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How to be funny - Rob Manuel

Rob Manuel is one of the founders of b3ta.com. Even if you've never been to the site, or read the newsletter, chances are you'll have come across something which either originated on, or was influenced by b3ta.

It's no exaggeration that b3ta has changed the face of internet comedy, and so who better to ask for his thoughts about being funny than the man whose fault that is?

How to get a web hit the easy way

Short cuts to good ideas

Technical tips

Outro

How to get a web hit the easy way

I'm Rob, I've created lots of web stuff that's been seen by millions, and I'm here to give you a few tips on how you can do the same.

But first off I want you to take a deep breath. I'm going to tell you you're a genius. I told you to breathe deeply. And again, and this time say it out loud, "I am a genius and the web is mine for the taking."

Everything I say is absolutely true and - if you listen - you can change the world.

Again. Say it. "I am a genius. I will bend the web to my will."

Right, that should do it, now to the RULES

The golden rules of creating successful funny stuff

Trust your instincts

The best asset you've got is listening to your own laughter. If you see something and it makes you laugh then it's funny. OK it might not be funny to everyone in the world but some people don't find Little Britain funny and it hasn't stopped Matt Lucas and David Walliams becoming multi-billionaires and lighting cigars with fifty pound notes.

One of the great joys of launching your idea on the web is that it's a meritocracy. The good stuff will rise to the top and find an audience, and you don't have to impress one idiosyncratic commissioning editor.

You are right. Never forget that.

Funny or interesting?

My wife - an ex journalist and current TV producer - has a rule that she taught me at the start of B3ta. Does the item make you laugh or does it make you go oh my god? If you score on either count then you have something that is worth sharing.

Don't ask for permission

The world is full of people who say, "But I had that idea first", but did they do anything about it? Nope, they sat on their bum dreaming.

The difference between you and the funny person on TV is that they acted on their ideas.

Don't wait for the TV commission. Don't wait for your friends to say, "oh yeah. you're a funny guy, you should do something like that."

Get to work today. The web is the perfect place to start and who knows, you might end up with your own TV series.

Frankly the world has changed. Take Flickr - the popular photo sharing website - for instance. They didn't wait for Fuji Film or Boots to commission them; they simply got to work and tried to create the best photo sharing website in the world. If they'd sat there pitching to companies, they'd still be pitching and we'd have never heard of them.

Don't set out to make War and Peace

99 per cent of projects fail and don't even reach an audience because the creator gets bored before finishing the execution.

The trick is to pick the ideas that can be dashed out quickly. Ideally in an afternoon, certainly no more than a couple of days.

If you wish to tackle a larger project then divide it up into manageable chunks - like chapters in a book - that can be delivered to the interweb as and when you've completed them.

Six short ideas are better than one long idea

You could spend two months on a project and stick it out and find no-one cares. Why not use the time to bash out several shorter projects? Each has the same chance of succeeding.

No one cares how long it takes you to produce a result - they'll judge you on whether the finished product makes them laugh. At university a student once complained about me to the head of year, "Rob got an A for that project and I saw him doing it in class ten minutes before we had to hand it in. I only got a C and I was working on it all weekend." The tutor - to my eternal pride - told them, "It doesn't matter. Rob's answer was right, yours wasn't."

Throw enough mud at the wall and some of it will stick

Be prolific and don't be afraid to make stuff that's rubbish. If you keep trying eventually you'll get there.

Your funny best mate could make you a star

When we started B3ta we had a lot of theories. The bit we were lacking was 'funny people to join in'.

Then I remembered my friend Joel Veitch - I was at Leeds University with him in the early 90s and we'd stayed friends.

Joel was funny in the pub and his emails were great and I knew that there was a mine of untapped humour - if we could find an outlet for this I knew he would be big. I was right. Joel has gone on to win Webbys and get TV advertising work.

The point? You don't have to do it all on your own. Maybe you know more about video and animation but get your funny mate in to help on the scripts. Or vice versa. Collaboration, that's the key.

