That’s Not Funny, Part One


Wednesday, 8:59 pm
Reno, NV
What’s so funny about peace, love and understanding?” (Nick Lowe)


One of the first things you hear, when you’re learning about fundamental copywriting and ad creation…

… is to avoid humor like the plague.

The great David Ogilvy said “People do not buy from clowns.” This pre-dated Jack-In-The-Box’s latest commercial model (where they’re so obviously going after the stoner market with late-night “Munchie Meal” take-out boxes that it’s funny on multiple levels)…

… yet, overall, most high-end marketers still agree with it.

Even the funniest copywriters I know (and let me assure you that many of the best bust-your-gut-laughing humans alive are, indeed, copywriters) (weirdo bunch, totally) almost never insert humor into their sales copy. Almost. Occasionally, when it’s absolutely safe (like writing to your own house list, full of folks proven to have the EXACT same sense of humor you have, right down to the Animal House reruns and Adult Swim shows you all watch)… they may go off the reservation and aim for making readers spit up their morning coffee over an email.

But it’s rare. More likely, the funny-guy guru’s you follow have a “meta-text personality” that includes some risky guffaw moments here and there, just to position them in their market as too-cool-for-school (and thus intellectually superior to their competition)…

… which they’ll jettison at the point of closing any sale.

Cuz money is serious biz. And most buyers (not looky-loo’s, but buyers) aren’t keen on being the butt of a joke, and tend to distrust salesmen who seem a bit too… funny. (Even the word “funny” means both being humorous, and also being weird, brain-damaged and untrustworthy.)

Yep, trying to be funny is one massive blunder that can blow your chances of a sale. To learn what else to avoid, RUN–do not walk–and get your copy of11 Really Stupid Blunders You’re Making With Your Biz & Career Right Now


Now, I’m a fairly humorous fella. (And any brain damage I’ve sustained is all better now.) I’ve made a colleague snort coffee through their nose as recently as… well, yesterday, on the phone. Other writers collect my private emails, and read them to family and friends. (Part of that may be a self-defense strategy against their spouse’s assessment of a life in advertising as being “boring”.) I’ve also caused entire ballrooms to laugh so hard, some attendees almost wet themselves. And I’ve even used “okay, you got me” sarcasm to get my point across to a reluctant client during consulting.

Of all the things I value the most in life… laughter and humor rank in the top five.

(Just below sex, In ‘N Out hamburgers, craft IPA beer, and the NBA.) (Oh, and my Jack Russell terrorist dog. Sorry, girl. Almost forgot you…) (And my ’64 Stratocaster. And Turner Classic Movies. And…)

Okay, whatever. It ranks high, anyway. It’s a big part of who I am, and what I bring to the table as a friend, colleague, writer and consultant.

And yet, when a sales process gets down to the shorthairs…

… I’m as serious as a mortician.

Losing a sale because you screwed around is NOT funny. 

It is, rather, a fucking tragedy.

So all the top writers I know have a strict rule against tickling the funny bone of a prospect… at least, when things get to “that point”.

However, we also really, really, really want to find exceptions to this rule. We figure there’s GOT to be an exception, somewhere.

Which means we’ve all become minor experts on the topic of humor. Because, it turns out, while everyone believes they own a “great” sense of humor…

…the truth is, few (if any) civilians understand humor at all.

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So, I thought I’d share some of the research I (and some of my colleagues) (including writers like Kevin Rogers, who spent a decade as a stand-up comic before getting into advertising) have dug up…

… in no particular order…

… just as a starter guide to why we mostly don’t (but sometimes do) use humor in our marketing:

The Joke’s On Us #1:

In the last few decades, Ivy League universities have started studying humor, trying to get a baseline understanding of what’s funny to most people, and why.

And their first biggest discovery was that many people have no sense of humor at all. None.

However, while these funny-challenged folks have no idea why you’re bent over laughing at a certain joke or situation…

… they are often very astute to the social cues of humor, and will be holding their bellies right along with you, laughing out loud.

They’re faking it. Or, more precisely, they wait a beat after observing other people laughing, and join in as a social “bonding” routine. They’re supporting the good vibes that mass laughter brings to any social setting… kinda like nodding in agreement, or applauding.

Researchers figured this out by tricking people in studies — seeding a small crowd with actors who laughed on cue at non-funny things, and recording the actions of study participants. Folks with actual senses of humor would smile in a bewildered way, wondering why they weren’t getting the joke.

But the fakers had no such objective judgments.

The crowd laughed, so they laughed, too.

Reading about these findings blew my mind. I’d suspected something like this was going on, because I had friends who laughed a bit too hard, or who seemed to mainly use loud guffaws as a way to show dominance in a conversation. So I did some of my own testing, watching closely when fakers actually began laughing (a beat behind everyone else).

If you ask, most people will say they have a great sense of humor.

Inside their world, they do. Whatever they find funny (or socially acceptable to laugh at, as a bonding process) is what’s funny. This is how humans operate. All measurements of behavior begin with what you’re doing as the universal standard for normal, or moral, or just “the right way”… and if others don’t agree, then they’re just wrong.

Marketer’s Insight: While no one is sure what percentage of the population is actually humor-challenged, it IS a large chunk of your fellow citizens. So when you’re creating marketing aimed at a large group of prospects, you cannot assume that ANY of them will grok your sense of humor.

Just like half or more will reject your politics (and yes, I know you have a superior understanding of politics to everyone else on the planet). And your religious views.

The rule in bars is “no talking about politics or religion”… because it leads to fights.

