Greg Schwem is more than a comedian; he is one of the most successful and in-demand motivational corporate comedians in America. As a stand-up comedian, Greg has opened for Chris Rock, Jay Leno, Celine Dion, Kenny Loggins, Pat Benatar, Leann Rimes, Keith Urban, and many more. He has appeared on Sirius Satellite Radio and Comedy Central, and he has a new 2022 special on Dry Bar Comedy called “You Can’t Quarantine Laughter.”
Greg gets rave reviews and incredible audience engagement (and tons of laughter) every time he is booked. He’s spoken professionally for over two decades to over 1000 organizations, from the likes of Mcdonald’s to the CIA.
For more on Greg or to book him to speak: https://speakers.calentertainment.com…
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Greg Schwem: You Can’t Cancel Laughter
Joining us in this episode is Greg Schwem, who is more than a comedian. He is a motivational corporate comedian. As a standup comedian, he is open to people like Jay Leno, Celine Dion, Kenny Loggins, Pat Benatar, and many more. He has appeared on Sirius Satellite Radio and Comedy Central. He has also got a new special on Dry Bar Comedy called You Can’t Quarantine Laughter which, on the corporate stages, Greg calls it You Can’t Cancel After. He is a sure thing every time he is booked and has been speaking for over two decades to some of the biggest companies and organizations in the world. Please join me now with the very funny and entertaining Greg Schwem.
Greg Schwem, thank you for joining me here on the show. How are you doing, sir?
I am doing great, Chris. It is great to see you again.
It is always great to be seen and see you because you are a man who always makes me laugh. You are always fun to deal with even behind the scenes and out on stage. I will never forget when I saw you in person in front of thousands of people in Long Beach years ago. You were incredible. I love the fact that you not only were so funny but that you customized so well for that particular audience who I believe was in the waste business.
They were the self-storage industry. It was the people that you rented space with so you could put all of your stuff that you could not bear to part with. They were a great audience. It was interesting to like, “How am I going to customize an empty space?” That was the first challenge but they were tremendous and they did not take themselves too seriously. That is very complimentary about them and they were willing to let me just have fun with them. That is what I like to do on stage with all my corporate audiences.
It was hilarious. My side was hurting from laughing so hard and the whole room was giving you a rave review by the laughter, clapping, and hilarity. Again, the customization, which I did not realize what it was at the time. I did not get it. I was surprised at how great it was because I feel like a comedian is completely different from what you do because you come out and you are very funny, but you are giving a keynote speech. It is a lot of jokes and fun, but you include that industry. You have done research on their website, their history, the things they are grappling with, and their competition may be. You are allowed to poke fun.
You have a phone call with them so you know what fair game and appropriate is. You hit it out of the park every single time. It has always been a pleasure booking you. I know you have had such an amazing career. You have opened for people like Jay Leno, Celine Dion, Pat Benatar, Leann Rimes, Kenny Loggins, and Keith Urban. You have been on Comedy Central and Sirius. How do you stay relevant? You have been around for a long time.
Staying relevant means staying up on trends in business. You mentioned what separates me from being a comedian. I think at a corporate event, bringing your nightclub act is not going to cut it. This is a different audience and a lot of people do not realize that. They want to hear about themselves and what is going on. They want to laugh at themselves as long as it is done tastefully. I do it tastefully, but unlike for right now, the big buzzwords that you keep hearing are employee retention, mental health and wellness. What is going to keep people happy?
I have had to shift some of my material. Now, I am doing a lot of jokes about employee benefit plans and wellness programs. You go on websites and you see them all talking about, “We work hard, but we play harder,” and you see everybody in the company with their dog that is on the website. I think stuff like that is funny and that is what they want to hear about. That brings back to the audience knows when they see me that I dove into their culture.
You have done your research.
Yeah and they like hearing that. Corporate audiences, we both know, are not stupid. They know quickly if you are phone at one end. hey will tune you out as they should very quickly.
You started out as a standup comic, right?
Yeah, I did.Staying relevant means staying up on trends in business. Click To Tweet
Yet you were smart enough because you went to Northwestern to figure out how to work on computer.
