Adam Grant’s new book, Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, is an explorative testament of how innovative thinkers are the shapers of society. It’s fitting, then, that the author and esteemed Professor at Wharton at the University of Pennsylvania was paired in conversation at NeueHouse Hollywood with one of comedy’s most innovative actors, Ed Helms. With roles like Andy Bernard in The Office and Stu Price in The Hangover, Helms has established himself as a cult comedian, with a sense of humor that is both sharp, honest, and, at times, awkward. Using the theme of original thinkers in Grant’s book as a thread, the author and Helms discussed the value of innovation, the pursuit of comedy, and the fear of originality in Hollywood – all while keeping the crowd laughing.
Ed Helms: What is it that fascinates you about this subject matter, about originals? Well first of all, define “originals.”
Adam Grant: It’s people, like you, who could have stable careers and safe and secure lives and instead choose to do something different.
EH: I’m not in the book though, there is nothing about me in it.
AG: The second printing will feature some of the quotes from tonight if all goes as planned.
EH: Do you consider yourself someone who took an unusual course as well? Is there some kind of self examination as part of it?
AG: I was the opposite of an original as a kid. I cried when I got called to the Principal’s office once. In college I had these friends who refused to drink alcohol with me, but they ended up drinking, and I was not ok with that. Then I chose the one job where no one can fire you no matter how dumb you are. So I kind of played it safe my whole life.
EH: Wow. Sounds like you are kind of an outlier in the other direction, like an original in how insanely conformist you somehow are.
AG: What is interesting about this to me is there are tons of people who have great ideas and don’t act on them because they’re afraid of looking like idiots. Look around the room and spot the most paranoid person and then point at that person for me. Some of you will point at yourselves right? I think a lot of us, when we have really original ideas, are like, “Oh my god, somebody is going to ruin my entire career if I speak up about this.” I think that is a travesty and I would love to see more people champion their ideas; which is really why I wrote the book.
EH: That’s an interesting conundrum because Hollywood is a town so driven by fear, which seems to be one of the great enemies of originality – and yet some people emerge. I feel like there are just a few creative voices in Hollywood who set these standards and the rest of us are just lemmings chasing after that.
AG: What makes people so afraid of doing something original? The whole point of Hollywood coming out with new shows and new movies is to do something that hasn’t been done before. So why do so few people do it?
EH: I think there’s a lot of infrastructure in place that just crushes it. There are a lot of gatekeepers who, unfortunately, have kind of risen or been elevated by being very conventional and signing up for the status quo, and they’re scared to jeopardize themselves. It’s kind of a merciless industry in that your last thing is really the only thing people remember, and if you’re really putting stuff out there you’re going to fail a bunch. It does seem like we are sort of in an originality quagmire in Hollywood. Right? Let me ask you this, since it’s what everyone in this room is wondering: what can you do for our careers?
AG: I got you this gig, so…I mean, it’s not like you have a lot of work right now. Captain Underpants.
EH: Yeah. That’s going to be a game changer. I’m playing Captain Underpants in the Dreamworks animation movie, but it’s actually a six hour character study. It’s going to be very cool.
Let’s talk about some of the things that come up in the book. One thing I thought was really cool – and a little bit terrifying – is you used the TV show Seinfeld as a case study of people doing something very original and an establishment (that being NBC’s programming department at the time) having no interest in airing the show. One of the really fascinating things is that focus groups were so wrong about the show, which is insane; but you sort of punch a hole in focus groups. Could this be the nail in the coffin we are all begging for so we’re not submitted to them anymore?
AG: I think if we talk about this too much people won’t read the book. But I’m okay with that, because when you know an author you should never read anything they write, you should just ask them about it.
