The Dangers of Humor

tragedy and humor

I’ve wanted to write this article for over a year, and yet only alluded to the issue for the first time earlier this week. The reason I’ve put it off is the reaction I get whenever I warn clients and friends about employing humor in their writing.

They never want to believe me.

Every good copywriter will tell you to avoid trying to be funny in a written conversion situation, and that’s the gospel truth. No matter how funny you are (or think you are), you’ll hurt your conversions simply because some people won’t get it and they’ll be distracted from the path you’re trying to keep them on.

Blogging is different—there’s generally less on the line with any single post, and humor can actually help you if (and only if) your sense of humor connects with the vast majority of your target audience. Even then you’ll lose people, because a shockingly large percentage of the population is completely humorless, and other people will simply perceive “funny” differently than you do.

Ask around… any blogger who’s been at it for a while has dealt with the nasty comments and hate mail that followed an innocent joke. If you didn’t realize that this is a natural function of society, and therefore social media, you might think something is wrong with you.

So anyway, here’s the point. In my post earlier this week, I conducted a little experiment.

At the end of Three Ways to Spice Up Any Blog Post, I made a string of really bad seasoning puns—curry, sage, thyme, etc. I personally do not find this stuff funny at all, but several readers did. I’m not saying those readers are wrong, because puns are a valid form of humor. All I’m saying is it’s not to my taste.

On the other hand, this entire paragraph earlier in the post was a joke that I find quite amusing:

The crackling flames danced manically upon the charring husk of the car, illuminating the starless night sky as I stood and watched helplessly. Warm canyon winds pushed the pungent smoke into my face and nostrils, and I tasted my own salty tears at the thought of the laptop in the back seat. All I could think was, how am I going to blog this?

While the paragraph does in fact demonstrate how to appeal to all five senses as promised, it’s still a big joke. This is basically me in my best bad noir prose imagining Robert Scoble after he’s wrecked his car in the desert, wondering how he will post about this latest super-cool thing. If the last line doesn’t give it away, the fact that no one has ever seen me write this way in a year-and-a-half might be another clue.

Now, let me stress this… if you didn’t get the joke, it’s no one’s fault but mine. I have a dry and often bizarre sense of humor, which is why I have the good sense to mostly leave it at the door when writing for Copyblogger.

In this case, I threw caution to the wind to see what would happen.

Sure enough, one reader ridiculed me for my “purple prose,” while another actually chastised me. An especially self-important blogger named Nancy Friedman even wasted 963 words of her life equating me to the end of good writing as we know it. Nancy doesn’t get a link, because trolling for links via attack post is so 2005.

Again, it’s not the reader’s fault if the writer’s joke is missed. Any stand-up comedian will tell you: if no one laughs, it’s not funny—period.

Speaking of stand-up comedy, you won’t find a more difficult discipline that can teach copywriters and bloggers more valuable lessons. Roberta and Tony have touched on stand-up before, because the writing and testing process of the stand-up comedian shows you just how important the audience is relative to the personal tastes and desires of the writer or performer.

Comics write material, and then these brave souls get up on stage and try it out live. They’ll tell a joke several different ways over several nights, modifying it depending completely on how the audience responds. If after all those attempts a joke doesn’t connect, they simply toss it and write something else.

Copywriters seeking conversions don’t mess with humor, because it doesn’t sell and it usually only hurts (sorry, Madison Avenue). Bloggers don’t have a way to test their humor other than by observing comments and unsubscribes, and that’s terribly imprecise.

If humor isn’t your main goal, are you sure it’s absolutely necessary?

I’m not trying to discourage humor, because laughter is one of the most important parts of my life. What you need to ask yourself is this: who are you feeding with your jokes—your audience, or your ego?

UPDATE: Here’s a great example. A small Denver newspaper publishes a satirical humor piece about a man who has his thumbs surgically altered to better operate his iPhone. The interwebs take the piece seriously, and attack en masse. Shocking, I know. But as some of you have pointed out, explaining that you were joking can be good for traffic, as the Denver paper’s editorial explanation is now up on TechMeme.

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Comments

  1. For my online reading tastes, cunning wits hit harder than a rehearsed joke or two. Good column!

  2. Like you pointed out, comedy is more difficult than it looks.

    If you’re talking strictly about conversions, generally humor does not help your ethos. However, when building an audience it can help; just don’t try too hard.