That might have something to do with it. It is weird how I got into it. I was doing a lot of material about computers. That is Comedy With a Byte. It is still the name of my company but I started that out because when I started standup, it was in that age of Bill Gates taking over the world and everybody, all of a sudden, had to learn how to run a computer.
I was doing material about trying to figure out how to work a computer in my nightclub act and comedy club. I had people come up to me afterward and say, “Please come down to our office and do that bit. Do those ten minutes because that is exactly what we are going through.” That opened up a whole new realm of shows for me. The more I did it, the more I thought I knew how to connect with these people.
That is funny because I say that to aspiring speakers and speakers who I meet for the first time all the time. What if the world around you is telling that you should be speaking at their church, school, or, most importantly, at their business because you have something to say? That is when you know you have got something and you are a speaker for real.
There is a time and a place for comedy, but there is a message that people are looking for more often than not that definitely would be something where they want to see themselves. They want to learn something, be inspired and feel good. I know that the other thing you do well makes them feel good about what they do and who they are. Sometimes there is an internal complaint about customers or a thing in the media that maybe they are talking about that particular industry or those types of workers but you stick up for them and say the things that everybody in the room is thinking, right?
I think that is where a lot of companies hire humorous. That is where the humorous gets into trouble sometimes because there is a very fine line. I like to have fun with a group, but there is a very fine line between having fun with them, mocking them, or belittling them. Once you do that, you are never going to get them back. I always believe in being very positive and companies are willing. I did a show for McDonald’s years ago and they had huge marketing. They had a new sandwich that came out but it was a flop and they knew it.
They told me, “You can do a couple of jokes about this but do not push it. Do not do ten minutes about it. It is like, “We can have fun to a point but most companies are like that. They are willing to laugh at their mistakes but do not dwell on them. You want to dwell on their successes and that is what I want to do.
Give us examples of some of the things that you have enjoyed doing that seemed to go well where you picked out an industry and the internal dialogue that these people were having in the audience you hit the nail on the head. I know you do that every time and it is just great. I would love to hear a couple of examples.
The biggest thing right now is the whole shifting back from virtual to in-person. That is what everybody is doing. The biggest issue in Corporate America is do we stay virtual or do we go back to a hybrid situation in the office? Everybody has got a different school of thought. My whole thing is to try and I am letting people know that even though COVID was not funny, because it is not, there is a lot of humor that came out of COVID, like the weird way we have to work or whether it is virtual schooling.
There are so many parents in the audience and I do a bunch of jokes about, “I will bet you thought the homeschooling thing was going to be easy because you thought it would last two weeks. Let’s learn about fractions and I am going to cut this apple into eight pieces and you are going to eat two of them. That is 6/8 left and that is 3/4. How easy was that?” I then say, “Fast forward six months later, what were those lessons like?” It is like, “Mommy’s Chardonnay bottle is 2/3 empty and the liquor store closes in a quarter of an hour.” That is a big hit because it does show people that we can laugh about this horrible thing that we went through and now we are moving on.
When people give you feedback at the end of a speech and it is the audience coming up to you and talking to you or the client afterward giving you a review, what are you hearing a lot of in general? Also, more so now, what are you hearing a lot of that resonated with them besides what you said, but more like about why you killed it and why you hit it out of the park. I have gotten so many great reviews about you over the years, but I want to know the latest stuff that you have heard a little bit or maybe surprised you.
I have always said the biggest compliment I can get is when they come up to me and they say, “We needed that.” It is not necessarily, “You were hilarious or this.” That is all great, too. In corporate events, you are not expecting humor. It is an add-on in a way. You are expecting to hear from the CEO, CFO, and the CMO like, “Here is a sales. Here is a motivational speaker and a futurist.”
Humor is an addition. Now, I am hearing that even more because, again, as people return to in-person meetings and face-to-face communication, humor has sadly been taken away a little bit from the corporate environment. During COVID, I developed a new presentation called You Can’t Cancel Laughter. The whole idea was to challenge the audience a little bit and say, “Cancel culture is a big thing. Who is offended?” I am challenging audiences in this presentation to say, “If you are going to take away the humor, be careful about that because you are eliminating creativity, spontaneity, teamwork and fun.”