So, Seinfeld. If you go back and read the report, it’s amazing. It says not only is it a weak pilot, it’s a weak weak pilot and nobody in the test audience had any interest in ever watching the show again. Most of the NBC executives agreed. It’s a show about nothing, non of the plot lines get resolved, and this doesn’t look like anything we’ve seen in comedy before. But there’s this one guy, Rick Ludwin, who later saved The Office and doesn’t even work in comedy, he’s in variety and specials. He’s like, “You know this show made me laugh and I don’t care that it’s not an original sitcom. I’m going to take my budget and funnel it over.” He really stuck his neck out and went to bat for it. Were you on The Office yet when he stuck up for it?
EH: No, I joined on the third season and then it was well established at that point.
AG: You rejuvenated it. I have a really hard time not calling you Andy Bernard.
EH: So does my wife.
AG: But The Office went through a really similar trajectory. Very unusual format, and a lot of people didn’t appreciate it. What was it that made it work and allowed at least a few executives to say, “We want to bet on this?”
EH: I think it’s just a damn funny show. I say that with humility, because you’re talking about before I was on it. I think the first season was just incredible. It’s a tribute to Steve [Carrell] and the core original writing staff who I think created something so special. And of course, it goes back to Ricky Gervais and the world that he created with the British Office.
Why is it funny? I don’t know. My parents are horrified by it. It’s really interesting how the older generation cannot find humor in awkward interaction. It’s so painful for my mom to watch The Office because she’s so – and I say this with love – repressed. Expressing awkwardness or steeping in an awkward moment and finding humor in it…not possible for that generation. The Office was early on the curve of shows that really celebrated intense awkwardness and intense social miscues.
AG: How do people go from, “alright I have this vision for a joke” to what we actually saw?
EH: Well I wasn’t a writer on the show, but I did spend a bunch of time during my first couple of seasons in the writers room, and I’ve worked in other writer’s rooms. It’s a very beautiful collaborative thing and depends a lot on the leadership.
Sometimes it can be a very toxic and competitive environment, but I’ve been so lucky to work on the Daily Show and on The Office, which were creative environments that weren’t perfect, but had a real communal mission to get the funniest thing on the air. It’s sort of a group hatching of an idea or an episode or a joke, and then it’ll usually get assigned to a writer, who fleshes it out. Then it gets brought back to the group and gobbled up and barfed back out as beautiful shiny vomit. Are there any TV writers in the room? No? Good. Then I’m exactly right. What else we got?
AG: I want to know more about how you went down this original path. We talked about you being the youngest of three and comedy being the only thing you could do. What happened to all the other options?
EH: There’s a part in your book which talks about comedians in particular, and this was an interesting thing, because of course I desperately want to think of myself as this original…as the star of your book basically. So I’m reading it with just the ultimate confirmation bias rolling through, like, “hey that’s me!” There were some bullet points that really stacked up and one of them is birth order – I’m the third in my family and 60% of comedians are late in the birth order. Or is it more?
AG: I don’t know, I made up the statistics. No, the Comedy Central 100 greatest stand-up comedians are more than twice as likely to be born last in their family. The odds of that happening by chance are 2 in a million, so there’s something to this last born comedian thing. What is it?
EH: Last borns are a little bit of peacemakers. There’s a lot of adult behavior going on around you and humor is a wonderful way to deflect tension. I think also by the time I came around my parents were so parented out that, in the best way, they just didn’t give a shit about me. Humor became a way to be like, “Hey I’m over here too, I just threw up on myself…”
AG: So that is the parental freedom side of it. What about this story that says it’s really hard to be smarter and stronger than your older siblings but, without even meaning to, you can be funnier than them. Like your one year old and you do something that makes everyone laugh and then you learn this is the way that I get attention. Is this why you like attention?
EH: Oh god…let’s get into it. Comedy almost invariably comes from a very unique place that in itself is not very funny, like troubling family histories. Being surrounded by comedians most of my adult life, I’ve seen and experienced things that make me think, “of course you’re a comedian,” and of course even in my own life. It’s a coping mechanism, but in general being funny or trying to be funny is a coping mechanism. What I can never get is why people have to be comedians…I don’t get myself is what I’m saying! I am looking to you for answers – explain me!
AG: I’m not that kind of psychologist, sorry.