Follow popular stuff

Back in the bad old days of pre-internet your only gauge of 'what's popular' would have been to read critics opinions which frankly say very little about public taste.

We live in a magic world of internets now, and it's easy to find out what people are enjoying via the voting mechanisms on popular websites. I particularly recommend the popular pages on del.icious.us, Google Video and YouTube.

"Who cares?" you may say, "I am an insane maverick genius who doesn't give a stuff what's popular."

Well, even if you hate it, looking at popular stuff and asking yourself, "why do people like this?" is instructive.

And if you answer, "people are stupid", then you've failed the lesson and teacher wants you to read this bit again.

Genius steals

As TS Eliot said, "Talent imitates, but genius steals." It's an often used quote but what does it mean?

To me, it means, look at other peoples work and try and understand why people enjoy it and learn from that, and not foolishly ape the style.

Maybe it would be clearer to give you an example, let's talk about why Joel's kitten animations work:

  • Anthropomorphisation. Making animals do human things was cute when Beatrix Potter did it and it's cute now.
  • Kitten Vikings is basically a scale joke. Making small cute things act mighty and fearsome is funny.
  • Familiarity. These items were pop videos to songs that people already knew and loved. If Joel had tackled a rubbish and unpopular song in this style then he'd have done one tenth of the traffic.

So I'm saying learn from the greats, but don't steal their clothes. The world already has one David Firth and doesn't need another one. The world needs YOU and what YOU can bring to it.

And I'm sure the BBC Comedy Department can live without another 100 scripts laughing at boorish bosses, provincial homosexuals in latex and mentally ill regional television personalities.

Not everybody knows your mates

Running the B3ta newsletter I get sent hundreds of items per week for potential inclusion. Despite the angry emails I get saying, "you only pick your mates, you favourist twit", I actually want to feature as much stuff as possible.

The problem is communication, or lack of it. People write jokes about their friends and assume that others will understand. There's nothing wrong with taking inspiration from your life, in fact it's one of the best ways to work, but you have to write in a way that requires no prior knowledge of your life to find it funny.

If I get one more email saying "here's a hundred photoshops of my mate Jack as a kitten" I shall stab the internet in its eye.

Intros suck

TV title sequences are shorter than ever. Often an hour long programme will only have 20 seconds worth of titles, while any production credits are always at the end.

If you start on the web, your audience will be more fickle. Don't bore them and give them the opportunity to press the back button. Stick your credits at the end instead.

Don't bore us - get to the chorus!

A classic tip for writing for TV is that when you find a funny little idea, don't stick it at the start of the script and then go, "what next? er.. I dunno." Stick the joke at the end and use the rest of the screen time to give you a reason for getting to the joke.

With a little bit of modification this can be applied to the web too. Remember that your audience has their finger hovering over the back button and at the slightest hint of boredom will go to another page.

Stick your joke in early, writing the smallest amount of exposition needed to get there. Then end. Just because a sketch on TV may be three minutes doesn't mean yours should be three minutes.

Write how you speak

For some odd reason, when people feel something needs to be written they often adopt a 'writerly' style which can be rather clunky, formal or use too many adjectives.

Write how you speak. Don't think you can? Then what on earth have you already been doing typing all those emails and MSNs to friends?

You already have a voice, it's not even a case of finding it, it's about trusting yourself to use it.

Write what you know

This oft-repeated aphorism bears some thought. I'm not saying don't write a Space Opera but you need to set it in some reality that you're both comfortable writing in, and that your audience can recognise.

So if you really really want to write something set in space, think about your own job and your own experiences in the office and try and stick as much stuff about that in as possible. Surely Scotty in Star Trek would be a bit more like the IT guy always moaning that 'users don't understand security' and stick a load of photos of Lucy Pinder on his transporter desk?

Stray too far from what you know and you'll soon be spending far too long looking at an empty Word document going, "Argh! I don't know what to write!"

