Brian Smiga, TEDxAsburyPark Founder and Co-founder of Alpha Partners, interviews comedian and 2019 TED speaker, Cory Kahaney, on her pivot into corporate comedy and teambuilding with The Meeting Boosters.
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Brian Smiga: This is Brian Smiga of TEDxAsburyPark Podcast. I’m here with Cory Kahaney, our top speaker from our 2019 TEDxAsburyPark. Cory’s a comedian, a thinker and a mensch. And so we have a lot to share about. Stay tuned to TEDxAsburyPark because Cory will be coming back on April 1 for our “Treat Others as You Wish to be Treated” community performance of 24 one-minute TedTalks, and she’ll be live on our panel discussion, making us laugh. Welcome, Cory.
Cory Kahaney: Thank you for having me. Good to be here.
Brian Smiga: It’s great to see you. This today is about your personal pivot and about people making a pivot when they’re given lemons. So let’s get right into it. Tell me the origin story of your new idea.
Cory Kahaney: Well, the pandemic hit and it instantly put every performer out of business, all performers, because that was the nature of the disease, or the virus, if you will. And a lot of comedians started to try to do shows online, and it was a very difficult transition for me because I’m a veteran, I’ve been a stand-up comedian for 27 years, and suddenly I had to perform without laughter. I had to perform without immediate reactions to jokes. I don’t want to blow too much smoke up my own you know what, but I think of myself as a nuance comic and a lot of the moments in my jokes require a pause and reaction. It’s called putting people on the edge of a cliff when you’re doing a joke. And it was not a smooth transition for me.
Cory Kahaney: I finally reached out to a couple of people, and they’re like, “You should watch Ray,” or “You should watch Ted, they figured it out.” And so that’s what I did. I said, “Can I come watch you perform?” And I saw that it was a different way of connecting with the audience. And I came up with all these little tricks. I would tell everybody, “Pretend you’re having a hearing test and just raise your hand when you’re laughing.” Pretend you’re hearing the sound. I found ways to look into all of these boxes.
Brian Smiga: Any tips for our performers and comics in the room?
Cory Kahaney: Yeah. First of all, you have to use a laptop or a computer that shows you as many faces as possible because, if you can see 24 faces, which is what a regular screen will do, you can then jump in. You go in and you say, “I see you’ve got a baby there. How old is the baby? I see you’re in a very dark room. Are you developing film? What’s going on?” You have to become sort of a crowd work comic.
Brian Smiga: Right.
Cory Kahaney: Once you do the connection, they’re all over you.
Brian Smiga: Otherwise, you’re in an anechoic chamber, which is a soundproof room, which is sort of the comic’s nightmare. So you play off the audience by whatever telltales and evidence you can see and everyone feeds on that.
Cory Kahaney: Right. And sometimes they’re not unmuted. Sometimes you’re totally dependent on just people’s faces. First of all, I beg everybody to turn their camera on in those situations.
Brian Smiga: Yes. Yes.
Cory Kahaney: I had a show that I did with a friend of mine, named Karen, and we did a show on Friday nights and it was all very liberal, very feminist, and very political. And people started tuning in and we realized we had to find ways to make it interactive. So we started launching polls, really silly polls, like, what are the things that you had to give up that you never really did anyway, before the pandemic? Like volunteer at a soup kitchen, hot yoga. We found ways to engage them and make them feel connected. Then we added in quizzes and we added in games. And the more we did that was interactive and connecting us, the more audience we grew. And right now our audiences for our shows with Karen, one of my shows is called Ruthless, they started running about 250 a show, the number of people that tuned in.
Brian Smiga: That’s great. That’s about what we get for the TEDxAsburyPark Salons, but they’re not nearly as funny. We’re going to send them all over to Ruthless. But besides mastering a Zoom comedy on Ruthless with Karen, you’ve got another pivot that you want to tell us about today. As someone who lives in Zoom, in this fishbowl all day long in meetings, one right after the other, and sometimes hosts them, I’m dying to hear about it. It’s called The Meeting Boosters.
Cory Kahaney: The Meeting Boosters.
Brian Smiga: So what’s the origin story of The Meeting Boosters?
Cory Kahaney: Well, someone said to me, “To combat Zoom fatigue, our company’s been hiring a meditation person or a barista to come in and show you how to make coffee drinks.” And they come in for 15 minutes and it’s like a coffee break and it’s really fun. And that’s when the light bulb went off for me and I thought, wow, we can do something way more interactive and way more fun by taking the elements from our show Ruthless, doing quizzes and games and contests with the audience with a little bit of standup. Both my partner and myself come from the corporate world, so we know the line of political correctness in terms of comedy and how far we can go. And it allows a company who’s doing tons of Zooms to give people a lift, a boost. That’s why it’s called The Meeting Boosters.
Brian Smiga: Yeah. So do you go at the beginning of the meeting? Do you come in as a comic break in the middle? I would think you’re a warmup act for a great meeting, a better meeting.
Cory Kahaney: A lot of times people are doing an all day meeting, and then they’ll have us be the thing right after lunch to sort of give everybody a little bit of a charge. Sometimes we are right at the beginning. Sometimes we’ll do one in the morning and one in the afternoon, if it’s a long seminar type thing.
Brian Smiga: Great. So it sounds like this is super custom too. I watched a couple of these on TheMeetingBoosters.com But like you read the company’s mission statement and you get into their collateral.
Cory Kahaney: Oh yeah.
