Can This Conference Teach Brands How To Be Funny?

When marketing relies on human connection, humor is a profitable enterprise.

Even though it’s 9:00 a.m. on a bright fall morning, FunnyBizz feels more like a nightclub than a conference. Inside a trendy Brooklyn performance space, the lights are dimmed, the main floor is covered in water (part of the décor), and islands of round tables, usually scattered with beer bottles and cocktail napkins, accommodate scads of smartphones and laptops. Groggy businesspeople pick up their orange juice and pastries from boxes on the bar.


The mission of FunnyBizz, which hosted its first conferences in San Francisco earlier this year, is as seemingly contradictory as its ambiance. On the FunnyBizz website, it promises to teach businesses—which are increasingly looking to connect with consumers through content, social media, and viral marketing—the “essential principles of comedy, improv and storytelling” that allow them to “tap into humor’s power.”

Teaching anyone to be funny sounds like a fool’s errand. Teaching businesses to have a sense of humor seems downright impossible.

But David Nihill, the conference’s cofounder, offers himself as a success story. Though he swears he had terrible stage fright before taking it upon himself to study the strategies of comedy (an adventure he recently turned into a book), his entrance showed no signs of distress, as he charmingly introduced the event in a thick Irish accent. “If I say something funny and you don’t laugh,” he jokes, “I’m just going to assume you didn’t understand.”


Of course, the crowd laughs.

Could teaching brands to funny really be so easy?

The Formula For Funny

“The first step to becoming more humorous,” says Peter McGraw, “is to believe that you can become more humorous.” He nods to a slide behind him that shows an art student’s self-portrait evolving from terrible to passable over time. “A sense of humor is a skill that can be developed in the same way that drawing can be developed.”


McGraw is a marketing and psychology professor at the University of Colorado Boulder who studies what makes things funny. He has literally boiled humor down to a formula, which he calls the “benign violation theory.” The secret, he says, is framing something potentially threatening in a way that makes it actually okay.

Take a sign that you might have seen in a café or a general store: “Unattended children will be given a Red Bull and a free puppy.” If you make it entirely benign, it’s just, “please no unattended children.” Not funny. If you make it entirely a violation, it turns into, “Unattended children will be sold as slaves.” Also not funny. It’s the combination of the two that works–adjust accordingly for what your audience sees as a violation.

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Of course, the idea that being funny is a skill that can be worked out like your algebra homework hasn’t been embraced by many comedians. Marc Maron, for instance, told McGraw that he thinks “benign violation is an apt metaphor for a relationship with an audience.” Louis CK, McGraw says, reacted to the theory by saying, “Well, I just don’t think it’s that simple.”


McGraw calls this type of opposition self-serving. “If you’re a comedian, you want the mystery,” he says. “You don’t want science pulling back the curtain. It’s the same way that a magician doesn’t want people to know how the trick is done.”

Throughout FunnyBizz, speakers pile on to the point that humor is a skill that can be taught by providing their own formulas.

Kat Koppett, an actress who has been performing improv for more than 25 years, instructs brands to find their stories by asking a few questions: What do I want [my audience] to do differently? What do they care about? What’s in it for them? “After you ask those questions,” she says, “you make your story, and change the world.”


Andrew Tarvin, who teaches companies improv techniques, argues for borrowing other people’s humor if you can’t pull it off yourself. “There is a difference between skill of humor and sense of humor,” he says. “We don’t have to have great skill, just a sense. Because then we can find things on the Internet, and as long as we give them credit, we can use them in our slide show.” He nods to the photo behind him.

Allison Goldberg and Jen Jamula, who started a sketch comedy show called Blogologues that takes all of its dialogue from the Internet, suggest repurposing content by “taking it further” (a gorilla drumming to Phil Collins) or “taking the opposite” (James Earl Jones and Malcolm McDowell reading a teenager’s Facebook feed).

“Iterate, iterate, iterate, and don’t be afraid to fail,” instructs Jodie Ellis, who helped Optimizely, a company that is in the decidedly boring business of A/B testing, create a rapper persona for its marketing efforts (“MC Commerce”).


Television writer and producer Bill Grundfest, a Golden Globe winner and three-time Emmy nominee, has the most paint-by-numbers approach. He says that every good story boils down to this concept: “Who wants what and what stops them from getting it.”

