Andrew improvises his way to better coworker relationships
Andrew Tarvin is a funny guy and is well-known nationally within the ComedySportz improv world. He also does stand-up comedy — his first paid gig was opening for Pauly Shore. A few years ago, he left his Project Manager position with Procter & Gamble to start Humor That Works to show corporations across the world how humor can enhance their bottom line. He’s also a busy corporate speaker which you might recognize from his TEDx talk.
In this episode, we talk about how he realized early on in his career that humor helped him be more effective with coworkers. One of his first managers encouraged him to push the boundaries, which he did by creating his own title: P&G Corporate Humorist. He would include jokes, cartoons or videos in his team emails and found that sharing his passion of humor was the single most important thing to benefit his personal brand at work.
Andrew Tarvin is the world’s first Humor Engineer. He teaches people how to enjoy their jobs more while doing them better. Prior to running his own company, Humor That Works, Andrew was a Project Engineer with Proctor & Gamble.
He graduated from Ohio State University, Magna Cum Laude with Honors in Engineering.
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JOHN GARRETT. I’m so excited to introduce everyone to my friend Andrew Tarvin. I’ve known Andrew for several years now, and it’s going to be so fun to talk with him and have him on the show, but first a little bit of background before we jump right in. He’s the world’s first humor engineer. He actually teaches people how to enjoy their jobs while also doing them better. This all came to be because of what we’re going to talk about today, combining his background as a project manager at Procter and Gamble right out of school, combined with his experience of performing over 1,000 shows of improv comedy. He’s spoken at TEDx, as well as in all 50 states, 18 countries, and 3 continents. I’ve got him with me here now on the Green Apple Podcast. So Andrew, welcome and thank you so much for taking time to be here with me today.
ANDREW TARVIN. Absolutely, happy to join.
JOHN. I’m so excited. So one question I love to ask everyone that comes on my show, first of all you being an engineer, thank goodness there is one or two of you out there that are willing to be on my podcast and show the world that you’re not all terrible people like I try to say.
ANDREW. I know, yeah.
JOHN. Between the accountants and the engineer on this podcast this might be the coolest episode in the history of podcasts.
ANDREW. I feel like it is, are you wearing a tie for the occasion? I’m not, because engineers don’t wear ties.
JOHN. No, no, you don’t even know how to tie a tie, it’s too hard. Probably because you don’t have time, too efficient.
ANDREW. A tie is not efficient, unless I’m OK with wearing a tuxedo shirt, that’s the only tie I wear.
JOHN. There you go, nice. That’s one move, I like it. So how did you get into engineering? That’s the thing I love to ask people, how did you get into that profession?
ANDREW. Sure. I’ve always had the mindset of an engineer. Ever since I remember I’ve been obsessed with efficiency, really since before I can remember because I was born three weeks early. Apparently in the womb I was like, “I don’t need a full 9 months, I’m ready to go right now.” Always this obsession of efficiency and how do we do things quicker, how do we do things faster? I remember in the fifth grade I got really excited when I discovered that if you load all of the like silverware together, the spoons with the spoons, knives with the knives, etc. you save about 20 seconds on the unload of the dishwasher. I got so excited and wrote up a five point plan of how to efficiently load and unload a dishwasher, which my family promptly ignored. It’s one of those things that’s just an epiphany. So I’ve always had an obsession with efficiency and how to do things quicker. I got my family our first computer probably when I was in seventh or eighth grade. The efficiency thing combined with the computer stuff drew this passion of taking it apart and putting it back together, seeing how it worked, all that kind of stuff. I took a computer science class, we had one in my Junior High School where we were basically learning basic web development stuff. I really enjoyed that. In Junior High I decided that I was going to do something with the computer science and the intersect with the efficiency made sense to become a computer science engineer.
JOHN. Wow, so it was from when you were little it was destiny?
JOHN. Yeah it was meant to be, that’s fantastic. So you self actualized, you did it!
ANDREW. Yeah, I did it. Then things completely changed later, which I’m sure we’ll talk about a little bit more.
ANDREW. But in everything I do I’m still very much an engineer.
JOHN. You can’t take it out of you, it’s in your DNA. I get it, every time I use a coupon I’m like, “well I have to do this,” it’s an accounting thing. So when you worked at Procter and Gamble I know that takes up a lot of time, but what sort of hobbies and passions did you have when you were working there?