For marketers, you can add “no funny stuff” to that list. You simply cannot predict what any list will find funny, or not find funny, or be offended or baffled.

The Joke’s On Us #2:

One of the first challenges the researchers found was agreeing on how to “measure” what’s funny.

Turns out it’s not a simple thing at all. In fact, the commercial uses of humor is relatively recent — the stand-up comic was invented during vaudeville, which required between-act ring-leaders to keep the audience happy. Shakespeare and Mozart and other post-Enlightenment entertainers made liberal use of what we now call slap-stick (the term literally refers to Medieval clowns using a paddle on each other) and “low brow” humor to delight certain audiences… and more intellectual mockery and sarcasm to make the sophisticated elites titter.

So the people creating entertainment, or trying to influence public opinion or sway a vote, might know how to get a response… but it was an inexact science.

Making one part of the audience laugh might offend another part.

The researchers have gotten lost in the weeds trying to define humor. (Some studies have claimed to be able to determine your socio-economic status by what you laugh at, in fact. Fart jokes and pratfalls for the working class, existential stories based on willful misinterpretations of esoteric knowledge for the elites.) (The flaw in this kind of study, of course, is that semi-illiterate yahoo entrepreneur’s can make buckets of moolah with a good biz, and over-educated snobs may be dead-broke slackers.)

It’s gonna take a while for researchers to get it all straight (if they ever do).

The thing is, humor is complicated.

But it’s also a major element of business and social life, so thinking critically about it gives you an edge.

Here’s how I’ve broken it down (through a long life of observing):

  • There are two basic “professional” uses of humor (in biz settings) — as a weapon to establish a better status position… or as a bonding tool (which can be an innocent way of forming friendships, which may later become alliances). All of my close longtime friends have wicked senses of humor, for example. Others who I consider good people, but whose funny-bone isn’t so funny to me, never penetrate the Inner Circle. This has not been done consciously — it’s just the way things sift out. But it’s very interesting to note, isn’t it?
  • The weaponized use of humor employs mockery, sarcasm, and crude jokes that seek to identify “winners” and “losers” (or “The Other”). It’s very risky when you don’t know your audience (and that political or racist joke falls flat), but it can be nastily effective when dealing with the home crowd (so your insinuation that all Yankee fans are slobbering Neanderthals goes over big in Boston every time). (It’s true, by the way, that all Yankee fans are slobbering Neanderthals, but that’s another issue.)
  • There are a few broad divisions in the way humor is used that matter to marketers. The first is shock vs. bonding — you get a laugh by purposely violating some social norm (which can delight or offend, depending on your audience)… or you cozy up to everyone’s comfort zone, and we all laugh while agreeing on what’s being discussed. Do not try to use shock humor unless you are very, very experienced with it. Backfires are common. On the other hand, mild bonding humor can go a long way to establishing relationships… or bore the bejesus out of everyone.
  • The second main division is wit vs. jokes. Have you ever been with a group of folks who just toss zingers at each other, piling up the wit like stacking wood? It’s a joy to behold, if you’re witty. There is no preparation beforehand — you’ve got to live by your ability to quickly counter, support or twist whatever is said. It’s freeform funny conversation… which is the opposite of telling memorized jokes. Someone with an arsenal of jokes can quickly take over a conversation (often with the support of the less witty folks who prefer a more stable environment). I’ve seen many high-flying conversations completely gutted by a series of jokes (which require, by design, that everyone remain quiet and respectful while the joke is told).
  • Don’t get me wrong — I like jokes. But I have none memorized, because I prefer free-form wit. I used to know a lot of jokes, though — so many that a couple of friends and I can simply smile at each other and mention a portion of the punch line (not even the whole line), say “Joke number 37”, and get the SAME laugh that telling the entire joke would have generated. (Example: “Well, maybe it’s not like a river…”. Funny, right?)

Marketer’s Insight: Just understanding the fundamentals of how humor is delivered and consumed can help you immensely. If you’re not a witty dude, don’t try to fake it. You can’t. If you like jokes, go ahead and memorize some… and use them when you’re in a situation where everyone is yukking it up over memorized jokes.

But consider the audience, always.

Don’t shock when it will offend. Never assume your audience shares your religious or political views (and triple-check your perception of this before wandering down the very dark alley of potentially-offensive jokes). And it’s fine to just be part of the audience, to laugh and enjoy the wit or the prepared humor — you’re actually bonding with your supporting laughter.

Quick Story: A well-known colleague of mine — a really nice guy, liked by everyone, and a killer marketer — once took me aside and asked how he could develop a more interesting personality. He was lost in witty conversations, had no jokes memorized, and didn’t understand why some folks found some stuff so fucking funny.

I took the challenge, and with my pal Kevin Rogers (the former stand-up-turned-copywriter), we gave him a list of things that might help (which included watching George Carlin routines critically — figuring out how each story unwound, and when the laugh points popped up… memorizing a handful of jokes from the Playboy jokes page and also from Reader’s Digest — so he had something a tad ribald, and something very middle-of-the-road… and critically reading witty authors like P.J. O’Rourke or Molly Ivins — one conservative, one liberal.)

It didn’t work. I know you can develop real wit, because I’ve progressed myself from a joke-telling kid (sharing stuff from Mad magazine or jokes my drunk uncles used to shock the aunts), to a rookie good conversationalist, to a high-end witty dude who can hold his own in any crowd. On any subject.

But I think you need to start with a basis sense of humor…

… which we’ve discovered is not default equipment with all humans.

