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Take This Column... Please

  |  August 6, 2002   |  Comments

You find it funny, but your readers cringe. Don't let this happen to you.

So, I'm reading the front page of The Onion and will confess it has some pretty funny stuff" "Court Summons Comes With 1,025 Free Hours of AOL" "World's Last Bob Hope Fan Dies of Old Age." Yes, I'll admit it's clever.

But even The Onion falls flat every once in a while. There's a piece on Matthew Perry's publicist's "nightmarish years trapped in the grip of [her client]," which I'm not sure I understand. And the story on the gym teacher who secretly hates nerds is, well, not truly laugh-out-loud stuff.

My point? The Onion offers just about the funniest content on the Net today, and even it slips up from time to time. So, why do the mere mortals among us who write Web site content think we can be comedians? It's a profound question, and those who ignore it often suffer the tragic consequences -- they make truly unfunny attempts at humor.

Let's face facts. If you're in charge of providing content to a site, your humor skills (and your pay) probably aren't at the level of, say, Jerry Seinfeld. In my opinion, you should leave the humor to the professionals and focus on good communications instead.

The truth is most humor on the Net is overreaching and pitifully unfunny. Need evidence? A search for "funny content" led me to the painful Jokelist.com and a bizarre site devoted to third nipples, which appears to be the work of some Caltech students who obviously don't get out much.

Now I know there are those of you who are going to say, "Susan, don't be such a stick in the mud. A little humor never hurt anyone." We all know that's not entirely true. Those seemingly "harmless" jokes can sometimes have the nastiest outcomes. And I've seen supposedly hilarious spoofs sink careers.

At the risk of sounding like a schoolmarm sucking on lemons, here are my tips for interjecting just the right amount of levity into your content without offending, turning off, insulting, or risking the legal wrath of your readers:

  • Be clever rather than joke. There's a fine line between going for the guffaw (very difficult to attain) and going for the amused chuckle (much safer for most of us). The joke often requires a set up and punch line -- and just takes up way too much space for time-sapped readers. Better to go for that little bit of irony that may appeal to the readers. If it doesn't, you haven't really wasted their time or risked their leaving the site.

  • Puns usually pass, but only in small doses. Yes, they are said to be the lowest form of humor, but puns can get a small chuckle as long as they're not over the top on the cute scale. (For a history of the pun and other useless information, go to The Pun FAQtory.)

  • Double-check for the offensive. This sounds like a no-brainer, but it doesn't hurt to have someone else peruse your piece for clunkers. Although you may be world-renowned for your blonde jokes, you may not want the World Wide Web to know it.

  • Keep writing casually, not caustically. The Web does allow for more casual writing, but spewing sarcastic comments rarely furthers the cause. Unless you're going for shock value (and I've yet to see many corporate sites take this bent), let the sites posted by teenagers and performance artists dish the sarcasm.

  • Beware the spoof. For all those who think April 1 gives them free license to issue phony press releases and post pictures of the CEO sans hair, think again. Is your spoof truly funny or just a chance for the communications department to show how desperate it is for attention? A spoof better be darn good before it's launched. (The only great April Fool's Day spoof I've ever known is Taco Bell's amazing announcement that the Liberty Bell was being sold and would be renamed The Taco Liberty Bell. It was pulled off with the help of Paine PR and was successful because the good folks at Paine knew when to bring others in on the joke --- very risky but masterfully executed.)

  • You've got to be kidding about "only kidding." Beware this two-word phrase that smacks of desperate humor. Suffice it to say that if you have to write "Only kidding," the joke is awfully lame.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have some snappy one-liners to concoct for my next piece (as in "Take this column... please"). See what I mean? It is not easy (and is often risky) trying to be funny.

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Susan Solomon

Susan Solomon is the executive director of marketing and public relations for Memorial Health Services, a five-hospital health system in Southern California. In this capacity, she manages promotional activities for both traditional and new media. Susan is also a marketing communications instructor at the University of California, Irvine; California State University, Fullerton; and the University of California, Los Angeles.

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