EH: When I was like ten years old I watched SNL and remember being like, “that’s it, that’s what I want to do.” It was Eddie Murphy and Joe Piscopo and all those guys.
AG: Usually when someone says they wanna be a comedian their parents make them think about something else to do. How did you stay on this course?
EH: I grew up in the South. My parents were very progressive, but also had a lot of cultural expectations they placed on us in a kind of Upper Middle class family, like going to college. My dad was a lawyer and he wanted me to be lawyer, so the way I dealt with that was to just not tell them. I never shared my ambitions and I would update them after I had accomplished something. I knew they wouldn’t really back it up unless I could prove it.
AG: So your a cappella session was like a cover for comedy.
EH: Ok, I’m gonna tamp this down right away. The Ed Helms a cappella session is a myth.
AG: I read it on Wikipedia, it has to be true.
EH: Oh, then I stand corrected. I was in an a cappella group for one semester in Oberlin College in Ohio. I was in the Oberlin Overtones for the second semester of my freshman year and I didn’t like it so I stopped. However, Andy Bernard came along and right out of the gate the writers were like, this is one of his defining characteristics – he loves a cappella. So I was able to tap into all the things that had driven me to join the a cappella. I’m so grateful to have set the record straight. What were we talking about?
AG: No idea. I want to go back to confirmation bias. I think it’s the two words I’ve heard you use the most often in all the time we’ve known each other, and I want to know if you have like a meta-confirmation bias where you see confirmation bias everywhere.
EH: Absolutely. I think once you learn about confirmation bias it is a self-fulfilling prophecy and you see it everywhere. I really love the world view that you’re putting out there in your books because it just lines up with the way I wanna see the world. It kind of advocates a way of moving within the world that is being transparent, having integrity, being open to criticism, and being a giving person. Did confirmation bias drive some of your conclusions in wanting to reaffirm and reinforce this awesome world view you have and are putting out there?
AG: I think it did! I went to the first publisher with what was called The Rise of Good-zilla – it was the actual title, I kid you not. Someone who did not make it through one of my classes had drawn a picture of Godzilla with a Superman cape and I was desperately motivated to show that generous people could achieve great things, but the data didn’t really support that. There were all these helpful people who were kind of treated like how Andy Bernard got treated in The Office and it was really sad. But then I realized there is this side that says helping others can be good for you, and there is this other side that says you can be a pushover and other people will screw you over. I think once both got represented I was comfortable it wasn’t just confirmation bias.
EH: Would what would you say is the percentage of takers vs givers in the top tier of successful people?
AG: It’s really hard to know because we can’t trust people’s own judgements. How many of you think you are givers? Alright and how many of you think you are givers but didn’t raise your hands because you know it violates modesty? Ok, those are the real givers in the rear because no actual giver would be like, “Look how generous I am!”
EH: No boo I disagree, I’m honest…I’m guilty of honesty, sorry!
AG: We can’t trust your own judgment, and we can’t really get other people to report on you honestly because they are biased. It seems like in Hollywood there are three givers who no one has ever heard of. Why is that?
EH: Givers are like alligator food here, they are just devoured and chewed up and spit out. It’s disheartening. I think it’s hard to be a giver in Hollywood and I think your book does a good job of explaining how you can do that. A cool thing about Originals – it also has a section which helps the reader understand what they can do in their own lives to foster original thinking in themselves and in people around them. I was really fascinated by one of the episodes in your book about non-Jewish people who risked their lives to save Jewish people during the Holocaust. You compare them to the neighbors who didn’t do anything to save Jewish people and what the differences were between their upbringing.
As a future parent, it’s compelling and a little bit terrifying, but also very exciting, to understand ways we can parent that might really foster original thinking. It comes down to valuing character and being the person who has a core set of values, versus being the person who just does the right thing by an arbitrary standard. And those are the kids raised in Germany during the Holocaust; the non-Jewish people who were raised to have a sort of core conviction of what is right and wrong vs always following the rules.