    Remember, everyone THINKS they are funny: most people are not.

  3. Perhaps the less funny your jokes are, the more people connect with them.

    Even though the end of your spice post wasn’t funny, it was funny because it was so not funny.

    Basically, some people will laugh at such jokes because they are funny, some people will laugh at you, and some will laugh with you laughing at yourself.

    But humor is a tough & dangerous sell… good points.

  4. I got both of your jokes in the first posting and thought they were a riot. But, if I have to stop using humor, I won’t be writing any more. I only want to attract an audience that will laugh with me and often, at me.

  5. Geni, I hear you… and that fearlessness will serve you well. All I’m asking is for awareness, not timidness. ;)

  6. You are hilarious and brilliant!!

    I was brought up on a diet of innuendo, double entendre, irony and wry humour.
    I get you.

    I look forward to your words, even the purple ones, every day!!!

  7. The funniest stuff on my blog comes from people commenting.

    Check this one out:
    http://www.writingwhitepapers.com/blog/2007/07/21/stupid-people/

  8. Humor.. Dangers? Well Brian, you succeeded in drawing me into the post.

    While I get the points you are trying to bring across, I would prefer a much better picture of me next time! Those masks are scary.

  9. I would prefer a much better picture of me next time! Those masks are scary.

    See, now that made me laugh. ;)

  10. My classics professor in college used to say, “Everyone cries in unison, but not everyone laughs at the same thing.” Guess that’s why most tragedies are timeless and comedies shift and become stale with time.

  11. Thanks Brian for making some excellent points.

    I usually don’t write humour too, because I’m not too good at it. But here is one company that uses humour very well in their sales copy.

    http://www.thinkgeek.com

    I’m sure they turn off a few people away. But they also make a few people forward their sales letters to others. Because it is funny. And more importantly, the humour matches their products well.

  12. Heck, I just assumed you were warming up your entry for the next Bulwer-Lytton.

  13. I guess humor is a matter of taste but I think it is a great way to get across a bit of your “branding” if done properly. I read copyblogger partly because of the dry wit, and did smile at the ‘how would I blog’ this paragraph when I read it!

  14. I saw a stand-up comedian about a month ago live and he was really funny. Just a few days ago, I saw him doing the same material on TV, albeit for mass consumption … not nearly as funny.

    Comedy is a tough racket.

    And for the record, your “crackling flames” bit was hilarious. It should be the official t-shirt of bloggers everywhere!

  15. I approach writing and blogging the way I do the real world. If someone doesn’t like me, or my writing, or my humour, it’s not their fault, it’s not mine. It’s just not going to happen. Why worry about it? Just as I wouldn’t change my personality just to fit in or be accepted, why should I change myself or my writing to suit someone else? If someone doesn’t like me – or my writing – it’s his loss. This may sound arrogant, but it’s the only way to live. Otherwise, you’re constantly trying to fit the message to please the audience.

  16. “wasted 963 words of her life” that is a good one :)

  17. Great post. I learned this the hard way, unfortunately: there’s nothing like the instant feedback of blogging to teach you that, as you say yourself, a huge percentage of the population have no sense of humour at all. So many people take things literally, but it can be worth the reaction from them for the connection you get with the people who actually get the joke. Sometimes.

  18. In my blog I do use humor and offbeat posts more than the dry subject area perhaps deserves. I know that this means some people will not “get it” and will stop reading.

    For me, the sacrifice of a few people who don’t appreciate my style is worth it, because I have a stronger blogger-reader bond with those that remain.

    That said, I use humor sparingly and try to ensure there’s enough value elsewhere so even the “humorless” will forgive the odd stylistic and humor slip up.

    Intriguing topic though!

  19. I’m not arguing…exactly….even though you just tanked my idea for the beginning of a video I was making. In the end you’re probably right. The idea came from a music video that my target audience has probably never seen so they probably wouldn’t find it funny.

    That being said if you click on my name it will take you to a youtube video that is completely ridiculous. It falls into the category of so dumb it’s funny. It was created to promote the girl whose dancing website.

    IT’S BEEN VIEWED 558,000+ TIMES.

