Funny You Should Say That

Worthy causes fall short when they fail to engage a wary and weary public. Comedy helps—draw attention, create interest, transmit knowledge, even build trust.

Humorous online videos can grab and hold an audience for important public messages. The first and most obvious virtue of a funny video is that it entertains: viewers enjoy watching it and share it with their friends. They’re grateful to the sponsoring organization for brightening their day, are predisposed to approve the group’s purpose, and look forward to more messages.

Facts are better received and last longer in the viewer’s mind when presented in a lighthearted way. It’s much easier to remember that bananas are a principal export of Honduras, or that they are a good source of potassium, or even that workers are exploited and rain forests despoiled by the banana industry; if as part of that message you’ve just seen someone slip and fall acrobatically on a peel.

But comedy done well is more than just a spoonful of sugar to help the message go down. Humor done right is an integral part of the message—exposing absurdities, highlighting truths, crystallizing feelings, confirming beliefs, finding commonalities.

This last point is especially important. Audiences don’t trust a message (however heartfelt or sound) until they trust the messenger. Messengers, in turn, earn that trust by proving that they are inside the viewer’s sphere of experience and perception—that they “get it.”

How better to demonstrate a shared understanding of the world than to share a joke?

Not all messages lend themselves to humor, nor need it. Other human emotions—pity, outrage, anger—can buoy a cause. The best candidate for the comic cure is an issue that’s very important, but very unemotional, daunting and dull. Think tax policy. Humor can demystify and deconstruct, freeing up basic elements of the story and connecting them to the audience’s everyday experiences and values.

Halfhearted and half-baked humor is worse than none at all. A tentative, uneven or simply unfunny comic approach weakens and distracts from the message rather than bolstering it.

But crafted with care by skilled practitioners (all wearing Groucho glasses), a funny video can send the audience rushing, laughing, to the desired “Contribute Now” buttons, online petition signature pages and rowdy outdoor demonstrations. And that’s no joke.