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.
It seems like every other week, there is a comedian in trouble for a joke.
But those jokes are going to keep coming—as long as the audience in front of them keeps laughing. They are happy to draw the proverbial line in the sand, pack it with dynamite, and then blast a crack as wide and deep as the Grand Canyon—haters on one side, true fans on the other.
In other words, they create a chasm. And they don’t apologize for it.
Legendary comedian Andy Kaufman was a master of chasm creation. He focused on the people who loved him, and he didn’t care about the people who didn’t love him.
Most business professionals are desperate to please everyone—“the customer is always right!”—but as I’ll explain in this article, to build a bold brand that inspires lifelong fans, you need to take a page from the comedian’s handbook and push your customers to the extremes of both love and hate.
Don’t Serve Warm Tea
I study humor and apply what I learn to business, and as I tell my MBA class, when you’re managing a brand, don’t serve warm tea.
What I mean by that is people either want iced tea or hot tea; nobody wants what’s in between. With your brand, aim to create a chasm and serve either hot or iced tea. Serve a target audience that loves your brand, even if their opposites loathe it.
The data supports this assertion. Stocks from companies that create a chasm tend to be more stable in the market than broad companies. Not as high, perhaps, but not as low either. The lovers keep them stable.
In sum: in a world where people want hot tea or iced tea, stop trying to please everyone by serving warm tea.
Dividing the Crowd with Comedy
Joan Rivers wouldn’t serve warm tea. One time, she told a joke about how much she hates children. “The only child that I think I would have ever liked was Helen Keller because she didn’t talk.”
An audience member took offense—not surprisingly. He yelled out that it’s not a funny joke if you have a deaf son, which he clearly did. Many people would have backed down or equivocated. Joan did the opposite and chewed him out in front of the rest of the audience.
“We don’t apologize for a joke. We are comics. We are here to make you laugh. If you don’t get that, then don’t watch us,” she later said.
Joan Rivers, like so many comedians, unapologetically serves hot tea. If you agree not to serve warm tea with your business, then you will need to figure out who wants hot tea and who wants iced tea. And pick one.
Not for Everyone—and That’s a Good Thing
Let’s take a look at how creating a chasm works for businesses.
You’ve definitely heard of Tesla and its equally charismatic and controversial CEO, Elon Musk. Love the company or hate it, everyone can agree that whether through products or public statements, Tesla knows how to carve a chasm. Just look at their divisive cybertruck, a vehicle that looks like it drove straight out of a Blade Runner video game that hasn’t finished rendering.
First impressions of the truck were so critical—a USA Today opinion piece called it one of the “most polarizing vehicles of the century”—that according to The Motley Fool, Tesla’s stock dropped 6% on the day following the truck’s reveal. However, Tesla quickly recovered from the dip, and then some. For all its critics, the cybertruck had just as many rabid fans and secured 200,000 preorders by the end of that weekend.
Tesla’s cybertruck is a near textbook example of how creating a divide does two things: draws people’s attention and pushes their opinion to one extreme or the other. Tesla brazenly serves hot tea, and hot-tea fans love the brand for it. Had the cybertruck been a regular, broadly appealing but unexciting pickup instead of the angular Tonka toy that it is, its release would likely have passed with far less attention.
If you want to earn similarly enthusiastic fans of your brand, be more like Joan Rivers or Tesla. Focus on your core audience, create a chasm, and don’t be afraid to alienate others. Your fans will only love you more for it.
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.