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February 03, 2012

How to be funny at work without getting in trouble with HR

How to be funny at work without getting in trouble with HR

By David Michael Thurston

We all know that it’s the funny people at work that get invited to lunch, are in the inner circle, get all the breaks, get promoted and live fantastic lives. Fantastic lives like the ones I’m talking about include the good job, the nice car, the good retirement plan and medical benefits. This life is only for the funny people at work and the hard working. I can’t make you hard working but I can help make the not funny funnier.

            Being funny can also get you in trouble with HR and help you lose your job for being funny inappropriately. So there is a fine line between funny and on the fast track and funny on the way out the door. The skill of being funny and not getting in trouble is very important as it is sure to lead you to the life you’ve always wanted…or at least you might get invited to lunch, or get the cute girl from finance to talk to you.

            What you are about to read are templates for being funny. It’s more than paint by number comedy. These are examples with discussion on tone and way to heighten jokes to increase laughter.

The Art of Eves Dropping and Butting In

            The first technique is called “The Art of Eve’s Dropping and Butting In.” A safe way to be funny at work is to answer a question that was not asked to you. If Jane and Cindy are within earshot and talking about, say, a wedding, butt in, answer some questions that they ask each other.

            Now before I go on, there is a crucial element of tone I want to address. It’s easy to use this technique in a way that is annoying. I’ve seen people use it wrong. It can back fire and it can work against you. You will either come off as a champ or as a groveling nobody with no friends trying to get in the conversation. The difference, the right way to do it is to act a little offended that someone would ask such a question. Here’s the example:

            Jane to Cindy: “Did you meet any guys at the Wedding this weekend?”

            James: “I didn’t go to a wedding but if I did I certainly wouldn’t be looking for any guys. Thanks for asking Jane (really condescending). How was your weekend?

            Give this technique a try. You’ll be surprised at what you courage will get you.     

Answering a question

If someone isn’t asking you a question and you answer it there is a build it comedic element already. But what do you do when you have been asked question directly? The easy way is to give the answer to a different question than the one that was asked of you. Now I know what you are thinking. That’s just annoying. So again how do we avoid being annoying and replace it with being funny? The answer, again, be condescending and a little insulting with your response. Example:

            James (to Dave): Hey, Dave do you know how to get to the supply room? I need some more post-it’s”

            Dave ( to James): You take a left on Kyrene, Right on Guadalupe, go all the way to McClintock. On the South West corner you’ll find a Walgreens. They have a pharmacy where you can get the medication you need. From now on, no shaking hands until that clears up.

            For further comedic effect speak really loudly so that everyone hears everything, especially the last line.

            Now, a normal person should be thinking that this is a terribly rude thing to say to someone. It is. Why is it funny then? It is funny because of the fourth wall. It’s funny to the people watching. It’s not funny at all to the person you’re talking to. It shouldn’t be funny to them.

            This is part of the problem with society today. Art reflecting reality reflecting art reflecting life. People see things on TV and do it in real life. The way people treat each other on TV is disgusting. Ie. House. However, it’s entertaining to people on the other side of the fourth wall who are watching. When we treat each other like that in real life it is ugly. It shouldn’t happen. Talking to people for the purpose of entertaining those on the other side of the fourth wall is one thing. Relating to people on the same side is different. Understanding the difference is comedic genius.

            In reading “The Art of Eves Dropping and Butting It” it should be noted that Jane and Cindy are not going to think you are funny. But Pete, your boss, will get a kick out of it. Know your audience.

            So how do you get people who are on the same side of the fourth wall to laugh?




Creatively Positive

If it is easy for you to say, “Jim’s so dumb he...(insert creativity here) then it should be equally as easy to say, “Jim’s so smart he...(insert creativity). For example:

            “Hey if you keep hitting your numbers like that we’re all going to be able to retire soon. We’ll all be swimming in pools of chocolate jello and ridding our own personal roller coasters to our private islands for vacation month.”

            Be creative not negative when you are inside the fourth wall.

            But Dave that seems lame and common and unfunny. How can I make this even funnier?

            I’m glad you asked. And yes I’m going to actually answer this question. (But don’t think I missed an opportunity to give the answer to a different question.) What you can do to push this to the next level is add an insulting sounding tone.

