Marketers know that for kids, ‘funny’ is inextricably tied to what’s fun. And where the fun is…is where we all want to be. But getting there is not so easy because understanding what’s funny to kids is really no laughing matter. So, The Geppetto Group conducted extensive exploratory research on the psychological and cultural perspectives of kid humor. The agency will share its findings in a three-part series that begins with this strategic overview.
Mark Twain once wrote, ‘The secret source of humor itself is not joy but sorrow.’ Kid humor then is a way that children are able to face the sorrows of childhood-the difficulties, fears and vulnerabilities they face in their everyday lives.
Kid vs. adult humor
Because the adult world is fixed and finite, adult humor is pessimistic; kid humor, in contrast, is more optimistic, because kids imagine a world of opportunities and power. While adult humor contemplates the absurd, where rules don’t apply, kids don’t deny the rules-they look to overturn them. And most importantly, adult humor is mental and conceptual, where we find ourselves turning inward and laughing at ourselves. Kid humor is quite the opposite-it is usually physical and visual, turning outward to laugh at others.
The arenas of
Since humor is kids’ greatest tool against the hardships of growing up, looking at those hardships one by one gives us clues as to the most fertile areas for the development of kids’ funny bones.
The world of kids is one where rules of right and wrong are constantly imposed upon them. When kids are enjoined to ‘be good,’ to ‘behave,’ to ‘be nice,’ humor provides the antidote. That’s why the gross and gory, the mean and nasty, and the ever-popular inappropriate bodily function humor are perennially satisfying to kids. The success of Rugrats’ Angelica, Life with Louie and Eddie Murphy’s remake of The Nutty Professor are only a few examples that prove the point.
When it comes to relationships, kids find that whether they are dealing with parents, siblings, other authority figures or their best friends, life isn’t always rosy. It is important for us, as marketers, to understand that the peer cruelty, sibling rivalry and kids outwitting or injuring adults is such satisfying fodder for a good laugh. In fact, the humor in these scenarios comes directly from kids’ feelings of inadequacy. The classic meeting between Macaulay Culkin’s character, Kevin McCallister, and the burglars in Home Alone is a prime example of the child’s fear of adult power, turned outward into humor.
While younger children live in a world where fantasy and reality are very much intermingled, the acceptance of outer realities is being forced on children at ever-younger ages, which is why breaking the rules of an orderly world so easily tickles them. When adults don’t behave the way they’re ‘supposed to’ or the physical laws of nature don’t apply, there is always humor in it for kids. Remember Mary Poppins and friends, all floating on the ceiling, suffering from too much laughter?
Since kids are challenged daily to accomplish all the skills of growing up, it is not surprising that people who talk funny, misunderstand the rules, or act or look as if they don’t fit in are sources for humor. The much-beloved storybook-legend Amelia Bedelia character is just one reflection of kids’ concern over not mastering the world around them.
And as much as kids are aware that their power and control are severely limited, their humor envisions a world where they are in charge, and where risk-taking is full of vicarious pleasure. Classics like The Simpsons succeed because kids love to push the envelope of adult rules and discipline.
As marketers, the insights on kid humor are bound to challenge us. The answer lies in using kid humor as children do-as a positive answer to the powerlessness and vulnerability that is too often a necessary part of growing up.
Rachel Geller is chief strategic officer and founding partner of New York-based The Geppetto Group.