The Business of Comedy: still in search of our Seven Universal Stories

This is the third part of my series of posts about universal or archetypal stories that drive our collective consciousness.

There are seven basic plots or story archetypes. In the first posting I examined three plots in the context of politics and national leaders (Rags to Riches, Voyage and Return, and Overcoming the Monster: In search of our Seven Universal Stories). In the second I reviewed the way business is fixated on Tragedy stories (Business of Tragedy – Or Tragedy of Business? A further search for our Seven Universal Stories).

The source for defining the story types is The Seven Basic Plots: Why we tell stories. The analysis applying these stories to politics, business and everyday life is my own specialism.

This posting investigates the role of Comedy in Business and the need for a comic revolution in corporate life.

Part 3. Funny Business: The Never-Ending Happy Ending of Comedy.

In these cruel and paradoxical times, cinema finds little to laugh about in the world of work – yet true Comedy abounds in the world of worklessness.

Travelling light across the skies of recession-hit America in Up in the Air (2009), on his heartless mission to fire ordinary people without himself getting involved, there’s only one thing that excites George Clooney’s solipsist central character. Collecting airmiles.

All goes smoothly until a random bout of airport sex draws him into a relationship where he imagines himself the predator – only to find his sentimentality has been awakened and exploited. Worse, the same economic forces that deliver his daily bread, also threaten to ground this hyper-frequent flyer. Why have George Clooney travel to fire you in person, when his sidekick can do the job cheaper online?

Because Up in the Air is an anti-comedy about a world whose values have been turned upside-down by recession, it works back to front. George Clooney successfully shakes off love, companionship and humanity to resume his normal solitary life of work. We’re invited to reflect that true Comedy works just the other way around: life is more fulfilling than work.

And what about this summer’s hot new caper movie, Horrible Bosses? The premise is that ordinary, Prius-driving employees are driven to murder by the vileness and selfishness of their employers. Mix up Kevin Spacey as a slave-driving psycho, ex-Friends Jennifer Aniston, and the message is…. for America’s oppressed white collar-workers, it’s time to get even.

Whatever the (lukewarm) reviews say, there’s a BIG message here for Business. In a flatlining economy, Hollywood is fast turning the workplace into a comic showplace crowded by caricature monsters. I’ll bet you that this summer, millions of people will walk out of multiplexes with exactly the same thought: “If only we could nail the boss too….work really sucks with that guy around”. If business can’t respond by finding some spirit of Comedy in its own heart, Hollywood might just be right.

The central premise of Comedy is one Business should consider well: it’s all about the community, not about the work itself. It’s about the group, not the individual. People show up in the office to be part of a larger tribe, with its customs and rituals. Just as actors join a company in the theatre to do their work, so the rest of us join a company to work for because we’re expecting some theatre. We want to be actors too. The water-cooler or coffee corner is our stage, the cubicles our stalls and circle.

What we want is Comedy at work. If we can’t find it in the workplace, we’ll seek out Comedy elsewhere – even in unemployment.

Britain’s film industry has been far bolder than Hollywood in probing the comedy and values of worklessness, showing how the human spirit trumps business every time.

The surprising 1997 hit The Full Monty with Robert Carlyle explored the camaraderie of a group of unemployed steelworkers intent on retrieving dignity and respect in their working-class community. The message was that having the moral courage to go full-frontal as male strippers is more life-enhancing than finding another menial job.

Brassed Off (1996) with Ewan McGregor, went behind the scenes of the world’s most successful industrial downsizing operation – British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s enforced 1984-1985 closure of the British coal mining industry. The comedy revolves around the striking miners’ brass band  (from Grimethorpe colliery) and their retrieval of dignity and solidarity through music. The brass band becomes a hit, winning a national competition just as the old coal mines are closed and the community destroyed. Once again, music trumps work.

The musical Billy Elliot – the unlikeliest of Broadway hits – used exactly the same backdrop of worklessness in a British mining community to show the healing and unifying power of art – Billy’s journey to becoming a classical ballet dancer. The willingness of Billy’s father and family to sacrifice their position in a proud yet doomed community, in order to sponsor Billy’s higher mission,  brings a poignant reappraisal of the importance of art for the working classes – and the meaninglessness of most work.

So Comedy works when we’re not at work. But what about ‘business as usual?’ Can it be the paradigm for a healthy world where every individual achieves fulfilment by taking his or her own place in a larger tribe?