Then he rattles off his phone number. “Send me a text message and I will send you the magic template,” he tells the audience.

When I text the number a couple of days later, someone responds six minutes later with a list labeled “Bill Grundfest’s Magic Story Template.”

  1. We see your customer trying hard to get what they want.
  2. They fail, because of the pain they have that your product solves.
  3. They discover your product.
  4. They use it.
  5. They succeed! And get what they wanted in the first place.
  6. Click here (ask the viewer to take some mediate action).

“That’s it! Of course 20 different writers will give you 20 different scripts.”

Funny Business

So why pay to be told these instructions in person? “Because I’m not funny,” says one attendee, when I ask her why she came to the FunnyBizz Conference. She’s a psychotherapist who blogs, and she’s hoping to learn something that can help jazz up her writing. I also meet a couple of startup founders who are hoping to make their pitches to investors more compelling, a speaking coach, one real estate agent, and copywriters. So many copywriters.

Yet, judging by audience participation, the crowd is not composed of natural comedians.


It’s after lunch by the time Grundfest takes the stage. He has promised to reveal the sitcom-scripting secrets that will turn our brands’ stories into compelling videos, and he’s looking for an example to use as a demonstration. “What problem is your company trying to solve?” he asks. The real estate agent raises her hand and, when called on, mumbles that she thought maybe she would make a joke about “homelessness” but that she didn’t think it would be funny. She’s right. Another man raises his hand to let Grundfest know that even if someone gets his manager’s approval for a script ahead of time, there’s a 50/50 chance the boss won’t approve it in the end anyway. Also not funny.

And this was well after several formulas for humor have been revealed.

Grundfest, who founded the comedy club that launched comedians like Jon Stewart and Ray Romano, is by contrast very good at being funny. “This bright eyes and bushy-tailed man has shared the view that no matter what we do, we’re doomed,” he jokes after the man’s comment. “All right coach, I’m ready to go play the second half.”


The professional comedian and storyteller is funny. The audience is not. This probably isn’t a surprise, but aren’t we here to learn what can be done?

“We want to understand how humor can help your business and we give you some tools to apply it straightaway if you stay for the whole day,” Nihill says. But there’s another option. “Worst case scenario, we’ll give you access to the leading experts in that area if you want to hire somebody and bring them in and get them to help you.”

Besides the conference, FunnyBizz makes money by farming out non-funny content from brands to about 15 freelance comedians and copywriters who can make it funny. Nihill and his partner, Rachman Blake, only started this side a couple of months ago, but they say they get about 10 to 15 jobs per week, including funny-izing website copy, press releases, and wedding speeches.

David Nihill

In one presentation they worked on, the presenter began by showing a video that outlined his considerable accomplishments. “It made him less human to everyone who was there,” Nihill says. “His successes were so spectacular. And then when he would make jokes after that, it was hard for people to laugh.” The writer advised the presenter to use some self-deprecating humor after showing the video. Now after it plays, he says, “Just so you know, my mother made that video. If my wife had made it, it would be a very different story.”

It’s not just FunnyBizz’s creators who have started businesses based on brands’ desire to be funny. Most FunnyBizz presenters also run some sort of consultancies for humor, which they are at the conference, in part, to promote. Allison Goldberg and Jen Jamula sell sponsored sketches for Blogologues, in which they repurpose, say, Yelp reviews related to a specific business that pays for the privilege. Andrew Tarvin teaches humor skills to companies, and has taught classes at places like General Assembly. Kat Koppett runs a consultancy that helps companies apply improv technique to everything from public speaking to meeting facilitation. Even Bill Grundfest adds to his magic template a reminder that “of course I’m doing workshops and corporate speaking, for which you can get me directly at”

And all of them were also, without exception, funny. True to the conference staff T-shirts, which promise to “abolish boring conferences,” attendees were thoroughly infotained at FunnyBizz. And even if the professionals in attendance didn’t transform into comedians themselves, the fact that they stayed until the end of the day did prove a key point.


“Whatever business you think you’re in, you’re in show business,” Grundfest explains. “Whatever you want, whoever tells the best story wins.”

Even if you’re putting on a conference, apparently.


About the author

Sarah Kessler is a senior writer at Fast Company, where she writes about the on-demand/gig/sharing "economies" and the future of work.