Constrained by Corona? What Squeaky-Clean Comedians can Teach You about Being More Creative

Constrained by Corona? What Squeaky-Clean Comedians can Teach You about Being More Creative

The following is adapted from Shtick to Business.

Freedom is a common war cry if you are a thirteenth-century Scottish warrior, but great comedy can be built on a lack of freedom—and as it turns out, a great business can be, too.

The masters of comedy constantly break rules to make people laugh and to get ahead in the serious world of entertainment. It’s a tough business. However, on occasion, they also use rules to be more creative. In fact, the greater the constraints, oftentimes the greater the creativity.

As it applies to business, research supports this idea that restrictions can supercharge creativity, demonstrating that constraints encourage more creative processing in consumers.

There are no comedians who constrain themselves as many clean comedians who avoid profanity and raunch, so let’s look at how they tap into their creative genius—and how you can mimic their mindset to reach creative business solutions.

How Comedians Leverage Constraints

Unpopular opinion: Censorship is good. More than once, limiting language has paved the way for stellar comedy careers.

Some comedians take their self-censorship to the max. No F-bombs, cursing, cussing, going blue. Whatever their opinion, professional comedians agree that working clean is the most difficult constraint—even more than a novelty. That’s right, it’s harder to avoid certain four-letter words than it is to come up with original content.

There is a tendency to think of boundary-pushing comedy as made up of jokes that tackle the most taboo topics. Yet, working clean creates a boundary that can’t be crossed. These comedians who work clean and work it well end up as some of the biggest names because of their broad appeal:

I saw an ad for a pill that stops headaches and migraines before they start. That’s some good marketing right there.

“Are you in any pain?”

“No, not at all.”

“I’m going to give you something for that.”

—Ellen DeGeneres

Here’s another example that is even safe for Grandma:

You know what it’s like having five kids?

Imagine you’re drowning and someone hands you a baby.

—Jim Gaffigan

Part of what makes “working clean” so difficult for a comedian is that it must be simultaneously less polarizing and still funny—really funny—enough that it appeals to a wider audience.

Stand-up comedian Alonzo Bodden says the hardest job in comedy is to work on a cruise ship. You have to be able to entertain a broad group of people—from widowed grandmothers to young couples. Bodden says that in order to make it on a cruise ship, you better be able to make a doorknob funny.

Whether it’s language, subject matter, audience age, etc., professional comedians are constantly imposing their own constraints on their comedy, forcing themselves to create new material and pushing the boundaries of their own novelty.

Now that you’ve seen how constraints can benefit comedy, let’s look at an example of a business constraint prompting a positive outcome.

Commerce Freed by Constraints

In business, lacking time or money is typically a problem. Not having enough time to generate and explore options is truly a problem. Supply chain constraints, distribution constraints, regulatory constraints—they’re typically terrible for business.

Nonetheless, constraints spur creative thinking by virtue of extra effort or divergent thinking. Here is an example of a business that has done this well.

Skip Ad

People’s desire to avoid commercials is nothing new, and yet with more distractions (i.e., that pesky phone), it is harder than ever to capture someone’s attention. As a consequence, fifteen-second commercials are more common on television than thirty-second commercials.

Perhaps the most annoying thing about commercials is being required to watch five seconds of a YouTube commercial prior to skipping ahead to your cat video.

The obvious solution is to make those first five seconds so spectacular that a viewer will stick around to watch more. But many advertisers are embracing the constraint and saving money in the process. The solution: jam the most essential information into short, six-second ads (assuming a one-second delay for clicking on “Skip Ad”).

The insurance company Geico leaned into the six-seconds-and-skip constraint and made a series of “unskippable” ads that are hard to explain yet hilarious to watch. An actor would say one line that involved the word “savings,” then the scene would freeze.

The narrator would intone, “You can’t skip this Geico ad, because it’s already over.” Then something in the scene would move slightly—a hand, someone’s eyes, a dog—and you begin to realize the film isn’t frozen: the people are holding still.

The campaign was not just seriously funny, it was seriously successful. 7.5 million people watched the ads to the end in the first two weeks. The campaign never would have existed without the skip-ad constraint to force its existence.

Embrace Your Constraint

Constraints, while frustrating in the moment, can lead us to results we might otherwise never reach—often better than the most obvious solution. They challenge us to be more creative and generate unexpected ideas, whether it’s a kid-friendly joke or a blink-and-you-miss-it ad.

Right now, millions of people around the world are dealing with the constraint of being stuck at home because of the pandemic. While this disruption has caused serious upheaval in the economy, the small silver lining is that the change in the status quo could trigger brilliant ideas from unexpected places. The next innovative startup concept might be imagined in someone’s basement or a new business theory crafted because someone is out of work.

Hopefully, the next time you encounter a business constraint, instead of cursing it for being a hurdle, you can say, “Good. This will give us an opportunity to be more creative,” and lean into the challenge.

For more business advice from the genius and madness of the world’s funniest people, you can find Shtick to Business on Amazon.