brand storytelling
Storytelling Communications

What Dick Van Dyke, Martin Short, and Tina Fey Taught Me About Brand Storytelling

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Comedy is like smelling salts. If you’ve ever been in the position of receiving such a delightful medical treatment, you know the feeling.

Online, a joke delivers a similar punch. It’s the electric jolt of media consumption. Weave a zinger into your work, and BAM. Audience: awake.

Humor can, at times, feel ethereal—like an innate talent one either does or doesn’t have. That feeling is frustrating, especially when you need to be funny in your brand storytelling efforts. If you’ve run analytics on your content recently and realized that your stories are falling flat, or you’re looking to connect with new audience segments, you might be looking to comedy as a differentiating factor. And it could be super effective in bringing readers closer to the heart of your brand—if only you knew how to do it.

You’re not the first content creator who’s puzzled over how to be the funny guy. It’s a skill you and I both need to understand if we want to stand out as brand storytellers. Fortunately, it’s as much of a craft as any other brand of storytelling, requiring a sense of audience empathy, an ear for rhythm, and a near-manic drive to tell a story that resonates. To better learn the art of comedy, I looked to the comedic legends I most deeply admire. These are the lessons I’ve learned.

Lesson 1: Consider Your Audience in Context—Dick Van Dyke

Thankfully, I’m naturally drawn to humor, so reading about it isn’t work. I’ve always enjoyed funny characters—to the point of devouring the autobiographies from classic comics over political heavy-hitters and historical influencers. When you read an entertainer’s life story, the humor makes a lot more sense. Dick Van Dyke was a physical goofball-style comedian because no one paid attention to his long-form ramblings, for example. Emotionally, America wasn’t in a position to handle much more than his simple inanity. If you’ll recall, families then had just suffered World War II from every angle, and were desperate for relief. His austere silliness tore people up. A quick listen to the Dick Van Dyke Show’s studio audience reveals what you’d expect to be total gut-buster jokes, but really, it’s just a dude fake-tripping over an ottoman. Van Dyke himself couldn’t figure it out, but went with it anyway. What’s fascinating is that he’s still producing humorous work, but for the most part, it falls short of today’s poignant, intellectual humor. Instead, his new material is cute. Heartwarming. Nice.

Lesson number one: your audience’s mind-set will determine how your joke performs.

Lesson 2: Embrace Failure—Martin Short

Lesson two comes from Martin Short’s My Life as a Humble Comedy Legend, published last year. In it, Marty wrote about his generation’s hunger for improv, where anything can happen. “Our comedy wasn’t about jokes,” he said. “Rather, it was about situations and characters—the peculiar moments we encounter in life.” His time at Second City Toronto, one of the most famous sketch comedy theaters in the world (with famous alums such as Mike Myers, Bill Murray, and John Candy), primed him perfectly for the stage at Saturday Night Live. SNL is that adrenaline rush of improv and a live national TV audience, where not only can anything happen, but it actually does happen—all without the convenience of editing.

Humor doesn't just make brand storytelling more interesting, it strengthens relationships and communications skills in every area.

Marty and his cohorts delivered the goods, but the pressure to create was so intense it robbed his enjoyment. Read any other autobiography from SNL’s archives, and you’ll spot similar sentiments. One of my friends is a former SNL writer, and she’s always said it takes a level of mental sickness to be so productive so often. And of course, the irony is in their product: laughter.

Martin Short’s story is both fascinating and enlightening. It taught me that every iconic comedian has their share of colossal failures. For every 10 ventures Short tried, one panned out. And that’s being generous. Martin Short worked hard on a sitcom called The Associates (heard of it? No? Me neither, a fact Marty points out in his own book). He also did a pilot that he says was so bad, “I was rooting for it to fail almost from the start,” he writes. “Mother’s balls, I’d think, what if this horrid thing actually goes?” To his relief, the show was canceled soon after its pilot. Learning about the real life of a comic is liberating. It lets you hate the project you’re working on, even though it sounded great a week ago, and even though it can still become a gem. And if a piece of work bombs, you can keep going. One look at any humorist’s career, and the perspective lets you learn from your failure, dismiss it quickly, and be grateful it’s out of your system.

Lesson 3: Act Confidently—Tina Fey

Tina Fey’s Bossypants was another reveal-all novel I enjoyed last month that has tons of edgy lessons for brand storytelling journalists. My biggest takeaway though, was that good comedy takes self-confidence. This is lesson number three, and the most important one for brand storytellers. Measure your risks, and if you’re okay with the worst case scenario (or comfortable knowing worst-case is highly unlikely,) then jump in and don’t you dare look back. “Comedy is about confidence,” writes Fey. “The moment an audience senses a slip in confidence, they’re nervous for you, and they can’t laugh.”

A recent example of this in brand storytelling was JetBlue’s somewhat cute commercial called “Let’s Play Airport! The Challenge: Holiday Travel.” The concept is a game show with a Christmas theme. And an airport theme. The ad’s goal is to educate and entertain. Sorry, but I’m done. Too much for me as a viewer. The announcer shouts to convince the audience he’s kidding, so you just end up feeling bad for the troupe, much like Fey said you would. With just over two thousand views, you have to wonder, “Isn’t there anyone manning the curtain?”

Not long after this foul-up, JetBlue produced a successful rebound series called Flight Etiquette, where storytellers exaggerated their roles as passengers who take “travel comfort” too far, or flyers who make neighbors squirm with their loud, in-flight snoring. Viewers naturally appreciate the actors’ overdone gestures and feigned ignorance; the physical humor is a page right out of the Dick Van Dyke play book. This is confident humor.

Another brand that recently nailed it was not a traditional brand at all, but a politician running for re-election. In the ad, non-actors are shown putting up with Gerald, the story’s accidental antagonist. He means well, but his droning communications with friends and family give viewers a unique empathy for the story’s protagonist—Gerald’s wife. In a comfortable, unhurried southern drawl, the protagonist offers a brilliant solution to the constant hubbub: “Please, re-elect Gerald. Please.”

Make Comedy Part of Your Storytelling Repertoire

Social psychologist and professor of Marketing at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business Jennifer Aaker says humor can increase creativity and reinforce relationships, things every story designer needs. And the best part? If done correctly, it shouldn’t cost you a ton of creative energy.

You don’t need to be a natural funny guy to leverage the force of comedy in brand storytelling. The first step, though, is not to go write knock-knock jokes. Instead, work to develop your personal sense of humor. Spend the next week consuming the funniest stuff you can. Highlight what sticks out to you and why. The next step should be natural: apply what you see to your own communications. Don’t copy an entertainer’s words, but do copy their approach. Copy their confidence. Copy their energy.

Then, try to ignore the pressure while you create. “When people say you really, really must do something, it means you don’t really have to,” writes Fey. “No one ever says you really, really must deliver the baby during labor. When it’s true, it doesn’t need to be said.” So as you start incorporating witticisms into your brand’s stories, don’t call attention to your comedic prowess. It makes your reader feel like the gingerbread guy in your game-show-Christmas-carry-on-educational-airport thing.

And that’s just—well, it’s laughable.

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Bethany Johnson is a multiple award-winning content marketing writer and speaker. Her work empowers marketers to ditch interrupt advertising in favor of original content that converts passive readers into active followers. Thriving brands like Tom's of Maine, MasterCard, ADP, Fidelity and Philips currently rely on Bethany's fresh style to connect with audiences daily. As a consultant, she combines simple change management principles with her insider knowledge of freelancing to show traditional marketing teams how to flourish in today's wild gig economy. For more, visit bethanyjohnson.com.

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