ANDREW. I went to Ohio State, or I should say THE Ohio State University.
JOHN. Almost slipped up there.
ANDREW. Yeah, almost slipped up. I got a degree in Computer Science and Engineering then started working at Procter and Gamble as a project manager. While I was there, in addition to the normal kind of stuff that you do, I played soccer growing up so I did that, but the big thing that I did that was a huge passion of mine was comedy. So I had started doing improv and standup comedy, so I was doing that on the side when I started at P&G.
JOHN. That’s so cool. So, how did you start? Did you start there on campus?
ANDREW. Yeah, I started at Ohio State, basically my best friend wanted to start an improv comedy group and needed people, so he forced me to join. We started an improv group, we were terrible, we had no idea what we were doing, we watched Whose Line is it Anyway and tried to repeat what we saw. My friend was very much the comedian type person, but I was like the business person, so I was like, “if we’re going to do this, we’re going to do it for real. So we’re going to practice three times a week, we’re going to tape all our shows and go back and watch them, almost like if they’re game footage, to figure out how we can improve. We’re going to do a business meeting every single Monday.” I made folders and arrangements for the HR of the group, like contacts lists. WE did performance reviews, we had an accounting section. so I was like, “we’re going to run it like a small business.” over the course of two years we went from performing of basements of residence halls to performing twice a week at a theater on campus. Now the group is still going on, and it’s twelve years later, it was recently ranked as one of the top college improv groups in the country by Splitsider, or some news outlet or something. It’s something that’s still going on, which is great.
JOHN. That’s so cool man, that’s great. That’s so great that you reluctantly got into it because of your best friend. That’s so good. So you guys would just watch Whose Line and use those games?
ANDREW. Yeah, exactly. We saw them do questions only and we’re like, “oh, OK we can do that. We can try that.” Or the dating game, or the guessing game. The improv community is very open about sharing about sharing games, ideas, structures, and all that kind of stuff. So we grew from there, but a lot of it was like, “OK, let’s see what Wayne Brady, Colin Mochrie, and Ryan Styles are doing.” We even had a host our first couple of shows that tried to replicate the Drew Carey.
JOHN. That’s so great, that’s awesome man. So was there a really neat show that you did, or one where you were like, “this is the best, this is something I’ll never forget.”
ANDREW. Your first show is to make strangers laugh, to make other people laugh, is always, for me, exciting. But, to do it in a performance setting where it’s not just conversational or whatever, it’s somewhat addicting. It’s a little scary in that way, so the first show was certainly one. The first time I did stand up was a big moment for me as well, because I had really funny friends so improve, because it was a group activity, I was always slightly like, “maybe it’s just that I have really good friends and they are so good that they make me look funny.” So the first time I did stand up where I got people to laugh based on things that I had thought of on my own, my own thoughts, my own words, and it was just me standing up there by myself, that was kind of a big moment as well. It wasn’t a great set, but I had a couple of great laughs. It was like, “oh yeah, that’s me, I can actually do this.”
JOHN. Right. It’s totally addicting, I know exactly what you’re talking about. It’s super weird too where you’re like, “what I said made strangers react instantly to huge laughter.” It’s like, “I don’t even know what’s going on right now, but it’s fantastic.”
ANDREW. For sure, and it’s one of those crazy things where you go and see someone like Louis C.K. or Eddie Izzard, someone who’s big, and they’re filling out these massive arenas and it’s just a single man on stage with a microphone on stage, or a single woman on stage with a microphone. It’s pretty insane that it’s captivating entire audiences and stuff. Certainly other shows like that, I got a chance to perform with Rachel Dratch from Saturday Night Live in an improv show, that was a lot of fun. I’ve had a chance to do shows in high schools when I was first coming up in improv, where you’re doing it for 700 high school kids and the energy of it is crazy and infectious. There has been a lot of fun opportunities to do it. My first show that I did in Norway, in a different country, was super fun because the person, the host, introducing me introduced me in Norwegian, I did my set, which went really well, and then she closed in Norwegian. I have no idea what she said, so she could have said, “here’s this silly American who thinks he’s funny, let’s all laugh at him.”
ANDREW. It went well, but it was like, that was a lot of fun.
