Comedy Serves One Master: The Client

Posted By on July 8, 2013

Michael Shilling author

In full-meta mode, author Michael Shilling is reborn as The Douchebag, which is how the fictional band in Shilling’s novel refers to him on their web site.

Most writers want to know how to be funny. It really makes our day when we’re clever, witty, and amusing on the page. We’re just positive that if we make readers laugh, their laughter will quickly translate into success for our client and glory for our egos.

A big mistake.

In fact, learning how to be funny isn’t enough. It’s little more than navel-gazing, self-indulgent whimsy, and the first sign of the amateur. Whether you’re dealing with sausage or steel, film or frozen food, paint or potatoes, humor is a means, not an end, a tool that serves to illustrate why what your clients makes or the service they provide is useful, innovative, and valuable. Basically, if your humor isn’t tethered to the strategy and messaging that the client has already provided, and which they’ve no doubt spent precious time and money developing, it’s pointless.

It hurts to hear the truth sometimes.

Only Connect

Clients are always trying to break through the fog, silence the static, and get the undivided attention of their audience to build a brand, tell a story, increase sales and achieve business goals. They want to connect, if just for a moment.

Think of comedy as the conduit for that connection, a pipeline that delivers what the client wants to convey as stated in their creative brief.

But what often happens is that, as writers with a gift for humor, we focus on how to be funny and forget about the creative brief – whether it’s on letterhead or the back of a napkin – and fall in love with the idea of showing off. That results in marketing efforts that are about the comedy, not the client, and that connection doesn’t happen.

To illustrate (a little), lets look at a case study in publishing. A fictional novel set in the land of rock and roll.

The Blood Orphans Reunion Tour

In 2009, my novel, Rock Bottom, was published. The novel is about the last day of a the last tour of a tragically bad rock band, Blood Orphans, and how they come to terms with their hideously bad personal and career choices.

As you’ve likely heard, people don’t read books so much anymore, so one opportunity to overcome literature’s lack of cultural cachet was putting together a web site that was different, yet not for different’s sake. I wanted to use comedy to connect with my audience, and drive them to purchase the book without explicitly asking them to.

My audience for the book – my client, so to speak – were a hard-to-please coalition of recovering rock musicians, armchair lovers of the romance of show business, and young people in cool urban neighborhoods who liked to read stuff that honored their ability to get the joke. A standard “buy-this-book!” site wasn’t going to do anything except deplete my bank balance and frustrate my publisher.

How to Be Funny: Operation Full-Meta

After playing around with a few ideas, I decided to create a complete fake “band” site for Blood Orphans, to commemorate the reunion tour that would co-incide with the release of the book.

Marketing for the novel Rock Bottom includes a web site that purports to commemorate the last, benighted tour of a band called "Blood Orphans" who are the novel's main characters.

Marketing for the novel Rock Bottom includes a web site that purports to commemorate the last, benighted tour of a band called “Blood Orphans” who are the novel’s main characters.

The entire site is was written in the voice of the band members – for example, the home page is in the voice of the drummer.

Darlo Rock Bottom About page

Darlo, the drummer of the fictional band, Blood Orphans, narrates a web page describing the novel, Rock Bottom, and its main characters.

You can read band bios, listen to music from the “band” that my friends and I recorded, look at the tour blog, and order actual merchandise, like beer steins and thongs.

tshirts and thongs for Rock Bottom

Beer steins, tshirts, and thongs–all typical rock tour merchandise–are sold on the novel’s web site.

The point of the site was not to show how funny I (would like to think) I am. Instead, it was to get this hard-to-please, social media-savvy audience interested in the book, but only after they became interested in the fictional band. The web site tells a humorous story – about the re-birth of a band with bad habits, horrifying songs, and colossally bad taste – and the book is part of that larger story. That way, the audience didn’t feel sold-to, or bombarded with needless comedy.

This approach to marketing the book was instrumental in its success. It was adapted into a musical in 2011 by the Landless Theater Company in Washington DC; I have little doubt that using comedy as a means to a larger marketing end, and keeping my audience, not my amusement, at the forefront, helped crystalize what made Rock Bottom special. This same approach to comedy, no matter how straightforward your business, will serve you well.

Michael Shilling

Photo of Michael Shilling, Two Pens Social Media Writer

Michael Shilling knows how to be funny, even when he isn’t wearing a wig