Episode 13: Professional comedian and CEO of M-O Video Production talks about why humor works and how to create it in a world that is hyper vigilant of offensive humor.
Rudy Fernandez: In this episode, I spoke with Loren O’Brien. She’s a comedian and owns a video production company. So we talked about humor, what makes something funny and when does funny become offensive? How does humor help brands connect with an audience? What brands are doing funny well and who falls short? Spoiler alert. She liked our humor reel, or at least she said she did. Check it out.
Rudy Fernandez: Welcome to Marketing Upheaval.
Earcon: You’re listening to Marketing Upheaval from Creative Outhouse.
Rudy Fernandez: Welcome to Marketing Upheaval. My guest is Loren O’Brien, CEO of MO Video Production. Loren has spent a large part of her career writing and performing comedy in London, and loves to talk about comedy and marketing, which are two of my favorite subjects. So I’m excited about this episode, and thanks for joining me, Loren.
Loren O’Brien: No worries. Thanks for having me.
Rudy Fernandez: I want to break down comedy, since you’ve done that for a long, long time, and there’s a quote by E.B. White. He basically said that comedy, you can dissect it like you can dissect the frog, but in both cases the thing dies. So I want to start with the most basic topic. What makes something funny?
Loren O’Brien: I think it’s a feeling. It’s like music. Something can be technically funny, but something that can also completely break the rules. Memes are a great example of how that’s breaking all the rules at the moment because you’ll read something and go, “This doesn’t make any sense,” but then it’s just the way it makes you feel. I’m trying to break it down in my head every single day, what I find funny, and why I find it funny, and I think it just has to do with like a feeling. Whether it’s in that moment, whether it’s something relatable, or whether it’s just plain old silly. I think it’s just the way the music works.
Rudy Fernandez: It’s creating some kind of connection. However you do that, and you’re not going to create a connection with everyone.
Loren O’Brien: No.
Rudy Fernandez: But speaking of memes, a lot of times when I see memes, often it’s things you wish you could say.
Loren O’Brien: Yes. Something about online comedy is the voice in your head that you wish you could say to everybody else. I’m trying to do a lot more with my standup as well, and it doesn’t work out very well in real life. People don’t like that as much. You’re supposed to keep quiet when you’re talking to people.
Rudy Fernandez: It is a strange time because our societal norms have changed.
Loren O’Brien: Yes.
Rudy Fernandez: Quickly.
Loren O’Brien: Yeah.
Rudy Fernandez: I was listening to another podcast the other day and they were talking about Gen Z, and how they’re probably the most empathetic generation that’s ever been, and part of the reason that these magic rectangles we hold in our pocket where we can get each other’s perspective, and we couldn’t do that before. For example, in the interview, they talked about watching The Breakfast Club with Gen Zs. Whereas in my generation, Judd Nelson was the hero. Assistant Principal was the bad guy. And now, if they look at it, they go, “Wait a minute, the assistant principal’s just doing his job. He’s not nice, but he’s doing his job. Judd Nelson’s a jerk in that. He’s abusive.” Because there’s a different sense of empathy, I think. How does that affect humor?
Loren O’Brien: I don’t think it affects humor, and the only reason I say this is because I think humor is always going to be the same because it is that wonderful, relationship-based. I think what’s happening is a lot of people have a lot more behind the scenes opinions. It’s like when everyone has reviews over food, like everyone’s like, “I hate this food. This is the worst thing I’ve ever had.” And it’s like they go home, make it themselves, and they’re like, “This is the best thing I’ve ever had.”
Loren O’Brien: I’m the stepmom to a nine year old, so he’s Gen Z, and I don’t think our humor is different. I think the way they consume content is different. They’ll watch long form content, like YouTube videos, for hours and hours, hours. But I think it’s the same humor in a way. I think we’re just trying to put all of our hashtag, woke. We’re all like aware of these weird things that we were doing before, and now we’re not able to and we’re going, “Oh, Gen Z doesn’t like that.” But I think it’s us.
Rudy Fernandez: No, they’re not wrong, by the way. Judd Nelson was a jerk in that movie, and you look at it now … I think Aziz Ansari referred to it as with 2019 eyes. And you look at movies or anything and you go, “Oh, my God, that was funny? That’s horrible.” So I think it’s wonderful that they’re like this.