    It probably doesn’t hurt that she’s HOT, but my point is funny can work too. If you read the posts she has a lot of people that don’t like the video…but at over half a million views who cares.

    You’re never going to get everybody anyway. All I’m saying is sometimes funny can pay off big and on places like youtube if it doesn’t you just delete the video and try again.

    Not that I think about it I think I’m going to keep the beginning of my video in. Even out of context it’s funny. I’ll let you know what the result is.

  20. A great man once said:

    “You need the courage to alienate the wrong people in order to resonate with the right people.”

    That is especially true with humor. ;)

  21. What fool said that? ;)

  22. Kelly Erickson :

    Brian,

    5 Devil’s-Advocate Points on Humor

    1) I always like the bits of humor you throw in.

    2) The burning car joke was hysterical.

    3) “…if they don’t laugh, it’s not funny—period.” Nope: If they don’t laugh, it’s not funny TO THEM. You can’t please all of the people all of the time!

    On the other hand even good comics throw out a clinker once in a while. Oh, well, and move on, just like an occasional blah headline or tedious post. (Not that you have any of those.)

    4) Those who don’t get it – they’re not your target market. That’s how you discover your niche. As long as the niche is not too small… like just you and your dog… that would be bad.

    5) Have a strong belief in self and keep being funny!

    Bonus point: Do. Not. Stop. Writing with wit and humor if you are, indeed, witty and humorous. A little controvery is supposed to be worth courting. Some folks drop out, and others become rabid fans – exactly the aim of any good copywriting!

    Make (some of) ‘em LOL. They’ll tell their friends about you.

    Regards,

    Kelly

  23. I think a blog is the perfect place for humor. Not every day, for sure. But there is a certain level of informality to this thing we do. And when we spend so much time trying to pass on something valuable that people can use to improve their lives, personally and professionally, I think it’s very appropriate to take a minute here and there to crack a joke or two.

    While the perception of funny can vary. I think anyone has had written for a little while can appreciate the fun you can also have with writing.

    Great post.

  24. I’d say if you are funny, as opposed to trying to be funny, there is no harm in letting your talent get some recognition.

    People like to sit in funny people’s company, they like funny sitcoms, and they like seeing funny, albeit phony, hosts in their favorite TV shows.

    An occasional joke or two in even a serious blog gives a welcome break from routine. While for casual bloggers, it’s important to be witty in order to attract more readers.

    If some random reader does not get a joke and starts flaming at you, then it is likely that he is not your audience. When he is not trolling in your comments, it is possible that he is trolling in some one else’s comments.

    I say let the trolls create a bit of controversy so you can benefit from some extra attention ;)

  25. Humor in business can be very tricky. We did a satiric 5-minute video for a sales meeting once, in which we gave a “Lifetime Achievement Award” to a 22 year-old sales rep who had been with us for about six months. After the meeting several people came up to me, fuming over the fact we gave the award to a rookie.

    Humor can confuse a business audience, or worse. These days I have a business blog and a humor blog, http://www.corporatecartoons.blogspot.com. Some of my business blog readers enjoy the humor blog; some don’t.

  26. Hey Brian..

    Great post..

    Humor is a touchy subject to me.

    Because everyone’s sense of humor is different. So what I might find funny..someone else might not..so I tend to stay away from it unless it’s really obvious what the joke is.

    And even then..there’s no guarantee that it will be seen as being funny by everyone.

    By the way I enjoy reading your blog.

    I also recently did a check to see how much it might be worth…

    This was an estimate of course.

    But try 2,071,297.26..

    Helluva job Brian..

    I’ve got a long way to go to catch up to you..I’m sitting at a little over five thousand…

  27. Knowing that writing humorous copy is hard, it makes me appreciate people such as Dave Barry. It is rare to find that quality of writing from humorists. Dave is to comedy as Alan Watts is to philosophy.

  28. An especially self-important blogger named Nancy Friedman even wasted 963 words of her life equating me to the end of good writing as we know it. Nancy doesn’t get a link, because trolling for links via attack post is so 2005 (do try to keep up, Nancy).

    I’m not sure Nancy Friedman deserved such an extreme mauling. “Self-important”, “wasted”, “trolling for links” are quite judgmental expressions. I only read an article which took issue with the examples you used. Granted, Friedman made some unnecessary comments, but on the whole it was only her point of view. I didn’t see anything that equated you with the “end if good writing as we know it.”

