Cannes Lions 2019: How brands can use comedy and not bear the brunt

Writer-director Jonathan Lynn and Teddy Lynn, founder and CCO, Episode Four lay down some golden rules for using comedy in brand communication

Jun 19, 2019 09:03:00 AM | Article | Prasad Sangameshwaran

Jonathan Lynn, co-creator of the acclaimed TV series, Yes, minister and Yes, prime minister took centerstage at Cannes Lions to talk about the rules for using comedy in brand communication. In a session titled, 'Comedy Rules' Jonathan and Teddy Lynn spoke about the mind of a comedian.
"Anger is the main spring of comedy. Comedians are over angry and comedy is an outlet. Psychologists say that everybody has a primitive murderous rage. As we are taught to repress rage, it has to find other outlets," said Jonathan.
"If art is criticism of life, comedy is attack on the institution of society," he added. 
In purely practical terms, laughter is a group activity. "Crowd psychology is different and they have fewer inhibitions. It enhances their agression. That's why it's probably funnier to see movie in a cinema," said Teddy. 
Hence the main principle of comedians is to organise a bunch into one audience. 
Jonathan said when a comedian comes out of a successful show, they often say, "I killed them," in reference to the audience. Or if they could not connect with the audience, they say, I died.
Jonathan said, "It's always a life and death struggle with the audience. The audience is a dangerous beast that has to be subdued and ultimately get killed."
However, there is no certainty about the success of a comedy act till its played in front of the audience. Comedy cannot be wrong. 
Teddy added, "When we laugh, we're owning up. Laughter is the sound of comprehension or understanding your point of view." 
"Audience can be friend or enemy. It should be tamed by you. Poor leadership or lack of boundaries results in the failure of comedy," said Jonathan adding that "the seven deadly sins are the foundation of all comedy." 
However, most comedy tends to make someone the butt of the joke. That's a contradiction with marketing.
Teddy said, "Marketing is all about not putting off people. The principle of not-to-offend supercedes the need to be funny. However, all comedy depends on people misfortunes." So how do brands that want to associate with comedy tread the fine balance. 
"One should ensure that the humour is not in bad taste and does not cross the line. It should be tried on a sufficient section of cross-audience. It's better consumed in a crowd," he added. 
Giving some examples he said that techniques to parody or animation were a safe harbour, so that audiences know it is not real. The 'Dumb ways to die' campaign was a fine example of that, he said.
Jonathan added that being gently humorous, but fun was another strategy to adopt and gave the example of the UK advertising for Hamlet cigars.
Attack hypocrisy, love your characters, see the good and the bad, be recognizable, lovable and honest, are the golden rules he said.
Some, including some brands, are enemies of comedy. "You should be prepared to make yourself ridiculous. If you are too dignified, it's too hard to be funny. One has to be more critical of life," said Jonathan.
However, people routinely find comedy as not appropriate. In the brand universe, the challenge is on how to do comedy without alienating. 
Teddy says, "Brands are never perceived as aggressive. However, being funny is active aggression, who can you make butt of the joke." 
Jonathan has one option. "Human failings that you can make fun off... absent mindedness is an aggression." 
However, both agree that the target of a comedian, "who is safe to pick on", has become smaller and smaller. One cannot be obviously seen as racist, sexist or mysoginistic. 
In the US, the only target left is the 40-year-old, white, straight male, he said.