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How to be funny: A comic’s advice to content teams

If you’ve ever watched Disney’s The Little Mermaid, you might remember the profound wisdom that Sebastian the Crab shares at the beginning of the song, Under the Sea, saying “Ariel, the human world – it’s a mess.”

How accurate.

You see, the world is a mess. A big scary mess, filled with big scary things, events, people, and thoughts that drive all of the anxiety that we experience on a daily basis. Yet here we are, still passionately living our best lives. Isn’t the dichotomy beautiful?

Of course, the only way to fix a mess is to first recognize one. This where much of humor typically lies – in the conflict between the ideal, the reality, and the various competing agendas people hold. The incongruences are usually rich with irony.

Not all humor is related to pointing out what’s wrong with the world though. For content creators, opportunities to leverage humor include challenging existing notions about the world and enlightening others by offering new insights and unique perspectives.

Humor offers content creators the opportunity to:

  • Empathize with audience on the struggles they face (remember #WhatShouldWeCallMe?)
  • Clarify connections and improve overall understanding of a subject matter (see: John Oliver)
  • Resonate on the emotional notes of a topic
  • Provide a more concrete view on abstract ideas and emotions
  • Demonstrate enthusiasm, and much more!

Humor is tricky though. We can use it to elevate and connect with others, challenge logic, and to offend people – whether that be intentional or not. Humor is subjective to previous experiences and can be a hit or miss. So how can we create humorous content that doesn’t backfire?

As a comic, I’ve come to gain a deeper appreciation for the vulnerability and sensitivity of mankind. It’s easy to feel under attack, but having a shared laugh requires something or someone to be the selected target. What we choose as our target and our held perspective will determine much of the outcome.

High stakes, right?

Luckily, there are some frameworks we can take into consideration to help mitigate this risk.

Understanding Humor Styles

While humor is shown to be a relatively stable personality trait, individuals vary in their approaches to leveraging humor in day-to-day life, with different styles of humor resulting in different outcomes.

In 2003, researchers developed the Humor Styles Questionnaire (HSQ) as a way to understand individual differences in humor usage by segmenting humor into four distinct styles: affiliative, aggressive, self-enhancing, and self-deprecating humor.

Affiliative humor is humor used to enhance relationships. This style of humor is used to charm, entertain, ease tensions, improve relationships, and to make connections.

The witty banter that often comes with affiliative humor emphasizes shared experiences. Done well, it should feel as comforting as a weighted blanket paired with a pint of Ben & Jerry’s. Analogies like that are a perfect example of affiliative humor in action.

Aggressive humor is humor used to criticize and attack. Sarcasm, put-downs, teasing, ridicule, and threats all fall into the aggressive category of humor, in which the punchline comes at the expense of someone or something.

It can be used to voice a sense of urgency, point out inconsistencies in logic, or call out hypocrisies. However, keep in mind that when there’s a harsh punchline, someone is likely to get hurt.

Self-deprecating humor is humor used to gain approval. This style of humor is at one’s own expense.

Done well, self-deprecating humor projects humility and a degree of self-awareness. Executed poorly or too frequently, this style of humor can project insecurity. Did you send an email campaign with a bad link? Mistakes make for great targets of self-deprecating humor.

Self-enhancing humor is humor used to cope and regulate emotions. Self-enhancing humor seeks to find the bright side of a bad situation in an effort to cope with the struggles we face. After all, the struggle can be so very real.

With self-enhancing and self-deprecating humor, it’s important to highlight the ‘self’ part of these humor styles. Companies are a collection of people, so make sure that you’re not offending your internal folks by speaking poorly about their hard work.

Customer support won’t appreciate it if you make self-deprecating jokes about their service, unless you’re saying how overzealous and passionate they are about their jobs. Don’t forget that compliments can be funny too!

With humor styles, we understand that humor has intention – whether consciously or subconsciously.

Leveraging Humor for Beginners

Want to inject some humor into your content, but not sure where to start? You don’t have to go all-in on an updated brand voice. Starting with a channel, like a new Twitter account, or specific series, like a time-limited newsletter, allows you to experiment and test audience response.

Express enthusiasm with playful language

Wordplay, analogies, alliterations, clever quips, and playful language offer great opportunities to jazz up your content by choosing language that gets those neurons firing. Boring and humdrum word choice will get your message across, but playful language offers the opportunity to emotionally connect with readers in an upbeat and memorable manner.

Consider multiple perspectives and offer an ‘out’

Playing devil’s advocate and offering multiple considerations gives people an ‘out’ for their egos, allowing them to hear your perspective without forcing them to accept it as a singular truth. That keeps defenses down and ears open.

For instance, I say that I hate 90% of marketing puns, when in reality, I hate 99% of marketing puns. That extra 9% of wiggle room matters more to readers than it matters to me.

Also, by observing an idea across multiple perspectives, we can capture a more holistic ‘truth’ by identifying the perspective that most closely aligns with all of the information available.

Ask the most important questions

The most important advice I can offer: are you coming from a place of understanding, compassion, and connectedness? Sure, that’s not the humor you’ll hear at comedy clubs, but it’s the humor that will save your PR and Legal department from massive headaches.

Ask yourself how much effort was spent exploring other perspectives? Who could potentially be hurt by these words? And how are you feeling about humanity today? Moodiness matters.

Remember – humor isn’t inherently offensive. Unfiltered thoughts are.

That’s why compassion is so crucial, despite being challenging at times. Striking a balance between accepting the world as it is and challenging it against a better ideal is no easy feat.

In the words of Jeff Bezos, “cleverness is a gift, kindness is a choice.”

Kindness is the ideal we must strive for because the human world – it’s a mess – but it’s our mess to sometimes laugh at together.

Caroline Cooke is the Founder and Creative Director of Bright Humor