Still, by all means, learn how to tell a joke properly. Find them written out, and memorize them, right down to the exact words used. It’s like memorizing scripted lines for a play. Some advanced actors may wing it occasionally… but if you can’t do that, don’t wreck the scene by trying. Study the process, if it interests you, but otherwise just follow the path already laid out.

Another Quick Story: Gary Halbert and I loved to mess with each other’s minds on stage at seminars. The ultimate prize was getting the other guy to lose his cool by laughing too hard to speak (or come back with a wittier line). Spitting coffee through your nose was a bonus point.

We’d get vicious, too… using insults, practical jokes, rumors, everything was fair play. It kept us loose and happy during long weekends of Hot Seats.

But it also taught us a good lesson in the limits of humor.

During one break, Gary and I were chatting at the side of the stage… and an attendee walked up and leveled a gross, tasteless insult my way. Then he laughed heartily. In his mind, he was inserting himself in the Inner Circle — he’d thought, “Hey, I’m a funny guy, too”, and figured insulting me was an easy way to get special attention.

Cuz, you know, Gary and I were so vicious with each other.

It doesn’t work that way, of course. Neither Gary nor I laughed. We just stared at the guy until he slinked away, humiliated.

Hey — I can call my friend a fuckhead and get away with it. Because that’s how we roll.

But YOU call him a fuckhead, and I’m in your face in a heartbeat. You’re not allowed that privilege.

If you have to ask whether you’re in the Inner Circle or not… you’re not in it.

This is pretty much universal in human experience. You can loudly berate your bowling buddies and get a laugh back… but that goofy yahoo on the other team says the same thing, and them’s fighting words.

It’s stunning how often people don’t grok how this simple social paradigm works. And it can ruin business situations for you, handled poorly.

Just a word to the wise…

The Joke’s On Us #3:

Finally, for this primer on the subject, never underestimate how much some people value humor…

… while an equal number are threatened by it.

Look critically at long Facebook threads for evidence. You’ll find in-jokes that you cannot possibly understand, because you’re aren’t privy to the back story. You’ll find other people gleefully trying to keep up with the witty back-and-forth’s, who miss the point entirely. (You can get real-world examples of how different people find different stuff funny… and keep in mind the research claiming to predict status by what you laugh at.)

And you’ll find many examples of people trying desperately to disrupt funny threads.

Every time someone inserts comments like “First-world problems”, they’re trying to kill the conversation. Ask yourself why they’d want to do that. Often, it’s simply being uncomfortable with the discussion, and yet feeling desperate to comment. Just as often, though, it’s a crude attempt to establish dominance. (It’s the same with comments like “Bang! for the win”, which attempts to control through judgment.)

I consider these kinds of disruption offensive, because they can murder a good thread. Hard to continue laughing about some modern situation when reminded that kids are starving in India.

It’s Debbie Downer on steroids.

It’s the same with sarcasm.

Shielding cynical comments by claiming “you’re just joking” is a blatant cop-out.

It’s a total failure to take responsibility for the consequences of your statements.

It works, unfortunately, in politics and personal grievance. “Can’t you take a joke” is the icing on the insult.

Humor evolves on a society-wide level.

What was hilarious a decade ago in a movie is now a cringe-inducing example of obliviousness.

Outside the US and Britain, stand-up tends to be joke-oriented… whereas our comics and cartoons careen toward the absurd, employing more long-form stories than standard punch-lines.

Humor is very important to some people. It’s my main defense against a heartless universe obviously out to get me.

And at the same time, humor is a very foreign and scary thing to others.

This is why it doesn’t mix well (usually) with serious sales pitches, where money is on the line.

Make sense?

I may do another post on this, if folks are still wanting more.

Meanwhile, love to hear your take and experience with humor in biz situations, in the comments section below…

Stay frosty,


P.S. One last tactic: If you’re going to use humor in biz settings… it’s a good idea to make yourself the butt of any joke. It’s called “self-deprecating” humor, and it allows you to use every shred of your wit, sarcasm and sharp humor to make a point… you simply make yourself the target, rather than risk offending or insulting anyone else.

I make sure my audiences at events understand that I know the answers to so many problems… because I personally failed or got waylaid by nearly every problem possible in life and biz myself. It’s absolutely true… but a less forthright speaker might avoid spoiling his reputation with confessions like that.

If I nail an attendee with some shocking assessments (like calling him an idiot)… I make sure he understands, first, that I’ve been the biggest idiot in the universe myself. Many times. And making mistakes, learning my lessons, and then using those lessons the next time is how I became successful.

In fact, I don’t know of any other way to progress in life and biz.

Do you?

P.P.S. By the way…

… if you’re a victim of what my colleague David Garfinkel calls “intellectual loneliness” (where you’re withering away because you lack witty, funny, smart-as-whips pals… who also happen to share your passion for business, copywriting, marketing and the entrepreneurial lifestyle)…

… then it might be time for you to seriously explore our Marketing Rebel Insider’s Club.

No vague philosophy here. Just hard-core, detailed, specific brainstorming and sharing of experience that leads to actual things you can do to unclog the moolah spigot, and get your biz and life back on the fast track.

Just see what’s up, for cryin’ out loud. The site won’t bite you: Marketing Rebel Insider’s Club.

Oh, yes. This could be the day you remember forever, where everything changed for you…

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"11 Really Stupid Blunders You're Making With Your Biz & Career Right Now."