AG: I can’t help but reflect on my own childhood, because after reading the chapter about parenting my mom told me she got everything right. I was reminded of how growing up she told me no matter what grade I got in school, as long as I tried my hardest, she would always be proud of me. And then she would always add that if I didn’t get an A she would know I hadn’t tried my hardest. At the time it was a little bit depressing but I learned she was making me feel guilty, and we all know guilt is the gift that keeps giving. Most people think Jews and Catholics have a monopoly guilt, but I really found it useful – and this is a lot of what happened with these Holocaust rescuers. Their parents were constantly asking them, “what kind of impact do you want to have on other people?” and, “when you steal a toy how do you think it makes your neighbor feel?” There is guilt in that, there is empathy in that, and then it’s a lot harder to just sit there and watch other people become victims of horrible atrocities.
EH: Those kinds of questions from parents also address the child’s identity more than their behavior, and I thought it’s interesting how, as you note, we tend to reward children for sharing. We say “great job sharing this toy,” and that has less of an impact than to say to your child, “I am proud of you for being a person who shares,” because then it becomes about an identity they can strive for, as opposed to a behavior they are rewarded for.
There’s a lot more in the book about the workplace and how to get the people who are working for you to crack the whip. Why are there no business books about how to be the best office drone and find tons of fulfillment and affirmation in that? It’s all about leadership! Some of us are sheep, man, what do we do? There’s this study of corporate success that fetishizes leadership. Business school is about training leaders, but that’s 99% of the jobs out there, so what’s out there for the 99%? What are you doing for them?
AG: I’m distracted by the sinking realization that you actually read the book. Actually, for those of you who were undergraduates in my classroom, I do not believe in undergraduate business education. I think it’s a terrible idea and a great way to create lots of ambitious drones. I think we focus too much on leadership early, but for MBA students…if they’re gonna go and ruin the world they might as well know how to do it well.
EH: Why do you think our political system makes originality so hard? Why does a democracy that is supposed to reward the best ideas time and time again just elevates mediocracy?
AG: Winston Churchill put it best. I’m not sure how drunk he was when he said this but he said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others”. It’s not like democracy is a great idea but it’s the best alternative. Plato said we should have a bunch of philosopher kings running the world and common folk shouldn’t be allowed to vote, which is not exactly a popular idea today. But admittedly I would love to see a knowledge test where you have to show that you know who the candidates are and what they stand for before you’re allowed to register your vote in the United States. What do you think?
EH: Then Ted Cruz would literally be the only person voting. But I wonder why Washington D.C. and Hollywood are both very fear driven. If you could address a young raved group of political activists and not this room of narcissistic people…I’m kidding, I’m the only narcissist here. But if you could address young people or Congress, how would you tell them to celebrate originality and push original thinking through the system?
AG: Wow that’s a tough question.
EH: Save us! Save America right now, do it!
AG: We’re in bad shape when people are turning to the ivory tower for help. The first thing I would say is: people should be less afraid of being wrong. There’s evidence that if you get people to speak up with dissenting opinions even if they are incorrect, the group will make better decisions because people have to sit down and re-examine their assumptions. I think for the most part people are afraid of bringing up those dissenting voices, whether it’s in congress or the Senate or elsewhere. They think they are going to get judged on their worst ideas and their biggest mistakes, but that’s not how the world works; we judge people on their good ideas not their bad ones. A long time ago there was a guy who invented a talking doll that was so creepy it not only scared children but adults too, and do you judge him? No, you celebrate Thomas Edison for pioneering the lightbulb around the same time.
EH: I like how you did that. Kind of buried the lead there, that’s cool.
AG: Thank you, I was up till about 3am working on that one. But I think this is true in every domain. There was a Michael Jordan commercial about how he succeeds because he’s failed so many times. I guess I would love to see politicians more open to trying ideas that maybe don’t work and admit they screwed up, but then hoping it will help more ideas come to the table.
EH: Does your book run the risk of making everyone original and thereby ruining it for everyone? Yes! Good, good!
Photography: Shane McCauley for NeueJournal