After more than 20 years in education – now a freelance trainer specializing in experiential learning – Carmine Rodi discovered a passion that changed his approach to teaching: comedy and storytelling. That’s how he became also a professional stand-up comedian, hosting popular shows and open mics in Prague’s clubs and internationally.
So, what happens when a trainer starts to do stand-up comedy? What’s the impact on his teaching practice and on his personality? Is it a positive or a negative one?
In this interview, we’ll understand why “funny” is good – yes, also in a learning context. Because funny means engaging, memorable and personal – all of which are great qualities for an educator to have.
Carmine: “Sometime after I started to do stand-up, it became clear to me that it’s possible in training to engage people in a more personal way, authentic and sincere – and still be 100% professional. Somehow there’s this idea that a professional is detached, like you shouldn’t see the person behind the profession. Instead, what comedy taught me is that when I show my personality, my vulnerability, my contradictions: that’s the most powerful connection there is. Because it brings me closer as a human being to other human beings, and that’s deep.”
Carmine: “Finally, any artistic form will inevitably rewrite part of your personality, the way you are. My brain just works differently, as a comedian is always looking for something funny, even in the dark moments or when things go wrong. And this is a superpower because it helps to make good of something bad. Then, being that comedy is based on language and performance, it mostly changed how I communicate and the way I stand in a social setting. When I explain something in a learning session or I recount an anecdote to some friends I tell the story exactly as I do stand-up because that’s just my storytelling voice now.”
Carmine: “An educator shouldn’t be funny for fun’s sake: humor is a tool. A trainer can and will use humor to connect, to engage, to inspire, to be memorable … but it shouldn’t be the whole point. While, for a comedian, to tell jokes is the whole point! It’s ok for an entertainer to just entertain, but a trainer has a different responsibility. Education can really (trans)form people’s minds and, in a way, educators shape an entire generation. We know how deep the impact is. On the other hand, I feel that a comedian has a smaller responsibility.”
Carmine: “There’s been a lot of research on the topic, but I think that the bottom line is that laughing is a powerful emotion and emotions create memories. We could wonder: Is it possible that I’ll stop learning when I’m having “too much fun”? Actually it’s the contrary! Humor and comedy are amazing doors to create memorable experiences.”
Carmine: “That is why humor is a very effective tool in the hands of a trainer, much more than fear. I grew up in the ’80s-’90s and many of my teachers liked to be feared and respected, which actually was counterproductive. Also in a corporate context or working with adults, fear is a strong motivator, but in the end it doesn’t last: you remember fear, but you don’t remember the experience or the learning. So, in general, I recommend investing in the light side instead of the dark side: positive emotions last longer and are much more powerful.”
“To prove the point, try this little mental experiment. Do you remember every single class you took? Like the content of every single lesson? Of course not. Do you remember the personality of every single educator you encounter? The answer may be close to 100%. Because, it’s always the personality that shines, for good or for bad.”
Carmine: “In many families, cultures and educational contexts, we’re taught that we should be serious. “Don’t be a clown”. “Laughing is not appropriate in a professional setting or at the dinner table”. If a person has received a lot of judgments like these, they will grow up with blockages and insecurities. But there’s also the opposite, when a person is overconfident and overaggressive: pushing jokes too hard, imposing their opinion, stereotyping and generalizing. In both cases, all it takes is reflection, self-development and appropriate guidance. Here are two other common issues I encountered:
- Thinking that we don’t have stories to tell. This is just silly, as we all dream and daily life is full of funny anecdotes! (Just think about what happened yesterday: I’m sure, if you think hard enough, you’ll find at least three weird things that happened to you).
- Fear of failure. In this case the answer is just one: practice, practice, practice. There is no way you can learn how to be funny if you don’t try, and most importantly if you don’t try it with an audience! Which is dangerous, but when it works the reward is very high.”
Carmine: “Going into stand-up after many years of training, I was convinced that I already knew how to stand in front of an audience. I wasn’t afraid of that part, at least, or I thought I was able to captivate attention. Actually, I couldn’t be more wrong. Here are some tricks I learned the hard way from many rounds of trial and error.”
Time, pauses, specific words and sounds are very important. You’re painting a picture in the audience’s mind and all you have are words! So, make sure to use all the rhetorical repertoire at your disposal.
by, for example, telling it from the point of view of the audience, creating quirky characters, acting out physically, and finding bizarre analogies about everything and anything. These are great ways to make any speech more colorful, impactful, and memorable.
Sometimes I tell a joke and I notice that people laugh at something else, maybe something I mentioned in the set-up: so that’s the funny part! In this sense, comedy is a very humbling experience. You’re just a mirror of the audience and you have to notice what people respond to and change accordingly.
As you become more confident, you begin to understand what topics you can and want to talk about. For example, I usually speak about topics I own, like growing up in Italy or being a father, because this is my life experience. And a more personal style also develops as a consequence.
Carmine: “Then, it’s important to know the group to which we are delivering training. Sometimes the group is ready from the start: very mature, open-minded and happy to see a different perspective. More often than not, it takes more time to get there. So, in all these years, I learned to really dose it and wait until there’s trust and connection with the group.”
“Finally, it’s a matter of purpose. Traditionally, comedy can be used for two things: to bring a group together by underlining the difference with another group (which very often comes with stereotyping and can be aggressive and obnoxious), or to make a group stronger by highlighting the similarities between its members. If we go into this second direction, using comedy to create connections, we’ll learn how to use this power with responsibility, like Spider-Man.”
There are connections and we can explore them, but it’s not one and the same. So, it should be important to know that there are boundaries. I’ve seen when an overconfident comedian tries to lecture an audience, or when an overconfident educator goes full comedian: it’s not the best use of either.
This applies to trainers, performers, and trainees. We should not punish them for mistakes, but instead make failure part of the process. And also being more condescendent to ourselves when we fail, because we’ll certainly fail many times. Just go on and do another show, or another training session. Try again.
Be human, be authentic and use humor to bring people together, not to separate or to stand out. Ideally, you disappear into a crowd that is having fun with you. That’s the most beautiful way I can describe having a good comedy show. Now, it’s your time to bring humor into training: have a good laugh and learn better!