Rudy Fernandez: When you translate that into marketing, which I think if you’re a comedian and you say something that doesn’t resonate, you can just move on to the next thing. In marketing, things are forever. Sometimes online, too. What are some successes and some fails you’ve seen in terms of humor and marketing?
Loren O’Brien: I think the best one recently was Pepsi, who did that Superbowl commercial, “Is Pepsi okay?”
Loren O’Brien: Because for the longest time they were the second to Coca-Cola, and they realize that, and they went, “Fine. Let’s turn this around.” And they had the whole big Superbowl commercial, and the whole time it was Steve Carell going, “Is Pepsi okay?” And it’s like if okay by … You know. So I love that. I thought that was such a great way of doing it because it’s taking your own voice, your own brand’s voice, and using it with the times rather than …
Loren O’Brien: I feel like a lot of times when things go bad in marketing is because someone’s trying to do a joke and not speak from the brand’s voice. And that’s like the biggest problem we find when people send us scripts is I’m like, “This isn’t your brand. You’re trying to be funny, and that’s great, and that’s awesome. It’s really exciting that you’re branching out to something new, but does this resonate with who you are?” Because whether it’s stand up or branding or narrative, if it doesn’t have a specific voice, then that’s just a bunch of noise people are saying and you’re like, “I don’t connect with this in any way.”
Rudy Fernandez: If it doesn’t resonate, it’s not true to who you are, then it’s not funny. And they try to use what’s in the news to link their brand to, and the best classic example recently is Gillette. They tried to do the #Metoo movement and be part of that, and they failed.
Loren O’Brien: Yes. But I think that was production. I think the marketing was great ideas.
Rudy Fernandez: That’s true.
Loren O’Brien: Yeah, and I was so excited to watch it, and then I watched it, and I was like the pauses were weird. It was really long. I was watching it with my partner, and we both were like what is happening right now? Because the idea is there, and now I hate Gillette for no other reason. No other reason. They were trying to do something good, and I’m like, “No, I can’t. I hate them.”
Rudy Fernandez: Okay. That’s funny because just from doing it, and being in the edit, the slightest pause changes everything. This podcast, for example, if you heard the stammering happens that we edit out, it’s amazing. I sound so much more with it than what we have here.
Loren O’Brien: Oh, yeah. It’s all movie magic.
Rudy Fernandez: Yeah. I think people don’t understand the timing.
Loren O’Brien: Yeah. It’s 100% of the timing. That’s my hardest problem at the moment is I have a bunch of wonderful writers, a bunch of wonderful cinematographers, and then it comes to editors and because we’re new, we only opened this year, I don’t know as many people, and I don’t know as many comedy editors. And that’s where if you miss something, you’re just like, “Oh, no. Oh, no. We have to go back and …”
Rudy Fernandez: So we’re going to edit this part out. When we had to do some comedy things that are on our reel, the GymRats stuff for the ATL transit stuff, which I thought were very funny. I didn’t go to a director on it. I went to someone who I knew knew comedy. He could learn the other stuff, and he did, and he’s wonderful. And I keep telling me how to be a director and he’s like, “Nah.”
Loren O’Brien: And you’re like, there is so much money in comedy.
Rudy Fernandez: Oh, gosh, I know.
Loren O’Brien: In marketing, because people don’t know how to do it.
Rudy Fernandez: A lot of times, you look at old movies or movies that are not even that old, and they’re not funny anymore. And some age well. What kind of comedy do you think is timeless and what comedy you think is just of the now?
Loren O’Brien: I think the problem we’re having right now with things being timeless is we’re not trying to make it timeless. We’re trying to make it something that we can play a lot for a short amount of time. How many times do you go on Hulu and you see the same commercial over and over again, and then you’ll never see it again. There’s some commercials I love and I can’t find them, and I’m like, “Why can’t I find these?” I think it’s because people are going we’re only using something for the trends because for some reason we’re in this mindset that things have to be in the now rather than an overall long feeling. Like Coca-Cola does a great job in making you feel about the past and the present and the future, rather than just focusing on what’s happening right now, and what’s going to trend on Twitter, and what’s going to go viral. I think we’re focusing too much on that and less about, again, that connection and relationship, and how to make a brand something that you want to be around forever.
