out with a Q&A because they don’t control the ending anymore in that situation. I didn’t rely on stories as opposed to points of view and try and make as many analogies as you can because sometimes you can make a very clear point but the audience doesn’t understand the significance of that point.
You can make a generic statement, but you need to find a way to highlight that for them. They’re like, “Okay.” Irish people in America are constantly given out about Americans calling Patrick’s Day, Saint Patty’s Day, which is offensive to Irish people. It’s annoying and drives us nuts because Patty is a female name. Patty is a male name. Patty is our patron Saint. If you would say Patty’s Day, that makes a lot of sense, Patty’s Day is unique to America. There’s no one else in the world that has gone all Bruce Jenner on our patron saint and changed the name.
It nearly takes us to explain that, but that wouldn’t drive the point home. You’re still like, “Patty, I don’t care.” If I’m like, “Imagine you came to Ireland and we were celebrating Martina Luther King Day, that’s a significant change there.” It’s turned one of the world’s greatest leaders into a lesbian tennis player because that’s what it sounds like, Billy Jean King, Martina Nevada Luther. You’re nearly mixing those two names. Martina Luther King so that would be a fairly complex joke, but it’s an analogy. It drives home the point that it’s not okay to change one letter of a patron saint or some great leader or some hero in your society.
I have used a couple of these ideas. This is very awkward but oftentimes the host of a conference. I do a lot of speaking now. Sometimes it feels rather high stakes, you might be getting paid for it. You’ve got a big audience and you want the audience to be excited about you coming out there. As you said, you want your host to talk about how great you are because it sounds horrible when you do it.
It sets off people’s warning signals when you say, “I am Peter McGraw. I established this. I did this. I wrote this. It was amazing,” and they’re like, “I hate this guy.”
The problem is that the average host for a conference is not a good host. They don’t have the experience for it.
They’re also nervous so they can say anything. They will make a joke at your expense. They look good at the moment on adrenaline without realizing they’re screwing you up.
I write out an introduction. I use a big font. I use wide margins, so it’s easy to read. It takes a little bit social coordination, but I review it with the host because, for example, I can’t tell you the number of times when someone is supposed to say, “Our next speaker is the Director of the Humor Research Lab, affectionately referred to as HuRL.” It gets a little laugh line. They get to feel good. How many times people say, “Our next speaker is the Director of the Human Research Lab,” and says HURL and it doesn’t make sense. I’ve gone from working at the University of Colorado to working at the University of Chicago. These things happen. To try to go through it and make it a little more fluent for the person, it’s a bit heavy-handed but it’s good for everyone. It’s good for the host because he or she doesn’t make a mistake. It’s good for me.
It’s a very good habit to get into it. I’d say a way to one-up maybe even that a bit is put it on a cardboard cue card that will fit in any host pocket and write it out. Limit your bio to three key bits of information about yourself because sometimes they don’t want to say anything that much longer and the audience doesn’t need that much. The three key things, because it falls into that Rule of Three, that they might remember it, make sure your name is written last and write it or print it on a cue card you can hand them that they can stick in their pocket. It’s emailed to them. It’s sent to them in advance. Also, that moment on stage when they’re nervous and they’re like, “Who are you? I can’t remember. I have so many speakers.”
You’re like, “Read this if it makes it easier for you.” Nine times out of ten, they will be very thankful and read it. They won’t want a large bit of paper. A lot of people will come up and give them, “I printed this off,” and it’s on your letter-size because they can’t easily hold that in their hand. If they’re nervous, you’ll see that shaking in their hand and sometimes they’re sweaty. Regular paper is going to look a bit wacky all of a sudden when they sweat through it. They can’t read. The ink might run on your pen. It’s a way of getting all-around that is on a cardboard cue card and turn up and give it to them and go, “There you go.” It does make a difference because many times I’ve been talking there like, “Our next guy, I don’t know if he’s from Ireland or from Scotland or Canada or he’s intoxicated. I don’t know. Let’s find out.”
Speaking of being from Ireland, and I had alluded to this earlier, you were talking to me a little bit about some of your newer material or your evolving material about being Irish. You’ve been leaning into that. We all know the accent is great and it gives you a little bit of license. Generally, as many negative stereotypes as the Irish have, they’re also very likable people. I’m curious how that has evolved and why you’re leaning into that?
It’s funny what’s going on in America at the moment that like everybody to be a white guy in America at the moment is something like you nearly need to apologize for it. That’s assuming all white people are the same. As someone who moved here from another country, from Ireland, when we moved here, we were mass refugees. One million people died when we came here. If you know your history, you know that most immigration laws in America were written to stop Irish people coming to America because we were the very definition of diversity. We were all Catholics coming here to a Protestant place, which nobody appreciated.
