Comedy and Communications


Comedy is having a moment. Once solely the domain of late night TV hosts and smoke-filled clubs, social media now allows everyone from brands to politicians to use humor to communicate with the public. And this year on National Tell a Joke Day, it’s never been more important to be funny.

The history of comedy in communications goes back more than a hundred years, when using comedy for salesmanship was a controversial proposition. The Lord and Thomas ad agency said in 1916 that “humor has no place in advertising,” which was a common view at the time. But others disagreed. To sell Force Cereal in 1902, Minnie Maud Hanff, a freelance writer, developed jingles and limericks about a humorous character named Sunny Jim. And over time, the lighthearted advertising style won out over the self-serious, eventually leading to an arms race of goofy Super Bowl commercials.

While advertising and comedy have a long symbiotic relationship, brands themselves have only recently developed comedic identities. Social media has been a significant driver of this process. Taking a cue from their advertising brethren, social media managers from big brands have grown more comfortable with adopting an informal, humorous tone on Twitter.

Social media gives brands an opportunity to build a reputation, communicate with customers, and gain visibility. And given that the primary language of the internet is comedy (with gifs, memes and emojis being the primary dialects), it’s only natural for brands to adopt comedic ideas in their communications work.

That said, humor isn’t for everyone – we wouldn’t tell a client to make a joke during a serious crisis – but being able to tell a joke, and take a joke, can go a long way toward adding authenticity to your voice, a currency that cannot be manufactured. This authenticity is particularly important to communicating with younger audiences, who have little patience for corporate speak, especially on social media.

But brands aren’t the only ones using humor on social media to get their message out—comedy has come to political communications as well. We no longer need to wait for The Daily Show to make politics funny. Social media has opened the comedy floodgates to anyone with an ability write pithy, 140 character jokes. Not all of it is great. But then, neither is The Daily Show anymore.

Members of Congress have caught on, whether it is Senator Chris Murphy sarcastically slamming the Republican health care proposal or Representative Ted Lieu subtweeting the President. Both members have over 300,000 followers on Twitter, and others have achieved similar visibility by using comedy to get attention. Of course, their goal isn’t merely to get followers. At its most effective, comedy uses levity to communicate a deeper meaning. Murphy’s tweets about healthcare highlighted coverage loss under the Republican health care proposal, while Lieu’s tweet undercut the President. They said it using humor, but that doesn’t mean they were joking. The thousands of engagements that each post received speak to their effectiveness.

When former Saturday Night Live writer and current Minnesota Senator Al Franken ran for Senate in 2008, he was attacked for not being serious because of his comedy background. He responded by turning into a very serious lawmaker, a story he recounts in his new book, Al Franken: Giant of the Senate. However, as the title of the book indicates, Franken has begun to let humor into his professional life once more. The difference is that now many of his Congressional colleagues are more willing to use comedy to make a point than he is.

Politicians and companies alike can use comedy on social media to define their brand and provide engaging content to their followers. But what about whole nations? In May the world witnessed a very 2017 moment when the official Twitter accounts of Ukraine and Russia got into a diplomatic spat conducted not with sternly worded statements, but with memes.

Advertisers in the early 20th century worried that if advertisements included jokes, people would remember the joke and forget the ad. But a good joke doesn’t distract from the issue at hand, it magnifies it. A meme can drive home an obscure point about national history better than an ambassador’s statement and a subtweet can offer a more accessible critique of a President than a press conference. Communications professionals take note: comedy is a powerful tool.