  • Nicole Welch says:

    I love that you are even writing about humor!I teach Sociology to freshman college students and humor is one of the largest topics throughout the seedy, scandalous course. Humor is very (if not the MOST..)important to people even when they have “forgotten” or misplaced their sense of humor–linking back to “the Joke is on Us #1 which I disagree–People have a sense of humor..somewhere in there…its just lost, buried, dead or addicted to something else. I have to small kids who laugh their assess off everyday. We were born with it. I would like to hear you write more about different styles of humor such as the dry witty Brits humor and how it affects us culturally or humor in relationships with the battle of the sexes. Also Why can’t we be funny when it comes to business and money? Humor heals, disarms, and does not always have to shock or be so complicated…maybe if it was accompanied with respect? Society is complicated–humor is innate. Also, another humorous fact is that I was denied by your assistant for you to come on my podcast show Real Time: Real Men Only so I will amuse you….when can rap more about this? I promise you will have a blast and we will be laughing our assess off!(even though I am mortified that you are reading my shitty writing at this moment as I look to you as one of the most prolific writers in this day–there confession) ~Nic

    • John Carlton says:

      Hi Nicole. Quit nagging me already — I’ll do your damn show eventually. Just over-booked right now.

      I, too, would very much love to believe that all kids are born with a sense of humor. But I even in the small group of kids I went through K-12 with (an anomaly that allowed me to study my peers closely through multiple developmental periods), there were kids with severe humor-vacancies. I suspect trauma might play a role in many cases. But I also suspect researchers will identify a gene at some point.

      I’d love to find a way to reverse Humor Challenged Disease…

  • Rob Jones says:

    Great article John.

    This is something I’ve gone back and forth on so many times. My preference would be to fill my products, sales copy and content with R-rated, witty commentary, but I know that would alienate a lot of people who would otherwise buy my stuff.

    I’ve even been tempted many times to segment my list into funny/not-funny groups just so I could have it both ways and scratch the funny itch that always seems to pop back up.

    • John Carlton says:

      Hi rob. Your copy is so good, so consistently, that I long ago suspected you’d try to find ways to fuck it up. We all do it. Human nature. Go ahead and write one of your VSLs in the voice of a drunken sailor on shore leave, just to get it out of your system. Don’t use it, though — just have some fun with your ability to create scenes and copy, and push it to the far edge. I have ads in the bottom drawer from years ago where — in a fit of frustration — I wrote the most spiteful, horrid profanity-laden crap possible… just to blow off steam. They’re fun for me to read, knowing the history, but they’d shock civilians who only know my stuff from what got posted or mailed or printed.

      Once I learned that famous Hollywood screenwriters from the “golden age” (thirties and forties) did this routinely… and sometimes even shot private short films that would get them fired if anyone outside their little circle discovered them… I just occasionally give in.

      Heck, you’ve heard me go off in a mastermind meeting. X-rated stuff, not meant for tender ears.

      It’s healthy to get these urges out in the open (as long as nobody but your pals ever see it)…

  • Deb says:

    I’m the one who thinks she has a sense of humor, tries to be witty, but never makes it to “the “inner circle”. Poor pitiful me. Moving on. I was first “introduced” to you last October in Delray at the convention. Since then I have been devouring (strong verb) your words. And turning friends and family on to your lessons in living life; being true to yourself while at the same time being accountable. I want to thank you for telling all of us there in that conference room to “let your freak flag fly”. It is giving me the compunction to get over myself and get on with my life. (With or without wit.) Thanks John.

    • John Carlton says:

      Thanks for your kind words, Deb. And I’m sure that someone as self-aware as you is being way too hard on yourself. If you’re an introvert, for example (as I am), it’s uncomfortable doing anything in front of other people… let alone unleashing your wit in a crowd.

      Just keep after it. It’s like playing an instrument in many ways — you start out with bleeding fingers, eventually get through a song or two, and if you’re adventurous you take your act public at some. Climb on stage and start playing. And, if you’re following the usual plot line, you fail, you get better, you get into situation where you can’t keep up, you get even better (using what you learn to create new goals to get after)…

      … and, before you realize it, you’re holding your own with the best of them.

      The key: Self awareness. And a willingness to be real about your faults, shortcomings and gaps in knowledge or skill… with a rugged motivation to mail this thing, that doesn’t quite.

      You’re gonna be fine. Keep after it.

  • Great post, JC.

    Yeah, humor’s more than a slippery slope. In biz. ESPECIALLY in direct marketing, or, like you mention, direct communication to an audience, when you’re in front of a room.

    In today’s open-wound politically correct world, typical put-down humor is almost certain to offend someone… and then, no end of unpleasant reverberations (and recriminations).

    Besides self-deprecating humor, as you point out, another thing that CAN work if you do it skillfully, is bemoaning the human condition. Not like a victim, but like a sympathetic flawed human, poking miserable fun about how, you know, in this life, nobody gets out of here alive…

    Lame example, to be sure, but it makes the point.

    Glad you’re taking on this tough topic. Humor’s a big part of my life, but I’ve probably used it in less than 1% of all the copy of written.

    • John Carlton says:

      Hey, Garf, thanks for the note, man.

      For civilians, Garf is one of the “A List” Insiders I speak of in the post. In fact, he’s the guy I got to snort up coffee over the phone…

  • John
    You nailed it with “Cuz money is serious biz.” Funny? Dangerous. But personality? Crucial for standing out in a marketplace, and your post has it in truckloads.

  • Drayton Bird says:

    Point of order, John. It was D.O\’s hero Claude Hopkins who said No man buys from a clown.

