As a Chicago-based video production company, we’re surrounded by comedy. Ever since 1959 when The Second City took root, our city has become a hub for all types of comedic performances, including standup, sketch, and improv. That’s why if you’re looking to laugh, you have countless options for shows every night…and why we can’t log into Facebook without a friend requesting a “Like” for their new improv group.
So, when a client comes to us asking for a video with humor, our eyes light up with excitement. With employees trained through multiple Chicago theaters including The Second City, iO, and The Annoyance Theater, we get to take lessons we’ve learned from the stage and make them work in video form.
Obviously, we know that all mediums are different, and what works in a sketch does not always translate in a video. Have you ever had someone show you footage of their improv performance? However, there are certain comedy rules that can be followed across all types of channels and some that work especially well for video. Here are four things we keep in mind when adding humor to our videos.
1. Establish Your Message Early
Many times, sketches are built around a single joke, a strange concept, or just by asking “wouldn’t it be funny if…” These can turn into great sketches but only if a point of view is eventually established. Sketches sometimes go nowhere if you’re only trying to be funny while knowing what you want to say allows you to focus the humor later in the process.
Right from the start, we’ll ask clients in our creative brief what’s the key message they’re trying to communicate. This can be as specific as a certain call-to-action or as general as explaining who is behind the company. We may refine it with them during the kickoff call, but this will guide us throughout the entire video process.
Before we begin concepting for the video, we’ll ask if comedy is the best approach. The subject of the material, who the client is, the final call to action, and where and how the client will be hosting the video all factor into the conversation. If there is any concern at all, it is best advised to stay away. Although humor is an effective way to get a reaction out of your audience, the wrong reaction can overrule the intent of the video.
If humor is appropriate, we begin brainstorming concepts around the message. Be careful here, and avoid using complex metaphors or far-reaching ideas. While it’s very enticing to want to try something the audience has never seen before, make sure the comedy enhances the story and doesn’t distract the audience.
When we were coming up with ideas for Zocdoc’s “Anywhere/Anytime” video, we took inspiration from the ultimate doctor, Dr. Seuss. Using his recognizable writing patterns, the concept naturally fit the message that this was a platform to book (pun intended) all medical needs at any moment.
2. Know Your Audience and What Makes Them Laugh
It can be very frustrating to have a sketch that you know performs well get silence from a new audience. You want to blame them for not “getting it” like the last crowd did. Yet, it is up to the author to deliver their message as effectively as possible, and understanding who is in the audience is a key part.
Companies have an advantage here as they know exactly who is their target consumer. You have already done plenty of market research on your customer, so why not also understand what makes them laugh? This may be difficult, depending on the size and makeup of your target audience, and it will not necessarily lead you to comedy gold. However, if you can understand your customers’ behaviors and media habits, like favorite comedians, television shows, and movies, you will be better informed when choosing a final concept.
If you have a wider audience, though, keep your humor universal. Stay away from sarcasm, avoid specific parodies, and don’t get too niche with your references Not everyone may be as studied up on 90’s sitcoms as you. You do not want to alienate viewers, and only reaching part of your audience can be detrimental to the objective of the video.
Also, make sure you play to the intelligence of the viewers. If you’re dealing with denser material, avoid a low-brow concept. Audiences do not want to be patronized, and you have the opportunity to really show your cleverness here.
Finally, when speaking to younger audiences, there is an urge to use memes or trending topics. Keep in mind the normal timeline it takes to create a video and the lifespan of a meme. Releasing a video after the concept has left the public consciousness can make your brand appear out-of-touch or lagging behind the competition. Leave those jokes to your social media team who can turn around something much quicker and focus on a video that can last for years.
It has not been that long since we were in college, so we did not have much of an issue identifying with Follett’s target audience for their book rental videos. We remember the stress of seeing the final checkout price when buying books each semester, and we focused our concept around that relatable pain. Yes, we do eventually have a line about Snapchat, but with it being an app that has been around for awhile, and most of us using it, we felt very comfortable including it.
3. Be Intentional with Your Humor
Moving from concepting to scripting can be terrifying. Many times in the sketch world, an idea is developed by a couple of comedians riffing back and forth. Eventually, the writer takes the concept home, thinking that the sketch will practically write itself…but then they’re faced with a blank page. While it may be hard to believe that comedians can be insecure, the fear of not being funny enough can overtake them. If not careful, they’ll have a script of random one-liners, and not a fully developed story.
Be intentional with your humor, and make sure your jokes support what you are trying to say. This harkens back to the earlier section about establishing your point of view early. By focusing on adding “more funny”, you can easily confuse your viewer. One approach is to write a first draft that only contains the message of the video. Once you feel comfortable with it, you can use the second draft to find places where humor is appropriate.
Make sure your jokes are not forced. If it seems at all like a company is trying to be funny, the video will not work. Find the right amount of humor that feels like a fit for your brand and let it come from a genuine place. As mentioned above, humor is not always the best method for every video. If it does not feel natural coming from your voice, don’t say it.
It’s okay to limit the number of jokes you include. That may seem counterintuitive, but two to three strong jokes are much more preferable to many average jokes. We both know you’re incapable of writing anything less than stellar joke, but just in case, it allows you more time with your overall message and room to build up to your next joke.
Also, be strategic with your placement of humor. Unlike sketch, it is appropriate, and many times recommended, to start with your best joke to hook your audience. Keep in mind, though, that the first few seconds, normally the problem statement, establishes the reality. You should not do something so extreme, you’re unable to return to normal. It’s distracting to the viewer, and you want to use the middle of the video to focus on your message. Finally, end with a strong punchline and/or callback to the beginning. A well-structured video tells a complete story, and tying up loose ends with a hard laugh will leave the viewer satisfied from start to finish.
We were very strategic with our PhoneSoap script. Initially shown as a sleek, highly-intellectual look at cell phones, we surprise the audience when our narrator mentions that the phone is covered in “poo-poo”. It not only humorously averts the viewers’ expectations, it also establishes the problem statement. The audience is hooked, and we provide light humor throughout the video until one final bathroom joke before the company logo.
4. Show, Don’t Tell
I have brought many first drafts to the stage, excited to show off my new sketch. Countless hours spent on individual lines of dialogue, every word’s placement is questioned. Finally, I am ready to see it performed…but then I notice the same thing every time. The actors aren’t doing anything! What I originally thought would be a killer sketch is now just talking heads delivering one-liners.
While it is easy to want to establish all of your humor through your narration, we are dealing with a visual medium. Viewers might miss a word or two in the script, but they will see everything on the screen. Make sure your humor is tied closely to your visuals. It will help you fight that pesky auto-mute found on many social media sites.
When we write our scripts, we are already thinking of how our word choice can be animated. Certain words may sound more natural in a normal conversation, but if they cannot be supported visually, we will strike them from the script. Many times, we will include visual notes when we hand off the script to the client. We do not do it with every video, but it’s helpful for comedic video as it gives a sense of what we are imagining with our word selection.
For our Super-Sod video, we worked with one our favorite animators who has a great sense of humor to create a video that relied heavily on the character’s facial expressions. Many times, both in video and in sketch, a reaction can be much stronger than the punch line.
The Last Laugh
Whether it’s on the stage or on the screen, landing a joke is an exhilarating feeling. Any type of positive feedback helps you know that you have delivered your message in an effective way, but when it’s delivered through laughter, it’s a special kind of win. We’re always trying to improve our comedy skills, so if you have any tips on making an explainer video that induces some chuckles, feel free to share below.