Advertisers are being urged to be funny again to give the public an escape from the dark realities of modern life. But how do you come up with jokes and make people laugh when you're fighting for your own livelihood in one of the darkest periods in recent memory? Parody news sites Clickhole and the Daily Mash provide the answers.
We know there's a shortage of humour in advertising now, as brands err on the side of serious. But two media companies that have built their brands on tickling funny bones have no option but to turn grim reality into comic relief.
Steve Etheridge, editor-in-chief of Clickhole, has had quite the time. The satirical website, once part of The Onion, ended up in the hands of embattled digital media company G/O Media before being “rescued” by Chicago-based card game, Cards Against Humanity, in February. Cards Against Humanity scored some instant positive PR by returning ownership to the staff and sending Clickhole on its way with a loan and a friendly offer of future support.
Etheridge says: “We didn't really fit into the private equity group's long-term vision for its media properties, as they immediately laid off some of our longtime staffers and slashed our budgets down to almost nothing. Our future was looking pretty grim."
The site punches above its weight with a five-person team, but the pandemic has hit hard. “You may be surprised to learn that launching a new business in a time of mass disease and historic economic uncertainty isn't without its challenges.”
The business blueprint was out the window and essential sponsorships dried up. Etheridge and team had to diversify the revenue stream across merchandising, and soon podcasting and TV. "We need to be careful to only pursue projects that we're confident will pay off, so we're being pretty selective.
“Due to 'The Disease,' we're all working remotely from our apartments and doing all our meetings over Google Hangouts, and this doesn't quite facilitate the type of creative spontaneity and collaborative energy that tends to naturally occur when we're all together in the writers' room. But we're making it work.”
There’s a lot more day-to-day distractions now it’s an indie too. It has "total creative freedom," as Etheridge puts it, at the expense of having to handle HR and the day-to-day concerns.
Comedy is already challenging enough when reality is often now stranger than fiction; some contend, for instance, that President Trump’s heightened absurdity killed satire. And if that didn’t, perhaps the pandemic did.
“It's a challenge, for sure, but I think the past few years of endless Trump chaos have really helped condition us for the present moment," says Etheridge. "It's definitely easier to be funny when you're in a light and cheery headspace, but this job has always required us to churn out funny content every single day whether we're feeling funny or not, and we're pretty experienced at writing through our existential terror.”
However, it is more than a job for the team. They feel a societal pressure to draw out the laughs. “Being funny through all this gives me a sense of purpose. If we can create an oasis of happiness and laughter amid all this fear and pandemonium, then I feel like we're doing something worthwhile, and that gives me the motivational calories to keep cranking out jokes.”
The Drum asked what content has been performing best during the lockdown, but Etheridge didn’t have an answer. The comedy is personal and comes from instinct. “If you pay too much mind to metrics, you'll inevitably start second-guessing yourself and tailoring your writing to whatever the data indicates is funny, and that kind of calculated approach really sucks the life out of your comedy. It's poison.”
He offers some advice to marketers wanting to crack a joke.
“Overthinking is the death of comedy. If you think of something that makes you laugh, chances are it will make other people laugh, so just trust your instincts. No need to get formulaic. If you're getting formulaic, that means you're trying to assemble a joke based on things you know people have already laughed at, and that will never produce satisfying results because good comedy surprises you and catches you off guard.
“It doesn't come from simply repackaging jokes and ideas people have already heard. The jokes that make you spit out your drink are the ones that you never see coming, that subvert your expectations so completely that your brain has no pre-set auto-response and so you just laugh like an idiot.”
Neil Rafferty co-founded satire site the Daily Mash in Scotland in 2007 and sold it to Entertainment Daily owner Digitalbox Publishing for £1.2m in 2019 after building a huge loyal audience and an irreverent tone. Rafferty stayed on as editor in chief of the site and shared with The Drum how life has been since.
“[At the start of the pandemic] people were desperate for comic relief. We honed in on the every day experiences and that really drove a lot of traffic," he says.
The team of writers and freelancers always worked remote but they've been "affected like everybody else".
"They are stuck inside and are not having the normal experiences they would have had. Their experiences feed into jokes so I’ve been really impressed with them.”
For a while pandemic content became utterly “dominant”; there was no way around it. “We had to think very imaginatively and very broadly about new angles on something which had become tedious.”
Now the dial is moving back towards “straightforward political satire” – even the Mash has had its Covid-19 bump and subsequent fatigue.
On the purpose of the brand, Rafferty says: “In almost every situation people need to comic relief in dire situations, just to relieve the tension and know that other people are having the same experience. A joke is a rallying point for people to connect and know their frustrations are shared by millions of people.”
Unlike some of the divisive tribes around Brexit and Trump, everyone was united in their hatred of the pandemic, which sowed comic unity for a short window of time. Many have disengaged from the news agenda (quite rightly perhaps), so roughly 50% of Mash’s content is observational comedy. It doesn’t reflect the news, more the experience of living, which any reader will be aware of.
For marketers wanting to spin a joke, he urges: “Find the common experiences. Whether that’s the ways we’re trying to entertain ourselves, how we’re eating the same food every day or trying to mix things up so we don’t go nuts.”