Take This Humor Test

Quick story about the last email you may have received from me: If you’ve been reading my blogs and/or newsletters and other material, you know I’m not everybody’s cup of tea.

I don’t pretend to be. I don’t want to be. In fact, the only way I could convince myself to enter this teaching gig was to promise myself I would never put a muzzle on.

I’m not a gutter-mouthed maniac, but I do tend to piss off a number of people now and again. Most of the time it’s innocent.

Occasionally, though, I do it on purpose. To cull the herd.

Let me explain with a quick example. Below is the brief email I sent out a few days ago. Read it again, even if you’ve already seen it, because what follows is pretty interesting. Here’s the text in the email:


I recently received a funny email from a semi-desperate friend with this message: “John, I think my emails aren’t getting through to you. Please email back if you don’t get this one, either.”

Uh… okay.

I feel like I’m in the same boat, though. I’ve sent out tens of thousands of emails explaining the details of my rare, and very unique (and probably never to be offered again) Hot Seat Workshop… and yet today I have received several emails from colleagues telling me they’ve not seen a single email on the subject.

The workshop is barely over a month away, and about to be closed (because I can only take a small number of people, due to the intense personal attention I’m giving each attendee). The stunning ability of spam filters to gobble up my emails is now officially driving me nuts. So, I am trying one more time to reach you.

Please go to www.john-carlton.com/Hot_Seat_Seminar.pdf and see if this amazing event is something you should be checking out. I’m sorry for the rush, but I’ve been knocked around by technology a bit these past months. I’m sure you know the drill.

On a small technical note, the other emails were sent as “plain text”… so I’m sending this one as HTML, just to see what happens. Easier to track.

Email back if you don’t get this, okay?



All right. That was the email.

I got a ton of responses back full of smiley faces and typographical grins, saying “Sorry, John, I didn’t get this one either.” They enjoyed the little joke.

And, I got a lot of good advice regarding email blasts — tips on increasing deliverability, referrals to other list managing companies, a whole mini-education. I’m already pretty hip to most of it (I’ve blown through every major list joint out there, and they all mostly suck) but I appreciate anyone who takes the time to offer their take on the situation. Things are changing daily, and it’s good to stay in the cutting-edge loop.

But I also got some real eye-opener responses. Doozies.


Big sigh from me. I may not always be the funniest guy in the room, but I’m usually in the neighborhood. I enjoy all kinds of humor, from rude to crude to sophisticated and subtle. I love to laugh. I glow when I’ve made someone else laugh. I’ve been at it all my life.

All of my close friends and colleagues are big laughers. Even in the face of certain doom, we’re cracking wise.

And sometimes I forget a major lesson of classic salesmanship: Most people do NOT possess even an ounce of a sense of humor. About anything.

This is often hard for go-getters and popular people to grasp. If you love to laugh, you’ve probably surrounded yourself with people who share your enthusiasm for the heartfelt guffaw.

But killer salesmen know that assuming your prospect has a sense of humor can kill your pitch.

There are a number of recent university studies on humor… and they’re chilling. Many of the people around you who laugh at jokes, or are always ready with a joke to tell… actually are faking it.

They have learned to look for cues from other people, and to laugh when others laugh. They have no clue why the joke they’ve just told is causing people to gasp with laughter. They’re smiling and going along, because they’ve learned to.

It’s not quite sociopathology… but it’s close. I’ve hung out with a number of people (mostly male) who had learned to dominate any room they were in. They shook hands with gusto, smiling from ear to ear, and did what I call the Alpha Male Dance — which included monopolizing all conversation by telling one joke after another.

But it was an act. Sometimes literally — I soon realized they had actually memorized stand-up routines and comedy albums, and were reciting them word for word.

Underneath, they possessed not a shred of a sense of real humor. Their inner lives were mirthless. They were faking it.

This appalled me. Laughter has gotten me through every tough time in life — and heightened the pleasure of the good times — and I would shrivel without it. My family and friends all live to laugh, and we all love to go back and forth cracking each other up.

It’s not competition, either. It’s called “wit”. Few of my close friends bother to memorize jokes. Jokes are not conversation — they’re just memorized ways to command the spotlight. I like the occasional good one… but it’s excruciating to sit through bad ones. If I repeat a joke, it’s because it’s viciously short, and wicked funny.

Wit is the back-and-forth of intelligent minds riffing on a subject. It works best when you know, or feel you know, the other people. And when everybody gets in on the fun, and no one dominates. There is competition for the funniest riposte, but you congratulate — when you can catch your breath — the person who did it.

You win when everybody wins.

Now… back to marketing.

When I first started publishing my newsletter, the Rant, I got a lot of mail warning me to “tone it down”. Several people who identified themselves as “top businessmen” (the first clue: no actual top businessman has to identify himself) told me I was an idiot for “alienating” any part of my target market.

And, as I said, most classic salesmen would agree.

Ah, but separating the clueless from the clued-in is the key to the most advanced lesson of world-class copywriting you’ll ever discover. This is bigger than the basics.

See, trying to please everyone will just make your copy limp and lame and boooooring. You won’t offend anyone… but you won’t sell a lot of stuff, either.

Reading is a passive behavior. Your job as a copywriter is to wake your reader up, light a fire under his ass… and get him so riled and hell-bent on possessing what you offer that he will open his wallet and give you money. That’s the hardest thing to accomplish in human interaction, getting a stranger to part with cash.