    I think John Caples remarked that what is funny to one person isn\’t to another. Having said that, Geico have built the biggest firm in their field by using humour.

    I had lunch at the Savoy in London with Bill Phillips, head of O & M Worldwide just after I sold my agency to them. I think he wanted to know what he\’d wasted the money on.

    We talked about humour.

    For what it is worth we agreed that the big problem comes when the humour overshadows the sell.

    Maybe it\’s the difference between the guffaw and the smile.

    • John Carlton says:

      Hi Drayton. Good to see you here.

      Folks, Drayton is a living legend around copywriters. We love this crazy Brit.

      Was it Hopkins who D.O. was quoting? I’ll defer to you. Though, I last heard David say it on the David Letterman show, when he was hawking his last book. (Letterman gave him the very last spot on the show, and wasn’t very respectful of the great man.)

      At any rate, what you’ve brought up reveals a whole other point to be made here about clowns and humor (which I didn’t address). It’s like Jack-In-The-Box (literally, a clown head) vs McDonalds (literally, an entire fucking clown) vs Progressive Insurance (Flo, who is always in uniform, often acting clownish). Slapstick, existential guffaws, direct humor… mild kid-oriented stuff vs nudging up against taboo adult subjects. The actual sales pitch in each spot, though, isn’t funny. Special deal at the take-out, special deal for car owners.

      Anyway, mainstream TV advertising is hardly direct response, and it’s wildly difficult for joints like Geico to test the actual response of commercials… except seeing if sales go up, or go down, while a campaign is running. A great slogan is not a call to action, and while they do sometimes put time-limits on the food deals, mostly they’re just playing the “bigger menu” card. Any small entrepreneur using big-budget TV ads as a model for their own marketing is making a huge mistake.

      Good point about being pleasantly and agreeably humorous, too, versus what many writers consider “real humor” — which tends to be hard-core.

      There is no way to be definitive on this subject, is half my point in the blog. Just know what we do know, and what we don’t know, about how prospects deal with funny advertising… and take your best shot.

      Thanks again for the note, Drayton.

  • Ryan says:

    Interesting. 99% of my clients buy for the entertainment value.

  • Taheerah says:

    Hi John,

    I thoroughly dug this post. I love humor and personally study comedians from a marketing perspective–they’re some of the best storytellers roaming the planet. In my opinion, comedians are also some of the best social commentators out there. No coincidence that shows like “The Colbert Report” used to pull in ratings that made network news execs openly salivate.

    You’re right, humor is a delicate subject in copy because unlike comedians, you don’t have the luxury of real-time audience feedback. Bill Burr’s standup is a good example of this. He frequently cannonballs into taboo topics that makes the audience inwardly cringe. But he follows this up with an explanation to soften the blow. (Warning–Explicit Language:

    I agree that self-deprecation, when delivered correctly, is beautiful since our written words don’t have the built-in alarm of a stand-up joke. Ragging on yourself is a great to break the ice and to loosen people up; I use it as a tool in my interviewing. If you can’t laugh at yourself, you have no biz making fun of anyone else, right?

    Keep pushing the envelope, John.

    • John Carlton says:

      Thanks for the note. T.

      My goal was to begin to dissect the complex subject of humor… which most folks incorrectly consider as a simple thing. It ain’t.

      The Colbert Report is an excellent example here — a left-leaning show, on a free-thinking comedy network (which skews left). He flourished in it. We’ll see how he does on network TV now, without the burnished-to-a-frothing-pitch lead-in of Stewart. I’m hoping he doesn’t shy away from direct confrontation with difficult subjects… but the history of late-night network TV is mostly about capitulation to The Man and not going over the top. Even SNL was never as edgy as, say, the recordings of the Groundlings or Second City… because they needed to appease advertisers. The SNL writers have always been mindful of teasing the edges of offensive humor, while never coming close to what the average stand-up does when the cameras aren’t rolling.

      This topic just gets more and more complex…

      • Taheerah says:

        Agreed with your view on SNL. Thankfully, podcasts are one of the last remaining frontiers where comedians can “let it all hang out” and dive into dicier subjects (at least for the time being).

        Stephen Colbert’s character was genius. A satirist portraying a right-wing conservative pundit who embodied the the very left-slanted viewpoint that he simultaneously ridiculed. The show was a comedic turducken of satire, irreverence and wit, and I too hope that he continues this edgy brand of humor for as long as possible.

        The fact that he always remained in character was amazing, even when he interviewed his guests he never broke from his persona. Sometimes you can see the bewilderment clearly written across the face of his guests–even they didn’t know who they were speaking with. Kind of reminds me of the stories you hear about cops going deep undercover…

        …where does the real you end and your character’s personality begin?

        When it comes to using humor in your biz, I take a page out of Dan Kennedy’s playbook (paraphrased), don’t try to be an overt comedian in your writing, unless you’re a budding comic (or comedy writer). However, its okay to sprinkle in (sparingly) some chuckle-worthy statements, provided you know your audience, and even then, proceed with caution. I think this is sage advice to use, especially when it comes to differentiating yourself from your competition, like within your personal branding, for example.

        You want your prospects and clients to see you as an expert, but not at the expense of appearing as stiff as a no. 2 pencil. It’s important to imbue a sense of self into your copy and to balance your unique identity with an air of authority, which of course makes adding humor to the mix even more complicated.

