Shtick to Business: What the masters of comedy can teach you about breaking rules, being fearless, and building a serious career

by Peter McGraw (interview)

This book is about applying the wisdom of successful comedians to business management. Topics include targeting your audience and differentiating your brand, the creative process, innovation, diversity, teamwork, and writing skills. Peter McGraw is a behavioral economist, professor, and director of the Humor Research Lab (HuRL).

“Good comedy recognizes that if you try to make everyone laugh, then you’re more likely to make no one laugh… In a world where people want hot tea or iced tea, stop trying to please everyone by serving warm tea.”

“Comedians and successful brands create a chasm between their target customer and their non-target customer. The work that I have done in the Humor Research Lab confirms this idea. We find that humor arises from benign violations—that is, people laugh at things that are wrong, yet okay. If it is just okay, people are bored. If it is just wrong, people are offended. The challenge is that what is wrong and what is okay depends on a bunch of individual and cultural variables. The same joke can be funny to one person, boring to a second, and offensive to a third.”

Net Promoter Score is a measure of customer satisfaction. “The problem with the NPS is it throws away valuable data by giving you a single score… Rather than looking at averages, you want to look at frequencies—the numbers that make up the average. What is happening with the people who love you?… Remember, the power of the chasm is in not compromising… Don’t waste time and energy trying to raise the low numbers. Instead figure out what you’re already doing to attract those weirdos who love you, and then do more of it.”

“The legend of the lone genius is overblown… Without Larry David, there’s no Seinfeld. For David Letterman, the guy behind the guy was a gal name Merrill Markoe—without her there’s no Emmys for Late Night with David Letterman.

“The terms creativity and innovation are often used interchangeably, but they are not synonymous. Creativity occurs when you arrive at an original, appropriate solution to a problem. Innovation occurs when you execute that solution. While you may find a lone genius (or mostly-lone genius) on the creative side (i.e. generating an original idea), you almost never find one alone on the innovation side (i.e. bringing the idea to life). Innovation requires cooperation.”

Lorne Michaels is the creator of Saturday Night Live.  In her memoir Bossypants, Tina Fey describes the way that Michaels builds a writer’s room. By bringing together the Harvard Lampoon comedians (heady, esoteric, joke-writing types) with the more Chicago, blue collar-style comedians (better storytellers), he gets a much better product with wider appeal.”

“Anita Woolley, an organizational behavior professor at Carnegie Mellon University, has done some fascinating work on how to create high-functioning teams in the workplace… Woolley found that C—the Collective Intelligence of the team—was a better predictor of how well the team performed than the sum of G—the individual intelligence of team members… Her research finds that teams with more women than men perform above average due to the need for social perceptiveness in team dynamics, which women typically do better than men. However, this performance improvement shows up mainly when introducing women to all-male teams. When a team is all women, the performance levels off. All of one type is bad.”

“Diversity is the result of hiring decisions, but inclusion is the result of culture. Successful businesses listen to their employees, especially if they disagree or have critical feedback.”

Like a lean startup, stand-up comedians fail fast. “They release their earliest prototypes to their target audience, get feedback, and iterate for improvements… Failures are good, but failures should be low stakes. Comedians never try a new joke while filming a comedy special. By the time they hit the big stage with six cameras rolling, they already know what jokes work and what jokes don’t. That includes crowd work, which, though it’s improvised, is thoroughly explored and intensely practiced.”

Writing can help improve the clarity of your thinking. “Writing exposes weakness in thought and reason. Writing helps you to workshop an idea. The precision that is necessary when writing down words and ideas demands a level of clarity. It slows you down and makes you acknowledge what you don’t know… The value of writing to clarify applies especially well to business planning… A one-pager includes an attention-getting lead description that identifies who your idea is for, what it does, and how it’s different… You can’t be sloppy with your thoughts.”

“Amazon has a conceptually similar practice when contemplating a new product. Before management can decide to take on any new project, the person spearheading the project must write the press release. The press release must be consumer-centric and feel newsworthy and important to the target customers. This helps the team probe how customers would think and feel about the product or service before they even begin creating it.”

Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert, uses systems rather than goals. “Systems are behaviors that happen on a regular basis. Losing ten pounds is a goal. Exercising first thing in the morning is a system. Having a comedy special is a goal. Writing jokes by day and testing them by night is a system.”

“When you look at highly successful people, they have their daily habits working on their creative work. Then at some point, they release themselves from their work and go do other things.” Cartoonist and comedy writer Alex Gregory says the secret to good comedy is long leisurely lunches:

When I’m working on a script with my writing partner, especially when we’re kind of stuck on something, we go out to lunch, and we sit outside in a nice café… We just talk about things until inevitably, the jokes start to flow.

“Good release looks distinctly different from your grind. A different context, a noticeable change. So get out of the fluorescent lights and away from the rectangular tables. Get out into nature. Spend time with friends and family. Spend time in the sun. Take a fifteen-minute walk.”

“A manager’s responsibility is to help the creatives be the best they can be… Manage doesn’t mean control—it means helping to function at the highest level. Great managers look at their role as servant leadership. They see their job as supporting the creatives, not the other way around… So for the managers out there: how can you protect your people’s time and productivity? How can you help them grind at their best? And how can you release them to be their best day in and day out? … You’ve got to rock the creative trifecta: Protect + Grind + Release.”

“As much as I want you to use comedians as models, it will also be useful to look to comedians for what not to do.”

One idea in the book particularly sparked my interest. In anthropology, a liminal space means in-between, either physically (e.g. a doorway) or temporally (e.g. graduation, pregnancy, or some other transition). A liminal mindset allows comedians to make observations about the world “because, although they live in it, they never quite fit into it… Entrepreneurial success often comes from an uncanny ability—which comedians have honed so well—to see the world differently. Once you see the gap between have and need, you can make courageous choices to make it happen.” The connection between liminal spaces and innovation is an idea I wish was covered in greater depth.

This book is not about being funny, but there are some attempts at humor. This one made me laugh: “Can you imagine if Alexander Graham Bell had had a distraction like a phone? He would have never had the focus to invent the phone.” Don’t forget to tip your waitress.

McGraw, Peter. Shtick to Business: What the Masters of Comedy Can Teach You about Breaking Rules, Being Fearless, and Building a Serious Career. USA: Lioncrest Publishing, 2020. Buy from

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