If You Think Accountants Are Hilarious, Try These Guys
Search for America's Funniest Compliance Officer Is Tough; a Whoop for Dodd-Frank
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By ASHBY JONES
Did you hear the one about the two compliance officers who married each other?
She regulates the length of his toenails and requires his showers to be less than two minutes long.
At a recent event at The Comic Strip in Manhattan, corporate professionals from all over the country vied for the title of Funniest Compliance Officer. WSJ's Ashby Jones reports from New York.
(Cue rimshot.) Try the veal. Tip your waitress. Drive safe.
This comedy gold was part of a successful audition for the finals of a recent competition to find the nation's funniest compliance professional.
"Isn't that like looking for America's most eligible 'Star Trek' groupie?" wondered Kevin O'Connor, himself a compliance professional, upon hearing of the comedy search.
Compliance officers—the people who make sure companies abide by regulatory requirements and internal policies—are known for being hand-wringing sticklers for rules, codes of conduct, disclosure laws, and for diligent reading of emails that leave a company inbox. Carefree cutups? Not so much.
Still, Mr. O'Connor found himself on a recent night at The Comic Strip club on Manhattan's Upper East Side, cracking jokes on what he does at Navigant Consulting Inc., in hopes of taking home the title.
There's a lot for compliance officers to smile about these days. In an age of crackdowns, companies are hiring them by the truckload—and paying them better than ever.
Contestants at the comedy club landed more than a few belly laughs. After six stand-up routines of varying quality, the three-judge panel gave the title of the nation's funniest compliance officer to Michael L. Shaw from pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline PLC.
"I know what you think when you hear compliance officer," said Mr. Shaw at the beginning of his act. "Dynamic, charismatic, well-dressed, gets into all the clubs, has to beat off women—and men—with a stick."
Then he went into character, as an overwrought guy who sees risk everywhere, until he's pushed near his breaking point.
"But heavy is the head that wears the crown!" he said, his voice rising: "Day in, day out, my job…is to find risk, to understand the problems associated with that risk, and to find solutions."
Mr. Shaw, a tall, clean-cut man, leaned forward, his face reddening, veins in his neck bulging: "Risk, problem, solution! Risk, problem, solution! All day, every day, every situation!" he screamed.
The packed house howled.
Others took more traditional approaches, relying on setups followed by punch lines.
Joe Rini, who monitors brokers' outgoing communications for J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., said he recently read an article stating that excessive email use has the same effect on the brain as smoking marijuana.
"This is very troubling!" he said. "But on the other hand, it does explain why when I come home, I eat a whole pizza pie and a box of Entenmann's donuts."
The idea for the contest was dreamed up by executives at Howard-Sloan, a headhunting firm in New York. Mitchell Berger, Howard-Sloan's chief executive, said that for several years in the 1980s to '90s, the firm put on a similar contest for accountants.
This time, compliance officials around the country were encouraged to send in demo tapes to showcase their comedic skills. From the 15 or so sent in, six performers were selected.
Several worked their day jobs into their acts—to good effect. Mr. O'Connor made fun of previous performers, who failed to end their routines on time, even after a light flashed at the back of the room.
"The most ironic thing about this evening, all the compliance professionals not complying with the light. That's the best part."
But other compliance-related jokes were met with eye-rolls or stares of confusion, even from a friendly audience of fellow officers.
Halfway through his set, Mr. O'Connor threw a question to the crowd: "Everybody doing some Dodd-Frank preparedness work?" he asked, referring to the financial-industry overhaul bill passed by Congress last year.
A lone whoop sprang from the crowd.
He pressed on: "You know the problem with Dodd-Frank," he said, before launching into a monologue about a "90-day waiting period" and heroin smugglers and "people calling in with information." The punch line—"they're not big on waiting"—was greeted with bewildered looks, and silence. (Is this mike on?)
Mr. Rini opened with a disclaimer: "Any references to poorly run companies or inept supervisors…refer to my former employers, not my present employers." (Really, is this mike on?)
But he gamely stuck with the topic of, yes, disclaimers, pointing out that few seem to take the carefully crafted words seriously. Then, Mr. Rini unleashed this zinger: "We have this long…disclaimer that we have to put on our research reports," he said. "I inserted the phrase: 'You're ugly, so's your mother.' Nobody noticed!"
He got a better reaction for a riff on trying, but failing, to gain sympathy from his four-year-old daughter when he said he was tired at the end of a long workday. "Pshaw, Dad," she said, according to Mr. Rini. "You just read emails all day!"
Others veered into more typical stand-up topics: relationships, politics, as well as R-rated fare. Todd Joseph, an officer at Great-West Life & Annuity Insurance Co. said: "In my twenties, I was what you'd call an Olympic dater. I had one date every four years!"
The night largely belonged to Mr. Shaw, who kept up the compliance-officer-on-the-verge bit for the duration of his manic, slightly frightening five minutes.
"I see this gentleman laughing," Mr. Shaw said to an audience member. "Sir, you don't understand what's going on in here," he said, pointing to his head.
He suggested the man was probably the type who, before going parasailing in Mexico, used his "own name to waive the liability on the disclaimer card." Screamed Mr. Shaw: "I don't do that!"
RC Smith, a professional comedian and one of the judges, called Mr. Shaw's victory "a no-brainer." "He put together a character," he said. "The others didn't do that."
Mr. Shaw takes "compliance very seriously," he said. "Sometimes I use humor to better convey what might come off as complex and dry subject matter."
The event raised over $11,000 for juvenile diabetes research and convinced Mr. Berger to think about the next episode in his "America's Funniest" series. "Lawyers," he said. "I think we'll go with lawyers next year."
Write to Ashby Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org