JOHN. When he pauses, laugh.
JOHN. That’s great. That’s so cool man. So you got to do it in other countries?
JOHN. That’s great man, that’s awesome. We have a picture on the Green Apple Podcast icon with you and Pauly Shore, you opened for him.
ANDREW. Yeah, that was my first professional stand up engagement. I was booked to MC for Pauly Shore when he was in Cincinnati Ohio.
JOHN. That’s a huge first booked event, that’s got to sell out, that’s a lot of people coming in to see Pauly.
ANDREW. For sure, it was a lot of fun.
JOHN. That’s so cool, that’s fantastic. Did you find that any of these improv skills or stand up skills translated to your job at P&G?
ANDREW. For sure. That was the big epiphany, the big thing that happened to me. As I went into the workforce I realized, both at Ohio State and later at P&G, there’s this difference between being efficient and being effective. Being an engineer I’m obsessed with being efficient, and you can be efficient with things like computers, but I’d learned that you can’t be efficient with people. They have emotions and feelings, all that other stuff that gets in the way.
ANDREW. Instead you have to be effective with people, and the one area that I didn’t necessarily do all that well with growing up. I was always good with computers and not as good with humans. It turned out that the stuff I was learning in improve and the stuff I was learning from stand up were the same skills, the same things you needed to learn to be effective with people. So, it built this skill in me where I was talking something like project management, which isn’t seen as the most exciting thing in the world. We’re considered the babysitters of the corporate world because we make sure that people get their work done and then tattle on you if you if you don’t. I was able to use some humor and bring that into the workplace and make it more enjoyable, get people to read my emails, come to my meetings, and all that kind of stuff. So it was a huge help not only in a skill set, but also in leveraging some of that humor to make the work more fun and effective.
JOHN. That’s so profound, and that’s exactly what you do now with your humor that works, but going into company and businesses to show them how humor can help you become more effective.
ANDREW. Yeah, absolutely.
JOHN. That’s cool how that transition happened. So obviously you talked about doing improv, or doing stand up, when you are at work?
ANDREW. Yeah, so my first manager my first week on the job after my internship, when I was hired full time, my manager gave me the best career advice I have ever yet received. That is, that it is better to beg for forgiveness than it is to ask for permission. It’s a cliché line that I’m sure many people have heard, but for me as a student fresh out of university it was incredibly empowering, because it meant that I could do my work in the way that I wanted to do it, and I could try things. Of course as a young upstart kid I was like, “alright I heard it’s better to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission,” so I was like, “I’m going to test my manager to see if he actually means that. Let’s see if I can test the boundaries a little bit.”
I didn’t do anything illegal, but I started doing things like adding jokes into my emails, I started emailing out that, “hey I’m going to do a stand up show,” to network groups, like some social network groups that were in the social organization. I would share that I was doing standup comedy, or I would offer to do stand up at off sites. I would say, “hey, can I do ten minutes at the end and I’ll do some stand up about some of the things that we talked about.” Or, “can I lead a ten minute ice breaker using some improv exercises?” I did that and people seemed to be responding to it pretty well.
The thing that I did where I was sure someone was going to stop me was I proclaimed myself the Corporate Humorist of P&G. I wrote a blog, I created a job title, and I assumed, eventually, someone from HR or Labor was going to come and say, “hey, you can’t just create your own job title.” No one ever did, instead people began to refer to me as the Corporate Humorist.
ANDREW. Yeah. I’d meet someone at a networking event and they’d say, “Andrew Tarvin, wait, you’re the corporate humor guy.” I would write about things, I’d write about the humor I was seeing, I’d write about ways that you can apply humor to be more effective. I was doing more and more events and pitching myself out there, in addition to my project management role, that, “hey I’m doing this corporate humor stuff,” in the company and helping to build the organization.
JOHN. Yeah, so you became known as that and people actually knew who you were, that’s awesome man. That’s so cool. Had you not shared that or not even done a hobby, but more importantly, not brought it to work then you would just be another number, just another project manager in the mix.