Rudy Fernandez: I think that’s exactly right. When you concept things, there is an arc to the humor. Whether you’re doing a 15 second thing, or a 30 second thing, or a longer form thing, there’s an arc to it. And if you’re going to make it great, it takes a while to “blah” the idea, and then you have to craft it. And now it’s just “blah” the idea. Or sometimes it doesn’t matter if it’s a good idea. Just do it a bunch of times. And part of that, I think, is people measuring the results instantly, measuring the results by week. Companies wanting to know …
Loren O’Brien: “Where’s my money going?”
Rudy Fernandez: Yeah, exactly. Exactly.
Loren O’Brien: “Is this working?” And that’s the hardest bit is on a creative return, you’re like, “This is working, because a lot of people like it,” and they’re like, “How do I know that?” And you’re like, “I can’t give you a laugh meter for this, but I promise.”
Rudy Fernandez: Yeah. “It’s been running for an hour. I don’t see a lot …”
Loren O’Brien: You’ll know if it doesn’t work. I think that’s the biggest thing is you’ll know if something does not hit, because I love the internet. Like when Game of Thrones … Oh, my gosh. My favorite thing was watching the tweets every week, because I’d be like, “This is amazing,” because the internet, nothing gets left behind when it comes to internet. So I’m like if the internet is not telling you it’s terrible, it’s not terrible.
Rudy Fernandez: Referencing another conversation I had with someone who owns a gaming company, and those folks, they don’t mind telling you how they feel really quick about their games. And he said there’s a big balance of knowing who loves you and who doesn’t because you’re always going to get those negative things. You just have to learn when to pay attention and when not.
Loren O’Brien: Yeah. And if people are saying stuff over and over again, then maybe do look and go, “Okay, this is something on us,” because as much as we think we’re in control of our content, and how we feel, and “comedy is a feeling,” and blah, blah, blah. It’s like sometimes you’re wrong, and that’s okay. Just take it down and hope no one else saw it.
Rudy Fernandez: Well, can you figure out what kind of humor should maybe people stay away from if you’re marketing something?
Loren O’Brien: Yeah, we have a rule with us, and I have always done this, whether it was through standup or anything else I did. You can do anything as long as you’re not making fun of someone who can’t stand up for themselves. Whether it means they’re in the room, or it’s someone who’s creating as a part of the conversation.
Loren O’Brien: For example, I’m doing a lot of stand up about it, my time as a stepmom, which is awesome and I love it. Don’t get me wrong, but I love the idea of what makes an evil stepmother, and where does that come from, and all these weird step-parent things. And when I was bouncing it around with people, they thought I was going to talk about how awful my step kid was, and I was like, “No, no, no. The idea is not about making fun of someone who’s not there. It’s making them a part of the conversation.”
Loren O’Brien: So we always try and do everything where it’s you can make fun of anything as long as they’re in the room at the time of creation.
Rudy Fernandez: Or they’ve agreed to it.
Loren O’Brien: Exactly.
Rudy Fernandez: Yeah, because I’ve seen a few comedians reference, whether it’s a spouse or significant other or a child, and they always say, “Well …”
Loren O’Brien: Always approval.
Rudy Fernandez: Ray Romano used to say, because a lot of his show is very personal apparently, and his wife used to complain to him, and he’d say “Go cry into a bag of money.”
Loren O’Brien: Stop! Stop!
Rudy Fernandez: It was his way of joking.
Loren O’Brien: That’s great.
Rudy Fernandez: He had her agree. Understanding that-
Loren O’Brien: You wouldn’t be together if it ended up being the sort of thing that was … That’s so funny. I’ve never heard that one.
Rudy Fernandez: His most recent stand up on Netflix, he makes fun of all his kids, and they’re all there, and they’re walking out together.
Loren O’Brien: I love that.
Rudy Fernandez: And they’re joking about what he had said about them.
Loren O’Brien: I love that. That’s so great. Even it works with brands as well. A lot of times, people, because we’re trying to go viral and we’re trying to be crazy and kooky and be provocative, I think don’t try and do something that’s not who you are, and then you’re never going to do comedy that’s wrong. And I think that’s what people try and do.
