"Zach's Corner" - Podcast #9: Kelly Leonard - Why Second City Says "Yes, And" to Behavioral Science

You can access this episode of Action Design Radio on YouTube and iTunes (or wherever you typically get your pod on). Don’t forget to follow us on Facebook and sign up for the newsletter on our website to see if an Action Design Network city near you is hosting a free upcoming Meetup event.

Zach Simon is the producer of the Action Design Radio podcast. Zach’s Corner is a synopsis of each episode, as well as Zach’s own thoughts on the topics discussed by podcast hosts Zarak Khan and Erik Johnson with their guest speakers. Zach is an Assistant Director of Admissions at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology and has a Master’s degree in Behavioral Economics.

About Our Guest: Kelly Leonard is the Executive Director of Insights and Applied Improvisation at Second City Works and the President of Second City Theatricals. He has worked at The Second City since 1988 and has overseen productions with such notable performers as Stephen Colbert, Tina Fey, Steve Carell, Adam McKay, Seth Meyers, Rachel Dratch, Amy Poehler, Jason Sudeikis, Keegan-Michael Key, Horatio Sans, Amy Sedaris and a host of others.

In 2015 Kelly along with former CEO of Second City Works, Tom Yorton, co-authored Yes, And: How Improvisation Reverses "No, But" Thinking and Improves Creativity and Collaboration. Here’s a Chicago Tribune video of Kelly and Tom speaking on 25 Key Tips to Improve Communication and Teamwork they write about in their book, “Yes, And.”


In our newest episode, Erik and Zarak chat with Kelly Leonard about his recent involvement with the Second Science Project – a partnership between Second City and the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. The Second Science Project utilizes cutting-edge behavioral science to better understand and support improvisation in everyday life. By approaching behavioral science through the lens of improvisational comedy, they create executive training programs for businesses to improve innovation, creative thinking, and ways to challenge our instincts and assumptions.

This was possibly the most unique episode we’ve done so far, simply because improvisational comedy is not a realm to which business executives typically look to improve their leadership and decision-making skill sets. But what Kelly is doing with the Second Science Project is truly innovative and groundbreaking. In this interview on YouTube Kelly describes that project in detail along with Heather Caruso, the University of Chicago’s Executive Director of the Center for Decision Research. “What we feel you need to do is get in there and practice and hone your skills,” Kelly says. “Because agility just doesn’t come because you want it to. Agility comes when you think about it, and act on it, and practice it.”

It’s the “practice” piece that Kelly emphasizes throughout his conversation with Erik and Zarak. As he points out in the interview, developing better communication and leadership skills is not something you can achieve by taking one class. He equates that mentality to thinking that you’re “in shape” after going to the gym one time. It’s something that you need to put in constant time and effort in order to work at now in order to reap the long-term benefits later.

Bringing this analogy – and many others – back to the world of Second City comedy, he points out that it’s very rare for executives to naturally have incredible decision-making skills. He likens those individuals to Chris Farley: someone just so naturally talented that he makes his craft look effortless, resulting in immediate, rock-star-like success. And then others are more like Steve Carell, who Kelly says took about 6 years of performing at Second City before people started realizing this guy was a special talent and would become a massive star one day.

Chris Farley helps Adam Sandler study in "Billy Madison"

Chris Farley helps Adam Sandler study in "Billy Madison"

Steve Carell in a moment of deep thought as boss Michael Scott on "The Office"

Steve Carell in a moment of deep thought as boss Michael Scott on "The Office"

Although the Second Science Project is only a couple years old, Kelly has already expanded its reach beyond Chicago. He’s partnered with Caring Across Generations to create a program called “Improvisation For Caregivers,” which they’re currently running at the Cleveland Clinic in Las Vegas. The data is still being gathered, but so far the evidence points to participants in the group becoming stronger every week by taking these pro-social behaviors from the improv exercises and applying them back into their caregiving situations. Kelly’s think-outside-the-box approach has led to what he says is the first-ever effort to collect data on these behaviors in an improv setting. It’s always been anecdotal before, but now they’re making it scientific by focusing on the data.

Speaking of thinking outside the box, below are my “3 Big Takeaways” as far as the parallels between the worlds of business, behavioral science, and improvisational comedy that Kelly chatted about with our hosts this week:


1.  Experiment

Perhaps the biggest running theme in this conversation was the importance of experimentation. In both business and improv comedy, it is necessary to devise a systematic way of testing what works, what doesn’t, figuring out why, and improving the finished product for the next round. In order to put together a 60-minute Netflix special worth of stand-up comedy material, that comedian goes through an entire year (or more) weeding through the process of failure by experimenting with new material at small comedy clubs, bombing a lot of it, but identifying enough things that work well to keep in his or her repertoire.

Kelly really hammers home the idea that companies simply don’t test out new ideas enough. He identifies the value of experimentation as “a push to divergent thinking.” He talks about an innovation they’ve implemented at Second City called “Taboo Day,” where for one day a month employees come in with an idea that Second City would NEVER allow on stage. Employees’ are tasked with coming up with something so offensive or so expensive that it would just be ludicrous; the crazier the better.