        I haven’t had this backfire on me yet, but the year is still young, so there’s still ample time for me to land flat on my face. 🙂

  • Alan Brighton says:

    Just got to say first I’m reading “The Entrepreneur’s Guide” and loving it. It’s the first book of many I’ve read in the last few years that has REALLY got me thinking about how to get my s**t together. Thanks for that.

    So can you draw a direct line between swearing and humour? Would the blog follow some of the same logic if you changed the subject from humour to swearing? I know you don’t care if you offend a few (or a lot of) people like this but where and why do you swear in print?

    You’ll guess I love your material but I’m disappointed I can’t push people (my clients) to become a student of JC because of the language.

    Humour V swearing? Hmmm. They sound similar in some ways to me.

    • John Carlton says:

      Good observation, Alan. It’ll take a whole blog post to delve into it, though.

      On the surface, in my ads I’ve never used rougher language than I would around my Mom.

      And my first book, “Kick-Ass Copywriting Secrets of a Marketing Rebel”, doesn’t contain a single “fuck”. I was conscious of this holding back.

      Then, one day I realized that my favorite magazines — including the New Yorker and Rolling Stone — were quite suddenly using words like “motherfucker” in the course of intellectually-sound articles. The right word, in the right place. Not gratuitously. Mostly quoting someone, to get the quote exact.

      I’ve always been a free speech advocate (or “nut”, really)… and eventually, in my old newsletter “The Marketing Rebel Rant” and then on this blog, I started censoring myself less and less. Then Facebook — I’m still a bit astonished they have no policy on swearing. Ten years ago, they would have, and enforced it. (Most comments section in mainstream publications, like newspaper, still do censor words.)

      The strange thing: I had MORE hate mail back in the early days, over language like “sucks” (as in “all clients suck”), than I do now over the gratuitous “fucks” I toss around for effect.

      Go figure.

      If you push a bit, Alan, I think you’ll find that your clients will still object to me even if you showed them posts scrubbed absolutely clean of swear words. Many people are still offended just by slang. Heck, I’ve been taken to task for using “ain’t”.

      I ignore the critics these days. Fuck ’em. I write as I please, and will do so until forced to stop.

      Thanks for the kind words, Alan.

      • Alan Brighton says:

        Thanks for the considered response! Thought I might get told not to be a shithead.

        You’re so right about the slang.

        Was told publicly yesterday one of my direct mail letters was off centre because I included “knock your socks off” in a piece for a client, but of course the letter helped open the door.

        Love the lessons. Time to buy a JC course. The sales copy works again.

  • ken ca|houn says:

    great topic, agree with your main points; I’d add:

    a) no humor allowed in print/web copy and videos, it falls flat/kills sales; you described all the reasons perfectly

    b) humor Yes in brief bits in webinars ok and live seminars (I always use humor in seminars to lighten up dry trading content), and it must be usually self-deprecating or “all us traders make the same dang mistakes, right? it’s like (insert funny bit, they laugh/bond)

    I’ve bought most of the books on humor, stand-up comedy (Judy Carter is super), watched endless netflix stand-up routines (Bill Burr is hilarious, also liked Carlin a lot).

    warning re humor especially a no-no w/international audiences, humor is based on what’s a twist/weird/funny compared to cultural norms, it’ll fall flat w/people from other countries that don’t have shared reference points.

    super topic, I itch to be funnier, practicing for years w/family and slowwwly getting there, it’s very tough to do well. needs to be organic, natural, never stupid jokes or one-liners, more ‘what’s strange about….is (observation) (analogy).

    • John Carlton says:

      Great observations, Ken, as usual. The international angle is worth a whole post in itself. I destroyed sales during a seminar in Dubai when I used multiple allusions to sex to make a marketing point. I was told by the event organizers that, oh yeah, this is a cool crowd, they’ll get the humor. They didn’t. I watched the entire audience recoil in horror, as if I’d just spit on them.

      Know your audience, always.

      And just like on Facebook, where sarcasm usually flies over the head of most folks (and you’ll be taken literally no matter how outrageous your comment), even knowing your audience doesn’t guarantee you won’t hit a nerve when you get edgy…

  • John Van Epps says:

    Having spent the bulk of my sales career in an outside capacity, I can tell you John’s words ring very, very true.

    Even when you ‘think’ you’ve developed a ‘proper rapport’ with your prospective customer, chancing humor is just that – a chance.

    And a huge one at that. More sales are killed with the ‘jawbone of an ass’ (the salesperson) than for any other reason I can think of.

    No matter how well you may THINK you know your audience; they are rarely members of your personal ‘inner circle’. You have about a 50/50 chance of making a positive impression using YOUR definition of humor.

    Up the odds, and opt to stay professional…

  • Scott McKinney says:

    Can’t answer the question about humor and sales…what worked for this commentator has been – tapping into a fresh market – going door to door. The ad-writing is fascinating because it can multiply that.

    Curious if any of ya’ll have opinions on the relative dearth of our better half (women) in both the copywriting and humour fields.

    • John Carlton says:

      Hi Scott. This has been a sore spot for me ever since I started mentoring copywriters, and I’ve done all I can to help more women come into the job. There are a lot, and more coming up the ranks… and while it’s true that the bulk of the “top tier” are guys, some great women are climbing their way into that Boy’s Club and kicking some ass. Look for Lorrie Morgan-Ferrero, Leah Carson, and others to continue making news in the field.

      One interesting side note: I’ve noticed that most of the really talented women who “get” copywriting tend to start their own businesses. That takes them out of the public eye as freelancers. So they’re out there.