Yes – but Comedy has to break through the hierarchical barriers of work. Just as Tragedy is about an individual hero imposing his hubris, flaws and wilful destructiveness upon the rest of the community, so a lot of Business is all about the Boss. Comedy, by contrast, is all about the community working things out together to achieve harmony. Everyone gets to play an equal role in delivering a happy ending. Try telling that to the Executive Board.

Nevertheless, successful stories of workplace and Business Comedy abound.

Consider The Simpsons. The hero Homer’s relationship with his employer Montgomery Burns, the boss of Springfield Nuclear Power Plant, drives the plot. Homer’s ability to tame and moderate Mr Burns’ evil plans averts disaster and brings a happy ending, week after week.

Why is it that TV networks around the world continue showing the sitcom  Friends eight years after production stopped and almost two decades since the first script was written? Each episode is a perfectly self-contained comic drama – and the real action almost always involves the workplace – in the museum for Ross, in the fashion industry for Rachel, at the restaurant for Monica.

It’s no coincidence, perhaps that comedian John Cleese, star of Monty Python and Fawlty Towers, made his real money through Video Arts, a business video company that uses comic scenarios for business training.

And then there’s  The Office. The super trivia of daily life at the Dunder Mifflin Paper Company just keeps on coming, series after series.

The Greeks, of course, invented both Tragedy and Comedy. The storyline conforms to an exact formula that’s immensely satisfying to us both as individuals and as groups. By affirming the power of light over darkness, of love over discord, order over confusion, Comedy heals us and brings us together.

And the core message is always one that Business would do well to emulate: “Make love not war.” Nowhere is this more explicit that in Aristophanes’ Lysistra – all about a feminist sex-strike designed to stop pointless male fighting. That’s also a pretty rational proposition for many testosterone-driven boardrooms.

At the outset of every Comedy, we are presented with a little world where something is amiss. Often, the malaise starts at the top, with a prince afflicted by jealous rages or irrational desires.

Characters may use disguises, or change places with rustic figures less powerful than themselves. Something precious – a talisman, a child, some secret – may be stolen away, lost, or exiled. These misunderstandings ensure the kingdom is thrown out of balance, and its inhabitants cast out of alignment.

There may be a “wrecker” responsible for the disorder. But, little by little, everyone and everything will get sorted out. The prince finally throws off his rustic disguise (check out  the TV series Undercover Boss)  helping to bring about a wonderful happy ending.

Comedy doesn’t have to be trivial. And some of the people are genuinely dark and nasty, just as in life. Think about Malvolio in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. His vanity, social climbing and egotism set him up to threaten everyone else’s happy ending: “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you.” Who hasn’t seen his like at corporate offsites?

In The Winter’s Tale, the misunderstanding and paranoid jealousy of King Leontes condemns his wife, Hermione, to a period of secret incarceration not unlike that imposed by the real-life incestuous Austrian monster Joseph Fritzl on his own daughter. The banished daughter Perdita is born in prison – just like Fritzl’s offspring – and turns out to be the key to bringing her “frozen” mother Hermione back to life. How many women executives have found themselves literally “frozen out” of key decisions made by male peers?

Consider Mozart’s 1786 The Marriage of Figaro, based on the Beaumarchais play. Count Almaviva (the CEO) disrupts his little world by lusting after Susanna, the girlfriend of his servant Figaro (let’s call him a young VP).  The Count’s hatred of cheerful philanderer Cherubino (perhaps the Marketing VP)  and his wronging of the Countess (perhaps the investor community) result in improbable shenanigans that are finally sorted out in time to allow all the cast to sing in full-throated harmony: “Ah tutti contenti saremo cosí, ah tutti contenti saremo, saremo cosí.”

Now look at all this from a Human Resources perspective. Getting your employees to sing together in happy harmony is to die for!

If the Business community is like the onstage society or family in a comedy, this stuff is HR heaven!  Engagement, Alignment, Brand loyalty, inspiration, integrated Mission and Vision, Worker satisfaction, Net Promoter Score to the max. Group endorphin releases right off the medical charts!

Tens – perhaps hundreds – of billions of dollars are spent annually on coaching, training, conferences, offsites, incentives, corporate videos, internal branding, vision and values, team games, teambuilding, team experiences. All to achieve the same happy ending and a rosy glow among the workforce, that you can get in the theatre any night by buying a ticket. So you feel like you would after watching Billy Elliot.

But do HR execs ever stop to consider the behaviour (and performance) of their people might be driven by the nature of the storyline they are living through? No. Low engagement scores demand more employee remuneration incentives, more internal communication of the “message.” More top-down interventions. If employees don’t clap loud enough, then wheel in the consultants to find out what’s wrong with them.