ANDREW. For sure. It’s one of the things that even if I’d stayed at P&G, was probably the single most effective thing I did for my personal brand in the workplace. Like you said, so many people. As an engineer, I talk with so many other engineers, you feel like, “I should just be able to do really good work and that should be enough.” The reality is because there are so many different, people are so busy these days and stuff, for someone’s personal brand, their reputation, how their perceived, is just as important as the work they do now; obviously you still have to be good at what you do. In addition to that we can’t just be numbers on a sheet of paper. If you’re looking at a promotion, ratings, or whatever it is, a human is there looking at two different sheets and one person seems good on paper but they’ve never heard of that person, the other person is good on paper but they also know the name because they saw them speak, they emceed an event that they saw, they read a blog post of theirs, or they had heard about them for whatever reason, the person that is a more known entity is more likely to get the opportunity, or to get the rating, or all that kind of stuff. So there is a huge personal brand and building awareness for what I was doing.
JOHN. That’s so perfect because you said we’re all good on paper, you don’t work for Procter and Gamble on accident, you don’t work for bigger consulting, accounting, legal firms on accident. So that’s an excellent point, just being good on paper isn’t good enough. Both of us being Midwest types, we think, “oh just do good work, stay out of trouble, and that will be good.” No, that’s not going to make it. That’s so cool that just took off on you like that in such a great way and really spun you into the humor that works that you do now. Did you ever have any coworkers join any of your improv shows or anything like that? Or come to your stand up shows?
ANDREW. Yeah. There are some coworkers, that’s how it initially started. I was just inviting people to come and see stand up. If you hear a coworker is going to do stand up, or try improv or whatever, there are a lot of people that are curious about it. Especially for someone like me, because I’m not the life of the party type person, I’m not a class clown, I was never the class clown, I’m very much an introvert. If you know Myers Briggs I’m INTJ. So I’m not the person sitting there, even today as a speaker and keynote person and all that kind of stuff, where you can say, “that guys a performer. He’s on.” People are like, “this project manager, computer science engineer, nerd guy is going to go and try stand up, we’re going to go and see what this is about.” People would come and see it.
Like I said, we had an integration project where we were integrating a smaller company into P&G and one of the things I offered was a four week improv class to the groups that integrate the employees from both organizations in a fun and more effective way. It was great branding for P&G who is sometimes seen as this more conservative, corporate culture and the employees from the smaller company were worried if they were going to still have the fun that they had, all that kind of stuff. Then to come and do an improv class and get to know each other in a fun safe way, they had a lot of fun and it was a great piece of the integration process from the inside.
JOHN. That’s huge man, that would be so cool. You’re being acquired you don’t know if this huge corporate giant, for you to offer that up also shows that you have a skill set that not everyone else has, of your peers. Just something else for when people are comparing you on paper is, well there is an added skill set that you’re able to bring to the table that someone else that is just good at Gantt charts, not so much. That’s such a perfect example of something where actually bringing your hobby to work, and sharing it, is a huge benefit to not only you, but also your company. This is awesome man.
ANDREW. I think the other thing that I found is that type of energy, that type of culture, that type of behavior is contagious, it’s infectious. The more I started to do it the more I started to see it from my teams. People I’d worked with have said that over and over and over again, “because of your workshop, or whatever, I’ve started to start each meeting with a joke just to kind of lighten the mood a little bit.” Once I did that two or three times other people started to do it as well, other people started to realize they could share something about their personal life, they could bring in some other hobbies, they could come in and bring some of their passion and add a little bit more humanity to the workplace. It just starts to spread, so not only is it something that’s great for you as an individual, but as an organization it also starts to change the culture of the organization.
JOHN. Right. So did you find that others would start to open up to you as far as, not necessarily they did improv, but they did something else or a different kind of hobby?
ANDREW. For sure. Even simply asking the question of, what are you passionate about? One of my favorite questions is, I ask with a lot of groups, what is something that you think is true for you that you don’t think is true for anyone else on the team, or anyone else in the room, or anyone else in the organization? I met fascinating people at P&G that did all kinds of things. I met people that raced cars on the weekend, legally not some illegal street racing, had a car specifically that he would take to a track that they could race on. I met a guy who built tables and did a lot of woodworking. I met a man who had competed in the annual wife carrying competition in Norway, which I loved hearing that’s a thing.
You learn these things and people are more and more willing to share and bring some of that passion in. You got to know them as human beings, and I think later when you realize that you’re working on a stressful project, or say an email is coming in a little bit later than you expected it, you remind yourself that person is a human and you have a stronger relationship, so you can work with them more effectively. You can go over and have an honest conversation of, “hey where is this thing that we’re working on?” Or, “how can we improve this process?” Etc. Because you’ve connected as people as opposed just as coworkers.
