By Marcia Riefer Johnston published August 6, 2017

Comedy Pro Reveals How to Bring Funny to Content [Video]

comedy-pro-funny-contentMake people laugh, and you’ve got their attention. Hit people in the funny bone, and you have a chance to hit them in the heart and gut as well. People learn from humor. They share it. They may even become fans and customers of companies that provide it.

Yet many content teams steer clear of amusing content. They consider humor inappropriate for their brand or they don’t see themselves as funny.

In his Content Marketing World talk, Tim Washer, social media manager for Cisco Systems’ service provider marketing group, invites marketers to rethink their objections to amusing content and start exercising their comedic content chops.

Tim supports his position with a sobering statistic:

laugh-chart

.@TimWasher shared this sobering statistic at #CMWorld: 100% of people like to laugh. Click To Tweet

Why should we trust what this man says about humor and corporations? For starters, he has written for Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, has served as executive producer of The Colbert Report, has written for Late Night with Conan O’Brien, has studied improv under Amy Poehler and written for her on Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update, and has worked as a “corporate humorist” for clients like Google, IBM, FedEx, and Pepsi.

Tim may be the best person on the planet to take seriously when he urges corporations not to take themselves too seriously.

Often in the corporate world, people get nervous about comedy and say it doesn’t belong here. But if it might help you get a point across efficiently and economically, why wouldn’t you try it and see if you can make it work?”

How do you train yourself to lighten up? Among other things, Tim recommends building your creativity muscles on your own time by writing playful captions wherever you share your own photos – Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, emails, even old-fashioned photo albums.

Start building creativity muscles on your own time by writing playful captions for your own photos. @TimWasher Click To Tweet

Caption writing develops your ability “to get into what John Cleese calls the open mode, where you’re playful and having fun and relaxed and not worried,” Tim says. The more you can get into the open mode, the more often you’ll find yourself coming up with fresh ideas in all areas of your life, including work.

In this post, I pass along some of Tim’s own photo-caption examples, demonstrating comedic elements like simplicity, irony, contrast, hyperbole, sarcasm, and the rule of threes.

TIP: Don’t overthink the category labels for these photos. The elements of comedy are not mutually exclusive, Tim points out. “Comedy is not a clean science.”

(Note: All images come from Tim’s slides.)

Embrace simplicity

Before Tim gets into examples of his photos, he points out that to create anything humorous you need to embrace simplicity. “We have this tendency as marketers and professional communicators to be overly complex,” he says. “We’re afraid of simple because we think it makes us look stupid.”

Marketers are afraid of simple because we think it makes us look stupid, says @TimWasher. #CMWorld Click To Tweet

This slide shows the unhelpful complexity he’s talking about. (Such a kidder, that Tim. No one would ever pack a slide so full that the audience can’t read it.)

text-info-heavy-slide-example

As for simplicity, Tim points to a skit he helped develop for John Oliver’s news show with Bill Nye.

The four-minute sketch on global warming generated this feedback from The Guardian’s Chris Mooney: “They’ve said in four minutes something I’ve been trying to say in 10 years with hundreds of thousands of words.”

Note: Continue to appreciate Tim’s wording simplicity in the photo captions throughout.

Use irony

One technique to apply to building your comedic muscles is irony. Here are a couple of examples from Tim’s collection:

home-heart-joke

Beware of bears making announcements.

Beware of bears making announcements.

One technique to apply to building your comedic muscles is irony, says @TimWasher. #CMWorld Click To Tweet

Here’s a photo from the airport in Amsterdam, where Tim came across a “mini-museum.” His caption is pure silliness. As he says, “I’m sure some people think that’s dumb. It doesn’t matter; I like it.”

cinnabon-joke

TIP: To open yourself to creativity, silence your inner critic.

To open yourself to creativity, silence your inner critic, says @TimWasher. #CMWorld Click To Tweet

When you’re brainstorming for captions, ask yourself, “What does that look like? What does it remind me of?” Look at things the way a child would.

“For me, being immature is finally an asset,” Tim says. “If you’re not childlike, go get a child, bring the kid in, and say, ‘What do you see here?’”

Use contrast

Another element of comedy is contrast. In a grand setting seen in this image, the question Tim comes up with is delightfully un-grand.

What’s the club’s policy on roasting marshmallows?

What’s the club’s policy on roasting marshmallows?

Follow the rule of threes

In your captions, experiment with the rule of threes: Establish two items in a series – a pattern – and then break the pattern with the third item. You set expectations and then reverse them. Tim calls this taking a hard turn.

Here’s how he graphs the rule of threes – the anatomy of a joke. “I think vector physics is the best way to explain comedy,” Tim says.