In the theatre, we can always walk out if the storyline is weak and the actors poor. At work, if the production sucks, the lead actor has two left feet and the director doggedly refuses to embrace the healing power of Comedy, the only consolation for the workforce is “just fake it.”

No wonder we end up seeing so much second-rate corporate Tragedy, as I wrote in my past post.

Why is it that Hewlett Packard couldn’t work out a Marriage of Figaro denouement when CEO Mark Hurd was caught ogling an actress?

Talking of The Office, there was massive potential for a comedy set-up at Home Depot when Bob Nardelli quit GE to become CEO. Before exiting with a huge payoff, Nardelli nearly trashed the company, where the laughs are largely ironic.

But executives who continue to believe that work can’t also be fun and that humour is a trivial distraction from the true goals of business, should think again. The are companies out there worth billions of dollars, that are explicitly driven by the principles of Comedy.

Think about the Cirque du Soleil. You’re thinking that a company that does circus entertainment and clowns must do Comedy but probably won’t make money. But look at the numbers and the back-story. Cirque du Soleil is just as serious a business as IBM.

The French-Canadian company created by Guy Laliberte puts on new shows that cost $50 million each, has annual revenues of over $800 million, employs 4,000 people in 40 countries and runs a global network of “subsidiaries” (its shows playing on every continent but Antarctica) and has over 100 million customers (its audiences).

The former busker and fire-breather Laliberté has become an archetypal CEO (net worth US$2.5 billion, Forbes ranking 459). He cuts deals with private equity, segments his market like a real estate mogul. He’s hustled government subsidies, staved off bankruptcy, restructured several times. Laliberté even does his marketing from innovative places (a visit to the International Space Station).

Another business that’s made the most effective use of Comedy to grow is Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group. A lot of it  – such as Branson’s regular cross-dressing as an air-hostess – was straight burlesque. Always the plucky, irreverent underdog, Virgin has prospered by raising two comic fingers to Coke, Apple, British Airways, Smirnoff, retail banks, train monopolies – even NASA.

In his career, Branson (net worth  $4.2 billion, Forbes ranking  254) has effectively harnessed one of the great incarnations of Comedy – the picaresque. Just like Tom Jones and Tristram Shandy, Virgin’s rise has been one long guitar-riff on the circumstances of the moment. Whatever rip-roaring stuff comes along is grist for the Virgin mill. Ride those warm business waves to a comic happy ending on the sands of Necker, the Virgin corporate Caribbean fun-island!

My first-hand view of a more moderate example of  nourishing power of Comedy in corporate life came at AEGON. During the 1990s this dull-sounding Dutch-based global insurer was led by a truly wonderful CEO, Kees Storm.

His brand promise was as good as any I’ve heard since. “Respect People: Make Money: Have Fun.” Apart from compelling senior executives to join him on multiple marathons (some sense of humour there!), the main plank of his management style was wagering. Storm was constantly wagering his executive teams they couldn’t beat the targets he set, with a decent bottle of wine as the good-humoured bet.

Almost every day, this long-faced CEO would bring in another bottle to meet his losses. But he secretly smiled: By sacrificing his own ego for the company, Storm generated 18 years of unbroken annual profit rises. Yet after Storm handed the reins to humourless CEO with a big US ego and a penchant for bear-hunting, the shares collapsed and the insurer had to be rescued by the Dutch government.

Folk like Branson and Laliberté are easy examples to cite. We need more ordinary, tie-wearing executives like Kees Storm to acknowledge the power of fun, and put it to work in large organisations where hundreds of thousands, millions of people could benefit from the harmony and freedom Comedy brings.

We need more people like Derek Sivers, who wowed TED 2010 with a fuzzy video showing how a shirtless man dancing in the park and his “first follower” can start a movement, giving lessons of leadership and courage to the most important, or self-important CEO.

In fact, the comic revolution in business should become the new Corporate Social Responsibility. Bring it on!

Richard House


3 thoughts on “The Business of Comedy: still in search of our Seven Universal Stories

  1. Your post made me think of 9 to 5 starring Dabney Coleman, Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton. My parents roared at it and I didn’t see the humor until I was trapped in a cubicle maze a few years later. When my company was “merging” the Dilbert comic strip was just gaining notoriety and was right on target for business at my company. We cut them out and hung them all over our office space. Comedy helped us deal with the stress of mergers and voluntary severance offers.


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