“Your basic accounting course just teaches you how to get to prison. Once you’re in prison, you’re on your own. There’s no support. The alumni office stops calling you.” (Book excerpt: Who Moved My Soap?)
As some of the students began to laugh, the lecturer, Andy Borowitz, asked for a volunteer to come forward. Enmi Sung of San Francisco gamely sprinted down the steps for a one-on-one tutorial from Borowitz in jailhouse slang:
Q. What does “7Up” mean?
A. A guard is approaching.
Q.What does “401(k)-Up” mean?
A. A former shareholder is approaching.
Two months ago, Borowitz, 45, addressed a conference of the Yale School of Management’s Chief Executive Leadership Institute.
And Harvard Business School has expressed an interest in having him on campus, though no firm date has been scheduled.
The reason that the nation’s top B-schools want to hear from this stand-up comic is the topicality of his new book, Who Moved My Soap? The CEO’s Guide to Surviving in Prison.
The credibility of chief executives has been in question for the past two years, causing a good deal of hand-wringing among those who study and promote the virtues of private enterprise.
While many business schools have beefed up their business ethics courses, at Yale and Wharton, Borowitz has shown that satire is also an effective, if offbeat, way to address the subject.
“I thought I might be getting into some hot water for inviting him here,” says Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, associate dean of the Yale School of Management. “But he was probably the most popular element of the whole conference. He provoked a lot of introspection through laughter, and went a lot further than a (David) Letterman or (Jay) Leno quip. Andy pulls out much more subtle ironies. Kind of like what Scott Adams does with Dilbert and middle management.”
Wharton’s new students were aware of the importance of business ethics upon arrival. “All the top business schools have shifted their emphasis toward having an ethical focus,” says Peter Oberle, an investment banker from Colorado. “It’s good to get it out in the open and address it humorously.”
“It was hilarious,” says T.J. Zerr, a second-year Wharton student who helped bring Borowitz to campus. “To be able to laugh and find some humor will likely help move us forward. There is still a crisis in how people view corporate leaders.”
Case study: Comic entrepreneur
While the purpose of the visit was for Wharton to present a lighter side of corporate credibility, Borowitz was showing the students that no matter what field you’re in, it’s possible to drop out of corporate life after you’ve achieved success and strike out on your own.
As a comedy writer in Hollywood, Borowitz made it big while he was young. In 1990, he created The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, the series that launched rapper Will Smith’s acting career. The show ran for six seasons. After that, Borowitz served as a co-producer for the movie Pleasantville, which was released in 1998.
By then, at age 40, having made millions working behind the scenes in Hollywood, he felt burned out.
“My first act was extremely lucrative,” says Borowitz, a Cleveland native who honed his comic skills in college as president of the Harvard Lampoon. “Then there’s that question, what do you do with the rest of your life?”
For most stand-up comedians, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is a talk show or a sitcom. Borowitz didn’t want that. “It’s a weird situation,” he says. “I spent a couple of years doing nothing. Then I just started following my heart.”
Borowitz moved to New York and began writing humor articles for The New Yorker and op-ed riffs for The New York Times. Aiming to skewer the get-rich-quick mentality of the dot-com bubble years, he wrote The Trillionaire Next Door: The Greedy Investor’s Guide to Day Trading in 2000.
New laughs in new media
Despite his background in network television and his success in the world of “old media,” Borowitz embraced the Internet, finding in it the perfect outlet for his comic talents. Two years ago, he launched The Borowitz Report (www.borowitzreport.com), a daily parody of topical news events.
Each day, he files a satiric blast based on an important item from the news. When Liberian president Charles Taylor stepped down this month, for example, Borowitz reported that he was not going into exile in Nigeria, but would move to California, where he could run for governor.
Often, Borowitz appends a parting shot to his reports, such as this item that ran on July 30: “In other news, Saddam Hussein appeared on the Al-Jazeera TV network once again today, in a new tape showing the former Iraqi dictator undergoing a makeover by five gay men.”
The site has an e-mail list of 97,000. On top of that, an estimated 80,000 readers visit his Web site to read on their own, and countless others receive his blogs as forwarded e-mail from friends.
“When you’re sending out that many e-mails, you have a lot more respect for people who send out the penile-enlargement ads,” Borowitz says. “It’s not just hitting a button.”
Even though it costs him about $1,000 a month to maintain the site — Borowitz doesn’t charge readers and doesn’t accept advertising — his Web page is the critical component that makes Andy Borowitz Inc. work.
“The more it grows, the bigger the mailing list grows, the more money the site loses every day,” he says. “It’s a really impressive business plan.”
Kidding aside, the Web site generates speaking engagements, which in turn boosts sales for the book. At about $10,000 an appearance, Borowitz will make several hundred thousand dollars this year from his speaking, and the book, published this spring, is in its fifth printing. It has sold well over 20,000 copies so far, according to Simon & Schuster.
The Web site also allows him to do old-fashioned test-marketing, although Borowitz doesn’t call it that. Last summer, when his daily blasts skewered some of the CEOs whose companies had been caught up in accounting frauds, he noticed a strong response rate among readers.
“The Web site is a tremendous electrode attached to the zeitgeist right now,” he says. “Every day, I’m getting feedback from all over the world.”
That response to his satire of corporate crime spurred him to come up with the idea for the book, which he wrote in three weeks over the holidays last December.
Finding the right target
So far, this book is selling far better than The Trillionaire Next Door. In retrospect, Trillionaire was overpriced at $20. Soap costs $9.95. “People are not going to wildly overpay for a few laughs,” Borowitz says. “The only other thing you can get for $9.95 is a share of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia.”
Also, Borowitz admits that the premise for the Trillionaire book was off base, since it skewered the little guys. “As a satirist, it was so wrong-headed,” he says. “I was making fun of the wrong people.” With Soap, he’s found a target that everyone likes to pick on: crooked CEOs.
And pick on them he does. The book’s fictitious narrator is the former CEO of Shamco, a conglomerate consisting of KleptoCom, Larcenex and Fungible Data. His company manufactured a drug designed to compete against Viagra, dubbed “Hornimax.” But after his operation is exposed as a fraud, our friendly narrator gets sent up the river to a federal penitentiary. It is there that he conceives the idea for a self-help book for other CEOs destined to do a stretch in the Big House.
His chapters include: “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Prisoners”; “Bringing Six Sigma to Sing Sing”; and “How Golden is Your Hacksaw?”
Another chapter, about female CEOs, focuses on the travails of Clarissa Hoyden, author of Clarissa Hoyden Cooking and Clarissa Hoyden Party Giving and CEO of Clarissa Hoyden Megalomedia. She is described as “a woman whose relentless attention to the details of homemaking, gardening and entertaining inspired tabloid wags to dub her ‘The Domestic Despot.’ ”
Although Borowitz is an equal-opportunity satirist, he saves some of his best barbs for Martha Stewart, who was charged in June with obstructing a federal probe into her sale of ImClone stock. Stewart has denied the charges and will go to trial in January.
“Critics of the indictment say she got a raw deal because she’s a woman,” Borowitz tells the Wharton students. “When a man acts the way she did he is considered tough, and a leader. But when a woman acts that way, she’s considered a bitch.” Borowitz pauses. “The good news for Martha is that in prison, everybody’s a bitch.” The students roared.