I have been a writer and comedian since I was a teen. Even then, I knew the magic trick to get myself to remember important facts for tests at school was to somehow make it funny. Instead of studying and memorizing how the digestive system worked for my Anatomy classes, I made funny little comics detailing it out. I aced my test on the subject because making the subject matter fun, funny, and interesting made it easier to remember. In short, when people laugh, they learn. I recently co-wrote Your Best Defense, the brand-new anti-harassment training program for The Second City, my comedy alma mater, with the brilliant John Loos. Our training videos have gotten great feedback, and it is all because people learn better when we laugh. We took the time to empathetically engage, ensuring we "punched up"...all while getting our early program participants to laugh while they learned.
Comedy has the power to disarm people. You can make the toughest subjects digestible through a comedic lens, even workplace harassment. Most training videos on tough topics are dull and dry, so as to not make waves. While that seems like a safe choice, it leads the training participants to not absorb the information, or worse, become defensive about their role in harassment. All those workplace harassment details can be overwhelming if they haven’t been explicitly stated to you before, and chances are, if you’re like me, you found out what workplace harassment entails and thought, “Oh my God, that’s happened to me.” Which, while sucky, can be validating to an otherwise horrible experience.
Or maybe you’re on the other end of that spectrum and realized, “Oh, no, have I done that before?” People in our culture tend to have very black and white thinking when it comes to harassment. Good vs. Evil! Only, it’s not that simple. There is so much gray area when talking about harassment. Harassment isn’t just construction workers catcalling. Harassment can also be asking your co-workers for details about their dating life when it makes them uncomfortable. Harassment is defined as “any unwanted behavior, physical or verbal.” That can be so many things! And in a culture where we often see it as black and white, the gray areas can be overwhelming to acknowledge. That’s why we took great pains to engage empathetically. Sometimes, the characters knew they were wrong, but sometimes they didn’t. Sometimes the offense was blatant; other times, it lived in that gray area. But no matter what, we always approached the topic with empathy, so the viewer could, too.
While writing Your Best Defense: Anti-Harassment, we made an incredible effort to ensure that we “punched up.” This basically means we didn’t kick anybody while they were down. We made sure throughout this training program that the butt of the joke was never the person getting harassed; we never made harassment the punchline. I mean, who am I? Andrew Dice Clay in the ’80s? That would have been antithetical to what we are trying to do, which is to help people learn about harassment! Our comedic moments and jokes came through the comedic characterization of the training’s hosts, tangential joke lines, and, of course, through the premise of a sports show centering on the workplace. It was a delicate balance between being funny so that our audience can actually learn through comedy– and giving appropriate weight and consideration to such often triggering subjects like workplace harassment.
Studies show that ultimately, we learn better when we laugh. In an interview about how humor helps people retain information, Jason Coronel, Assistant Professor of Communication at OSU, said, “Our findings show that humor stimulates activity in brain regions associated with social engagement, improves memory for political facts, and increases the tendency to share political information with others.,” We wanted people to learn AND remember how to identify workplace harassment. With each fact given in the program, we used comedy to soften the blow of the topic.
If we can keep your employees engaged while we teach them the many shades of harassment, then they will be well equipped to combat harassment in the workplace. We created engaging content that leads to behavioral change through engaging with empathy, punching up, and learning when we laugh. Knowledge is power, and when you empower your employees with knowledge and ensure that they retain that knowledge through comedy, you create a healthier environment for everyone. Should I ever experience workplace harassment again, I have the vocabulary for and knowledge of what to do. Writing this training affirmed the validity of my own workplace harassment and that every workplace should have this training. I mean, gaining knowledge that keeps your workplace safe AND you get to laugh responsibly? A win-win!
Allison Reese is an NYC comedian/writer by way of Chicago. Allison is currently a performer and staff writer at The Second City Chicago where she is also an alumnus of the coveted Touring company.
Watch this webinar to learn more about The Second City's Your Best Defense: Anti-Harassment Training program.