A theory of funny

Recently we’ve been writing some video scripts to launch a tone of voice. They needed to be funny, and it was interesting to see what worked and what didn’t.    

Here’s my theory: In life, things can be one-beat, two-beat or three-beat funny. And you have to pick the right number of beats for your message, audience, and how long you have their attention for.

One-beat funny

On screen it’s physical comedy like Del Boy falling through the bar. In writing, it’s stuff like simple puns.

Something unexpected, like this error message.

Or this bin lorry’s strapline.

When it’s good, one-beat funny can show a pop of personality. It takes no work on the part of the reader to ‘get’ it. And it’s handy when you don’t have your audience’s attention for long.

Two-beat funny

Dad jokes tend to be two-beat funny (or cringeworthy). My favourite joke from my Dad was when he called me one day and we had this conversation

Dad: Charlotte, we’ve seen a celebrity stabbed in London!

Me: What?! Who?!

Dad: Ummm, Reece…Reece something.

Me: Reece Witherspoon?!

Dad: No, it was with a knife! Bah ha ha ha! (Hangs up).

Kudos Dad – two-beat funny.

It’s what you see in observational comedy, where the audience needs to make a connection.

Like this Nytol advert.

Using this kind of humour is good for when you know you have your audience’s attention for more than a second or two. It tends to sound more intelligent or sophisticated than the one-beat kind. (With the exception of some dad jokes.)

Three-beat funny

This is where the audience has to engage their brain a little more to get it. Like this poster from The Economist.  

This sign that went up when this electronics store closed down.

And that whole suite of ads from Spotify.

Beyond being three-beat funny

It’s where things get more surreal and you’re asking your audience to suspend belief or enjoy the ridiculousness of what you’re saying. Or they have to have some inside knowledge to get it.

Like Lewis Capaldi’s album launch ad.

This kind of funny can be risky, because there’s a good chance you’re going to alienate a portion of your audience. But the pay-off is big for those that do get it.

Why am I sharing all this?

If you’re wanting to get humour into what you write, here’s my advice:

  • if you don’t have much time with your audience, go for one or two-beat funny
  • for more high-brow humour, go for two-beat funny or above
  • only do something beyond three-beat funny if you know your audience, or they know you, really well.

And with that, I’ll leave you with my favourite joke.

Q: What’s the difference between a kangaroo and a kangaroot?

A: One’s a kangaroo and the other is a Geordie stuck in a lift.

You. Are. Welcome.

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