29 Simple Comedic Devices that Make Advertising Irresistible
Why Comedy Is The Most Effective Way to Advertise
Due to a series of mistakes, I was standing in the middle of an auditorium surrounded by 14 production assistants. Their combined years of professional experience rivaled that of the bottle of rye I was destined to down later that night. I had agreed to shoot a skinny, a five-day live event for Doritos, and karma was punishing me for it.
Hired by a giant, out-of-state production company a few weeks earlier, I was initially asked for two things: an A-list D.P., and the names of at least 20 production assistants. I assumed the production assistants would be tasked with working the event, not the shoot. Wrong. Unbeknownst to me, their master plan was to staff every crew position—from gaffer to sound—with production assistants. The morning of the shoot I cautioned the crew not to try to be everything. If you’re in the lighting department today, don’t worry about crafties. If you’re in the sound department, don’t worry about dressing the stage. Simplify your thinking. Only be what you’re being asked to be. Own it. Go forth and be awesome. They were.
That’s also solid advice for anyone using humor in advertising. The fastest way to figure out what’s working and not working in a humorous commercial is to ask what type of commercial you’re making. If you’re using absurd humor, own it. If you’re doing a role reversal, own it. Let it be what it’s supposed to be, and pull away everything else. Simplify.
Below is a list of devices, genres, and terms used in comedy. Reference it to determine the essence of the advertising you’re creating. And then go forth and be awesome.
Irony is when the actual meaning is the complete opposite of the literal meaning. The comedy lies in the disharmony between something that is expected and the reality – like a meter maid getting a ticket.
Sarcasm is a mocking exasperation of disbelief in response to another character’s statement. As a verbal counterpunch, sarcasm is usually delivered with contempt, but it’s often most effective when understated with indifference. It’s often used as an insult, but it’s better if it can further the storyline. For example, a character says, “Like you would know. Wait, no one is supposed to know that.”
A farce is when extreme characters are put into preposterous circumstances that then spiral out of control and become more and more ludicrous. They often involve improbable coincidences, comedies of errors, and ideas too ridiculous to be true.
In a screwball comedy, characters deal with extreme situations, and their exaggerated responses fuel the humor. Unlike farce, a screwball comedy typically has rapid-fire dialogue and fast-paced action sequences.
A parody takes on the style and elements of another genre for comedic effect, like the way a mockumentary deliberately uses the structure and appearance of a documentary for laughs rather than infotainment.
A spoof is similar to a parody. However, a spoof is typically a smaller moment or event being imitated. A spoof references something well-known, so that the audience quickly makes the connection. An example would be a character waving a hand and saying, “These are not the gummy bears you are looking for!” – a spoof on Star Wars.
Satire pokes fun at society or politics by exaggerating (often to the point of ridiculousness) some of its unquestioned beliefs. This form of humor is common during presidential election years.
CLOWNS AND FOOLS
The fool will misinterpret a piece of information that is clear to the audience. For example, a cat owner asks the fool to cat-sit for the weekend. When the cat owner returns on Sunday night his cat is nowhere to be found, but he finds the fool squatting inside a cardboard box, licking a saucer of milk.
Unlike the fool who completely misinterprets the information, misunderstandings are small mistakes that anyone could make. This helps the audience easily identify with the character. The comedy comes from the misunderstanding spinning out of control, rather than a ludicrous misinterpretation.
A flawed plan seems completely logical to the characters, but the audience can see the obvious hole in the logic. It’s more satisfying to see the characters fail in an unexpected way. For example, a man on a roof is being encouraged by his buddies below to jump into the swimming pool, a very long distance from the roof. He slips, slides off the roof and into the flames of a large grill below. He immediately dives into the swimming pool.
FISH OUT OF WATER
A fish out of water is when characters are placed in an environment or circumstances that are wildly outside their comfort zones – for example, a drill sergeant left in charge of a baby nursery.
Self-deprecating humor targets the character uttering the line. It’s best used for a foible or situation the audience has experienced firsthand. For example, “I’m so old, I’ve got an autographed copy of the Bible.”
Pratfalls are a humiliating type of physical humor that involves a character falling, tripping, slipping, crashing into, or being hit by something. They are funnier when the character and the audience don’t see it coming. For example, a character skips right past the banana peel only to fall into a four-foot pothole.
Prop humor goes for laughs by using objects that are exaggerated in some way, or by using commonplace items in unconventional ways. For example, an adult sitting in a giant rocking chair so that the character appears childlike.
Role reversals invert the social scales. For example, a beggar becomes the king and the king becomes a beggar, or a janitor becomes CEO and the CEO becomes a janitor.
Sexual tension suggests to the audience that one or both characters want to have sex but they need to hold back for some reason. Avoiding the act becomes the catalyst for humor.