That’s why learning the cool advanced salesmanship stuff is so important.

Great copy is dangerous, not dull. You’re trying to wake people up, and challenge their zombie state… not send them deeper into slumber-land.

The people I may offend are all from the mushy part of the market. They don’t belong on my list, and they won’t get anything out of my teaching. I don’t want to sell them. They’re not on my marketing radar.

They’re not bad people. I do not wish them ill.

But I do wish they would leave quietly and let the rest of us enjoy our fun.

This guy “Dale” is not unique. He simply did not get the deprecating humor I was applying in the email. It wasn’t a big deal — just an mildly amusing idea I had bouncing around my head all day, and I decided to share the fun with my list. (I really did get that first desperate email from a friend, who was embarrassed when I pointed out — laughing — that I couldn’t… oh, never mind.)

Sorry I offended you, Dale.

Sorry you didn’t get the joke.

And, yes, you’re off the list. Sleep peacefully, knowing you will never again be bothered by my efforts to put a smile on your grim mug. I will never compromise my writing to please the frowning creeps out there. I’m doing just fine with a slightly smaller list that gets the humor. Even the ironic stuff.

For the rest of you — the ones who contact me in droves, happy to share your joy with me and appreciative of my efforts to give you a little inside peek at the wacky world of veteran copywriters I inhabit… well, allow me to thank you for being there. You make this teaching gig worthwhile.

Business and life does not have to be, and shouldn’t be, dry and humorless. There are people — lots of them — who will continually try to suck the fun out of everything.

Don’t let ’em get away with it.

Stay frosty.

John Carlton

P.S. Final note… if you’re not on my email list, and want to be, just drop my assistant a quick email: diane@marketingrebel.com. Be sure to write “Put me on John’s list” in the subject line, so you don’t get deleted as spam.

And… if you ARE on my email lists, but haven’t been receiving my email, you’ve probably filtered me out. Silly. I don’t have time to go through a zillion Spam Arrest hoops… so please, clear the way for my emails. They will only come from three emails: john@marketingrebel.com, john@marketing-rebel.com, or diane@marketingrebel.com. I promise not to bore you.

Okay, I’m done. I have this sudden urge to go drink a beer and watch the Monty Python “Spam” routine, which I have on DVD. Brilliant!

Enjoy your evening.

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  • Andrew says:

    O.K. So I’m going to tell you a story where humor kept me alive.

    In September of ’94 I was in Barcelona, Spain on a cruise ship. Only for the morning. I went into town with the drummer form our band. (Yes, I was working on the ship.) I have to tell you, I had been up most of the night with my girlfriend getting busy. So I was a bit hungover. Well. to make a long story short, I wasn’t feeling to good and we ducked into a bar to have a cappucino. It must have been my 6th that morning. I had to use the restroom because I wasn’t sure if I was gonna be sick or (playing it safe here) have diareaha (sp?). Well, the next thing I know, I wake up in the hospital with my head split open in 3 places. Blood everywhere. A woman pulls back the curtain and asks me, “Do you know where you are?” If I remember correctly I said, “Looks like a hospital lady, and by the way, can I speak to the doctor.”

    She says, “I am the doctor.” And all I could say in my semi-unconcious state was, “Oh, sorry, you’re dressed just like everybody else. I didn’t know.” And then started to laugh becaue I didn’t know what else to do.

    Of course my head was killing me, and I was then given a ‘local’ and sewn up.

    Later, I was taken to a “room”, which I shared with a Spanish guy who didn’t speak any English. But what could I say, I didn’t speak much Spanish either. At least not the kind they speak in Spain.

    Anyway, let’s cut to the chase. If I hadn’t had a good sense of humor, I wouldn’t have survived being in a foreign country, not speaking the language, being alone and incapacitated.

    Oh, did I forget to mention I was alone since my friend had to get back to the ship because it was leaving.

    I spent 3 nights in that hospital. Couldn’t speak the language and could only laugh at the situation. Boy, was I glad to have a sense of humour at that point. It’s the only thing that kept me from completely freaking out.

    True story, Andrew

  • K says:

    Damn straight.
    It’s impossible to appeal to everyone.
    Geez, I face a big enough challenge
    satisfying my own criteria,
    not to mention anyone else’s.
    Niche is the only way to play.

  • Hone Watson says:

    hey John nice to see your blog back on its proper URL. have found it hard to read your stuff at the other place.

    funny how non familiarity can affect me like that.

    i see Gary Halbert pumped out a great letter today too

  • Rob Northrup says:

    Hi John,

    You should probably put a hyperlink over at the spidersilk site you were using that directs people back over “here”. I’ve been patiently going “there” every day or so to see if anything new showed up, and others might be doing the same. I was about to send out a Rescue Party.

    You’re right about humor, most people are pretty challenged in this area.

    Stay well. (and frosty)


  • Andy Catsimanes says:

    Your dead on about that whole humor thing. Betcha just about everyone of us has found ourselves laughing vacantly at a joke we didn’t get, because we were with a group we weren’t comfortable enough with to say “I don’t get it.”

    And I’ve definitely learned that it’s tough to be ironic in print. Unless you want to use those stupid emoticons ;-0

  • I with you agree 🙂

  • haha what a moron that dale guy. Did you ever hear from him again?

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