I had the great pleasure of connecting through a Zoom with Greg Schwem, Business Humor Speaker, to talk about his session: Is It OK to Laugh? Understanding How Stifling Humor Can Also Stifle Workplace Productivity.
As I was perusing the speakers and sessions, I was immediately attracted to the topic of humor in the workplace. (Seems appropriate, considering I am the HR Shenanigator....) I immediately added his session to my calendar, and I reached out to see about an interview. I offered up an email Q&A, and slyly (that's a word, right?) offered to connect via recorded Zoom. He was agreeable, and I'm so glad! We had a great conversation, and I'm thrilled to share it with you.
Find the full video interview here.
Kyra: I have the great pleasure of speaking with Greg Schwem today - the engaging, funny, relevant, and relatable speaker to talk about his upcoming session at SHRM21: Is It OK to Laugh? Thank you so much for being with me today, and on a Sunday, no less. I'm super excited to learn more about you and your session.
Greg: Well, I'm excited to be there. This has been three years in the making. I submitted back in 2019, I was confirmed for 20 and then, of course, you know what happened. There were cancellations and postponements and so forth. I'm not even sure I'm going to have a whole lot prepared; I didn't think we'd get this far! I might just come out and say, "Hi thanks for joining me." That's really all I came up with because I figured they'd pull the plug again, but no. It's finally here and I just cannot wait because I've really been looking forward to speaking for SHRM for a very long time. I've done other HR groups, but this to me is the Broadway of HR.
Kyra: What is it about HR that attracted you to SHRM?
Greg: I am a corporate speaker; I am a corporate humor speaker too. I think there are a lot of misconceptions about integrating humor into a corporate event or just a corporate environment, and that's really what this presentation is about. I thought it would be nice to deliver that presentation in front of who I call the gatekeepers. That's not an offensive term. It is important to add humor into the work environment, so this is a chance for me to do that both live and in a virtual setting.
Kyra: Where did you start your career and how did you make a transition into corporate comedy?
Greg: When I started, I was a journalist, back in a different life. That was what my college degree was in, and I was working in journalism. I was a newspaper and a TV reporter. I had been dabbling in stand up comedy since I was 16. When I was working as a journalist, it became more than a hobby and, eventually, I decided I liked entertaining people more than depressing them, which is what I was doing. I hate to say it, every night as a journalist, particularly a TV journalist, because you were on the air live telling about what horrible thing happened in South Florida. So I decided to quit my job and give it a whirl as a stand up comedian, as a club comedian per se. I started doing a lot of material in my comedy club act about computers and learning to work at a computer, and it was really resonating with people, and they would come up to me afterward and say, "Can you come down to our office and do that bit about being on hold with tech support?" I started getting hired by these companies and I realized that I kind of had a knack for making them laugh at themselves; having some good-natured fun with them. Eventually, I just transitioned my entire presentation and, really, my entire career into the corporate sector and that's what I've been doing for the past 25 years.
Kyra: That is quite the transition! You had mentioned earlier some misconceptions about humor in the workplace, what are some of those misconceptions, or some of the biggest challenges that you've noticed?
Greg: I think everybody has had a bad experience. It affects all of us who work in my environment. I always get the, "you know we had a comedian two years ago and we specifically told him not to talk about this, this, and this, and wouldn't you know, he went out and did it, " or "we took everybody to a comedy club and we thought it'd be fun, and the comedian just made fun of the CEO for 25 minutes." So, I think it's a misconception that it's going to be bad. You introduce humor and there's like a little bit of a trepidation factor. I have spent years trying to break that down.
Kyra: So why do you think that humor has gotten a bad rap in the corporate world?