            “Great, Steve’s working so hard we’ll all get raaaises. Work horse. What were you raised by loving parents.  I hope you live to be 90. Health Nut.”

            Go for it. You are funnier than you think.

            Now you know what to do inside the fourth wall. Be creatively positive with a condescending tone. Is there anything you should not do? Yes.


Inside the fourth wall, outside the fourth wall, positive creative while sounding condescending, now what? What not to do. These are some ideas of what to do. Below is a list of ten things not to do. I call this blog, “Don’t be that guy.”

10. Never end a sentence with “NOT” That’s from Wayne’s World 100 years ago. And don’t claim that Borat brought it back. He didn’t. Don’t be that guy.

9. Don’t desperately insert the phrase, “That’s what she said” into every conversation that you can. Don’t be that guy.

8.  Don’t quote the office ever five minutes. Don’t be that guy.

7. Don’t fill your co-workers hand sanitizer with hair gel. Don’t be that guy. You’re going to do pranks? Really? Don’t be that guy. And when he switches to the spray cleaner don’t put hair spray in the bottle. Don’t be that guy.

6. Do not intentionally hang a piece of toilet paper out of the back of your pants. Don’t be that guy. Kevin.

5. Don’t send out and email from an unguarded computer declaring an undying love for everyone. Don’t be that guy.

4. Don’t change the screen saver to a picture of David Hasselhoff in a Speedo. Don’t be that guy. Unless you are Geoff. He’s pretty funny.

3. Don’t read comedy joke emails from internet at work. Don’t be that guy.

2. Don’t fill a sandwich bag full of sugar and put in the new guys desk only to call HR about the cocaine symptom’s of the new guy. Don’t be that guy.

1. And don’t DON’T forward hilarious emails to everyone. Ever! Don’t be that guy. If they were really funny they would be standup comedy acts. Don’t be that guy.

Instead educate yourself on what is funny. Tomorrow I’ll post a list of recommended reading for anyone who is serious about being funny and getting funnier. I would be flattered if you would take a look at it.

So today, in 6 of 6, the second to last blog on this topic, I would like to talk about parallel and opposite stories. These are big fun. Invariably whenever two or more guys are at the same place at the same time they will try to out story tell each other. You caught a fish this big oh yeah I caught fish this big. These are parallel stories with bigger endings. After a few guys have set the pattern for the pattern it is time for you to tell a parallel story that is the opposite. If they caught a bigger and bigger fish you catch a sardine.  Here is an example. Pay close attention for staples that can be paralleled.

            Guy #1 It was the summer of 07. I finished my MBA in 18 months. I was working two jobs.

            Guy #2 That reminds of the time I finished my PhD. In a year and 14 days. It took some sacrifice but I got it done.

            These are parallel stories. Now it’s time for you to tell the parallel story in the opposite direction.

            You #1 Guys I don’t want to brag but I finished my Associates at MCC in a shade under three years. It took some sacrifice but I got it done. Well most of the credits anyway.

            This is a parallel and opposite story. Tomorrow I’ll be writing a blog on maximizing self deprecation. I hope you have enjoyed reading these blogs. I have enjoyed writing them. I’ll also be starting a new blog “Dave shaves his body for comedy in five parts. Day one Left Leg” I hope you will join me in that one too.

Being funny can also get you in trouble with HR and help you lose your job for being funny inappropriately. So there is a fine line between funny and on the fast track and funny on the way out the door. The skill of being funny and not getting in trouble is very important as it is sure to lead you to the life you’ve always wanted…or at least you might get invited to lunch, or get the cute girl from finance to talk to you.

            Self deprecation maximization and the art there of. Well here it is short and sweet. When someone insults you the normal thing to do is get defensive and insult them back. “You are a this or a that.”

“Oh really we’ll you are a this or that plus one.”

            (I’m using comedy short hand because after a while all comedy becomes a mad lib and ruins humor for ever for you. Heads up on that.)

            Here’s my suggestion, the next time you get insulted instead of getting defensive, make sure that they have no idea how right they are. Keep proving them right. Between the two of you I know you can come up with something far more creative than you can on your own.

            The more you do this the more you will notice that some people are total weaklings and can dish it out just fine but can’t take it when it comes back. That doesn’t mean you never dish it back it just means that there are sensitive souls out there. You still have to work with these people. Do you best, when you can, to build up the weak ones. They are usually the most defensive. Know your audience.