JOHN. That’s perfect, you should be doing this podcast man, this is unbelievable. One thing, because I have a lot of time on my hands, and it’s not college football season yet so I’m really bored. How much do you think it’s on the organization to create this culture where, like you said, you’re manager said, “it’s better to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission,” type of thing, to creating that culture, versus, it’s on the individual to step up and share those hobbies, passions, they enjoy doing when appropriate? Or somewhere in the middle?
ANDREW. It’s certainly both. In an ideal world, of course, the organizations would help support that and the smart organizations do because the benefits, as I’m sure you talk about, of doing this type of thing, for an organization, are huge. You increase employee engagement, you decrease turnover, you decrease stress, you improve workplace satisfaction scores, you increase productivity, yadda yadda yadda. All these benefits, from an organization perspective, make sense that they would want to encourage this. The reality is, at least my focus or my belief, is that it starts with the individual. It’s your life, it’s your career, and it’s getting a little bit better, but when I was at P&G my manager never pulled me aside and said, “hey you’re doing great work, but tell more jokes.” It was more of something that I chose to do. The reality is the average person will work 90,000 hours in their lifetime, and that’s only going to get more and more as we work later into our careers. 90,000 hours, the reality is that is 90,000 hours of your life and it’s up to you to decide how to do it. I was just someone who is fortunate, because most people don’t think they can do this type of thing and I always assume that I could. The reality is that most of the time no one really stops you.
JOHN. That’s so profound, just assume that you can. If anything, people are more interested in people that are interesting.
ANDREW. For sure.
JOHN. As long as you’re sharing something that is legal, then this isn’t sixth grade anymore. In one of the prior episodes someone said, “we’re not in junior high anymore, not everyone’s picking on you.” If anything the more you stand out, it’s ironic because, the further you go away from the group the stronger you actually become, the tighter you get. You’re one off thing, that’s the improv and comedy, that no one else did, brought you actually closer to everyone else that probably didn’t even have a passion, or didn’t share one. They knew you way more.
ANDREW. For sure, because comedy is, not everyone is going to do comedy, but everyone has a passion. For me, I talk with engineers a lot, especially around networking and small talk, that kind of stuff, because it’s a thing most people hate. I love small talk, not because I love getting to know people, but because I love talking about the weather.
JOHN. Small talk with engineers is so riveting.
ANDREW. It’s great. The reality is that if you think about awkward small talk, bad networking, or that kind of stuff, it’s how you do it. So it’s like, if you change how you do it, it becomes a lot more fun. If you get people starting to talk about their passion as opposed to just what the weather is like, or what happened this weekend, they become excited and become fascinating. I was talking to a guy not so long ago who raises bees, he’s a beekeeper. I don’t know anything about bees, but I was still fascinated to hear everything about it because h was passionate about it and he shared a lot of insight that I never expected. it’s not to say, “everyone go out and become a beekeeper,” but share that passion and what it is, because now that person stands out in my mind not only as he’s this type of worker, but he’s also a beekeeper.
JOHN. Otherwise it’s just someone you met and probably completely forgettable. Even someone you’ve worked with and you don’t know their passion, hobbies, and things like that, they’re completely forgettable. That’s what’s even scarier for me is that all those years and years and years, blood and sweat that you pour into your job and then you leave, three or five years later, “who was that?” “I don’t know, I don’t remember” Meanwhile if you label yourself the Corporate Humorist people are still talking about you. That’s so great man, this has been fantastic.
ANDREW. Another thing I’ll add to that is, a great thing about sharing things that you’re passionate about is that people will send you information. I love puns and I’m obsessed with milkshakes, so I owe some of my branding according to some of my friends and coworkers. When I speak I talk about my passion and obsession for milkshakes. People will send me, “hey next time you’re up here in Westchester there’s a Milkshakes now, so you’re going to have to check them out.” Not only is it a benefit that I stand out in people’s minds, but because I get to learn more about things because they’re like, “hey you care about milkshakes, send them to me.” Or if people see a good group of puns, I get to enjoy puns and milkshakes more often because I’ve shared what my passion is.