    Following her links reveals quite a background in writing.

    “Do try to keep up Nancy” comes across as being belittling, and sarcasm only stokes the fires.

    In my opinion, that outburst soured a helpful post. Surely it wasn’t necessary. Honestly, it sounded to me like the extreme reaction of someone in fear of being “found out”.

  29. Rory, let’s take a look at what poor Nancy Friedman dished out at me first, shall we?

    “Very Bad Writing Advice”

    “Brian Clark’s blog, Copyblogger, which *purports* to teach bloggers how to improve their writing skills…”

    “In a word, it’s rubbish.”

    “hackneyed…”

    “don’t bother with Copyblogger…”

    Frankly, Nancy made herself look like a complete fool. She tries to come across as sophisticated, and yet only establishes that she is anything but. Even if she didn’t think the joke was funny, she should at least have been perceptive enough to realize that I wasn’t being serious. It’s not like I was being subtle beyond the means of a smart gal like Nancy.

    No, Nancy just wanted to have a go at a bigger dog than she is in the hopes of getting some attention. I think I went easy on her given the nastiness of her post.

  30. What is ironic is that when Scoble had just started out blogging he did wreck his car. And wrote about it quite a bit.

    It never made it over in when he changed hosting but he had a pretty bad crash a few years ago that he did blog and it was compelling.

  31. So does this mean you’re not the last comic standing?

    I liked the other post too.

  32. Clearly Nancy didn’t get the humor, but her post did have some good links. I personally don’t like attacks, but your jibes at her did get me to check out her post.

  33. I actually did catch that joke, and loved it, even though I didn’t mention it in the comments.

    Having said that, you’re definitely right about the potential dangers of humour. It’s a very tricky thing to pull off, especially in print.

    Tone of voice and body language are all huge cues in comedy, and you lose them in writing, making it that much more likely that you’re reader won’t get the joke.

  34. Graham Ambrose :

    Still, humor, if used with discretion and focused on the point you’re trying to make, has power. To pull this off I simply use humor not of my own making: New Yorker cartoons. Since I’m using top-flight editorial humor, and have chosen a cartoon that’s directly connected to my point, readers can take it either way: a source of humor and/or (and more especially) a point of view boiled down to its purest form. (Alright, I confess: as social commentary, I can’t resist reading a cartoon caption; as to whether my audience has the same addiction, I also confess I don’t know.)

  35. Graham, New Yorker cartoonists are professional humorists, so I think that’s a fairly safe bet. It’s the rest of us that can get in trouble.

  36. I loved the “purple prose” joke! I’m with #15. I think authenticity is what’s really important. Just write in your true voice. You can’t possibly please everyone, anyway. I think you have to commit to being yourself – and commit to the readers you want. If humor happens, so be it. The real trouble is “trying” to be something you’re not, isn’t it?

  37. Hilarious and pure gold:

    “Sure enough, one reader ridiculed me for my “purple prose,” while another actually chastised me. An especially self-important blogger named Nancy Friedman even wasted 963 words of her life equating me to the end of good writing as we know it. Nancy doesn’t get a link, because trolling for links via attack post is so 2005.”

    I’m glad you’re using humor in an anti-humor-use post. Very clever.

    That said, I noticed you edited the above paragraph from that emailed to your subscribers. (I like the original better;)

    Keep up the awesome work. I’ve learned a TON from you over the last month in preparation for the re-birth of my site in late September (as a completely different entity based on many of the things that I’ve learned here!).

    ROCK!!!!!

  38. I too got curious about Nancy. Guess what, if you type – “Nancy Friedman” blog – into Google the 1st result is the attack post on your blog. WARNING, attempted non-chalant/dry/offhand humor follows;
    I’m sure there is a profound lesson to be learned here somewhere.

  39. That said, I noticed you edited the above paragraph from that emailed to your subscribers. (I like the original better;)

    I decided the last jab was uncalled for. I’m not really all that mean a person, even when provoked.

    Thor, I have no problem with people reading Nancy’s post. I’m just not going to reward her behavior with a link.

