WHEN JOE B0XER— a.k.a. Nick Graham — came on the underwear scene, men’s boxers and briefs were sold in three-packs with all the whimsy of dishcloths and hospital sheets. Graham, a budding necktie designer, made a pair of novelty shorts for a friend—who happened to be a buyer at Macy’s—and an empire was born. “Ralph Lauren meets Monty Python” is how he describes his business style.
EARLY ON he created red tartan shorts with a detachable raccoon tail.
He also designed a pair emblazoned with images of $500 bills—or tried to anyway.
Some neighborhood kids found Graham’s silkscreen test sheets in the trash and, believing they’d happened on a counterfeiter, told their parents, who alerted the authorities. Federal agents (FBI) came banging on Graham’s door and confiscat-ed all the materials related to the of fending shorts. To this day Graham doesn’t understand what the fuss was about—the government stopped printing $500 bills in 1945— but he couldn’t be more grateful for it.
The bust was covered by the local papers, and orders came flooding in for his kooky boxers. Graham was so tickled by the response he thought, why wait for the next funny “accident” to happen when he could orchestrate his own? Shifting into P. T. Barnum mode, he then paid a Minnesota rocket builder to shoot a pair of Joe Boxer shorts into space. Next, he employed a talking underwear-vending machine. The results of such high jinks speak for themselves. In its first ten years, the company grew from a $1,000 startup to a multi-national corporation with $600 million in annual sales. “Joe Boxer”, Graham showed again and again, was more than an just an underwear company—it was the embodiment of fun.
“The brand is the amusement park,” he explains. “The product is the souvenir.” Now that the line has been picked up by; K-mart—the launch was celebrated with boxer-clad marching bands—another surge is underway, led by the current CEO, Bill Sweedler. Graham remains on board as CUO—you got it, chief underpants officer.
ENTREPRENEURS LIKE GRAHAM aren’t the only ones who can profit from tickling funny bones. In one survey, the majority of CEOs said they’d hire a person who showed a sense of humor over a person who didn’t. Humor is more than the ability to tell jokes and funny stories, they’ve found; it’s a powerful communication tool. Just think about what happens when you share a laugh with a stubborn client or a prickly co-worker—for a few bright moments, your differences disappear. Hard feelings soften. Stress fades. And afterward, you’re a lot more willing to find creative solutions. That’s not only good for business, it’s great for your general outlook, for your family relationships, even for your health. So how do you bring that light-hearted “TGIF” spirit to the rest of the week? Here’s some inspiration.
IF ANY PROOF WERE NEEDED that business and pleasure do mix, Herb Kelleher, the Wild Turkey-swilling, chain-smoking founder of Southwest Airlines, has provided it. Once, early in the company’s history, Kelleher appeared on a flight dressed as the Easter bunny and passed out snacks. Later he painted one of his jets to look like Shamu, SeaWorld’s killer whale. “He just doesn’t think that work has to be stuffy,” says Southwest’s current president and chief operating officer, Colleen Barrett. Indeed, Kelleher’s wacky spirit has proved infectious. Southwest flight attendants have been known—nay, encouraged—to sing safety instructions to the “Beverly Hillbillies” theme song. Interviewers have greeted pools of applicants wearing their clothes backward, just to see who cracks a smile.
Far from dissolving into laughter (and bankruptcy), Southwest has thrived on all counts. It provides one of the most generous employee compensation packages in the industry. The company has been profitable for 31 years running, paying shareholders dividends every year. Passengers have been charmed, too. The company has had the lowest complaint ratio in the business for the past 13 years. This during a time when some of the biggest carriers—remember Eastern and TWA?—are no longer in the air.
“I ALWAYS FELT THAT OUR PEOPLE CAME FIRST,” Kelleher says “Some of the business schools regarded that as a conundrum. And I would say, it’s not a conundrum. Your people come first, and if you treat them right, they’ll treat the customers right, and the customers will come back, and that’ll make the share-
holders very happy.”
BARBARA CORCORAN, one of New York City’s most powerful real estate agents, bemoans the lack of humor in most offices today. “It’s a shame,” she says, “because it’s absolutely the best thing for business.” She should know Early in her career, she’d have to finagle her way into meetings with influential developers. Then she would have to get their attention. Having grown up in New Jersey vying with nine brothers and sisters for her parents’ attention, she knew just the trick: a well-placed zinger. “When I first met Donald Trump, my comment to him was ‘My husband is the poor version of you,’ “ she says. Since he didn’t react, she wondered if the remark even registered. It had. A couple of years later, Trump quoted the joke back to her in a meeting. He remembered it, and (more importantly) he remembered her. She’d scored a coup. Shortly afterward, when Corcoran sold eight blocks of property Trump had developed, he paid her the biggest commission she’d ever received—$2 million. “I think I burned my way into the heart of Donald Trump and got a chance at his business by using humor,” she says. And Trump wasn’t the only one won over. In 2001 Corcoran sold her company, which she started in 1973 with $1,000, for $66 million.
IF MAKING “THE DONALD” SMILE sounds difficult, consider the task proposed to the British humor writer Lynne Truss. In late 2002 she was approached by a famous publisher to write a light-hearted book about punctuation. What’s so funny about commas and colons, you might ask. Quite frankly, nothing. But Truss did something clever: She peered at the yawn-inducing subject through the pince- nez of a so-called grammar stickler, the kind of person for whom “a sentence such as ‘Thank God its Friday’ (without the apostrophe) rouses feelings not only of despair but of violence.” If that seems a bit over-the-top, jolly good. To grab the reader’s attention, Truss says, “you want to present familiar things in an unfamiliar light. Humor is an important tool for doing that.”
Important, and effective. Her book Eats, Shoots & Leaves—the title comes from a joke about a badly punctuated wildlife manual (see box below)—has been a runaway bestseller in both the U.K. and the U.S., with more than two million copies sold. In the publishing world, where a 10,000-copy print run is considered average, that figure is “gobsmacking,” Truss says. “It’s astonishing beyond astonishing that something like this should have a big audience.”
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