Make fun of an overused phrase that you hear at work by exposing the ridiculousness of the of the phase and then link it to the ridiculousness with the phrase “as opposed to…” Does it sound complicated? It’s not and you can do it with almost anything. Here is an example from my office where I used to work at (fill in the blank) University where one of the most overused phrases I heard was “to my knowledge…” Potential students would call in and ask a question like, “How long does it take to graduate?” All too often the answer was something like “Too my knowledge it’s 3 years.”

            Here is where you get to be creative in office talk. “To my knowledge it’s 3 years as opposed to Steve’s knowledge it’s 6 years, but to my knowledge it’s 3.”

            Note to world – any time you hear the phrase “To my knowledge” someone is probably covering their own interest. Get a second opinion.

My favorite thing about the ridiculous political opinion is that it requires you to butt into a tense conversation that you are not a part of, yet some how , if done properly, can defuse a tense situation. This is one of the “Go strong or go home” situations.

            It happened to me the other day at work, right after a tense meeting. The topic, illegal immigration. There were two one person teams. Team pro and team con. It went on and on, back and forth. It got really uncomfortable. When the tension crossed over two rows of cubes and got to me I knew it was time to act or there was going to be a fist fight. Without hesitation, and well timed, I chimed in with this ridiculous political opinion.

            “Excuse me, gentlemen, but if I’m not mistaken it’s time to stop worrying about the people who want to be here and start worrying about the people I don’t want to be in this country. That’s right, I’m talking about throwing out the legal citizens of this country that are ruining it for everyone else. I got a long list of people I’d like to throw out of this country, and many of them work here. But you can’t throw them out because of they always play that, “You can’t throw me out because I’m a citizen,” card. I got a list and Pat Buchannan is on it and so is the whiniest man that ever lived Michael More. Look I’m not about to throw some one out of this country if they are willing to work hard, make a contribution to the country and God forbid, by a house and get it off the market. I’m not about to break up a family over a technicality if they are willing to do that. That man or women is welcome in my country, but Pete from accounting, that guy can take a long walk to a near border. Now get back on the phones.”

“What’s the deal with Coffee Cups? Is it a cup made out of coffee? I don’t think so. Head Cheese, wow. I don’t ever want to see those words that close together.”

Classic comedy from the "Great One", Jerry Seinfeld.

It works because there are two interpretations the word "head," obviously. Coffee cup can mean that the cup is for coffee or that it is made of coffee. And To get a better grasp of reinterpreting words Greg Dean’s book on standup is second to none and a must read for every aspiring comic.

            Skip a head, skip a head, I was doing an improvised scene in a class at The Annoyance. I played an extremely nervous comedian who is trying out new jokes on a friend right before he is going on stage:

            “What’s the deal with a hair tie? Is it a tie made out of hair? What’s the deal with eye glasses? Is it a glass you drink out of made out of eye balls? What’s up Daddy’O? Like everyone’s father is Irish.”

            I don’t know why I said that last one about the Irish thing, but anyways, this scene inspired me to write down 25 compound words, try to find a reinterpretation for one or both of those words and put them back together to either explain the new definition or use the new definition in a sentence that would explain or heighten the ridiculousness of the new meaning of the compound word.


            How to play the Jerry Seinfeld game:


Step 1:

Write down 25 compound words.


Step 2:

Find more than one definition for one or both of those words.


Step 3:

Explain the new definition and or use it in a sentence that heightens the new definition.


            These are the best of the 25 that I wrote. I’m sure you can do better.


What’s the deal with Coat Hangers? It sounds like coats are killing people with rope.

What’s the deal with Brick Buildings? Come on over this weekend Frank we have a          brick shortage so we’ll be brick building.

What’s the deal with Desert Dishes? It sounds like a gorgeous women made out of ice      cream.

What’s the deal with Bunt Cake? Can’t the cake get on base by taking a full swing?

What’s the deal with Dresser Drawers. Sounds like a choice, “Are you going out tonight   wearing a dress or drawers. Or maybe that’s underwear for your dresser.

What’s the deal with a Bill Board? It sounds like you have to pay to be bored.

What’s the deal with Pussy Cat’s? (That’s too easy).

What’s the deal with Bull Dog’s? Why can’t undefined meat in tube form tell the truth?

