Monday, 18 July 2011

The Golden Rules for International Comedy

This is a much-discussed issue among our clients prior to their campaigns.

"If we use humour, will it travel?"

Having been responsible for creating humour-based communications for over 20 years now, I have to say that the consensus is this; even if some of the subtleties are lost in translation, the effect of bold, relatable characters telling a story is still much more effective than almost any traditional corporate video (see my previous post about Active vs Passive communications).

If we look to TV and movies we see that comedies such as Friends, Seinfeld and The Office travel very successfully and sell around the world.

When we analyse shows such as these we see that they tend to follow the same basic rules.

1. They avoid writing sketches that rely on puns, words plays, slang, colloquial expressions, ambiguous words or other subtleties of language which won't translate.

2. They essentially create a series colourful and visual sketches where it’s easy to see what’s happening

3. They 'Internationalise' by being generic rather than specific. E.g They don’t reference branches of Burger King or Aldi in all countries but they do use fast food outlets and supermarkets.

4. They write sketches that are concerned with basic human character and situation.

Is Comedy too Risky?

There are of course many flavours of comedy from the lighthearted family sitcoms (Everybody Loves Raymond) to the altogether darker post-watershed comedies aimed at a niche audience. We understand that we need to strike the right balance with of comedy and do nothing that could potentially cause offence to the workforce. But hey - statistically, there will always be someone who, in a company of many thousands, chooses to take offence. This is true of almost any media you might create apart from the most benign (and ineffective). Ask yourself: Is it your plan to make something so dull that it avoids a response (one way of the other)?

And it's not such a risk at all...there are several parts of the production process where we can “dial” up or down the comedic intensity. Scripting. Casting. Shooting. Editing. Through every stage of production we build in flexibility, so that when we finish we will have hit the sweet spot in terms of balance.

Playing it too safe on the other hand can cause more problems than it solves. There’s a risk of patronising the audience and creating something too bland to be remembered, which depending on the subject matter of the training, could have a detrimental effect on the bottom line. Again we’ve found that even with the most conservative of companies the clients have been surprised by how well the comic approach has gone down with their staff.

We’re experiencing this phenomenon even as I write. A huge North American telephone operator is enjoying the giddy joy of positive staff feedback. The comments below are totally real, left as feedback in the comments boxes on their in-house equivalent of YouTube. I cannot say who the company is, but suffice to say, they are conservative (their description) with the tinest of ‘c’s.

“Your videos are the best!. This is such a fabulous way to get the message out. No more hum-drum. Thank you.”

“Loved the video!! very well done.. Entertaining yet delivered the point. Can’t wait for the next one and I already made sure my entire team watched this!”

Again – these are totally genuine.

I believe many companies starve their employees of any kind of engagement. A regular commenter on this blog described employee communications as a loveless marriage. You both have to be there for the children (customers), going through the motions, not really feeling it. And worse still, this culture often spills over into Marketing. Marketers live in fear of rocking the boat only to have their communications ignored.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Have faith in what makes you sit up, and use that.

PS – if you want to know which programmes resulted in the comments above, you’ll need to contact me directly. In the mean time, there's this (click on the play icon).


  1. Jim, you marketing guru you... Chris and I would love to pick your brains if you're available at all this week?

  2. With pleasure sir - as always, bring biscuits!

  3. To add, laughter is known to enhance learning and hence higher impact in terms of lesson retention.

    - Laughing gets more oxygen into the bloodstream...oxygen is pure brain fuel.

    - Laughing causes a surge in endorphins - these are the body's natural painkillers, and they give you a feeling of euphoria.

    - Endorphins stimulate your brain's frontal lobes. This can lead to increased focus and attention span.

    So laughing not only gives you a physical feel-good effect, it makes you feel better mentally.

    Laughter also decreases stress, boosts your immune system and relaxes muscle tension.

    So humor should be encouraged, not questioned.