In the age of YouTube, when all kinds of companies are trying to make funny videos with their brand messages built in, the lessons from the master - the Minister of Silly Walks himself - can be extremely useful.
In the following list of tips, I've combined what I learned from writing three web comedy projects for John Cleese with insights gleaned from 10 years of writing videos for the web.
I offer these ideas with humility, realizing that I am only a snotty-nosed git and a worthless pile of parrot droppings. But just in case a stuffed moose falls on my head, it would be a shame to not share what I've learned.
1. Get serious. When you see Cleese perform on the set, you see that he is very, very serious about what he does, and when he plays a character he carries that seriousness to his parts. A completely deadpan delivery is essential. The actor can never appear to be aware that what he is doing is funny or it all backfires.
2. Find pain and have fun with it. Great comedy is often based on pain and embarrassment, which is the perfect foundation for you to base your brand's messages on. One piece we did with Cleese (for JDW marketing and their client, LiveVault ), featured Cleese as Dr. Harold Twainweck, director of the Institute for Back-up Trauma .
The whole concept was based on the fact that the competitors' products were tape-based and thus unreliable, versus our clients' disc-based data back up. Lose your data, lost your mind. Our client's product solved the problem, and hence preserved sanity.
So, for your videos, think first about what pain points your customers have, and how your product or service takes away the pain. Then show people in lots of pain.
3. Comedy is a craft. Details matter. Making good comedy is hard work, which Cleese approaches as a master stonemason might approach building a cathedral. We cast Cleese on one production as Hilda, an office manager the script described as "buxom to the point of disability."
Cleese tried on many dresses offered by the wardrobe manager, but settled on a tight red sweater. He looked in the mirror and said, "That's it. I just feel sexy." It's the little things that sometimes make comedy work.
4. People won't laugh if they are confused. Coming from a man who banged coconuts together instead of riding a horse, this concept may at first appear contradictory, but it's not. Comic bits in a script need to follow a logical order, and the characters need some internal logic and motivation, otherwise the audience gets lost. In the Python's world, riding with coconuts makes perfect sense, and it's hysterical. But don't confuse randomness for funny.
5. Rants have to build. I wrote a piece where Cleese's character, all at once, went into a major rant - a classic Cleesian device where he turns bright red, spews vitriol and goes completely haywire. But he wisely corrected me, and made sure there were action points earlier on in the script that allowed the audience to see why his character was growing more angry over time, leading to the rant.
6. Always tape the rehearsals. Good actors are typically freshest on the first take. So start taping even before the first official take, and you'll get the best stuff.
7. Understand your actors' range. Anyone writing for a great musical artist is always familiar with the artists' range, and the same should go for comedy. Writing for Cleese is like writing a cello concerto for Yo-Yo Ma, and in fact the rise and fall of Cleese's voice is often musical in nature. So whomever you are working with, make sure you know what they are capable of, and what they are comfortable with.
8. Don't tone it down. You're competing on the web with everything from elephants that paint, to great work by Will Farrell. Toning down the comedy is rendering it invisible.
I worked on a piece a few years back where we were doing a parody of the Da Vinci code. We didn't find out until well into the project that the client's CEO was a strict catholic. So we had to 'tone down' the script to avoid offending anyone. That meant removing the nun who hit people over the head with the laptop, and then we had to remove the albino dwarf for fear we'd offend 'little people.'
If you can't have fun with the albino dwarf, what can you have fun with? The final video was workable but not nearly as funny as it could have been (someday I'll get to cast a real dwarf. I swear I will.)
9. Movie stars are your insurance policy. You can always cast Phil from accounting to be in your company's viral video. But it's not newsworthy - and making news with your viral video is half the battle. Spend the money to hire a recognizable actor and you have a better chance of getting your work seen, on the web and in the newspaper (lots of people still read them).
10. There is no #10
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