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A serious note on being funny

Humor is serious stuff. It exposes hypocrisy, punctures egos, and reduces rigid prejudices into laughable ideas. Humor is cathartic when it brings us to laugh at ourselves; within the safety of a joke, we’re able to address shame, fears, and pain that would otherwise haunt us.

I thought a lot about the relationship between humans and humor when, recently, the local standup comedian Nathasha Edissooriya got arrested for making a joke involving religious characters. In a country where freedom of expression is openly obstructed, media routinely censored, activists harassed, and journalists imprisoned, Nathasha’s arrest shouldn’t have surprised anyone. But, the incident dominated the public psyche for weeks, and freedom of expression became a topic fiercely debated all over local media and social circles. Why, though? Why did arresting a comedian trigger so much shock? Why does harming a humorist almost always create shockwaves?

I find humans reserve a sacred space for humor—whether consciously or not. People holding humor in a sacred sense can be seen in cultural and historical contexts from rituals, comedic or trickster deities, sacred texts, and taboos, to healing practices. The jester could get away for joking about uncomfortable truths to the king or queen where others would get executed for it. We laugh at comedians' banter about race, sex, religion, and politics—the very same topics that get family and friends at each other's throats within minutes. Even in Nathasha’s case, I think what shocked most of us was that it publicly penalized the comedic act that society had long maintained as relatively free of judgment.

Humor builds relatability into stories. In our experience, humor brings more engagement to stories and makes them more shareable. The feel-good happiness of humor is naturally contagious, and we find people tend to mimic this practice even online, with stories carrying humorous aspects being the most widely consumed and shared.

When it comes to commercial storytelling, we carefully weigh out a brand’s identity before we consider a humorous story. Humor is certainly a significant part of identity. Inside jokes in close-knit groups and senses of humor that are very specific to cultures and communities show just how intrinsic humor is to identity. But, it’s not for everyone.

I recently saw a think tank highly respected for being insightful, accurate and informative publishing a series of off-brand Tik-Toks and Reels. The stories were obviously tagging onto a trend of funny dancing. But, it was damaging to the brand. I watched their user interaction long enough to notice that this reduced engagement. As part of their audience, I was well aware that the great quality of the think tank’s insights and information hasn’t changed in any way; but, I found myself trusting them a little less. It was an emotional response in spite of my better judgment to not gauge an entity only by their social media presence. I see this happen to brands that simply appropriate humor without interpreting their message to naturally bring out humor from it. If that think tank used wit in a way that highlighted their intellect, for example, it would’ve been perfectly on-brand while still being funny.

A client brand with a fun sense of humor is ApiHappi—the Sri Lankan bean bag makers. When we do commissioned stories for them, I work closely with their founders to bring in the brand’s characteristic sense of humor between sass and sarcasm (I have to mention that being good friends with them lends an unfair advantage here). But, channeling the Humorist isn’t just about being funny; two other Humorist brands we worked with reflect this archetype very differently, through their inherent sense of joy: Arlene Dubo Studio—a Canada-based artist whose vivid works and approach to life both reflect a joyful sense of play and Shanti Faiia—yogi, meditation guru and healer from the UK, whose work involves cultivating happiness and lightness.

At the heart of humour, no matter how dark or sardonic, is a glow of joy. Humour discards the hopelessness of life with a joyful outlook. This sense of joy at the root of humour is infectious. It's also essential. We need humour to survive this absurd world. To find out if humor is a strong part of your brand identity through a Humorist archetype, or a viewpoint adopted when appropriate as hāsyam rasa, drop us a message. Our storytelling tools are designed to help people tell stories that strengthen their brands. Curious about how our Brand Articulation Framework can help your personal or business brand? You can read more about it here.


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