The rule of threes (aka the anatomy of a joke)

The rule of threes (aka the anatomy of a joke)

“A comedian wants to get the audience on a train of thought going in one direction, nodding along, ‘Oh, yeah, I know what you’re talking about.’ Then you interrupt them – bam – with the punchline. Surprise them,” Tim says.

Here’s the rule of threes applied in a caption:

Cornelius Vanderbilt II’s summer cottage boasts 138,000 sq ft, 70 rooms, and 1-1/2 baths.

Cornelius Vanderbilt II’s summer cottage boasts 138,000 sq ft, 70 rooms, and 1-1/2 baths.

In this photo from a canoe trip with his daughter, lacking anything visual to latch onto, Tim asked himself, “What was the story? What were we doing? What was happening? How can I bring that into a caption?” He came up with this hard turn:

Paddling through the state forest, we spotted four bald eagles and one with a bad comb-over.

Paddling through the state forest, we spotted four bald eagles and one with a bad comb-over.

Use hyperbole

Comedians exaggerate to Pluto and back. Try this technique in your captions. Consider Tim’s description of what looks to me like a kid’s quiet moment on a bunny hill:

The nine-year-old STICKS the landing out of the helicopter, and then goes on to tame the only triple-black-diamond run outside the Himalayas, known to the locals as The Widowmaker.

The nine-year-old STICKS the landing out of the helicopter, and then goes on to tame the only triple-black-diamond run outside the Himalayas, known to the locals as The Widowmaker.

Use sarcasm

Be careful with sarcasm; you don’t want to come across as unkind. Sometimes, though, only sarcasm will do, as when you come across a package of fireworks labeled “CAUTION: FLAMMABLE:”

Thanks, Blast Zone legal team!

Thanks, Blast Zone legal team!

Sometimes only sarcasm will do. See fireworks package labeled: “Caution: Flammable.” @TimWasher #CMWorld Click To Tweet

Conclusion

To develop your ability to create like a comedian, write funny captions whenever you share your personal photos. Use comedic elements like simplicity, irony, contrast, hyperbole, sarcasm, and the rule of threes.

Even if you never write a humorous caption as part of your job, as you develop your comedic creativity outside the office, you’ll find yourself getting better and better at coming up with amusing content ideas on topics your customers care about.

Here’s an excerpt from Tim’s talk:

Want to really LOL? Register for Content Marketing World Sept. 5-8 and make plans to attend Tim Washer’s session. (Oh, and you’ll learn a lot from him and the other 200 or so speakers.) Use code BLOG100 and save $100 (and that’s no joke.)

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

Author: Marcia Riefer Johnston

Marcia Riefer Johnston is the author of Word Up! How to Write Powerful Sentences and Paragraphs (And Everything You Build from Them) and You Can Say That Again: 750 Redundant Phrases to Think Twice About. As a member of the CMI team, she serves as Managing Editor of Content Strategy. She has run a technical-writing business for … a long time. She taught technical writing in the Engineering School at Cornell University and studied literature and creative writing in the Syracuse University Masters program under Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff. She lives in Portland, Oregon. Follow her on Twitter @MarciaRJohnston. For more, see Writing.Rocks.

Other posts by Marcia Riefer Johnston

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  • http://www.curtisthementalist.com Curtis The Mentalist

    Thanks for this article. Very helpful stuff and simple stuff here. However, in the video, it is a bit frustrating that the camera never captured any of the slides. I believe that would have let the viewer in quite a bit more on what was being covered. Unless you wanted to avoid exposing for some reason.

  • http://www.sedimentblog.com/ The Sediment Blog

    The problem with comedy is that it is never universal.

    What, for example, is a “Cinnabon”? That means nothing in the UK where we are; is it a US chain? For a global business, that caption would fail to connect with any audience outside the US.

    Equally, do you really know how we Brits feel about William the Conqueror? Because if you don’t, then don’t risk upsetting your client’s UK customers with a joke.

    Then there are demographics. Jokes about nine-year-olds really only work for other parents of nine-year-olds. A teenager would just sneer at those kinds of remarks. Again, the comedy is limited to a particular audience.

    And of course, the most successful comedy is often political/social/satirical, as indeed with John Oliver. Few companies or brands are going to risk making jokes which might alienate a significant proportion of their audience who do NOT share those views. A joke about President Trump? There’s a significant number of people out there who will not find it funny!

    Comedy simply does not travel, whether that’s across the world, across demographic groups or across socio-political divides. If you are writing for a company which has a tight and clearly contained niche, then comedy may work – but if your client has global ambitions, and wants to broaden its customer base, then I’m afraid it’s a bad idea.