What’s the deal with Rain Check’s. Isn’t that what you do to see if you need an umbrella?

What’s the deal with Roller Girl’s? Flattening dough with your daughter.

What’s the deal with Foster Home? Wouldn’t that be Australia? Foster’s Australian for    write better jokes.

What’s the deal with Out Back? Would that be a returning Gay?

What’s the deal with Digital Clock’s? That’s where they hit you with the numbers.

What’s the deal with Lean Machines? That’s a computer that needs a V8.

What’s the deal with Dry Erase Boards? 7 years that Dry Erase board has been sober.

What’s the deal with Ball Rooms? That’s where your parents send you when you’ve been             bad and it’s made out of testicles.

What’s the deal with Abb Busters? That’s a tiny vacuum for your stomach. It could be a   team that prevents abb's from cheating. Or Abdominal muscles that fight crime, a      new TV show on Spike TV. Abb Buster's 8/9 central.


            I hope you enjoyed the Jerry Seinfeld Game. It is a great writing exercise. It’s worth sitting down and writing some out for 15 minutes a day.


            This, the 10th of 6 blogs about how to be funny at work without getting in trouble with HR has come to a conclusion. It is time to move on to the next series of blogs “Dave shaves his body in five days to promote his Improv class. Day one LEFT LEG” It is done. I’ve shaved my left leg. Check in tomorrow to see the details. I’m off to the gym. 


Encourage a Horrendous behavior. This technique is most effective at the end of a conversation in parting. For example: “Have a great day Bill. See you tomorrow. And don’t pay your taxes.”

            It’s a nice light hearted way to end the day.

            If you really want to up funny do these three things: 1 Say it with a positive tone as if this is a good thing 2. Speak to your friend as if this behavior has been on going for a long time 3. Add a specifically devastating justification for this behavior.


            “See you tomorrow Todd. Continue to neglect your children. We all know that a parents love breads weakness. You don’t want weak children do you Todd. Let your children know that life sucks right now so when they turn 30 it’s not a surprise. “

This week I want to talk about the technique I call, “Getting back to someone about something embarrassing even if they didn’t ask you to get back to them.” I call it that so I don’t have to explain it. It is what it sounds like. Here is an example.

            “Hey Geoffery, I wanted to get back to you on that thing you asked me about and the answer is, there is no prenatal coverage for anyone but your wife. Just so we’re clear on that. It’s only for family members. 

            To make this even more effective wait until there is a small group around, preferably if there are higher ups that could influence this person’s career, especially around performance review time. This specific example is perfect if there is an inappropriate office romance, there always is, and both parties of that relationship are present. 

A note on timing: If you go to a comedy coach and the first thing they say is “The most important thing about comedy is Timing,” it’s because they don’t know what else to say. If they only thing they talk about is Timing – RUN! They don’t know what they are doing. If they did they would tell you about that.

            Saying that timing is the most important thing about comedy is like saying that the most important thing about basketball is scoring more points than the other team. While this is not wrong it also not helpful. It is very unique ability to enable people to be better ball players. Anyone can tell you what you need to do. You need to score points. But it is very special is someone cal tell you how. It is very special, rare, unique, and difficult to tell someone who can’t play basketball, not just what to do but how to do it.

            Good timing should raise the stakes. It should make things more important. Good timing should incorporate the audience’s feelings without pandering. Good timing comes to some people naturally, but most people will have to be immersed in comedy for a few years before they really get it. Telling other people’s jokes will help you learn timing. It’s fine to tell other people’s jokes as long as you’re not being paid and you are not negatively impacting someone else’s career or taking something should have gone to the original artist, like credit.

            There is a lot to timing, but you have your own timing and it is more important to be in tune with that than to try and “Learn Timing.”

            I studies at Second City with some of the best people in the world. They talked about hard work, reputation, relationship with the audience, talent, hard work, but I don’t remember once hearing about timing.

            Take note of people that can actually make a difference and show you how to do something instead of running off at the mouth about “What to do.” Take note of people that can show you how.

  I’ve been writing some ideas on what do to be perceived as funnier. Below is a list of ten things not to do. I call this blog, “Don’t be that guy #2”

            10. Don’t pin cartoon strips to you cube. Don’t be that guy.

            9. Don’t ever say to a cute girl walking away, “I hate to see you leave but I love watching you walk away.” Don’t be that guy.

