There’s a scene in the animated series Futurama that cracks me up every time I think about it.
The show’s characters are at the horse track of the future, but there’s controversy when a race ends very, very closely — so closely that the race officials need a powerful electron microscope to judge the “photo finish.” The track loudspeaker eventually announces, “And the winner is … Number Three, in a quantum finish!”
And Professor Farnsworth, who had bet on the other horse, tears up his tickets in a rage and yells, “No fair! You changed the outcome by measuring it!”
Didn’t get the joke? Don’t worry, neither did most of the viewers.
I’m quite sure that the writers laughed out loud when writing that scene. They were a bunch of nerds, and thought that applying the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle to horse racing was the height of hilarity.
But 99% of the viewers probably didn’t find it the height of hilarity. I’d guess that 75% didn’t even know that the line was a joke.
So why did the writers include the gag? Because the remaining 1% who did get it became fans for life.
How to lay eggs (like a platypus … they don’t do much, you know)
I call hidden gems like this “Easter eggs” — a video game term referring to hidden areas, rooms, or events that developers add to games to amuse themselves.
Animated humor shows like Futurama, The Simpsons, and many others are absolutely stuffed with Easter eggs, and they’re an important part of building the massive cult followings these shows enjoy.
When I recognized Farnsworth’s line for what it was, I felt like I was part of an exclusive club. In fact, I felt like that joke had been placed there for me and me alone.
I could immediately imagine hanging out with those writers. That Easter egg made me feel like we were buddies, that we had so much in common.
I became hooked on Futurama. I never missed an episode. I told all of my friends to watch it. I bought all of the DVDs.
Then, when I realized how effective those obscure little jokes had been on me, I started including them in my own writing.
If something amused me, I didn’t worry about the people who wouldn’t get it, unless not understanding it would ruin the reading experience.
So I let those oddball references fly … and I credit them with a lot of my recent growth.
Here are two examples of Easter eggs I’ve placed recently here on Copyblogger:
- In a recent Copyblogger wrap-up, I made passing reference to “ruling the tri-state area,” “setting fire to the sun,” and “big laundry.” All three were lines said by Heinz Doofenschmirtz, the ridiculous villain of the children’s animated series Phineas and Ferb.
- In an earlier wrap-up, while recapping a story about how overcoming purchase paralysis is like saving people from a burning building, I mentioned hanging from the arm of Kurt Russell while he says, “You go, we go!” in a heroic fashion. That’s a line and scene from the firefighter movie Backdraft.
Luckily, Brian is in that small group of people who finds most of my Easter eggs, and he lets me continue to hide them. And when I wanted to be replaced by Johnny Marr, his comment was, “It doesn’t matter if anyone else gets it. I think it’s hilarious.”
I thought it was hilarious too. A small group of people who read it thought it was hilarious, and proceeded to swap Smiths and Johnny Marr references in the comments.
If you’re thinking, “I don’t want only 1-5% of people who read my writing to appreciate it!” I have a clarification to add:
As long as your post works without the Easter egg, people will still read you and like you even if they don’t get your hidden gags.
This is an important point, so I’ll make it one more time. The post has to stand alone. It has to work even if they don’t get the Easter egg.
That Johnny Marr post on Copyblogger? While a small group got the gag and joined in on it, a much larger group read the wrap-up the way they would read any post, and clicked through my teasers to read the full posts.
The post did what it was supposed to do, whether or not you know (or care) who Johnny Marr is.
If you place your Easter eggs well, you’ll get a cloud of people who read your stuff the way they would read anything else they were interested in. But at the center of that cloud will be your core fans. Your insiders. Your “club of you.”
I love my club. The people who truly “get” me with all my oddities and foibles are like old friends. I bond with them. They bond with me. We interact in my comments and on Twitter.
But they also want to read more of what I write, wherever and whenever I write it. They spread the word, tell their friends, become ambassadors and raving fans … and often buy everything I sell (as well as taking advantage of my free offers, for that matter.)
The smaller the group who takes something from your writing, the more exclusive those people feel. You don’t have to settle for a small audience, but there’s a lot of value in having a nucleus of core fans surrounded by what I might call an “interested horde.”
You can build both the nucleus and the horde at the same time. Here’s how.
Six rules for hiding Easter eggs
1. Don’t confine yourself to humor
I’m an animation geek and have always liked humor in most forms, so the Easter eggs I hide tend to be jokes or references that are meant to make the reader chuckle.
But anything obscure will work. If you’re an alternative music fan, you might observe how Darren Rowse looks a little like Moby. If you’re a Starbucks barista, you might mention that tech skills need constant adjustment and sharpening — just like a burr grinder that processes a lot of low-quality beans.
2. The post has to work even if they don’t get the reference
I know we already said this. It’s important.
The Farnsworth line in Futurama wouldn’t have worked if the rest of the episode had revolved around the intricacies of why quantum uncertainty had foiled Farnsworth’s horse bet.
It worked because it was a throw-away line. You either caught it or you didn’t. Either way, the action marched on.
3. Don’t be a pretentious jerk
A few Easter eggs are fun. A diet of Easter eggs will give your readers heartburn. If you stuff your writing full of references and jokes that are so obscure that nobody will get them, you’ll just come off as pretentious.
(An example of someone who doesn’t listen to this rule: former comedian Dennis Miller. Yeah, he used to be funny.)
4. Don’t over-explain
If you have to explain it, it’s not an Easter egg, it’s just a joke that fell flat.
You’ll have to walk a fine line to balance clarity with inside jokiness. Sometimes you’ll need to add a few clues, but don’t overdo it.
5. Make it natural
I’ve failed here if all of a sudden, we see a rash of blog posts into which writers have used a crowbar to insert obscure references and inside jokes.
Don’t think of them as something you add; think of them as something you allow to remain. It should feel natural. Write what comes to you — and then stop yourself from editing all of the gems out.
6. Amuse yourself first
I use Easter eggs because I love finding them myself. It’s a game. If something doesn’t make you chuckle or smile or think when you write it, don’t include it.
Some things are meant to be edited out because they simply don’t work. Let those go; no one likes a bad Easter egg.
The name of the game is connection, and like so many other pieces of advice in the blogosphere, much of this boils down to finding your right people. Using Easter eggs is kind of like when a punk fan wears a shirt with a certain band’s logo on it. Other punk fans will see it and will say, “I know what that logo is!” And if those two people strike up a conversation, there’s likely to be instant rapport.
Think of your Easter eggs as a way of creating specialized rapport.
Great content builds a wider audience. But leave in a couple of Easter eggs, to build your “club of you,” too.
About the Author: Johnny B. Truant lays lots of high-quality Easter eggs at his blog, JohnnyBTruant.com.