Rudy Fernandez: Are there a lot of funny commercials and funny ads? There’s a lot of sort of emotional stuff.
Loren O’Brien: That’s the new trend. Okay. That’s something we’ve noticed as well, because when we started, because my partner does a lot of the technical side of production, and he is incredible. We have definitely a different taste. He loves the emotional. It’s dark, it’s beautiful, it’s fabulous. And I’m like, “Bring me the comedy, honey.” And right now, most of our work isn’t comedy, even though a lot of our marketing is towards comedy marketing. It’s what people want because they’re like, “We don’t want to say anything bad when it comes to comedy,” or “Comedy is really hard to do, so we’re not going to do that.”
Loren O’Brien: You can make something beautiful because equipment now is a lot cheaper. It’s lot easy to make beautiful stuff. And, two, all these film students coming out realize that they can’t get into movies as fast as they thought they could, so they get into branded content, and then they’re like, “Oh, cool, I can make a bunch of money doing this.” So I think right now, there’s a lot more creatives doing that, so people are like, “I’d rather spend less money doing that, hitting the heart, than doing comedy content and spending a little bit more money, and never knowing if it’s actually going to hit.”
Rudy Fernandez: Comedy is a lot harder. There’s a book called Contagious that talks about what type of content people love to share. When he talks about emotional aspect is look for emotions that cause a physiological response. Humor is one of those, but so is awe, a sense of awe. And, unfortunately, so is fear, but we’ll leave it to the politicians.
Rudy Fernandez: But comedy is certainly one of them, and humor, people love to share things that are funny. But then nowadays, it’s a little tricky. You’d rather share something inspiring, story of a little lion cub that grew up, and now people cuddle with or whatever.
Loren O’Brien: Those are amazing, by the way. If I could do all of those, I would.
Rudy Fernandez: We talked about comedy works in marketing because there’s a connection, and that’s what people are trying to do is connect with an audience. So like I share a joke with you because I want to. “Hey, this is funny.” It says something about me, but then you share it, and you make people laugh. Are there brands that you see that are connecting with people with their humor?
Loren O’Brien: I think a brand who’s doing it really well, connecting to other brands, which is amazing. It feels like that moment where the Disney Channel would merge two TV shows, and you’re like, “Wow, I didn’t know they knew each other.” It’s like Wendy’s is doing that so well. Like when Popeye’s did the whole new chicken sandwich, Wendy’s, of course, you can’t wait for Wendy‘s to come in, because you’re like, “What crazy thing are they going to say?” Because they built this wonderful voice of being like, “We’re going to say whatever we want, and we’re going to talk to our audience like we’re your sassy friend.” And so everyone’s like, “Cool, where’s the sassy friend?”
Loren O’Brien: I think Wendy’s is doing the best because they’re consistent. They’re always consistent. They never try and step out, and it’s going to be interesting if they ever try and go the route of the “Aw,” because you’re going to go like, “Nah, shut up, Wendy’s. Aw, shut up. You don’t know what you’re talking about. Go back to burgers.”
Rudy Fernandez: So you’re going to be appearing in Laugh Your Ads Off, which is an industry event where marketers make fun of themselves. Which, why not? What are some of the aspects of our business that you think are funny?
Loren O’Brien: When I see commercials now, and I’m millennial, so I’m so hypersensitive to everything. I’m like, “Oh, this is so un-PC,” but I see things that are happening. And I’ll see a commercial, and this is the same family you see. It’s ethnically ambiguous woman, white man … Because, for some reason, it’s like you can’t have a black man, because that would be too scary with a white woman. And then you have kids, like an eight year old, and then a cute little three year old. And I’m so confused because I’m like, “Who are these people?” I’m like no one, one, is this happy. Two, this rich. And, three, this beautiful, ethnically gorgeous.
Rudy Fernandez: I had sent you a few links to some of the ones we’ve done. Which … Self-interest. It’s our podcast.
Loren O’Brien: Yeah, absolutely. I cram all of our content at people.
Rudy Fernandez: So just did a little experiment. We went over some spots we found, things we found, the videos we found that were very funny. Just your thought on them. The BC effing fun.