According to Kelly, the value of Taboo Day is that about half of the ideas actually end up on the stage, because even in the outlandish ideas there is often enough substance below the absurdity to tinker with and make work. He encourages businesses to create their own Taboo Day; he says they should start with having two “Terrible Idea Days” per year, where people come up with ideas that couldn’t possibly work or would totally sink the company. It will be a fun morale activity to do with employees, but more importantly, they very well might come up with some really good outside-the-box ideas that would normally never come to the forefront.

You can’t identify valuable new ideas without experimentation, so combat status quo bias by going out of your way to experiment with things completely different from the status quo. "The pedagogy of Second City improv is centered around recreating human behavior and giving people nudges to work better within groups of other human beings," Kelly says. But they didn’t just wake up one day with a list of best practices and techniques that work. It took decades of experimentation.


2.  Consider the Context

A while back, Second City expanded to Las Vegas, and they decided to put on the “Best Of Second City” show there, a compilation of classic skits from Second City’s past that has always been a big fan favorite in Chicago. Everyone involved with rolling it out in Las Vegas assumed it would go over well with audiences there too. “Everyone took for granted that it would just work,” Kelly says, but the problem was that almost everyone at a show at a casino in Las Vegas is a tourist from a completely different background than the person sitting next to them. Everyone in the audience came from different backgrounds, places, socioeconomic statuses, and the show just wasn’t working because people weren’t responding to the humor as a group.

So what did the show runners do? They focused on commonality. What do these audience members have in common? They’re in Las Vegas right now. So they started putting together skits that made fun of the Bellagio fountain, made fun of the guys selling porn on the streets, made fun of the casino theater the audience members were sitting in. This approach worked – the audiences were able to relate to the subject matter because of their shared Las Vegas context.

A great quote from Kelly during this episode relates specifically to the importance of context and re-framing:

“Everyone was getting really frustrated with their bosses, about the way they were communicating. “They’re constantly bitching at me, they don’t trust me,” etc. So I told everybody to write this down and put it on their wall: Replace Blame With Curiosity. So when you take that call, you say, “Hey, my boss is curious about why we haven’t sold more tickets, let’s get to the bottom of this,” rather than say it as blame. Within weeks I had people coming to me saying this was great, that it feels like a magic trick, and they feel so much better and more at peace just by shifting their mindset. So that kind of stuff – which is very small and very manageable – put into the hands of people on an everyday basis, I feel is making daily transformations for people at Second City.”

That is pretty powerful stuff. And all it took was a simple context shift from blame to curiosity. Blame satisfies egos and reinforces power dynamics that already exist. Curiosity gets everyone involved thinking and talking about why something went wrong this time, and how it can be done better next time.


3.  Challenge Assumptions

Kelly describes how costly assumptions can be by telling a story about the failure of “Slap Shot Live,” Second City Toronto’s theatrical version of the classic 1977 hockey comedy starring Paul Newman. The show received very positive reviews from critics, and everyone involved with the production felt that it was well-done and hysterically funny to boot. There was just one problem: nobody was buying tickets to go see it.

The Hanson Brothers from "Slap Shot"

The Hanson Brothers from "Slap Shot"

The whole team was forced to brainstorm about why this was the case. It’s funny, it’s about hockey, and it’s in Canada, what more could people want? But Kelly and the rest of his team realized that they just assumed it would appeal to people and they would want to go see it. However, they didn’t actually test out the concept beforehand by, for example, asking sample audience members what they thought.

It turned out they just assumed the hockey-loving Toronto audience would be into the idea, but they didn’t do any research about actual enthusiasm levels for a live theater reboot of Slap Shot. And Kelly adds that they also forgot to take into account the fact that it’s usually the wives who buy the theater tickets for married couples who go see live shows. If they had tested married women’s interest levels in a reboot of a 40-year-old hockey comedy with gratuitous foul language, violence, male nudity, and the Hanson Brothers wreaking havoc..…you see where this is going? They may have been able to scrap or alter the idea early and focus on something else that would have been more successful. But what ended up happening is they spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on hockey equipment that Kelly says is probably still sitting in storage somewhere in Toronto.

This is the same sort of thing that companies end up doing when they make assumptions about product features or target audiences. They often lose hundreds of thousands – if not millions – of dollars on products, programs, or policies that a simple testing before the fact would have alerted them to alter their focus or approach, or even avoid the idea altogether. Behavioral science is about testing EVERYTHING. Correlation is readily apparent, but you cannot assume causality. You’ve got to back it up with data.

In this case, it might be safe to assume that Kelly came to these conclusions about why Slap Shot didn’t work out after his boss expressed her extreme “curiosity” regarding the low ticket sales.

Irrationally yours,



You can access this episode of Action Design Radio on YouTube and iTunes (or wherever you typically get your pod on). Don’t forget to follow us on Facebook and sign up for the newsletter on our website to see if an Action Design Network city near you is hosting a free upcoming Meetup event.