The Trouble With Funny

Quiet day in the office, and was catching up. An article about The Onion on Alternet included this:

During the last few years, multiple surveys… have found that viewers of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are among America’s most informed citizens. Now, it may be that Jon Stewart isn’t making anyone smarter; perhaps America’s most informed citizens simply prefer comedy over the stentorian drivel the network anchormannequins dispense. But at the very least, such surveys suggest that news sharpened with satire doesn’t cause… intellectual coronaries. Instead, it seems to correlate with engagement.

An interesting thought, pleasure at the phrase “stentorian drivel” aside. Here at The Edge, our two main weapons are,  among our many weapons, humour is an approach which we’ve used to great effect.

But it’s hard. And here’s a story about why.

I was once involved delivering some attitudinal learning to a Big Four professional services firm. Subject matter: Business Continuity Management.

Now BCM is many things, but interesting isn’t one of them. Wikipedia defines it thus:

Business Continuity Planning (BCP) is an interdisciplinary peer mentoring methodology used to create and validate a practiced logistical plan for how an organization will recover and restore partially or completely interrupted critical function(s) within a predetermined time after a disaster or extended disruption.


Sorry, my forehead was resting on the keyboard there.

Anyway, I think we’d all agree that disaster planning is A Good Thing.

The trouble is that the attitudinal training needed to consist of two things:

1. here’s what to do when the building falls down, i.e. fantastically irrelevant to most of the people most of the time

2. here’s how you, personally, can mitigate the impact of disaster, i.e. keep your desk tidy and back your computer up regularly, i.e. tremendously patronising to all of the people all of the time

So, a tricky subject on which to generate traction.

Comedy was the answer. We came up with, modestly, a brilliant script where an over-important prick was laid low by a series of disasters all of which would have been avoided if he’d complied with the BCM best practice. And it was funny. Pratfall funny, dialogue funny, visual funny, and arising-from-the-subject-at-hand funny. Great casting, great comedy director, great shoot, great edit, great hooks on which to hang learning points.

And it never got used.

And let me tell you what the corporate sense-of-humour-failure was about. Not the highly-paid professional arriving at his meeting on a stolen 7-year-old-girl’s pushbike. Not the OK Corrall parody. Not the old lady with the zimmer frame.

The biscuit gag.

Right at the beginning of the course, there was a throwaway line about organising the biscuits for the big meeting. Right at the end, where our hero has survived everything we’ve thrown at him, there are the biscuits. (You had to be there. It was kinda funny. Really).

Turned out that this Big Four had decided to economise by banning biscuits from all but client meetings. So biscuits were a sore point.

And they pulled the course. Unbelievable. (To be fair, it wasn’t just the biscuits, but that was the reason they were able to articulate the clearest.)


My point is that absolutely comedy can deliver engagement. And if you’re able to pull it off, it can work brilliantly (and we have and it has, for the same client, since. Phew). But the sweet spot for comedy is very narrow, and the barriers to success are very high, and once the thought that something, anything, is the tiniest bit wrong passes through your client’s mind, you’re dead in the water.  I’d say that it’s the hardest of all forms to get right.

Now unintentional comedy, that’s a piece of cake…


One Response to “The Trouble With Funny”

  1. cdashnaw Says:

    Researchers at the University of Missouri-Columbia’s Robert J. Trulaske Sr. College of Business have found that humor in the workplace is a good thing. This begs the question, though: Is humor in the workplace possible? Perhaps the next topic for research should be, Does being in upper management drain people of their sense of humor, or does getting into upper management require a lack of a sense of humor in the first place?

    Thanks for a very funny post. The biscuit decision is hilarious. They must be saving a small fortune with that one.

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