Concentrate on the one thing you're good at

Let's say you can write a good joke - then why not use the most basic animation skills you can muster to communicate it?

Badly animating your witticism will probably be funnier than spending ages to achieve an average visual result.

And frankly you'll be wasting time you could be using to write new material.

Conversely, if you've got a strong visual sense and you're not very funny then find a writer to work with. No one gives a flying monkey about beautiful things that are meant to be amusing but aren't.

Play to the invisible gallery

When creating humour for a specific web community it's easy to get bogged down with in-jokes. You can find yourself making material that is only accessible to the people who live and breathe the website.

Bizarre codewords and sayings can attach themselves to a site. These are pretty much meaningless to anyone other than the most ardent devotee.

Think of your audience being the ordinary person who doesn't spend all day mucking about with websites, but who gets one or two funny things sent to them a day from their mates.

Play to these guys and you have a chance of seeing your work resonate with millions.

Nothing is off-limits

According to the creators of South Park AIDS became funny 20 years after the public were aware of it. They are wrong. AIDS was always funny as it was a subject taken so seriously it's always been irresistible to laugh at.

You have to find your own line. If you don't find AIDS funny then don't make jokes about it. Simple really.

It's the fish that John West reject that makes John West the best

I once worked at a publishing company with a terribly clever man called David Hepworth (famous for launching such magazines as Heat and Smash Hits), and he had a bit of advice that's so wonderfully smart he didn't even tell me this in person and I heard it from his underling.

"It's the fish that John West reject that makes John West the best" might be an old slogan for flogging canned salmon but it was David's number one rule for editing.

To paraphrase, "Throw away the bits that don't work. Do this ruthlessly. Your product will be a hundred times the better for it."

You would be wise to learn from this man.

There's no new jokes, just new ways of telling them

Whatever you do there will always be critics going, "I've seen that done before."

Don't listen to these people, they are psychic vampires trying to suck you down to their level of failure.

All jokes have been done before, but if you can add enough of yourself and your take on the world to the equation then it'll be unique and special.

Don't listen to a word I say

Don't listen to a word I say.

Short cuts to good ideas

Misdirection

Give your audience one expectation and get a quick laugh by confounding it. The simplest internet version of this is called a screamer, where you make a video that purports to be say, a clip of some cute kittens and then 20 seconds in flashes a screaming ghost.

The screamer is a bit played out on the web, but the basic idea of misdirection will run and run.

Take something you like and reverse a detail

I mentioned the scale joke earlier, i.e. kittens pretending to be Vikings. This can be up-ended, say making something fearsome acting cowardly. Or a huge whale speaking with a squeaky voice. It's not a great joke on its own, but it could be a lovely character detail.

Do someone else's idea better

Several years ago I was looking at some blog and I saw something marked 'shemale quiz' and I clicked thinking, "Nice idea. Can you spot which of these ladies is really a man?" However the actual item was some dull cartoony 'three cup, where's the ball?' game. So I thought, "Sod it. I'll make the version they should have made and it'll be better." At over 100 million views, I've stopped counting on how popular that damn quiz is.

Make jokes about famous people

Nobody knows who you are. You need to give people a route in so that they can understand your world. Pick up a celebrity magazine and pick a random page and ask yourself, "What do I think about this person?" Use this as a starting point, and you might be surprised how many people who share your views.

Tabloids are your friends

Busting taboos is always good for a cheap laugh. Want a shortcut to knowing the pressure points of society? Read the red-tops.

If X was Y

Pick a thing and change a detail. A great example is a challenge once run on the B3ta site, "If Ads told the truth". My favourite answer? "Guinness. It makes you fat and turns your shit black."

Censorship is useful

Working within limits is always good. When the world is a blank page then ideas are hard. Say you've got to create material that doesn't contain bad language, you can always use beeping. And beeping can be used to make new jokes. E.g. take a video of a Vicar delivering the most innocuous sermon. Beep out random words. The audience will fill in the foulest phrases in their head, and the net effect would probably be ruder than anything with swearing in it.

