How to Laugh Your Way to
More Creative Copy

Laughing Alligator

Let’s say a researcher gives you a candle, a box of tacks, and a book of matches. Your mission: affix the candle to a corkboard in such a way so that, when lit, wax doesn’t drip onto the floor.

Nothing funny about that, right?

But a funny joke might just help you solve this creative challenge. And laughter in general may help you write better copy.

Not convinced? Read on.

The Candle and the Corkboard

This challenge comes from a famous study by psychologist Alice M. Isen. Her researchers tasked two groups of students with the problem.

The first group was shown a bloopers reel before the test. The second watched a film about mathematics.

Here’s the funny part: Seventy-five percent of the students who watched the bloopers solved the candle and the corkboard problem.

Just twenty percent of the people who watched the math film beforehand solved the same problem.

Most of the students who watched the math film approached the challenge with “functional fixedness,” or a mental block that limits people to using things in traditional ways. They tried to tack the candle to the corkboard or glue it on with melted wax.

But the majority of students who had a laugh beforehand saw alternative uses for the objects they were given. They emptied the box of tacks, tacked it to the corkboard, and used it as a candleholder.

Lighten Up for More Creative Copy

Do you ever approach copywriting with functional fixedness?

We all know how it is. It’s Monday, there’s a rote task at hand, so you conjure up a passable idea, bang it out in a flurry, and give it a quick proofreading. But the copy feels clinical, functional, dead.

Laughter may help liven it up.

Take a break. Watch some Funny or Die. Browse the New Yorker’s humor section. Talk to a friend or a coworker. Better yet, try to make someone else laugh.

Do whatever it takes to lighten your mood.

Then sit back down and look at your work. Can you punch up the subheads? Lighten the transitions? Does a more arresting lead leap to mind?

Maybe so. Isen’s research shows that creative solutions are more likely to follow a good laugh than they are, say, banging your head on your desk.

This can seem paradoxical. Sometimes, when you’re really under the gun, a silly distraction is the last thing you want. You want to stay focused. Determined. Serious.

But that may be when you need to lighten up the most.

What about you? How do you give your copy a lighter touch?

About the Author: Michael Pugh is an ad guy who loves to travel.

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  1. Thank you for this post. I’m a methodical person by nature, so tips like this are a great help. You gave me a way to break out of my A-B-C/1-2-3 thinking.

  2. Great! So I have a work reason to watch all those Zero Punctuation game reviews on the Escapist. Thank you, Michael!

  3. Thanks Michael, I appreciate your perspective. Too often humor is viewed as a distraction or time sink. Humor lightens the moment and frees the mind. Plus I use it in meetings to get people to drop their guards and lower their defenses.

  4. That candle/corkboard story is great.. an example I’ll probably use a lot now (maybe as much as the copier story).

    It makes a lot of sense too, cause humor is a right side of the brain thing, just as anything creative is. Math is almost completely left sided.

    btw, I think that’s the best “about the author” I’ve ever seen. Brilliant.

  5. That’s fascinating! I know that oftentimes when I feel “stuck,” I’ll blog about something inspirational to get my wheels moving again. Creativity seems to flow better once I’ve gotten into something that matters to me.

    I’ll try comedy next time!

  6. Is its about lightening the pressure, then, there is another way to do it.
    Leave everything aside and ask your subconscious mind to give you a solution, and then take a little nap. I know it sounds ridiculous, but if you try it, you’d be surprised to see how your mind works for you.

  7. Copy is one of those things that sometimes needs a great deal of inspiration, especially if you try writing in a blog every day.

  8. Wow! this is a post to bookmark. Thanks for the insight.

    When looking back, the better part of my writing was done with a smile on my face.

  9. Ya is truth, Gary Halbert wrote in one of his letter on December 18, 1989 saying that by watching funny stuff really lighten up the mind of a human being which leads to the creative part of our brain.

  10. My viewpoint gets bigger when I am cheerful. Plus it is so much easier to write.

    I know I am in trouble when I am being serious.

    Thanks for the reminder.


  11. When working at a local community college I took several classes/seminars about how we learn, and therefore, how we should teach. I vividly remember one prof drawing a graph and explaining that the “most teachable moment” was immediately after someone laughed. That’s when inhibitions and preconceptions would be lowest, while receptivity to incoming ideas would be highest. This fits in precisely with your article and is yet one more reason to infuse humor throughout our lives. Thanks for the terrific post.