Brian Smiga: And you’re one of them by the time you and Karen get there.
Cory Kahaney: Yeah.
Brian Smiga: Talk to me about how custom this can be.
Cory Kahaney: Right. We always want to learn as much as we can about the company, but we don’t want to act like we’re really experts. So we did a mining company and we started to read their mission statement, but then we just replaced everything with Hershey’s. You know what I’m saying? Until they got it, until they figured it out. And then they realized, we weren’t there to roast the company, but we were there to poke fun a little bit. And it made everybody feel a lot more comfortable. I just did another one where the company was named Faryl Robin. So we said, “We know you know everything about Faryl Robin, but do you know anything about other Robins?” And so we had Robin Hood and Christopher Robin and things like that. And yes, we do customize. We want them to feel that this is special, that we have a little bit of a finger on their pulse.
Brian Smiga: All right. So any business can retain you and Karen, top stand-up comedians, to give a custom, contextualized 20 minutes of interaction with their audience using the best techniques of Zoom comedy? Wow!
Cory Kahaney: Correct. Correct.
Brian Smiga:That would light up any meeting.
Cory Kahaney: Yeah. And don’t forget, the water cooler is gone. The breakout room where you would meet somebody for coffee is gone. And so what’s happening is teams are dissolving. And if we’re smarter as a group than we are as individuals, you need to reassemble the team. And so what we’re kind of doing is team building. I mean, a lot of it is putting together half the group to do this game and half the group to do that game, or to compete against each other. And there’s a cohesiveness at the end of the meeting that I think a lot of managers and supervisors are looking for. So it’s team building by professional comedians.
Brian Smiga: Yeah. I’d much rather that than a behavioral psychologist.
Cory Kahaney: Right.
Brian Smiga: So this is a pivot for you, and you’ve made many pivots in your life. Let’s talk about one other pivot you made from corporate life to stand up comedy, and then link it to this one where you’re in the pandemic and it’s been really tough for performers and comedians. So I’m asking you for two. I just am fascinated that both you and Karen came out of the corporate world.
Cory Kahaney: Well, I came out of the corporate world, but I worked mainly for hotels. I worked for like Marriott and Westin and companies like that. So I was familiar with some of the things like, we don’t say problem, we say “challenge. And I was very free when I went to comedy. For me, the pivot was I lost my job. It was during the Reagan years. I went to a meeting where people were talking about following your passion or something. And at the end of the meeting, this guy shook my hand. I said, “Oh, I loved your talk.” And he goes, “What’s your passion?” And I said stand-up comedy. But I don’t know why I said it, it just came out of my mouth. I must have subconsciously been holding it back. And after that, that was a pivot that happened because I was unemployed.
Brian Smiga: Yeah. Yeah. And you hadn’t done much stand-up comedy before?
Cory Kahaney: Zero. Yes, very little. Exactly.
Brian Smiga: But then you had to go prove it. Okay. So then now fast forward 27 years, here it is, the pandemic. Stages are shut down, Zoom is a silent chamber at first, and now you’re slowly figuring out how to make that work. Talk about this pivot towards The Meeting Boosters.
Cory Kahaney: So The Meeting Boosters was a pivot in so far as we realized that we had the skills to do something that would cross over to the corporate world. It could be done between 9 and 5:00 PM. I mean, for comedians, we used to have schedules that didn’t start till eight o’clock. But we had all this time available and people needed us. And so a lot of it just made sense. And I was very lucky. My sister-in-law worked at KPMG and she said, “We’ll give you one, just do it for all of the human resources people.” And that was a gift that we got to do. We did it for free to try it out. We realized what we needed to adjust. And since then we’ve done huge companies, like a big mining company. We’ve done PR firms, merchandising companies. Any company can benefit from this if they’re experiencing Zoom fatigue. And you have to do something, really. Every time you see somebody’s eye wander during a meeting, they’re looking at their phone, they’re looking at the clock. They need a meeting booster.
Brian Smiga: So that’s it guys. You can retain Cory and Karen to be your custom meeting boosters. And I know the pricing is very reasonable. So go to themeetingboosters.com?
Cory Kahaney: TheMeetingBoosters.com will get you there.
Brian Smiga: TheMeetingBoosters.com and you can be in touch with Cory, who’s otherwise on the Tonight Show and major television outlets doing her comedy. And I think that there’s a lot of value in this, as we all see. Zoom has had some hidden blessings, as has remote work. Can you come up with one more blessing or a good outcome that’s coming from us all getting together in Zoom?
Cory Kahaney: Listen, there are so many people out there that live alone, that don’t have families, that don’t have children, husbands, spouses. And staying in touch with them on Zoom has been a gift, being able to connect with people that need to be connected. So often, especially when I’m doing comedy shows, the people that I see that are the most moved are sitting there alone. And that’s why I reach out to them when I’m doing standup. There’s a loneliness going on right now, Brian, and this is all we have, and I thank God that we have it.
Brian Smiga: Yeah, I agree. And the way it shows up in my work is I raise capital for my venture fund, so I get more meetings. And the meetings are more meaningful as I connect more with potential investors. We really connect on a more human level. They’re less guarded, they’re working from their bedrooms, they’re working from their homes. We always find ways to laugh, even though we’re talking about a serious topic. And then on the TedxAsburyPark side, we decided to create a series called “One Act, One Idea”, and we put the notice out in New York at the Actors Studio and Playwrights Horizons etc. And we’re collecting plays under 60 minutes that express a big idea.
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