Interview with an Innovator: Tim Washer on Inspiration, Humor and Embracing Vulnerability

November 20, 2019

Mark Twain said that, “Humor is the great thing, the saving thing after all. The minute it crops up, all our hardnesses yield, all our irritations, and resentments flit away, and a sunny spirit takes their place.”

He’s not wrong.

Studies show that a sense of humor can make you mentally and physically healthier, make you more attractive and even make you a better leader. It influences who wants to become your friend or even date you. It smooths potentially awkward social situations and cultural interactions.

It also makes you more creative and innovative.

Humor vs. comedy

Let me clarify something. Often people think that humor means being a cut-up. Dropping the one-liners that get people to ROFL.*

Humor is whatever makes you laugh in a particular situation. It pops out of nowhere.

Comedy is planned entertainment. You go to a comedy club because the actors are experts at choosing every word and action for its ability to produce a laugh.

Comedy is attempted. Humor happens.

There’s three main theories on humor and where it comes from…

Relief theory of humor. Sigmund Freud came up with this ideas. He said that all situations that produce a laugh are pleasurable because they blow off psychic energy or psychological steam. It’s the kind of humor you experience in tense situations that relieves tension. Comedian Trevor Noah uses this technique as he talks about his South African upbringing with a white Swiss-national father and a black South-African mother.

Superiority theory of humor. Plato and Aristotle formed the first musings of this idea to describe a particular kind of humor. You laugh at someone because of their misfortune. The husband whose wife nags him incessantly, the town drunk or the person who’s perpetually down on his or her luck. We take pleasure – and find humor – from our feelings of superiority over the people at whom we laugh.

Incongruity theory of humor. Groucho Marks was a master at this: One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I don’t know. Stephen Colbert is a savvy user of this technique: Now, if I’m reading this graph correctly…I’d be very surprised”  This type of humor comes from contrasting two very distinct things.

Humor and innovation

Now that you’re properly schooled in humor, let’s get back to why it matters to great ideas.

That’s where this month’s episode of Interview with an Innovator comes in.

Tim Washer may be one of the most innovative people I know, and I believe it’s because of his background in comedy. He started at the Upright Citizens Brigade in New York City, and went on to be a writer for Amy Poehler’s Weekend Update on Saturday Night Live. As an actor he was a regular on Conan O’Brien’s show. “Whenever they needed a dimwitted corporate guy or a crooked senator, I got the call,” Tim says. His list goes on from there to working with Bill Nye the Science Guy, Stephen Colbert and a slew of other household names.

I spent time with Tim a few weeks ago when I was in New York City to talk about where he gets his inspiration for comedy, and how he draws from that to consistently come up with great ideas that are unique, valuable, and help people see the world from a different perspective.

Three things I learned…

  1. How slowing down and observing the world around us makes us infinitiely more creative.
  2. Humor softens people. It’s at this point that you make space for people to open up and accept new ideas.
  3. With trust comes the willingness for people to be vulnerable. And when you’re vulnerable, you bring out your best work because you don’t fear being judged.  

Check out our conversation and let me know what you think. Would a dog chasing a rubber steak through Central Park cause you to donate to your church on Sunday morning? Hint: listen to Tim’s story that starts at 5:38.

*Roll on the floor laughing

Image Credit: Joseph Kalinowski

About Carla Johnson

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Carla Johnson is a world-renowned storyteller, an entertaining speaker, and a prolific author.

Over the last two decades, Carla has helped architects and actuaries, executives and volunteers, innovators and visionaries leverage the art of storytelling to inspire action. Her work with Fortune 500 brands has served as the foundation for many of her books.

In her latest project, Fast Forward Files, she contributes to a larger collection of thoughts by some of the world’s greatest minds -  Shazam co-founder Dhiraj Mukherjee, activist and entrepreneur Heather Mills and behavioral designer, technologist and mental-health champion Peter Trainor. Consistently named one of the top influencers in B2B, digital and content marketing, Carla regularly challenges conventional thinking. 

Today, she travels the world teaching anyone (and everyone) how to cultivate idea-driven teams that breed unstoppable creativity and game-changing innovation.