In 1984, the incorrigible Frank Zappa released a live album called ‘Does humour belong in music?’. He was reacting to negative press reactions to his (occasionally scatological) humour during his performances and the spate of politically incorrect songs that seem to have peppered his career. Even after he’d passed away, a few of his less correct tracks were released as a collection called ‘Have I offended someone?’. As you can imagine, he had.
My first reaction is that those who don’t get humour deserve to feel offended and downtrodden. After all, our ability to laugh at our own expense can be viewed as a demonstration of certainty about our identity. And feeling offended at overt humour could be construed as a sign of insecurity.
The issue with humour is that it varies vastly across countries, cultures, languages, age groups, ethnicities, and any other parameter you delight in separating people by. Only the most obvious slapstick mimes can travel successfully across the globe and the true stalwarts of this transcendent humour include the genius of Charlie Chaplin and Rowan Atkinson. Anything beyond that is subject to wide interpretation.
The very essence of humour and the basic premise of storytelling are the same – all is not as it seems. And upon this foundation you shall build every joke. Some jokes can be complex, others simple. Some jokes can be enduring while others only matter for a couple of hours. Some gags will be largely inoffensive while others can sting. And not all people will react in the same way. If you’re short, you won’t like short jokes. The shortest I can think of is Jimmy Carr’s ‘Midget shortage’. Two words are all it takes to be delightfully offensive.
So how do we approach humour that’s intended for public consumption? Should we slice rashers of propriety from the bacon of our content until we chuckle at what we’ve written and hope for the best? Do we steal someone else’s joke so that if all goes awry we can blame that someone? Let’s tackle this in steps, because the internet likes steps. And you, dear reader, have just been wholesale-bundled into the collection of unimportant individuals we call the ‘internet’. Have I offended someone?
1. Start with why
What’s the purpose of including humour? Are we including humour because the content is weak? Are we trying to attract attention to the humour and divert focus from dodgy content? Or do we genuinely seek to entertain while informing? If you don’t like the answer to this question then you’re probably forcing humour where it doesn’t belong. Respect yourself and your audience and leave it out.
2. Understand your audience
Every group of people you target interprets humour in a different way. Be aware of factors like the style of humour that countries tend to prefer, that ethnicities tend to abhor, and that age-groups tend to identify with. Being more offensive than funny is counter-productive.
3. Comic timing
There’s comedy that boldly goes where no other infinitive has been split before and hangs around for a good, long while. So use humour that’s around the foundations of comedy at will. Kanye’s VMA antics won’t be funny next week, mainly because he’ll do something else that’s as stupid. Riff on this kind of humour if you can turn it around really quickly and if you’re ready for it to die within twelve hours. Who knows, you can break the internet for a short while if you’re funny enough and reap long-lasting benefits from a short-lived joke.
4. Be true to brand
Every brand that respects itself has a well-defined tone of voice. If your brand’s tone has been established as a jocular one, then go ahead and give me the funny stuff. Even if you have a serious message to convey, you have an obligation to your brand to wrap it in a little bit of mirth. If your brand is a serious one, then please wipe that smile off your face and stick to your guns. Bolting a joke onto a message as an afterthought always feels contrived and elicits more groans than laughs.
5. Know when to stop (Part 1)
Do you remember that funny ad on TV where ‘insert funny situation here’? And when you’re telling your friends about it you all have a chuckle but no one remembers the brand. Know when to rein in humour if it grows larger than the message you’re trying to convey. It is an expensive undertaking to pay for people to laugh and instantly forget about your brand.
5. Know when to stop (Part 2)
If you’ve done all you could and still managed to screw things up with someone who doesn’t get your joke, rise above the temptation to defend yourself by attacking their lack of humour. It takes guts to apologise and it is often the right thing to do. Tone things down, throw the joke into the bin reserved for awesome stuff that has just got to die, and get on with things. That’s unless you intended to offend. In which case chuck another round of offensive humour into your weapon and let loose.
So take humour seriously and take yourself lightly. You’ll make more people laugh when they should be doing so and you’ll take less offence at other people’s jokes. And in doing so, you’ll make the world a slightly better place.