Loren O’Brien: So great because we’ve all felt … It’s feeling useless, and that’s what they hit. It’s nothing to do with camping. It’s that feeling of you can be good if you have the team. They’ve got your back. And just using that as the premise rather than what if it was all this crazy stuff. It’s the feeling that makes you laugh, not all the crazy things that are happening.
Loren O’Brien: Like that bee chase isn’t the funniest thing I’ve ever seen, but I have been chased by a bee before and felt useless, trying to impress my family, and that’s what I like about it.
Rudy Fernandez: I know if it says about me, but I thought the funniest piece of that commercial is when he accidentally elbows his kid in the face and knocks him in the water. That probably is a bad thing.
Loren O’Brien: No, but if you’ve elbowed a kid in the face before, you know how funny it is.
Rudy Fernandez: Yeah. After awhile, it’s funny.
Loren O’Brien: Immediately.
Rudy Fernandez: What about Old Spice? There’s a lot of funny Old Spice commercials. The one I showed you has the guy rescuing his friend from being a couch potato.
Loren O’Brien: I used to confuse Old Spice and Axe a lot as a kid, and Axe was perfect for my generation because it was that feeling of you, too, can be like a Greek God, even if you look like the guys from the Axe commercials always did.
Rudy Fernandez: So I have to ask you, if you’re now our comedy expert-
Loren O’Brien: Official.
Rudy Fernandez: Some of the spots on our site, you can be honest.
Loren O’Brien: Oh, yeah. I liked the driving ones.
Rudy Fernandez: The ATL transit?
Loren O’Brien: The traffic one because it was great. It was like what a great premise of … We’re all stuck in traffic. So it’s like, “What if some people do love it?” And it made me think, which is what I love about comedy commercials. When they’re good is it makes you think. You go, “Oh, what would I like about traffic?” And then I was like, “Oh, I hate driving.” I haven’t driven also in 10 years because in London, no one has a car. So I technically haven’t driven, so I’m awful on the road, so don’t drive next to me. I’m liable to everybody.
Rudy Fernandez: I’m glad you made it.
Loren O’Brien: Yeah, me, too. I have to get back home.
Rudy Fernandez: Switching back to comedy, I don’t know if you’ve seen some, of the latest specials. For example, Aziz Ansari had a special where it wasn’t the standard stand up, and we’ve seen this before from other ones recently. There is a comedian from New Zealand, for example, a female comedian, who were at stand up, and it’s funny, but then it gets serious. And then it’s funny again. So it’s more of a “I’m telling you a story.” Is that the way stand up is going, do you think?
Loren O’Brien: In Edinburgh every year, they have the Edinburgh Comedy Festival, and there was always a formula for it for winning it. And it was like funny, funny, funny, but at the end, it has to have an emotional thing that makes the audience go, “Aw,” and then hit them with funny. So it’s interesting that a lot more Netflix specials have started to do it because I think they realized there was a formula to getting a wider audience, because then it’s not just like joke, joke, joke. It’s like, “Oh, it brings you back to an emotional … Oh, I understand. You’re telling me something,” and it has more of a sellability point.
Loren O’Brien: I think that’s all it is just people going, “How can we sell this, and how can we make you more credible as a human being rather than watching-“
Rudy Fernandez: Yeah. Going back to that connection again. I know you’re telling me jokes, but now I’m connecting with you because there’s some vulnerability you’ve exposed.
Loren O’Brien: Yes, exactly. Good comedy is vulnerability. A lot of people will say it’s a lot of formulas, but Robin Williams was so vulnerable when you’d watch him. It’s so raw, and it’s so awesome. So what makes a good comedian is vulnerability, so why not have that wonderful, heart-wrenching moment, and then pull it away from people. And then you go, “Ah, there we go. That’s what we’re all here for.”
Loren O’Brien: Sometimes not everything you do is awesome. That’s the thing.
Rudy Fernandez: Yeah, look at South Park. They get a pass. They can say anything about anyone and people are like, “Okay, I love that.”
Loren O’Brien: But that’s because they poke fun at everybody. What they did so well Book of Mormon is it wasn’t going “Mormons are idiots.” It was going, “We are all a bunch of idiots,” and I just love Trey Parker and Matt Stone.
Rudy Fernandez: What made you transition from comedy to now more marketing?