Greg: Because of just different incidences that have happened, you know if somebody said something that offended somebody, and then they had to apologize, and things like that. Some of the biggest comedians in the world have had to go on apology tours because of something they said. And that's becoming more and more prevalent. I'm not saying it's becoming more prevalent that comedians are saying things, but I think it's becoming more prevalent that people are getting offended. I can't really explain why that is, I think we've become a very sensitive society to a lot of things. I mean obviously, in HR you want to create a healthy work environment, you want to retain the best employees. I feel humor can certainly do that, but I think there's a misconception in a lot of cases that it does the opposite. It is going to be my job to kind of break down that misconception. I think the benefits of humor far outweigh any potential negative ramifications. I always think humor in a corporate meeting is the biggest hit and the toughest sell. I have to assure all my clients, "Just trust the process; trust me. I'm not going to tick anybody off.' And then, everybody walks away and goes, "Man, did we need that. We never had something like that before, and boy did we need it and thank you so much."
Kyra: Why do you think it's important to bring humor into a work environment and can you describe some of those benefits that you're talking about?
Greg: We've all heard the studies about how humor releases endorphins. That's been beaten to death and I'm not going to bring that up because we've all heard that, you don't need me to say that. But I feel like you're now seeing a lot of studies, in fact, SHRM just came out with a study talking about how many people are burned out at work, how many people are stressed - not just in an in-person, environment, but virtual work has stressed people out too because they feel like they're never off the clock. You're doing all these zoom meetings and your kids are in the other room and it's 8:30 at night and why am I doing this? Humor has certainly helped an awful lot of us get through this situation. It has helped people get through the pandemic, and that is a proven fact. I don't for one minute want anybody to think that I'm going to come out here and make you laugh at COVID-19. COVID-19 is not funny. There's an awful lot of stuff that we have had to deal with, as a result of COVID-19 that we certainly need to laugh at. I believe you can find humor in any subject, even if you're not making fun of that subject - virtual school, zoom meetings, all of this kind of stuff. I think people desperately need to laugh, and that's what I've heard from an awful lot of clients and potential clients as well. We could sure use a laugh right now.
I think, prior to the pandemic, humor was in somewhat of a very precarious situation because we have to make sure everybody's happy and we can't offend anybody, we can't even go down a certain path. A lot of times I would get, "You know, we'd really like to have you but we're not a funny organization" and "this is not a good time for us to be laughing." I'm starting to push back a little bit on that and for a couple of reasons. 1) When you say "we're not a funny company" - yeah, you are. Your company is made up of people, and there are some very funny people in every company. I don't care what you do. It bothers me more when people say it's not a good time for us to be laughing because, honestly, I don't think that's one person's decision to make. You can't cancel laughter. You can't say we're not laughing right now. That just sounds weird. It's always a good time to be laughing.
Kyra: Agreed, 100%! So, I'm going to go in another direction for just a second, and then we'll get back to SHRM. You also have a TV series called A Comedian Crashes Your Pad. What led you to start that show, and what is the premise?
Greg: The premise is that I got very fascinated a few years ago with the home-sharing market - AirBNB and VRBO. I was intrigued with the idea of who opens up their home to strangers, and it has to be a very interesting person who can do such a thing. I mean it's one thing to be an Uber driver and pick up strangers. But to live with them, with no vetting whatsoever, just, "Oh, you want to come to stay? Okay, perfect." I always loved that when they say you've been approved. You don't even know me! I mean I couldn't do that. I can stay at those places, but I couldn't let anybody into my house. But I am a people person - that's how I get material, that's how I write, I have to be out talking to people. So I thought, as long as I'm going to be in all these cities doing corporate gigs, why not take an extra day, find somebody who's kind of interesting - an interesting profile and interesting property? I didn't look for the most lavish or the most expensive. I wanted something or somebody who sounded unique. And I thought this would be just a fun thing to put up on social media, but the more I did it, the more I thought there's really something here. I started doing more episodes. Eventually, the episodes got a little longer. Eventually, I brought in a crew. I'm shooting one in San Antonio next month. I'm going to be doing my presentation for a group of funeral home directors, and no, that is not a joke. The funeral home bit will be hilarious. I guarantee you.
Kyra: You also have a couple of books that are published. Tell us a little bit about those.