All of these laws were changed to stop these guys. They don’t speak our language. They’re coming over speaking Gaelic Irish. These guys are no good to us. There was huge discrimination. There were signs that said, “No blacks, no dogs, no Irish.” Job said, “No Irish Need Apply.” NINA was a very common phrase. In Ireland, you notice growing up, but you assume that Americans notice when you move here. You realize, no they don’t. Within 50 years, we shagged our way to the mayor of New York and we shagged our way to the mayor of Boston. Within 100 years, we had an Irish-American president in Andrew Jackson. Within a couple of 100 years, now we’ve got to the point where 22 US presidents claim Irish heritage. Even when Obama was like, “I’m Irish too.” We were like, “Yeah, sure.” We welcome him like, “Yeah, no worries.”
We even have a tourist town in Ireland. We weren’t trying to see his passport or birth certificate like anybody else. We’re a welcoming bunch. My material then has evolved out of being like, “You can’t turn me with that same generic white guy brush. I’m from Ireland. We count as diversity.” America is like, “No, we need diversity. You’re a white guy.” I’m like, “I’m not. I’m the very definition of what diversity is, what a different background, a different religion, a different set of reliefs, different languages, a different history.” The frustration of that is which drove a bunch of this material where people like, “You can’t come on this show. I need diversity.” I’m like, “I’m diversity.”
I remember going to the comedy store one night and the guy was super nice to everybody. He was like, “We’re doing a diversity showcase. You can’t be on it.” I was like, “What if I make all my jokes about being diverse.” The material came familiar to that from the point of frustration because Ireland is probably uniquely placed in the world as a group of fairly white people, but all of a sudden, we have 18% immigration. We’re super pale. I would say I was fairly brown compared to most people growing up over there. I thought we were uniquely positioned to come back on this and say, “It’s great there were value and diversity, but we’re part of that.” You can’t just flip it and do the same thing to people to combat the problem you’re trying to identify in the first place. It doesn’t make sense. It was out of a point of frustration.
Your stuff is landing. It’s working.
It kills them. People are like, “Not only did I laugh, I learned stuff from that.” I love doing that. To me, that’s probably why I got into comedy in the first place. One was to solve a problem for me and to get over public speaking, but it was a learning process. It’s nice if you can flip that and turn it around on the audience. I came across you because I loved watching TED Talks. I watched it with a bunch of comedians and they were watching it as well. We were sitting in my house in San Francisco with two comedians from Ireland and we are watching your talk. You’re like, “I’m laughing at him. I’m learning from this. There is something to this.” I was like, “I wonder how many TED Talks are funny. It turned out all the best ones were funny.”
The best ones tend to be and the ones they were very high in laughs per minute. A stand-up comedian in their set might have about five laughs per minute if they’re very good. Some of these TED Talks were three, three and a half laughs per minute. They were running very close. All the top ten TED Talks were funny. I correlated all that because nobody had done it. It seemed out of interest and again how I had the book created, but it’s slightly off-topic. If you make a list of things that fascinate you, things that interest you, things you’d be talking about anyway and things that frustrate you. You probably have a good source of what is your true voice in the world of comedic terms.
You’re like, “I’m angry about this anyway,” or “I’m opinionated about this anyway, let me go and share it.” Whereas if you go, “I’m going to try and make bicycles funny. What’s funny about bicycles?” There are some people that are so good at writing that they can make absolutely anything. It’s not at that high level. I see comedians all the time here are such good writers. They can take anything and make it funny. To stand out and be unique and if you can’t be funny to be memorable to do that, you have to talk from the heart a bit and go, “This is annoying me. I’m going to force this opinion on you people until you agree with it or laugh at it.”
You said something to me, I suspect it’s a joke that you’re working on. I’m not watching it all at once because it’s over three hours, but I’ve been watching the Irishmen on Netflix. What did you say?
That joke even playing around with that because we’re in Hollywood, which made it hit a lot harder. It was finding the right setup and premise to that. That became that America has become so comfortable generalizing and grouping white people that you made a 96-hour long movie. An exaggeration called The Irishmen. I didn’t put any Irish people in it and everyone went, “That’s fine.” Nothing seems off there or whatsoever. It’s cast exclusive overtime. They even got special cameras to make them look younger and older so they wouldn’t have to cast anyone else to keep this group of Italians. It does seem unusual. The name is up there, it’s very weird to see Irish written in something and you’re like, “What’s Irish about this?” They’re like, “Nothing.” It’s shedding that light on something with comedy because that is unusual. If you made a movie and flipped that to another category or another race of people and had their title in the name and yet didn’t have someone who matched that description, it would be unusual. Someone would be talking about it.
If you watch episodes of The Simpsons and you watch The Simpsons when they make fun of Ireland, you will see the most racist, stereotypical, crazy stuff you’ll ever see in a comedy. If you held it up against any other race of people, they would be outraged about it. They bash on Irish people on stereotypes. They lean more than probably anything else in a nutshell. There’s a whole show where they turn up and everyone’s beating the life out of each other at the airport when they get to Ireland and drinking whiskey and doing all sorts of mad things. We don’t complain about it because who cares. It’s funny. We don’t have that shock side of culture. We tend not to complain as a group of people. We don’t protest, usually.