            8. Don’t buy the book, “Good Clean Jokes,” ever. Don’t be that guy.

            7. Don’t start every conversation with, “Hey, did you hear what John Stewart said about (insert topical issue.) Don’t be that guy.

            6. Don’t bring a kids toy to the office because it’s so zany! We don’t need dart guns at work. “Thank you for calling in about your $100,000 decision…ouch, I just got hit in the face with a dart gun from my boss.” Don’t be that guy.

            5. I’ve said this before and I’m going to say it again and it still will not have been said enough, DON’T forward hilarious emails. Don’t be that guy.

            4. Do I even have to talk about ties? Don’t be that guy.

            3. The only thing worse than a funny tie is socks. It’s tough enough to wear crazy socks on crazy sock day definitely don’t do it on the not crazy sock day. Don’t be that guy.

            2. And if you are in HR and in charge of moral DON’T have crazy hat day. Don’t make us wear a stupid hat just so we can wear jeans, because we will. Don’t be that guy.

            1. Finally, and I’m barrowing form David Cross and 1,000 other comics here, but just because they have talked about it in the past doesn’t mean it’s not my experience too, don’t ever, ever ever tell funny stories about your kids. Don’t be that guy.

Extreme exaggeration allows for further exaggeration. In other words if you can be over the top enough no one will take you seriously. We all know this to be true and this principle will come in handy in a future blog titled, “Telling Someone How Dumb They are To Their Face.” For the time being we are talking about you. In fact we are talking about making everyone talk about you.

            By creating a false persona of total self absorption you are indeed making fun of those who actually are totally self absorbed. Furthermore by pretending to be self absorbed it shows everyone that you truly aren’t self absorbed.

            Confidence is paramount here. These are the phrases you want to get comfortable using.

            “Excuse me can we go back to talking about me.”    

            “It has been 7 minutes since we said anything about me.”

            “Am I needed at this meeting or do I have to just sit here and listen like everyone else.”

            “Really, that entire meeting was about work.”

            And don’t be afraid to start right from the introduction. Alleviate yourself from the feeling that they should get to know the not totally selfish you before you introduce the fake completely self absorbed self. It not going to far by introducing yourself by saying something like, “Hi, I’m Dave. Would you like to know about my incredible accomplishments at work or would you like to hear about my superiority outside the work place. Have you ever played ski ball? We’ll I have and I’m awesome.”

            You don’t have to say ski ball. You should go with whatever you are good at. But if you aren’t good at anything worth mentioning or if the only things you are good at rank lower than ski ball on the socially interesting chart then go with ski ball. There really is no way to challenge you anyhow. You can’t google it. Nothing comes up. I tired. Tell them you are nationally ranked.

            It make take some perseverance but wouldn’t you rather have people talking about your fake ski ball championship than there problem with their brakes. Who cares about that junk? Your fake world is more important than their real failures. You are worth it.

            There is a time where you need to be yourself, genuine and caring. But we’ll get to that later. 

This one is only going to be useful to you if you work in a numbers based job, where it’s all about the numbers. The good news is you do work in one of those jobs or you wouldn’t be reading this blog while your boss left the room.

            In any numbers based job eventually someone will ask about your numbers. I used to work at a school where they would ask you how many students you were going to enroll each month. A good number is 4 or 5 maybe six. But that’s the boring answer. You have to be honest most of the time to set up any good joke so when the time is right, and you know how I feel about timing, instead of saying 4 or 5 or 6 say 47. 47 is the funniest number.

            “Hey Jason, how many you got this week?

            “Oh, Seventy-two. It should be a good week.

            The right timing on this is when you are bored. The wrong timing is when you are annoyed or frustrated or in a real meeting. Never make a joke in retaliation. That’s good advice from a gainfully employed comedian.

            And never make a joke at your boss’s expense. That will not help you be funny but it will help you stay out of trouble with HR.

            You can only use this joke once in a while and it’s spent but you’ll have plenty of opportunity to use it. So the next time it comes up you have to heighten it you have to use a bigger number, but that’s not enough. You have to heighten it emotionally too. You have to act like you are disappointed.

            “Hey Jason, how many students are you going to have this month?”

            “I’m down to 611 because I lost a few. I’ll just have to try harder.”