Loren O’Brien: I fell into it. I literally was doing comedy. I was having a great time in London, doing really well. A lot of people promised me a lot of TV shows, which was amazing. Awesome. And then I missed my family, and there is nothing worse than missing your family and being an eight hour flight away. So I just basically, one day, was like, “Okay, I’m going back, and I’ll figure it out when I get back.”
Loren O’Brien: And then ended up meeting a bunch of filmmakers, and I was like, “I can do comedy.” And they’re like, “I can make things look beautiful.” So I was like, “Let’s build a comedy.” So that’s how I got into it.
Rudy Fernandez: In terms of comedy, what do you see moving ahead here that excites you in terms of changes, and what are some things that might scare you?
Loren O’Brien: Something that scares me, and that’s just selfishly for a business standpoint, VR. I think comedy is going to go more into VR and interaction. We have to have so many possibilities for funny, and it has to be so interactive now, which is improv, which I’m not very good at. It’s unpredictable. You can have all the formulas, and you can have your team, and the improv troupe can be amazing, but you put an audience member in there, and you’re like, “I don’t know what’s going to come next.” It’s no longer a standup monologue at your audience. It’s conversations, active conversations, and that’s terrifying to think. The ball is in audience’s court.
Rudy Fernandez: So I think that’s a general trend in marketing overall is that brands are having to seed a lot of control to costumer’s advocates, and they are all different. But yeah, no, it’s scary because I like scripted as well. But learning that sometimes you just maybe have to figure out a way to set up the parameters so that the best stuff could come out of it perhaps.
Loren O’Brien: Yeah. And also an awesome thing that’s happening is audiences are providing content for brands now, which is really exciting because I’m like, “Who’s better at writing the content for your own company than the people who love it?” That’s terrifying as well from a business standpoint, because I’m like “Okay, what’s going to be my job then?” But it’s exciting because I’m like, “Cool, you’re going to get better content if people who love the brand are going to be more involved with it.”
Loren O’Brien: Doritos does it a lot now. They have a lot of their fans doing it, and I’m like, “This is great, but also please don’t take my job.”
Rudy Fernandez: I understand. So what’s exciting though about moving ahead? Comedy.
Loren O’Brien: I have a prediction for where comedy is going to go when it comes to branded content. I think comedy and branded content is going to go back to the original form of sitcoms, because sitcoms were a long advertisement, and I feel like with a lot of these large companies creating their own content, I feel like there’s going to be TV shows and episodes that brands are going to sponsor, and every episode is going to be about that. I love the crossover, branded and narrative are my favorite things to merge, so I’m like, “Let’s get ahead of this and be the production company who curates after people, and figures out the formula before other people do, and then make a bunch of money.” So that’s my prediction and that’s my moving forward.
Loren O’Brien: Don’t tell anybody.
Rudy Fernandez: Okay. It’s just between us.
Loren O’Brien: No, I know. I’m just kidding.
Rudy Fernandez: Well, thank you so much.
Loren O’Brien: Awesome. Thank you so much.
Rudy Fernandez: It was great having you. I love talking about comedy, so anytime.
Loren O’Brien: Anytime, cool. Literally, call me anytime. I’m like, “I love comedy.”
Rudy Fernandez: I can’t wait to see your show. The Laugh Your Ads Off.
Loren O’Brien: Are you guys going to be there?
Rudy Fernandez: No. I don’t like hanging out with ad people.
Loren O’Brien: Me either. That’s why I’m on stage.
Rudy Fernandez: Thanks again.
Loren O’Brien: Thank you guys so much.
Rudy Fernandez: Hey, thanks for listening to Marketing Upheaval from Creative Outhouse. If you want to learn more about Loren and her company, visit Momakes.com. For show notes, previous episodes, and previous to upcoming episodes, visit creativeouthouse.com/podcast. If you liked this episode, get on your favorite podcast app and give us five stars. Subscribe and share it with friends.
Rudy Fernandez: Our producer is Susan Cooper. Special thanks to Gopal Swami for creating our Earcon, and to Jason Shablik for his audio advice.
Rudy Fernandez: That’s it for this episode of Marketing Upheaval, and remember, if the current state of marketing has got you confused, don’t worry. It’ll all change. See you.