Great comedians use great timing and technique to get their audiences to laugh. Issue managers need to follow their example to get their target audiences to pay attention.
Here are some comedic lessons for effective issues management:
Rodney Dangerfield, born Jacob Rodney Cohen, was a walking one-liner ("I bought my oldest boy a BB gun for Christmas. I got my other boy a T-shirt with a bulls-eye.") But he is best known for his recurring riff, "I don't get no respect." That catchphrase catapulted his stymied Catskills career into major movie roles, television appearances and stand-up routines at top comedy venues.
Lesson for issue managers — find a catchphrase that captures your point of view and use it relentlessly.
Jerry Seinfeld seems like the guy next door after playing a version of himself for nine seasons on the hit sitcom, "Seinfeld." Much of the action of the show took place in Jerry's New York City apartment, where the door would swing open and in would pop characters played by character actors Jason Alexander, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Michael Richards. People watched the show because of its witty dialogue about subjects that ranged from outrageous to nerve-wracking — e.g. cashing in on bottle deposits in Michigan. You needed to listen carefully or risk missing the funny lines. Some of us still are listening to reruns.
Lesson for issue managers — keep your conversation engaging so audiences don't tune you out.
Johnny Carson is best known as the host of NBC's "The Tonight Show," where he cracked up crowds with his on-stage ability to "die" after a weak joke or lame skit. Carson benefitted from his personal laugh-track sidekick, Ed McMahon. Few knew that Omaha-born Carson was a Navy ensign in World War II with 10-0 record as an amateur boxer. Carson, who paid his way through college performing magic tricks, graduated with a degree in radio and speech — and a minor in physics. He did his thesis on the structure of Jack Benny's comedy routines.
Lesson for issue managers — study successful campaigns to understand what works and why.
Lilly Tomlin, the daughter of a Detroit factory worker who was a staunch Southern Baptist, charmed audiences with her cast of unique, fascinating females — and a few males, including Tommy Velour. None of her characters was funnier than Ernestine, the rude, nosy telephone operator best known for dialing up someone, fidgeting with her bra strap and saying, "One ringy dingy. Two ringy dingy." Her other iconic character was Edith Ann, a precocious youngster, usually ensconced in an oversized rocking chair, pondering the mysteries of the universe and ending her dissertation with a childlike raspberry. One of Tomlin's greatest comedic gifts was her improvisational style that made each of her bits seem spontaneous.
Lesson for issue managers — being in character is important, but so is being spontaneous so you can seize the moment.
Jim Carrey has played quirky roles such as the Mask, Riddler and Grinch that tap his physical ability to appear like a cartoon character. That may explain how Canadian-born Carrey sees his comedy through visualization. Now he has written a new children's book titled "Roland Rolls," which the comedian describes as "kind of a metaphysical children's story that deals with a lot of heavy stuff in a really childish way." However he gets to his lines, critics rate his comic timing as "exquisite."
Lesson for issue managers — see what you are trying to show so your audience can see it, too.
Milton Berle was on television when television was a baby. He started his show business career when he was five, then made his vaudeville stage debut at age 12. Berle was big on radio, but even bigger on TV when he starred on "Texaco Star Theater." At the height of his show's popularity on Tuesday nights, movie houses and restaurants shut down — and people in Detroit apparently stopped using the toilet — because everyone was watching Berle on TV. NBC was so intoxicated by his success, it signed him to a 30-year exclusive deal in 1951, forgetting to realize comedians go in and out of favor. Of all his comedic skills, Berle was the master of the entrance, often in a ridiculous costume. His entrances always drew huge laughter, but none louder than from his mother, who was a plant. Berle would feign surprise at her shrill laugh, then deadpan, "Lady, you've got all night to make a fool of yourself. I've only got an hour." Berle risked his popularity and his lucrative sponsor by insisting on including black entertainers on his show. He prevailed.
Lesson for issue managers — don't be afraid to make a few waves.
Bob Newhart, who started his career as an ad writer, won fame for his TV roles as a Chicago psychologist and Vermont innkeeper, but he earned his comedy spurs earlier on routines that involved him talking to unseen and unheard people on the telephone. In one of his most memorable routines, Newhart tries to walk a security guard through how to defuse a bomb on a California beach. Critics called Newhart the first funny straight man in a solo act, as he stammered and sighed his way to numerous honors by creating an everyman persona. Newhart didn't originate the telephone routine, but he made it a signature gig.
Lesson for issue managers — find a communications style that works for you and keep using it.
Carol Burnett went from being a theater usherette in high school and hat-check girl in New York to a comedy legend. She earned stardom in the 1959 musical "Once Upon a Mattress," but she endeared herself to generations of fans by creating her cast of characters, including a grumbling cleaning woman who would emerge as her alter ego. "The Carol Burnett Show," which won 23 Emmy Awards, is still a hoot to watch, especially out-of-control sketches with Burnett and her co-stars Tom Conway, Vicki Lawrence and Harvey Korman. Even though she was a big star, Burnett maintained a personal touch with her audiences, whom she greeted before her shows and answered questions.
Lesson for issue managers — never forget to listen and answer questions.