Trying to engage people on ethics and compliance is tough work—just ask anyone who has ever had to come up with ideas for their next training or communications campaign. But for Tyler Dean Kempf, Creative Director of Second City Works, the secret is to make business integrity something that is genuinely funny. Tyler is an award-winning Second City-trained improviser, writer, director, and learning facilitator who’s been teaching the tenets of improv to business leaders around the world for over a decade. Tyler is one of the comedy masterminds behind Real Biz Shorts, the world’s largest collection of comedic short videos dedicated to risk areas in ethics and compliance.
We don’t see many Second City-trained comedians in the ethics and compliance space, so could you tell us a little bit about your role as Comedy Mastermind at Second City Works?
Tyler Dean Kempf: “Comedy Mastermind.” I think I’m going to add that now to my byline on anything that I do. [laughs]
My role as creative director of works is very widespread. I oversee all of our creative content and talent on our client-facing programming in learning and development, entertainment, and video production. We travel the world and bring these skills of improv to people at their places of work. We do those virtually as well. We will provide entertainment for big corporate events, live improv shows, custom written sketch, comedy reviews, even original musicals we’ve done in the past. And then, we also create custom content for clients as well as for our own library of videos that we call Real Biz Shorts.
One of my favorite descriptors of Real Biz Shorts is that they’re not just work funny, they’re funny funny, which is true. We all know that laughter is a great way to make messaging and learning stick, and we have all experienced how something funny stays with us in ways that it may not otherwise. But can you explain why that is?
Kempf: There is behavioral science that supports this idea that when you bring humor into a learning environment, the participant or the student is more receptive to the message. When we laugh, it’s the most vulnerable that we can be in any space. So if we’re laughing, and we’re receiving that information at the same time, it’s going to stick with us so that down the line, when we find ourselves in a situation that reminds us of something that we learned in the past through that comedic lens, it is triggered very quickly and we know what to do in that moment based on what we learned.
At the 2023 Global Ethics Summit, you and your colleagues demonstrated how to co-create content with a live audience that was really engaging and impactful—the audience loved it. How does that process work, and why does it work so well?
Kempf: It’s tried and true with the Second City way. If you were to come see a Second City show, when we are in the middle of what we call process—the development of a brand new Second City review—our third act of our show often is fully improvised. That’s actually a space that we use to try out brand new material in front of the audience. So we’re getting suggestions from the audience. We’re immediately implementing them into scenes and creating scenes in the moment. And then the next day in rehearsal, we may take that scene and attempt to do it again in a different way based on the direction from our director. So if you come see a Second City show when we’re developing a new show, what you laugh at and what you don’t laugh at absolutely informs what scenes make it into the final show.
When we create content for Real Biz Shorts, and we have an opportunity to work with folks in the ethics and compliance area, that is such a treat for us because that is our audience. Those are the folks that we’re trying to connect with. When we know what they’re laughing at, it lets us know when we’re headed in the right direction.
Are there any particular challenges or opportunities that you have noticed with using this human-based approach to learning and messaging with ethics and compliance professionals? Or to put it less delicately…does this profession have a particularly good sense of humor?
Kempf: [laughs] It depends on the company. But to be honest with you, it’s a delicate line. There are some topics that we’re covering that are ripe for hilarity. There are others that are pretty darn sensitive, and we never want to make a victim—or really anybody who could feel victimized—feel like the butt of any joke whatsoever. Something that we’ve been working on in the last couple of years when we’re developing this content is what we call the Ted Lasso Effect. We want to make sure that every person who is watching these videos can relate to the scenario and not feel like they themselves are being poked fun or being shown as the example of what not to do.
Often times, in these newer videos that we’ve been doing, if there’s any character that at any point is doing something in the wrong way, we try to pivot and show them having that “Aha!” moment and learn from it, so that nobody feels like they are essentially becoming the villain or being villainized in the sketch.
That being said, there are some topics that we’ve covered in the past that just do not invite humor into that space. We have animated videos on human trafficking and also on looking into your third-party partners to see if they in any way participate in modern slavery. That’s not funny. Nothing about that is funny. But we are master storytellers, right? We understand how to tell a story here at the Second City, so we feel comfortable creating informative videos in a very accessible way to an audience on subjects that really aren’t funny in any way.
When you’re creating content like this, how do you balance the pursuit of comedy with the pursuit of messaging around topics that ordinarily kind of defy humorous presentation, and how do you make sure that you don’t sacrifice one in service of the other?
Kempf: For us, message matters more than anything. When we are getting together in our writer’s room to develop the content for our next round of videos, the first thing that we do is dive deep into the topics that we know we want to cover into the different nuances of those particular areas and what lessons our customers have told us they want to teach their employees within their organization. That is at the core of what we do. So at Second City, if you come see one of our shows and we’re doing satire, at the core of any satirical sketch is what we call a point of view—a one sentence statement about society or politics. We take that same concept of point of view, and when we’re developing our videos for Real Biz Shorts, the point of view of our scenes is the lesson that our clients want their employees to learn. So we make sure that is at the core of everything that we write around, that the scenarios that we come up with and the different ways that we can exemplify those behaviors in the workplace…they’re all supporting that particular point of view. We can find humor in any scenario, but the skeleton has to be rooted in the lesson that we are teaching.
ABOUT THE EXPERT
Tyler Dean Kempf is the Creative Director of Second City Works. He is an award-winning Second City-trained improviser, writer, director and learning facilitator who has been teaching the tenets of improv to business leaders around the world for over a decade. He has extensive executive education and talent development experience working with clients across all industries and categories. His expertise is helping individuals authentically tell their stories using an empathetic approach.