  12. I experienced the same thing you’ve mentioned above. During one of the boring lecture in the university, lecturer gave square problems to solve. After solving different bit complicated ones, students were unable to divide a square to 7 equal parts. They all were ENGINEERING students.Isn’t that funny ? :)
    A great post. We must have creativity as well as a good sense of humor in our selves.

  13. Great stuff here… As a writer/producer of radio & TV spots, and other creative content for broadcast and the web, I know that the best instances of creative inspiration — the “Eureka” moments — often come when I’m looking the other way, so to speak. The idea for the car spot comes when I’m playing golf, or the creative spark for the furniture store will strike when I’m doing ANYthing but thinking about furniture. And once the idea is there, the rest is easy. Thanks for a great post!

  14. i lighten up reading this kind of great stuff!

  15. New bloggers trying to get it right might think that the more they seriously focus on the writing the better it will be. Allowing for a little elasticity in the creative process by injecting humor into it is invaluable! Thanks for the reminder! We’ll pass it along to some of our clients.

  16. Great insight! Humor can definitely zap those creative connections and make us smarter.

  17. well…nice idea today

  18. Definitely agree. I have a much easier time being creative, whether it is problem solving or writing, when I’ve had a few laughs.

  19. I just can’t get enough of your style, insights and methods.

  20. You should give us some material to work with and do something funny and embarrassing and post it on youtube so we can get going.

    Hurry up, I’m waiting for some LOLz.

  21. I totally agree with you. I always like to see the comical side of things and I like to write with a little humor, I like to laugh and make others laugh. That people will go well. I do not like the taciturn people.

  22. Hey Elidet,

    You don’t have to look very far for a funny and embarrassing video of me on YouTube.

  23. Oops – embed code didn’t work. Here’s the link:

  24. @Mike


    That video was funny, but you didn’t fall flat on your face, which would have raised the funny about 2 more points.

  25. I have always believed that life is too short and we should laugh as much as possible along the way. I usually have more energy and creativity when I look at things from a lighter side. Thanks for a great post!

  26. You know they say laughter/happiness is the cure for everything. I am a firm believer in this and sometimes you just have to bust out a smile and lighten the mood.

  27. Most of what I write is humor. And come to think about it, I think my lighthearted approach to my posts enhances my writing capabilities. Simply put: I have fun.

    This is a very interesting study. Perhaps there is an underlying spiritual teaching too.

  28. Next week is World Creativity and Innovation Week April 15 – 21. A great post to keep the energy going. Thanks

  29. Great article! and Great advice! I actually got a laugh when I thought of how serious my content must sound…..thanks for the tip.

  30. That’s because although they were watching the box, they were thinking outside it, whereas the math group was just glued to it.

  31. I didn’t it funny at all…No just kiddin’. I have always thought that laughter was the best medicine, and now it is the best business secret too. Who knew?…


  32. My copy is all about the “lighter touch”. I use humour as a vehicle for a more serious message of living well. It’s fun for me to write and hopefully it’s fun for my readers to read.

    Humour does help with creativity and it also helps you stay more positive. If you look hard enough, pretty much every situation has something funny about it. Great post, thanks Michael.

  33. Lexi Rodrigo :

    Thanks for this! I’ll keep it in mind next time I’m writing copy and my toddler pulls me wanting to play.

  34. Hey Mike, post a few pictures of your socks… then everyone will be havin’ a laugh :)

  35. That’s great info. Thanks!

  36. @ Todd, well played!

    Mike, solid post.
    Much of meh graytest wurk wuz inspeye-erd by a Cheezburger.

  37. Excellent theory. I often find – dependent on how much time I have – looking away from a project for an afternoon and coming back to it helps me see it much clearer. Is that because I have a fresh pair of eyes, or because I have relaxed, calmed down and not tried to make something happen?
    I would have to say the latter and I like the thought that your theory works .

  38. Michael,

    Let’s not forget that one of the very essences of comedy is creativity and surprise. Many forms of jokes work because you expect one thing and get another, so if that’s your goal as well, you have some structural similarities to humor, even if the tone is different.

  39. Great article! and Great advice! I actually got a laugh when I thought of how serious my content must sound…..thanks for the tip.