It’s only in the last few years we’ve got pretty good at the mass protests and things and changing some of the laws. In Ireland, when all the banks got together and bankrupted the whole country of Ireland, there was no protest. One guy kept old eggs in his basement for two weeks and he turned up at a bank shareholder meeting and he threw those eggs at the CEO and hit him with these smelly eggs. One guy parked a JCB like a bulldozer outside of one of our parliament buildings and that was it. They were the only two acts from the people of Ireland against banks of Ireland bankrupting the country of Ireland. No organized mass protests. We tend not to speak up or complain and because of that, it goes unknown.
Now, the Irish people have you.
I don’t know about me, but I’d like them to have a bunch of comedians. It annoyed me like Saturday Night Live does a parody of Ireland every St. Patrick’s Day and it’s horrendous, racially-charged like, “I’m in bread and I’m dancing my sister.” You’re like, “This isn’t even funny. Can we get some actual Irish? If we’re going to make fun of us, get some Irish people, let’s make fun of ourselves. We’re pretty good at that.”
I hope the material continues to develop. I look forward to your special, The Irishmen. You have successfully launched a book. I’m turning my attention to book marketing. We now live in a world where everybody writes books because everybody can. Not that we don’t want everybody sharing their story, but it’s nice that the same gatekeepers don’t. I wrote my acknowledgments and it’s one of the snarkier things I say in the book. I thank all the publishers and lead agents who passed on it because it gave me an opportunity to write the book that I wanted to write under the timeline that I wanted to write.
That can be a very different animal than what they would have turned your work into.
Let’s assume that at least one other reader has a book in mind or is going to launch a book. What’s the most important thing that you think I need to lean into as I turn my attention to marketing as someone who teaches marketing but is terrible at promoting things?
The one thing we were chatting about which is in most people are pretty lazy on building an email list, but you’ll be surprised one, had signed up to that and two, who will volunteer to help you if you ask for help. In launching a book, you assume it’s just you or somebody you can pay to help you, but you’d be surprised if you say, “I’m putting together a launch team. Who wants to get involved and helped me launch my book?” There’ll be people like, “I’d love early access to your book. I’d be totally down to help you.” I didn’t have much of a list. There were more than 100 people that were like, “We’ll help you.” I was like, “It’s not just me and some other people are making noise about this.”
I hate any form of self-promotion. I can’t even write emails or anything. It feels horrendous. For some reason, when a bunch of people said, “We want to help,” it’s me and a little team of people I don’t know, but they’re into it. You’d be surprised how many doors that open for you. I’d say number one best bit of advice ever was given to me, that sounds too cliché, but is build an email list and ask for help from that email list. You’d be surprised who’s on there. One guy wrote back at one stage and he’s like, “I see you’re doing this course thing as well. Do you teach? Are you willing to take on anyone privately?”
I was like, “Yeah, I take on private clients on a very exclusive basis.” I thought it was one of my friends from Ireland making fun of me. He said, “I’m worth $400 million. I was on the first season of Shark Tank. I own As Seen on TV.” I was like, “Okay.” He flew out in his jet or whatever and met and chatted with him and opened up a whole bunch of doors. Sure enough, that was all genuine because it came from this weird email address like AOL something 1947, I was like, “Which one of my friends is this?” You never know who signs up to that email list. You never know who’s consuming the content you’re putting out in the world. It’s worth at least asking and saying, “Who can help me with this?” You never know someone good will.
Last question, David, what are you reading, watching or listening to that’s good? Not run-of-the-mill good but good.
I was reading again the book Factfulness by Hans Rosling, which is one of the best books anyone would ever read and one of the most worrying ones at the same time because some of the numbers in there, they’re so positive and the average person doesn’t know it. It shows you how skewed the world is for negative media compared to how progressive we were. That book is so good that upon his death, as far as I know, Bill Gates bought a copy for every single person in his native country, which was Sweden. He bought a copy of the book and gave it, made sure that everyone in Sweden had a copy of the book. The book is phenomenal. That one I’d been in for the second time, which is probably the best thing I could pass on to anyone. The book is from another planet of good.
I’m familiar with some of Steve Pinker’s work. I’m sure this book cites some of that work. He makes the case that the world’s not as bad as it seems it is.
Hans Rosling is a more data-heavy version of that. He was the guy that did the TED Talks where he had all the moving components to the TED Talk, where you would see a chart, but all the elements would be growing over time. He did it in bubbles in a way that your mind found visually appealing. That’s what made him famous. They all had multiple millions of views for everything. It’s very similar to Steven Pinker, but easier to read I would say. It’s impressive what’s in there. It’s put together in a way that makes you think. Steven Pinker is the first signed book I ever got from a writer and it said, “David, keep globalizing Irish swear words.” I’ve been trying to do him proud.
David, I appreciate you coming. David has been battling something he ate, something that’s going through his body. He is a trooper. I’m hoping you move to LA.
- FunnyBizz Conference
- Mark Masters – past episode
David Nihill is the author of the best-selling book Do You Talk Funny? and the Founder of FunnyBizz Conference.
His work has been featured in Inc., Lifehacker, The Huffington Post, Fast Company, Entrepreneur, Forbes, NPR, and The Wall Street Journal.
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