Greg: My first one, called Text Me If You're Breathing, I published, during the market meltdown of 2008 when I had some downtime like everybody else. It's about observations, frustrations, and life lessons from a low-tech dad. I wrote that because my children were starting to get to the age where they were becoming very intrigued with things like cell phones and social media and so forth, and this was all completely foreign to me and I thought there's a lot of humor in here. And I started just writing about all my experiences trying to stay one step ahead of them. Then I wrote another one called The Road to Success Goes Through the Salad Bar. (I'm going to offer a free audio download of that book to anybody who attends my presentation on Saturday live or virtually.) The Road to Success Goes Through the Salad Bar is probably more for HR people. I was talking to one of my clients after a show, and he was talking about hiring people and he said, "You know, I wish I could observe all my candidates at a salad bar because if you watch people at the salad bar you really get an insight into their personalities; how they approach everything, how quickly they make decisions, are they prepared to move quickly, are they wasteful, do they thumb their nose up at everything?" I'm listening to him, and that's really kind of a cool analogy, and then I wrote a column about it because I write a biweekly column for the Chicago Tribune syndicate. And then I thought that could be a great book title. So the book is really more business-related. It's just funny business stories that were a little too long to make it into my live presentation.
Kyra: Let's bring this back to the SHRM Annual Conference. You'll be presenting in Las Vegas this coming Saturday, and you know that your audience will be primarily HR professionals. Why do you think your message is relevant to that audience?
Greg: Because, as we talked about at the beginning, I do believe they are in some respects the gatekeepers. I think they are the most hesitant of including humor at an event, and that's, not to say that they're not funny people. I want people to know if you're thinking about attending, or if you're on the fence, you will laugh harder than at any SHRM presentation. I don't even know what most of them are, and I still believe you're going to laugh harder. However, if you're coming to see a straight stand-up show, that's not what you're going to get. I'm going to make you laugh at HR because that's what I do, but the presentation is also going to be thought-provoking. I'm going to give them some suggestions on how to incorporate humor into their events and into their normal work environment.
Kyra: What do you think HR professionals can do within their organization to foster that spirit of fun and laughter?
Greg: I think you have to kind of almost let your employees drive it. If for a team-building project, put different age groups, different generations together with one another and have them come up with a funny presentation Put them together; have them work together; have them find a common denominator of what they think together is funny. It could be a one-minute almost like a Snapchat type of a clip. Let them work together, let them find out everybody has a sense of humor. More than anything, I think humor brings people together, just like good music can bring people together.
Kyra: What do you hope to be the number one takeaway that the audience will take with them back to their workplaces after your session?
Greg: Not to be afraid of humor. I think not to be afraid of comedy. I want people to see that the positive benefits of humor should not be overlooked, and if you're going to constantly look at humor as something that would be better left on the curb, you're doing yourself, you're doing your company, and you're doing your employees a tremendous disservice. That's what I want people to go away with. I want them to leave and go "That was really fun." I just want people to go away and say that we did get some good ideas from this guy and obviously, I would love to come to any company and talk about it.
Kyra: Is there anything else that you'd like people to know about you or your session?
Greg - I think, know that you're going to see a comedian and that you're going to get a different perspective. This is not going to be a typical SHRM presentation, because 1) the subject matter and 2) the guy that's doing it. I guarantee you, you're to get some surprises things you never thought about.
Kyra: Thank you so much for spending time with me today. If people would like to connect with you, what is the best way for them to do that?
Greg: That would be GregSchwem.com. My website has all sorts of video clips. I want people to see me in a lot of different situations for a lot of different companies and also talking about the methods that I use to create a presentation for companies, so I hope people spend some time on my website.
It seems like it should go without saying (considering the name of my blog) that I love to laugh. Greg has such a fun spirit. Work shouldn't be void of laughter. I hope you will join me for Greg's session on Saturday September 11 from four to 5 p.m. PT to learn more about ways you can cultivate a culture of humor in your workplace.
Also, it's not too late to register for SHRM21! Visit the Annual Conference and Expo website for more information.
Additionally, if you use the discount code SHRM21Influencer, you can receive $150 off registration and a SHRM21 and Life Is Good co-branded T-shirt.