Those are the big buzzwords that you hear in Corporate America like positive work environment, mental health, wellness, and all of that kind of stuff. At the same time, I do not want this to be an in-your-face presentation. I have always said, “I can’t have a serious discussion with you about humor unless I first make you laugh.” That is what I am going to do first then we are going to shift gears a little bit and I am going to talk a little bit. I am going to show you examples of companies that use humor during the pandemic and how I worked for them. When somebody comes up with an idea that is funny, instead of saying, “Swipe left on that because such and such might be offended,” talk it out a little bit, and you will be surprised.
You have not had to hire any security as of the recent going on in comedy these days. That is good, but you make some great points about that. Tell us a little bit more about You Can’t Quarantine Laughter. It sounds like there is a little bit of interactive workshop-py stuff going on.
A little bit, and I changed it from quarantine to You Can’t Cancel because we are out of quarantine now. I do tell the audience, I say it right upfront, “If you are looking at me saying, ‘This guy is going to tell us what is and is not funny,’ you are in the wrong place because there is no answer to that. Thank you for hiring me because I have been on both sides.” I am seeing it from your side, but I have also been that guy on stage. I use this as an example. I have been that guy that has had people come up to me afterwards in a comedy club and say, “Mr. Comedian, you sucked,” and walk away.
I am like, “Where did that come from and why?” I do give people some examples of how to incorporate humor into the audience without offending people, and part of that is getting them to work together. Getting people of different generations, age groups, and different demographics, straight, gay, Black and White come up with a funny presentation, and in the course of doing that, you learn about each other.
You learn what you think is funny versus what I think is funny. That is what Corporate America is missing now. It is like, “I am going to go to HR and say, ‘I did not think that was funny and you need to do something about this person who thought it was funny.’” That is not the way business should work because there is another solution.
I did not think of you as a guy that suggest to my customers who have events who is going to come in and solve the HR problem. I have always thought of you as a guy who is hilarious and personalizes the presentations for each group but obviously you listen. You have a wonderful pre-event phone call, you listen well to the client, they tell you what they are hoping you are going to accomplish, and what they think about humor or comedy knowing that you can customize messaging in there.
Here is one question that I think is fun. You have been doing this a long time and you have done over a thousand corporate presentations at this point. What is your favorite one? What is the one that went so well? There was a huge or a small crowd and you will never forget that one. What happened? What was it all about? Why was it so great?
It was the CIA.
You went in with a lot of fear already.
I think they went in with more. This is at Langley and I got an email, out of the blue, which is a joke. I put that in the act. I go, “Do you know how close I was to sending that email directly to my trash folder when the CIA says, ‘We would like you to visit.’” That is weird. The CIA is a business and they had this event where they said, “We want to get people away from their computers and they bring in speakers.” What was great about this, Chris, and people do not know this, is you can’t use your cell phone at the CIA. They have to leave their cell phones in a box. America’s covert intelligence agency can’t use a cell phone. I think that is funny.
As a result, I had the most rapt audience that I have ever had because I had their 100% attention. I did not have anybody doing this or check-in or that kind of thing. It was great. You know what these people do. There is not a lot of humor in the CIA during the course of the day. I was able to comment. I made jokes about the security process that I had to go through and so forth. They were so appreciative and afterwards, they said, “We have never had anybody like this.”Comedy relieves stress, and it encourages wellness and good mental health. Click To Tweet
The person who hired me said, “I got to tell you, there was trepidation when I suggested comedy, but it went great.” That, to this day, remains my favorite presentation, plus it was fascinating for me to be in there and to learn about what they do and be in the bowels. I was able to get past where most people can’t.
You have had a lot of access to the internal workings and issues topical things within a lot of organizations over the years. When you opened for Jay Leno as a comedian, was he the biggest name comic or comedian that you have opened for?
As a comedian, he was. This is a corporate event. It was for CNA Insurance in Grant Park at the Petrillo Music Shell. It was a big outdoor venue and he was a surprise guest. Word had gotten out a little bit, but they basically had me come out ahead of time. I did stand up. I interviewed some of the people in the audience, “Who do you think is coming out,” that kind of thing. They used me not only as an opener for him but also as an emcee. I do a lot of emceeing for clients and that is fun because as an emcee, you are almost one of them. Instead of being the speaker on stage, you are a part of them and I love that.