      No one can tell whether a great ad (whether in print, in a VSL, on TV or the radio, anywhere) has been written by a woman or a man. Freelancing is a great job for women who want out of the corporate rat race, because you can call your own hours, work at home, and be pretty much as independent as you like… while still being an essential part of any marketer’s success. We’ve put a lot of women through the Simple Writing System coaching program over the years, and we’re proud of that.

      • Scott McKinney says:


        Can’t help but suggest…there is a measurable difference between the sexes, and this leads to the greater overall success of males in comedy and ad-writing

        Just not sure what leads to that…don’t think it’s a “vast male conspiracy to keep women down”

        Maybe it is something to do with “libido” and knowing how to “penetrate” the mind

        Feminists would surely fry anyone who suggests that

        But any women who wants to prove me wrong and has a good product or service to sell (current major personal/business issue: lack of confidence/self-assertiveness)
        can email on sam239 at cornell dot edu

        Regards and thanks again

        • Scott McKinney says:


          “The flaw in this kind of study, of course, is that semi-illiterate yahoo entrepreneur’s can make buckets of moolah with a good biz, and over-educated snobs may be dead-broke slackers.”

          Haha. Yep right on.

          And curious how you and Halbert get select members of the better half to chase you around like that. Just using the pen, and they are chasing ya’ll.

        • John Carlton says:

          Naw, gotta argue with you on that one. When I was a teen, there were almost zero girls in bands. At most, they might try being the singer, but never one of musicians. We collectively thought girls just don’t “get” rock and roll. Then, we discovered that the MAIN bass player for The Wrecking Crew (the pro back-up band for Phil Specter and Motown and all kinds of great producers) was Carol Kaye. A woman. She didn’t sing. She just laid down the bottom of some of the best grooves in rock history. No one told her how to play. That was all her.

          Blew our little theory about girls not being able to play rock apart. There may or may not be a glass ceiling, may or may not be a male conspiracy to keep women out, may or may not be truth to the idea that women just mature out of stuff like music (to go have babies). But in writing, there is zero reason why more women aren’t well-represented in the A List of copywriters. Next generation, I predict they dominate the freaking list. I work with women writers all the time. Great copywriting requires a lifelong dedication — the ads become your babies, clients your family, the craft your passion. And, you have to live a fairly wild life, read tons of books, and glean lessons from everything. There is no gender bias in grokking existence.

          We like to think we’re at the pinnacle of human awareness and intelligence, but it just ain’t so. We’re still clawing our way out of the jungle, and while you and I may be “enlightened” to the value of feminism and true fair play in biz and life… the rest of the folks around us aren’t on the same page. Remember, the vast majority of people alive today just coast through life half-asleep. We are surrounded by zombies, who operate through dumb-ass belief systems they never question or challenge. The culture changes rapidly, and always has. Sometimes it’s driven by tech, sometimes by the sheer persuasive power of a great idea (our very nation is the result of the Enlightenment and the Age Of Reason… radical ideas and concepts that got people killed).

          It wasn’t so long ago that most stand-up comics were men. Now, some of the funniest, most throught-provoking and talented comics are women. (Amy Shumer, Sarah Silverman, Tina Fey, etc).

          Personally, I love the change.

  • Raymond Duke says:

    What are your thoughts on using humor to create an us vs. them scenario? That is, enforcing the beliefs of your prospect with humor that makes fun of the “other guy” — the person who you know your prospect doesn’t want to be.

    Would that not be a way to bring someone into your “inner circle” with the copy? If done right, I think it’s a way to build rapport. Then, when it’s time for the prospect to act, he’s faced with a decision: will he want to be the guy he laughed at just a few moments ago? Or take action and become the person who “gets” the joke… in addition to, of course, the positive results of the product?

    • John Carlton says:

      I think I covered that — it’s mockery, using cynicism to divide and turn your enemies into The Other. I’m sure cavemen used the tactic seconds after language was invented…

  • Tommy Jenkins says:

    Good point Raymond. The three exceptions to the, let’s call them guidelines as opposed to rules, in using humor in copy are the “3 NEVERS”. Sex, politics and religion.

    If you’re writing for Mother Jones, you may construct a humorous scenario with the fall guy being a stiff assed republican who runs his car into a tree while texting bible verses as he’s driving… the ultimate goal of having them click on your Progressive affiliate link to purchase car insurance.

  • mark grove says:

    Never been a joke teller and know that i’m not. Always been into one liners and witty sayings. I find If I tell a joke, it tends to be very crude,and not a lot of people like that anymore as we all get older.

    I never include jokes in my blog content. Maybe the odd one liner, that’s it.

    Nothing to offend.

    i find most people aren’t great joke tellers but think they are anyway. At least that’s my take.

    I like good stories though.

    Great post John. Made me think more critically about any jokes that people may be offended by,not get or make people online go away.

    Much peace and success to all

  • Scott McKinney says:

    Something else that comes to mind is…

    Not sure where I heard it, maybe it was on the PI4MM podcast actually

    But a good way to test your understanding of a group of people is if you can crack jokes that they get and laugh at

    If you can do that then you know you’ve understood them

  • Kevin Rogers says:

    Excellent piece, John.

    We’ve talked so much about this and still only scratched the surface.

    Neuroscientists have long been obsessed with how the witty brain fires compared to the conversation killing joke-teller.

    This latest piece on John Stewart’s brain is pretty good:

    The toughest challenge for me, as a former stand-up who relied on laughter to pay the bills, is NOT defaulting to pure instinct when performing for marketing crowds. I’ve had attendees get very pissed at what I considered mild quips shot in their direction. (You’re event as you may recall.)