Technical tips

Don't pop the mic

Nothing screams incompetent amateur than popping the mic, and more important that it, it's distracting and breaks the 'forth wall' and tells the audience that there's an idiot with a microphone lurking behind the work. It's easy to fix, either stand a bit further back from the microphone or make a pop guard by stretching some tights over a wire coat hanger. It looks a bit mental but it does work.

If you're bored and fancy learning a new word then learn this one: plosive. It's the consonant sound produced by stopping the airflow in the vocal tract. The worst offender is normally 'P'.

Subtitles / speech bubbles

Large parts of your potential audience are in the office on computers without speakers. If you rely on sound to communicate your joke then you'll reach a smaller audience.

The trick is to subtitle or speech bubble the audio. Weebl uses this to great effect by making his audio so completely incomprehensible as to make the speech bubbles an essential part of the action.

Think of sound as 'enhancing the experience' rather than crucial to it.

Care about filesize

No matter how fast broadband gets there's always people on slow connections. Don't forget them. Just because you're happy downloading 50MB animations doesn't mean everyone is. Make a small version and link to a bigger version if you feel the need. Simple.

Tag your work

If your item is liked by people it'll probably end up on hundreds of different websites around the world. You can get huffy about this or you can turn it to your advantage. Tag everything you do with a URL or unique phrase that can be googled to find more of your work. Don't see their use as theft, see it as free advertising.

How to get royalty free images

Royalties are a complete pain. The last thing you want to do is create a work that requires you to send cash to some photo agency every time your work is aired.

The cunning trick is to use 'royalty-free images' to stop the lawyers getting on your back when you want to sell your lovely creation as a ring-tone. You need to know about the following sites:

  • Stock.xchng - great selection of images, but be careful to check the licence on every picture you use. Some don't allow commercial use or require you to notify the creator for online use. Most are fine though.
  • Morguefile - similar to Stock.xchng, the same rules apply.
  • Istockphoto - a pay-for site, but it's about about 50p per image, and you're free to use the images in any way you see fit.
  • This website - Comedy Soup contains images, video and audio from the BBC's very own archives which you are free to use in your comedy creations.

Buy a tripod

My number one tip for improving your stills photography is to use a tripod. Most people jog the camera when they press the shutter button, hence blurry shots.

Lighting

My main thought for both stills and video is LIGHT! I've got a 500 watt bulb and it works wonders for working indoors. Point it at the ceiling and it stops things from looking murky. Wonderful.

The best free light, of course, is daylight.

Tools of the trade

To create your masterwork you need some pretty hefty applications running on your computer. You can pay through the nose for the best software available, steal it off mates (which is obviously illegal and not something the BBC could possibly recommend), or use some free alternatives that are available to download off the web.

Paying for it

I could mention thousands of applications here, but frankly it's all a bit dull and you're best off knowing about the industry standard stuff that's used in every design studio in the world:

On the cheap

Thankfully there are free alternatives, for editing video and stills at least. Again there's a gazillion other products that I could mention but I would be wasting your time. These are the best:

  • Avid Free DV (Mac users should use the rather useful iLife stuff that comes with new machines) - editing video
  • Paint.net (Mac users should try Gimp) - stills
  • Flash - there's no useful free alternative available. However version 4 has everything you need for basic animation and can be bought second hand via places like eBay for around 40.

Outro

Blimey, we've reached the end of the page and I've got so much more I want to tell you about:

  • How to deal with the hate mail you'll get when you make something popular
  • How I once was threatened with a lawsuit over a music video the client said on delivery, "Sir, I salute you. This is exactly what we want."
  • How I received fan mail from a demented 17 year old American girl who threatened to take out my wife and child after I gently rebuffed her advances.

But we're out of time and we'll have to save such adventures for another page.

So if you take one thing away from reading this, let it be this, "Trust me. Your idea will work."

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