Fifteen years ago, my friend Doug Kessler swore off any attempt at “comedy” after an attempt at funny dissolved into flat-out failure.
Doug, who runs marketing agency Velocity UK in London, recalls the white-hot shame of it all: “We wrote a script. Sent it to client. We expected some review and back and forth… but when they said ‘Great! Let’s shoot it!’… we did.
“It was SO not funny and SO stupid that I’m still blushing 15 years later.”
But, more recently, Doug started to rethink things. Because what’s working in B2B marketing is (quite often) the offbeat story and the funny vignette.
In October, at the MarketingProfs B2B Forum, speaker Tim Washer talked about the powerful pairing of B2B and improv, and Doug realized that “it was crazy to close off such a fruitful direction just because I’d failed once.”
So here’s the Velocity shot at redemption, created for its client Salesforce UK. This is a single video, but the idea was to create a kickoff to a bigger content marketing program around the issue of sales and marketing alignment.
(For you hardcore B2B types, that means it’s “top of funnel” content, with the goal of building awareness.)
(Side note: My favorite line is the almost throwaway reference to “texting emojis” as signals of real affection. If you have a teenager in your life, you might recognize that, too.)
Content is hard. But comedy content is even harder.
Because, as Doug says, “there are dozens of ways for a comedy piece to fail that aren’t true of content that isn’t trying to be funny. The casting and acting and direction and comic timing of the gags… all that can kill it.”
(Can you feel his residual anxiety…? Yeah. Me, too.)
So back to you: What can you learn from Doug’s video redemption? These six things:
1. Inspiration starts with empathy.
Doug and his team riffed on a video concept around a salesperson and marketer therapy session.
“We wanted to make it fun and tried different scripts,” Doug said. But after the eighth revision, it was clear that something was off.
“It was good but just didn’t make us want to share it. So we killed it and started over,” he said.
Did you catch what Doug said? “It didn’t make us want to make us share it.” For top-of-funnel content like this, shares are important.
So they thought of fun, but with an element of truth to it, too: In other words, something that had real empathy for the tension between sales and marketing.
2. Humor is rooted in pain.
Much of what’s funny emanates from pain, said Tim Washer, Cisco’s senior marketing manager of social media and a comedy writer whose credits include Late Show With David Letterman and Saturday Night Live.
Doug’s video uses humor to explore that pain and harness it, by using hyperbole to amplify the frustration to an absurd level.
So… How does what you do or what you sell shoulder burdens or ease a pain? What’s an over the-top situation you can create to highlight that issue?
3. Get an outsider’s perspective; fill in expertise you lack.
All great content starts with a good story and great writing. (That’s true whether or not your content is humorous.)
There’s value in getting the perspective of an outsider who can see humor in a scenario that you might miss, and also in getting help that fills in your own gaps. That might be an outside writer, an improv theater comic (Tim always suggests that one), or it could be production help or acting talent. In Doug’s case, he brought in production company RSA, and filmmaking collective M.O.D. directed the video.
Even if you have all the bases covered internally, still run your script by outsiders. Your team might be hilariously funny and off-the-hook creative, but they also may be too close to the situation—especially after a few rounds of revisions.
“With comedy, the script stops being funny on draft three…. There’s just no surprise or spontaneity left,” Doug said. Test it on outsiders, and solicit feedback on what might help improve it.
All within reason. Because…
4. Nothing kills funny faster than committee.
Too many rounds of comments often make things a lot less funny. So limit the number of feedback rounds—even with clients.
5. Editors make good content into great content.
Creating good content is one step in the process, and most of us tend to stop there.
But editing—whether text, audio, or video—can help shape a piece of content into something truly spectacular. That’s especially true in humor and video, where comic timing is crucial.
“Comic timing feels so fragile,” said Doug. “A little gag in this film could die with just a tiny adjustment in the editing.”
Velocity shot the Salesforce video in one day. But then spent another two weeks in post-production, editing and refining the footage into something significantly better.
6. A wink and a smile are easier than an LOL.
You might be aiming for LOL funny, Doug said, “but aiming for that and falling even a few inches short and it’s like almost jumping over the Snake River Canyon on a gaudy motorcycle.” (And you know how that ended for Evel Knievel.)
“Aim for charming and enjoyable instead of hilarious,” Doug said.
Part of that is managing expectations—internally, with clients, and with your audience.
“Let them know directly and subtly what kind of funny you’re aiming for and stick to that,” Doug said. “Don’t mix broad physical slapstick with dry irony. Create an expectation and deliver on it.”
BONUS: Have fun.
If you aren’t having fun making it, it’ll show. It’ll be apparent to anyone watching it. So “don’t let the enthusiasm wane,” Doug said.
“We shot this in a day and it was a ball. If it took five days…”
Well, I’m guessing I wouldn’t be writing about it here on my blog.
And that redemption?
Doug would still be waiting.
Krithika Rangarajan says
A brilliant piece of content from a humorous marketer 😉
Thanks for transforming your friend’s experience into an evergreen piece of ‘infotaining’ content, Ann #HUGS
Ann Handley says
Thanks, Kitto! Best to you, too.
Sue Brady says
I really enjoy your posts. You give such sage and usable advice. I love the whole idea of using humor in marketing and have also written a couple of posts about it. This one is titled: Why Everyone Should Take Acting Classes (http://wp.me/p4BhWZ-aW). I thought you might enjoy it!
Ann Handley says
Thanks, Sue! Tim Washer suggests something similar, too… that it helps to take improv classes with a local group.
Buddy Scalera says
I’m glad you keep driving home the point on editing. Experienced editors know how to look at your script (or manuscript, etc.) with a fresh perspective. Let them do their jobs and they will challenge you in a good way. You don’t have to accept everything the editor gives you, but you should consider the input.
Ann Handley says
I think everyone needs an editor — and perhaps the better the writer, the more an editor can add to the process.
I am amazed by the 4th round. When we will not interact with the clients then how we get proper feedback for your work that what we have done. in which way our work is going on. We need proper feedback’s from the client. Remaining points are very good.
Don Purdum says
I’m new to your site and I’m coming to you from Inspire to Thrive.com. What a blessing that Lisa has introduced me to you.
Now… onto the subject at hand. Comedy!!!!
I love to laugh and I find that it’s a lot easier to pull off a little humor in a video than in text sometimes. Maybe it’s because of my style of humor, but it’s probably because I just haven’t thought of how to incorporate humor.
I have added some funny anecdotes and other humorous stories from time to time, but since my articles are more lengthy and I’ve been focused on the content I’ve just left it out. Fortunately, what I’ve done has worked amazingly well to this point, but I admit I want to spice it up a little bit.
BTW… I love that commercial. I was cracking up especially when the sales and marketing guy are enjoying a “date”…
It’s really great to meet you via your blog and now I’m off to share this great work with my growing audience! I will definitely be repurposing your blog by sharing a bit from this article and linking to you in an upcoming blog article or video.
I hope you have a great finish to your week!
~ Don Purdum
Tanvi Gala says
I really like the “A wink and a smile are easier than LOL” section. It makes sense that when marketers aim for a “laugh out loud” funny and it doesn’t turn out that way, the whole thing seems like a fail. Aiming for something enjoyable is much more realistic.
I also think it’s a great idea to get outsiders’ perspectives…but not too many. It is understandable that after about the third edit the content doesn’t seem very funny anymore.
Thanks for the great tips!