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The Voodoo of Telling a Long Story: Humor Beyond 60 Seconds


Why Comedy Is the Most Effective Way to Advertise

I was in a Seattle Costco, hustling my production crew upstream through a river of shoppers scavenging pallets of packaged goods, and I was thrilled. Costco’s CEO, Jim Singel, had given us carte blanche. I had the access. I had the freedom. I had the budget. And my talent, a well-known stand-up comedian, was doing rewrites and improv as we went along. I remember thinking to myself before I called “Action” on the first shot: This had better work. I’m out of excuses.

My boss’s boss, whose name was Ron, had tabbed me to create a video for a luncheon celebrating corporate sponsors of Children’s Hospital. Typically a pretty simple gig, except that Ron’s first child was a preemie – born prematurely – delivered just a couple months before. Children’s had basically saved his son’s life. No pressure on me… at all. Gulp.

The comedian kept polishing the material over the three-day shoot, and his suggestions were spot-on. My only issue was that he kept asking to punch up certain lines that I considered sacrosanct. I knew I was gonna need them for later. After finishing my rough cut, I summoned my boss, Ron, his bosses, and everyone else who needed to approve it. None of them had even so much as asked to see a draft of my script ahead of time. This was totally my baby. The lights dimmed.

We were half way through the four-minute video when Ron lost interest in his yogurt cup. I knew because I heard his spoon clanking on the conference room table as he dropped it. Now, Ron was a hardboiled executive from Cleveland who wore descriptions of himself like in your face and a volatile temper as a badge of honor. As the final shot of the video lit up the screen, Ron whipped his yogurt cup and spoon across the table and stormed out without a word. Literally and figuratively in the dark, I turned to my boss and asked, “What just happened?”

He explained, “He doesn’t want anyone to see he’s crying.”

A few more people cried at the Costco luncheon, and the video went on to win a Silver Telly, my first national award. Most videos that long – especially humorous ones – run outta steam, lose their punch or become downright boring after a minute or so. As I explained to the comedian earlier, I was gonna need those lines. They made all the difference. Allow me to explain.

THE PROBLEM

A humorous 30- or 60-second commercial is going to be a couple jokes at best. As digital marketing and content marketing evolves, brands are asking for longer and longer videos. Why? Well, last year 73 percent of marketers said video had a positive impact on their marketing results. Facebook's algorithm already favors showing video content in newsfeeds. YouTube reports mobile consumption rises by 100 percent each year. Marketers are preparing for the year 2020 when it's predicted that 75% of mobile traffic will be video content.

The good news is that storytellers are now unshackled from standard television ad units. But the bad news is that they can’t just move from gag to gag or joke to joke for three, four or even five minutes. Even situational humor becomes fatigued.

WHY YOU NEED A SPECIALIST

Stand-up comedians understand the problem. Sure, they know how to create an entertaining set-up and punch line. They’re masters at adding a topper or tag to create rolling laughter. But any working professional creates 20- and 40-minute sets. They don’t write gag after gag. They write from situation. They design their presentations in terms of sequences leading to a series of jokes. Watch a good routine by any solid stand-up comedian, and they’ll lock you in. Their routines entertain longer because they’re built to last.

Whether you’re working in comedy or drama, when you need to hold an audience’s attention for an extended period of time, there are proven storytelling techniques that are not well known – in particular at advertising agencies and production companies. And with longer storytelling becoming more and more popular, these skills are desperately in demand.

THE MESSY MIDDLE

Stories typically bog down in the middle – the Second Act. You’ll either lose your audience or they’ll skip to the end of the video when the Second Act is dull. The following are a few tips and tricks professionals use to keep audiences riveted through the Second Act. Experiment with one, two or more of these to save your longer marketing videos from being abandoned.

  • Re-anchor the comedic situation with a single line that reminds the audience of the goals and the stakes.

  • Have the protagonist announce a new promise or a vow that leads to more trouble.

  • Create a new competition between characters with differing views of the world.

  • Set a clock that adds pressure and tension to the situation.

  • Introduce a broomstick to change the protagonist’s goals. Remember in The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy’s goal was to meet The Great Oz. He won’t grant her an audience until she brings back the witch’s broomstick. This creates a whole new goal at right about the midpoint of the story.

  • Bring in a new character who raises the stakes or recklessly moves forward, dragging the protagonist with them.

  • Increase the tempo and pacing by adding an action-packed, visual sequence or a chase scene.

  • Make the protagonist act completely the opposite of how they would normally act.

  • Switch the point of view. Show the audience another character with skin in the game – maybe the villain.

  • Heighten the tension with a betrayal. Even better, the protagonist betrays themselves or their goals by making a deal with the devil.

  • Pull them away from the people they love.

  • Force the protagonist to make bad choices.

  • Burn the ships, so they don’t have a path back home.

  • Add a false ending. The audience thinks it’s the end, but it’s not. The protagonist made a decision and acted, but it’s the wrong decision. They now know what the right decision is, but it’s way harder and more painful.

And in case you’re curious, in the Children’s Hospital video I re-anchored the comedic situation early in the Second Act and forced the protagonist to start making bad choices shortly thereafter, which led to him acting the opposite of how the character would naturally act.

That project wasn’t the last time I made one of my bosses cry. But that time, it was for all the right reasons.

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Mike Johnston is a production executive and advertising creative in Seattle. He is available for freelance consulting, writing and directing. Contact Mike

Read part two: The Voodoo of Telling a Long Story: Propulsive Narrative

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