Slapstick is also described as physical humor. It involves choreographed violence between two or more characters, staged for comic effect. The violence isn’t funny without motivation or surprise. For example, a carpenter toting a handful of lumber over his shoulder spins around and takes out his coworker. The coworker gets up to protest as the carpenter spins around the other way. To avoid getting hit again the coworker ducks, face down into a birthday cake. In slapstick the characters are never seriously hurt, and recover instantly from injuries.
Sophomoric or juvenile humor is broad, childish, and inappropriate behavior involving pranks, gratuitous insults, potty jokes, and sexual situations. It works best by putting unrestrained characters into formal or restrictive situations so they can act out against conventions, rules, and expectations.
Absurdity or outrageous comedy purposely pushes the boundaries of humor for comedic effect. The situations and characters are products of magical thinking beyond this world, where outrageous activities are normal. For example, a man in a giant nest being fed Skittles by a bird. Because absurd comedy will sometimes run up against taboos and poor taste, it requires careful scrutiny ahead of time.
Observational humor is also described as situational humor or stand-up. The character telling the joke has an over-idealized sense of the world. The narrator thinks everything should be perfect, so the joke typically highlights something that’s less than perfect. These bits usually take the form of a story or anecdote. For example, the problem with waiting in line isn’t the line, or the waiting – it’s all the people.
The key to dry humor is delivering it in a dispassionate way. Taken to an extreme, this would be deadpan. However, the droll, matter-of-fact signature of dry humor gives it slightly more animation. Time is the enemy of dry humor. It requires more punch lines per minute to hold the audience’s attention, because the delivery doesn’t have the advantage of passion.
Highbrow humor is commonly used to portray sophisticated or upper-class characters. The topics are sometimes so eccentric that the audience doesn’t understand the reference. For this reason it’s important to leave clues (digressions and tangents) so the audience will understand. For example, the forward guidance from the company sounded more like a helot uprising, without the swords and gore.
Hyperbole is an exaggerated boast, character, situation, or environment. It stretches the truth well beyond reality. The key to good hyperbole is the tone; it has to be clear to the audience that it’s an exaggeration for comedic effect. For example, characters walking out of a tax return office with oversized checks.
Understatement diminishes the situation, making it seem much less than what it actually is. For example, a quarterback is knocked unconscious on the field and the announcer says, “That’ll hurt tomorrow.”
Sight gags convey humor visually. The best sight gags don’t need explanation. The audience will understand without a word. Sight gags are usually a special effect blending two or more physical impossibilities or unexpected occurrences. For example, a character that is part puppy, part monkey, and part baby.
Incongruities, clashing context, or out-of-context scenarios are some of the most common comedic devices used in advertising. It’s objects, situations, or characters assuming roles they should never occupy. To the characters involved in this alternative reality, the predicate is normal. Incongruities start with a well-known situation (grounded in reality) and then replace iconic elements, so that the circumstances remain familiar but the details become humorous. For example, a feline (afraid of water) forced to be a lifeguard, or someone robbing a bank with a banana rather than a pistol.
Comedic opposites pit two characters with different worldviews against each other. They are both trying to achieve the same goal; they just go about it in wildly different ways. Their approaches can be verbal, physical, or both. The first stage of the disagreement is about the goal, and then it quickly becomes personal.
The most common character attribution swap is giving human characteristics to animals, babies, and objects. A talking dog or a singing teapot gives these characters more human-like qualities. Now that we’ve entered an alternative universe like a breakdancing baby, the comedic gloves are off and scenarios can roam wild.
Surrealism lashes together completely disjointed concepts, punctuated with random thoughts and bizarre circumstances. The amusing part of surrealism is the absurdity and imaginative imagery. The challenge is developing a theme in the subtext that the audience will understand, so it becomes more than a nonsensical dream – it becomes the point.
For several reasons, the following are some of the least effective forms of comedy for advertising. Some are outright offensive. Some are so simplistic they’re considered remedial. Others can easily be misinterpreted when not handled with a deft hand. With that said, when used in very specific situations, a couple of these can appeal to niche audiences. Proceed with caution.
Dark humor is sometimes called black comedy or gallows humor. It confronts serious subjects like death, torture, sadness, and pain. It spins comedy out of what no one dares say aloud.
Blue humor covers everything from risqué, off-color, racist, and homophobic jokes to double entendres. It uses impropriety or indecency for comedic effect. Advertising has a long history of using sex to sell, but there is a subjective line that, when crossed, takes bawdy naughtiness that might be funny into troubled territory.
An oxymoron is a thought that contradicts itself. One part of the sentence defeats (or has the opposite meaning of) the other part, such as in the line, “I plan out every detail of my spontaneity.”
A pun is sometimes referred to as a play on words. It’s used to intentionally confuse two homophones, such as in the line, “It’s hard to beat eggs in the morning.”
Mike Johnston is a production executive and advertising creative in Seattle. He is available for freelance consulting, writing and directing. Contact Mike
Want more tips on being a better comedy writer? Read, "15 Comedy Hacks Every Young Writer Should Know."