  40. You always have such an authoratative voice, which is the reason your blog is so successful I suspect, but it doesn’t mean you’re always right. In this case I think you’re quite wrong. If people can write humorously then they should go ahead and do it as often as possible, flexing that “writing muscle” that you talk about. Just because you’re not great at funny doesn’t mean the rest of us aren’t.

  41. Annie, you might re-read the closing:

    I’m not trying to discourage humor, because laughter is one of the most important parts of my life. What you need to ask yourself is this: who are you feeding with your jokes—your audience, or your ego?

    And the truth is, many people think I’m quite funny, but that’s not the point. There are times and places for me to be funny, and it’s not always here.

    Also, keep in mind that this blog is about marketing, not personal journaling. Do whatever you feel like with your blog, and please do ignore my advice if it doesn’t suit you. My “authoritative voice” comes from my experiences in building businesses and profitable websites. If that’s not your thing, more power to you.

  42. I try to use humor when making a point which would otherwise offend.
    It usually works.

  43. “Thor, I have no problem with people reading Nancy’s post. I’m just not going to reward her behavior with a link.”

    And that was not my point, you misunderstood my comment because it was attempted humor, just like your post said you would. :)

    No, I was thinking that by singling that post out by refusing to link to it you actually made me more willing to go check it out than all the posts you did link to.

    Also that Nancy’s attemt at discouraging your blog (though she was very delicate about it, beginning her attack by praising another of your posts first) has backfired because now when people search for her blog they discover that (supposing they use the same search string), not only has Google chosen the post where she quotes your post, the quote from her post begins with your name and blog (forgot to mention that).

    P.s. could you tell until now that I was a non native-english speaker, perhaps that’s something you could write a post about, english is the internets latin and soon (if not already) more non-native english speakers will be reading and writing in english on the net, a how to, to simple english perhaps?

  44. Sorry about the double post and sorry about not finishing my sentance:

    … “english is the internets latin and soon (if not already) more non-native english speakers will be reading and writing in english on the net than the native ones.”

    Does that mean that people born and bread speaking english are automatically the net’s elite?

    You write about how humor can be misunderstood, I imagine you had mostly fellow westerners in mind but when one thinks about how difficult it can be to translate humor between languages, that actually validates your point even more.

  45. I use humor to remind myself to have a good attitude when things go awry, and this is one thing that my readers give me a lot of feedback on. I even have a blog category dedicated to “gone awry.”
    I’m glad my readers like it because I’m a smart aleck by nature and the whole “be yourself” thing just wouldn’t work if I left out all the smart aleck comments that were going through my head as I blogged.
    Anyway, a mom of 8 without a perceptible sense of humor would have to be insane. There’s just no middle ground there.

  46. You’re right, I did skim that paragraph, and your post does seem less autocratic now that I’ve re-read it.

    But I should have pointed out that I’m not just a personal blogger, I also write for a corporate airline site and always try to write humourously when I blog for them, too. It is a tricky thing to get right, but I think it’s worth the extra effort.

  47. You’re so right – as I’ve found out by hearing virtual crickets. Humor just doesn’t convert. Thank goodness for blogs, ebooks, and articles! Who knows what would happen if all of us with a dry/warped/odd sense of humor tried to hold it in all the time.

    Growing up in a household where the pun was the highest form of humor, it was a very hard habit to break – but I think everyone around me is glad I did. Maybe someone could create a punners rehab somewhere?

  48. Comedy is too damn important to leave it in the hands of amateurs.

    No one important said it, until now. :)

  49. The thing with humor is that it’s actually quite complex. There are a mixture of elements that make something funny. What happens from person to the next is that an element is missing. So one person thinks it’s funny and another doesn’t.

    Familiarity is a key issue. I recently read a funny post about torturing “The Sims.” It’s funny, but if I didn’t know what the Sims are, I’d have been lost.

    You know how something funny happens and you relate it to someone else, and that person looks blank at you. You say, “You had to be there.” That means you didn’t relate the familiarity. You needed a better lead up with more description.

    I could go on about what does and doesn’t make things funny, but I think you have a valid point warning people about it, because most successful humor writers understand why something is funny, and most ordinary people, even funny, witty ones do not. Knowing the “why” is important to writing effective humor.

    Your point is especially valid with respect to sales copy.