I always suggest you and funny people be emcees because you do not want the emcee to be a boring guy who can’t adlib. I have seen those boring guys who can’t adlib and they think they might be funny so they are trying, and it is falling flat. They then have the guy back the next year or they have had the guy several times and I am like, “You got to have somebody funny,” and then they get it. It has to be professional. Somebody who knows how to toe that line and certainly that is you.
I remember when I saw Jay Leno. I was blown away by how funny he was. He was clean. It was 45 minutes and it went by like that. He is amazing. As far as a big name and famous celebrity comedian, he is definitely in my top three I have ever seen. I am wondering if you agree with me on this list or if you have other names, but Jim Gaffigan is amazing and hilarious. My favorite is Dana Carvey. I love all of his impressions. He is very adlib-y, good with the audience, and really inclusive. He is similar to you in some ways where he is going to incorporate a lot about who they are and what they do and talks about his own stuff that relates to that audience.
Leno is great and nobody is better with the audience. No one is quicker with an audience than Jay and that is why he is great at corporate events too. I do not think Jay Leno, even the whole time that he was the host of The Tonight Show, did not showcase his skill.
That is why I was blown away.
My whole thing is when he got that job, it was like, “You have to be about like Johnny. You have to tell political jokes.” That is not how Jay got to Jay. He worked for the clubs and talked about television, commercials, his parents, and stuff like that. That is what got him the job. All of a sudden, you got to put a suit on and do political jokes every night. I saw Jay before he got The Tonight Show down in Florida and he did two hours and there were never any political jokes. It was two hours of stuff you could relate to and riffing with the audience, and it was brilliant.
Where did you come up as a comedian? Was it in Florida?
I am from Chicago originally and I live in the Chicago suburbs now. I spent most of my life there, but my first job out of college was a newspaper reporter and I moved to West Palm Beach, Florida. That is where I started my comedy career because they opened up a great comedy club. The guy who ran it was a very well-known rock and roll music promoter. He had very deep pockets and could bring in the top-name acts.
I got to see these guys as they were on the cusp. Seinfeld would come down because his mom lived down there. Jeff Foxworthy would come down because he was a big Atlanta Braves fan and they spring training in West Palm Beach. I would get to see these guys. Eventually, I got to open for them and that was my school. I would go there every weekend and watch the best of the best.
I love those stories of Jim Carrey slipping in the car and all these guys paying their dues in comedy. What a tough road that is.
They all did.
It is never easy for anyone and there is not a lot of money in the beginning at all. It is great that you have been able to add on the corporate side of things to comedy for yourself. You are just one of those sure things that almost my whole career, I have known you and a pleasure to work with every time leading up to the event. It is always a pleasure. My hat is off to you because you are killing it. You are so funny. The clients all love you.
I know we have got a couple of things on the burner right now. Hopefully, they come through as well. I think that people need to laugh now more than ever. There is a world that we live in where we need to take a deep breath and relax. I have a lot of clients and customers wanting to have something about wellness, health, stress, and all of that, but also comedy, fun, and humor.
The two play well. Comedy relieves stress and it encourages wellness and good mental health, so why would not a corporate event include a funny element. To me, it is a no-brainer.
I think you are going to be busier than you have been going forward here because a lot of live events are happening again, as you know. Thank goodness we are back with that.
Why am I doing this? I should be doing that.
It is like, “We are not sure it is over,” but it feels like we are back in in-person again and I know that you are happier about that than anyone. I am so happy about it, too, and my clients have these great events where people are getting back together again. It is great to see everybody taking a sigh of relief and now let’s laugh. Thanks so much for coming on. I am such a huge fan. I will look forward to talking to you soon. Thanks again.
Chris, it is always good to see you.
About Greg Schwem
Greg Schwem is more than a comedian; Greg Schwem is a motivational corporate comedian. And the corporate world has taken note. Greg’s take on the 21st century workplace and work/life balance has landed him on SIRIUS Radio, Comedy Central and the pages of Exceptional People Magazine. More than just a business humorist, Greg is also an author, nationally syndicated humor columnist, TV travel host, award-winning greeting card writer and creator of funnydadinc, voted one of the top Dad humor sites of 2020. He has shared the concert stage with the likes of Celine Dion and Keith Urban.