JOHN. So it boomerangs back, that’s so cool. I know that we’ve learned a lot about you, but as you know, I’m not sure if we could hang out officially till we do my 17 rapid fire questions. I hope you have a seat belt ready.
PC or Mac?
ANDREW. This is tough because I use both. Currently I’m doing this from a PC so I’ll say PC, specifically a Service Pro. [CHIME]
JOHN. When it comes to a mouse, right click or left click?
ANDREW. Right click, you get more options. [CHIME]
JOHN. You get more options. Do you have a favorite color?
ANDREW. Orange. [CHIME] Best color out there.
JOHN. Least favorite color?
ANDREW. Least favorite? I’m not a huge fan of yellow, it’s close to orange, but it’s just not as good. [CHIME]
JOHN. Right, plus it’s Michigan’s color, so there you go. Do you have a favorite band or musician?
ANDREW. If you ask me this in two or three months I will statistically know, I’ve rated all of my music and I’m going through. Very soon I’m going to be analyzing every single song, play count, and rating, and all that, so I’ll be able to give you a statistical answer. A guess right now, JayZ or Adele. [CHIME]
JOHN. All of that answer is so good. Cats or dogs?
ANDREW. Dogs. [CHIME]
JOHN. Sudoku or crossword puzzle?
ANDREW. I just recently started doing both, but I’ll go with Sudoku. [CHIME]
JOHN. Star Wars or Star Trek?
ANDREW. Both are great, but I prefer Star Wars. [CHIME]
JOHN. Solid answer. What did you have for breakfast?
ANDREW. S’mores Poptart, untoasted. [CHIME]
JOHN. How about the favorite place you’ve been on vacation, or favorite place that you’ve visited?
ANDREW. That’s so tough, there are so many beautiful places, but the thing that stands out right now is Pulpit Rock in Norway. [CHIME]
JOHN. Wow. I think you have a picture of that right?
ANDREW. I do, it’s me on the edge of a cliff where I’m holding on for dear life, but trying to get a cool selfie on the edge.
JOHN. Right, and you’re like, “should I keep going?”
ANDREW. I’m trying to look cool, but if you take a look at one of the pictures you can see that I have a very tight grip on the rock.
JOHN. Absolutely. Are you an early bird or more of a night owl?
ANDREW. Night owl, hate the mornings. [CHIME]
JOHN. Favorite number?
ANDREW. 8. [CHIME]
JOHN. Why is that?
ANDREW. Multiple reasons. It’s the infinity sign sideways, it’s a zero with a belt on, it’s one of the greatest kids joke of all time, which is why is 6 afraid of 7? Because 7 8, 9. I’ve thought about that. I love all numbers, but 8 is my favorite, favorite.
JOHN. 8 is pretty solid. How about, do you have a movie that makes you cry?
ANDREW. Last movie I remember tearing up in specifically was Toy Story 3. [CHIME]
JOHN. Toy Story 3…
ANDREW. It’s pretty deep at the end, it’s pretty scary.
JOHN. You have to watch the first two to get the third one?
ANDREW. It’s more meaningful that way.
JOHN. That’s where it gets you.
JOHN. Do you have a favorite comedian?
ANDREW. I like a lot, but if I had to pick one I’d say Eddie Izzard. [CHIME]
JOHN. That’s a solid answer, he’s very funny. How about pens or pencils?
ANDREW. Pencils, because you can fix things. [CHIME]
JOHN. Two more left, since you’re a computer science guy. When it comes to binary, are you more zeros or ones?
ANDREW. Ones, because that’s on. [CHIME]
JOHN. Andrew Tarvin, on. Is that how you approach the ladies, “hello, I’m a one.”
ANDREW. Then they’re probably thinking on a scale of one to ten, then they’re thinking, “I’d probably give you a two, but you’re probably right.”
JOHN. Last one, favorite thing that you have?
ANDREW. Can I go a little bit more theoretical and say my ability to create puns? [CHIME]
JOHN. Yes, absolutely, that’s a great thing that you have. Very cool. Thank you so much Andrew for being with me, this was so awesome. I really appreciate you being on the Green Apple Podcast.
ANDREW. Absolutely, not so bad for an engineer right?
JOHN. Yeah, not too shabby, I’ll have a couple more on I think.