  50. By now, every single one of us wanna-be bloggers has learned the secret to getting people’s attention. Post a controversial topic and see how many people are motivated to comment. Another lesson well taught, oh great teacher.

  51. A shame this post wasn’t made a day earlier — on the birthday of one Stan Freberg:

    http://ckpcreative.com/lohad/?p=869

    A little humor can go a long way … in the right hands, of course.

  52. I think humor when used in the right amounts and in the right places can make a post/blog come alive.

    I have two main blogs – one my more professional one (ie: the one that brings in the dough) and the other where I can let it rip a little and joke to my hearts content – with humor though there’s a fine line where you can easily go from being funny, to sarcastic to plain old cynical (and your ego still thinks you’re being funny).

    With a professional business/blog, I’d start splashing around some humor only after I’m semi-established and I have a readership that “knows” me.

    It would be a boring b’sphere if all we did was write and read dry stuff.

    Now Brian – when are we going to see that hard-boiled noir paperback from you… you’ve certainly got enough words in your bag of tricks to make M.Spillane jealous … :-)

  53. Graham Ambrose :

    We’ve all passed over the uno numero thing about humor: To stay on the safe side of “Huh?”, we should go for self deprecation. As in: “I’m told I should be self deprecating, but everyone ends up laughing at me.”

    As we all know, one of the key things found in persuasive copy comes from the reader feeling he or she has connected with the writer. Enter humor. When I make fun of myself, I display supremo confidence without coming across as a bore. What’s more, I capture that elusive quality of showing that I’m a real person, that I’m human…just like you. (I can only hope!)

  54. Graham, bingo. I was going to do a whole post on self-deprecation as method to entertain and connect at the same time.

    Hell, I still will… no one reads down this far. ;)

  55. no one reads down this far.

    Oh yeah.

  56. Great post, Brian. I’ve meddled in humor and fiction writing as a hobby for years. A writer friend of mine reminds me often that I need 2-3 ideal readers — people I know and trust who would fall into my target audience — to offer editorial comment on what I write before its published. If more than one of them raises an objection to a joke or a humorous reference, kill it. If the piece passes through without concern from the majority, you’ll probably be okay.

    But another thing I’ve learned over the years writing from a humorous perspective is that you must have thick skin, not be afraid to apologize when you’ve gone too far and be okay with certain people not reading your offerings. If someone says they don’t appreciate your humor, the correct response, I’ve found, is to reply, “That’s okay. It wasn’t meant for you.”

  57. It’s beyond infuriating when you make a joke like the car-wreck one and people think you’re being serious. Some people’s lack of humor is astonishing.

    963 words? Don’t these people have work to do?

  58. I think humour is actually a time bomb, some people cut the red wire and survive. As for the others, it would be frustrating and obnoxious.

  59. Life’s too short to take each other and ourselves so seriously… especially in blogs!

    I wish it wasn’t true about copywriting and humor not mixing well. I’m in the rare minority that enjoys a FUNNY sales pitch. But when I’ve tried using humor in my own sales letters, they haven’t done well. John Carlton’s blog is funny, but he preaches the same warning agaist using humor in copywriting.

    I hate it when you guys are always right! :-)

    Maybe the lack of humor in copywriting is why I stopped doing copywriting and started blogging. Too bad my blog’s not funnier, though.

    I ditto Kelly’s comments!

  60. The kind of humor I like is the thing that makes me laugh for five seconds and think for ten minutes. :)

    Great post Brian!

  61. To get the joke, someone has to read Scoble, right? I know who he is and I know many people read him. Still, many people don’t. I don’t.

    Humor is hard enough. Humor that that makes fun of the writing style of someone many people do not read is even more difficult.

  62. No Lucia… the reference to Scoble in this post was an explanation by way of example. All you needed to know to get the joke was what a blogger was and how they tend to be.

  63. Well, I took your reference literally. That possibility also has to be considered when you write.

    Still, now that you’ve clarified, I guess I’ll modify my comment. To get the joke one needs to read the types you, Brian Clark, read! :)

  64. BTW: I’m agreeing with you. Humor is hard.

  65. Do not fear jokes and humor! The issue with humor in any copy is when the joke is used to BE the point rather than to lead the reader somewhere. It is possible that we will see more comedic copy when humor writers start to label themselves as “experts” and “divas” as they do in social media…