    This goes back to knowing your audience and making damn sure they are in on the joke. In a comedy club, they are forced to be. In a conference, it’s an unannounced “bonus” that nobody asked for. Big difference.

    New revelation: Aussie crowds have (much) thicker skin. Schrak had the questionable judgement to put me on a panel judging audience video submissions and I likened one with terrible lighting to a terrorist beheading video.

    Huge laugh. No groans. That was shocking.

    • John Carlton says:

      Hey, we were wondering when you were gonna stop by, Kman. Thanks for the note.

      The PC crowd stateside is taking over way too much of public discourse, much to the detriment of folks with real wit. Being political correct is never funny. It doesn’t even help solve things, and keeps leveling the wrong targets.

      My main memory of my mother’s final days (after a year of being really, really sick) was how much energy she spent laughing. Even when it physically hurt to do so. On her deathbed, she told me a funny story, and I was reminded what a joy it was to grow up in a house filled with laughter. The extended family was full of folks hiding secretes, suffering silently or loudly, troubles galore… and yet everyone laughed heartily. Greetings were laced with good humor. When the tears arrived, they often rolled down smiling cheeks. The humor was often crude, very un-PC, and seldom sophisticated (not a college grad in the lot), but it was always heartfelt.

      This solid foundation of laughter and wit was a real advantage for me in life. That’s why writers like us get along so well, Kman. I laughed, out loud, just reading your comment, and I can imagine that Oz crowd bellowing with gusto.

      Yes, life can get serious at times. For some of us, that’s when a sense of humor really does a job for us (rather than just with us).

      If anyone cries at my wake, they better be laughing at the same time…

      • Kevin Rogers says:

        So true, John. Laughter is the magic potion of life.

        My mom encouraged my comedy from the moment I could talk. She ran a hair salon and I remember performing my latest “bits” for women in beehive hairdo’s.

        When she passed, I knew I’d speak at the funeral and it had to be funny. My opening line was: “This is very sad. We’ve not only lost an amazing mom and a loving grandma and a great friend, but an excellent hair stylist. What are we supposed to do now? I mean, look at this mess (pointing to hair), I had it cut at a place called: “Give it a week”.

  • Sometimes, you just want to make them laugh.

    I remember reading Jerry Seinfeld talking about his dad, who was a sign painter. (Company name — “Seinfeld’s Signs … or was it Seigns”?)

    Jerry’s funny bone came from his dad, who would risk losing a sale just to make a joke. (Paraphrasing his dad: “I don’t care if I don’t get the job. I just want to see those serious business guys crack a smile.”)

    At least he knew the risks, and was willing to take ’em. Guess it turned out okay overall for the Seinfeld clan.

    I get the impulse: there’s a lot of pleasure in making someone laugh. To be the imp. The center of attention. Get the applause.

    But … (I think I heard this somewhere) … in business, money is the applause.

    It can be one or the other.

    Not just with money but with love …

    When I was in third grade, I fell hard for a girl in my class. Michelle Grotto. One magical day, she agreed to be my girlfriend. I walked home riding clouds of cotton candy.

    Then the next day, however, I hit the ground hard. When I went to greet my new flame, Michelle informed me she was having second thoughts.

    She even game me a reason: “You’re kind of a spaz.”

    The truth hurts.

    Cause she was right. I was a kind of a spaz. I loved going for the joke, acting the clown. I kept that in my relationship repertoire for years.

    Some girls liked it. But there were others would didn’t. Who didn’t take me seriously. And strangely, those were the ladies I was drawn to most.

    So once I hit adulthood, I pulled back on some of my clownish ways. Not completely … but I decided not to drop into shtick every time I met someone — especially the female kinds of someones.

    I ended up falling for and marrying a woman (strangely, also named Michelle) who wasn’t looking to be entertained 24-7. And to be honest, that would have been exhausting.

    Actually, she laughs hardest when I make a mistake, like drop something on my foot. (Hey, slapstick is universal.)

    My point isn’t that we should be something we’re not … but sometimes you have to look closely why you’re choosing a behavior, like humor.

    For me, a lot of it was about attention. So yeah, I would get attention, but often not the kind I really hungered for.

    Comes down to trade-offs, I guess.

    • John Carlton says:

      Scott, I was well into my thirties before I finally gave up prat-falls… and I’d hurt myself before doing them (like the time, in a biz meeting, I allowed my chair to tip over backwards, which always got a huge laugh… but I forgot to check for clear landing ground, and nearly busted my head open on a fireplace). My favorite was to kick the bottom of a door just a heartbeat ahead of opening it, and then grabbing my nose. It looked and sounded like I’d run smack into it.

      Once, I didn’t time it right. What a mess.

      I think many of us are natural clowns, and while it often starts as part of our defensive arsenal (I was an introvert and needed ways to separate myself from the chatty alphas), it’s kind of fun to control groups with funny bits. Especially original ones (I have never, to my credit, tarnished the shine on my heroes by publicly trying a funny walk like Cleese)…

  • Bob says:

    Hello John,
    This is a bit off topic. For a couple of months now, Marketing Rebel Club hasn’t been accepting new members. Is still a thing?

    • John Carlton says:

      The Club is Stan’s baby now. He’s been making upgrades and improvements, but I believe he’s almost ready to take on new members. I am, as always, still deeply involved with the hundreds of members now in it.

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