I remember the first joke my kids told me when they were about five or six years old. “What do you get when you combine a rooster, a poodle and a cockatoo?” they asked, giggling all over themselves. I gave the standard Dad response, “Well, I don’t know. What do you get when you combine a rooster, a poodle and a cockatoo?” I was sure the punch line was going to be a groaner, but I could tell my kids thought it was the funniest thing in the world—and ultimately, that’s all that mattered.
At Cartoon Network, humor is a cornerstone of our business. The network launched 20 years ago with animated comedy staples Looney Tunes, Scooby-Doo, Yogi Bear and Tom and Jerry. Since then, we’ve evolved our brand of “funny” into hit series like Adventure Time, Regular Show and The Amazing World of Gumball. This evolution has succeeded because we’ve been able to engender humor targeted squarely to that core audience. And to help the network keep on target, the research department consistently explores what appeals to kids, as we did recently in a study of what kids find funny on TV.
We began our exploration through a series of qualitative focus groups conducted with kids. We split the groups into four demographics representing Cartoon Network’s key audiences of boys eight to nine, 10 to 11 and 12 to 14, as well as girls eight to nine. We asked each kid who participated to bring an example of a TV clip that represented something funny that they had watched in the past week or two. Additionally, we presented clips we had chosen, making sure they covered content from not only Cartoon Network, but our competitors, too. The kids were asked to share whether or not they found the clips funny and why, with further discussion about what made each clip funnier or less funny based on the inclusion of elements like cartoonish slapstick, pratfalls, audio and visual humor, cultural references, scale, etc.
Based on this feedback and further background research, we were able to identify seven genres of humor, as well as various devices used to facilitate the funny moments:
- Slapstick or “Action” Humor—as with The Three Stooges,this genre involves noticeable “pain” being inflicted on a person or character to comical effect.
- “Potty” Humor—a loud exhibition of bodily functions for the sake of a laugh (think the baked beans scene from Blazing Saddles).
- Parody—MAD Magazine has made its name on sending up current TV shows and movies; “spoofing” also highlights the eponymous TV series MAD on Cartoon Network.
- Verbal Humor—using words and their manipulation(separate from things like sounds or sight gags) to evoke laughter.
- Visual Humor—leveraging visual cues, like scale, sight gags or production quality.
- Throwaway Humor—relying on quick, almost random placements of comedy that typically are unrelated to the linear story line (think of the blackouts in Family Guy).
- Repetitive Gags—elements that viewers expect to consistently recur to humorous effect.
For each genre of humor, a variety of devices are used in TV shows to help bring about funny moments. While viewing the sample clips, kids often noted that they would be even funnier if bigger sounds or sound effects were employed to contribute to the overall humor.
Conversely, while production quality was identified and frequently noted, kids did not seem all that influenced by it. It’s not that they object to the use of effects with high production values, but kids just don’t think they add to the humor.
Another device kids relate to is use of scale. Scale comes into play when the content highlights or contrasts characters of absurd or disproportionate size. In one case, the large relative size of a character made it acceptable for kids to see comic violence used on that character. At the same time, a tiny character could be funny if it evoked fear from regular-sized characters, essentially playing against viewer expectations.
The kids we surveyed believed cultural references were best used when the context is understandable to the audience, but it’s not essential. Even if they understand only some of the references, kids can still appreciate parody.
Finally, kids recognized that many humorous programs include funny songs. They claimed that this device is particularly effective if the song explains the plotline or moves the story along.
After completing the qualitative study, we quickly followed it up with quantitative research that would help us cement the concepts that had been identified and discussed. We surveyed more than 2,200 US kids ages six to 14, evenly distributing the sample across boys and girls, as well as across six to eight, nine to 11 and 12 to 14 demos. The sample was also racially and ethnically representative of the US population.
To evaluate our comedic elements, we chose 36 video clips from a variety of shows airing on top kids networks. Each of the video clips represented one of the nine humor themes that we extracted from the focus groups—Quick Cuts, Silly Violence, Slapstick, Repetitive Gags, Predictability, Bodily Functions, Pop Culture, Being Popular and use of Pop Music. Ultimately, the kids rated the clips on a five-point scale, framed by three key questions. The top-box responses thus determined our key action standards: the clip was “extremely funny,” kids “liked the clip a lot,” and kids “definitely would watch this clip again.” From these parameters we were able to determine each theme’s importance to humor, both in general and relative to age and gender.
Based on resulting top-box scores, the nine themes fell into three different tiers consistently across our three action standards:
- The highest tier included the Predictability, Silly Violence, Slapstick and Repetitive Gags themes that kids found most appealing.
- The middle tier included Bodily Functions and Quick Cuts.
- The bottom tier included Pop Music, Being Popular and Popular Culture.
Combining feedback on the clips by age, our team also detected developmental categorizations of humor. For younger kids ages six to nine, and skewing a bit younger for girls, they preferred humor elements focused on self-control—specifically, kids’ attempts to develop a mastery of their own bodies. As a result, Potty Humor (i.e. farting, nose-picking) was the sweet spot for them. This younger demo also seemed to prefer humor centered on themes of defying norms, including kids doing things that they’re really not supposed to do. Watching someone perform a taboo act heightened the humor’s emotional resonance, making it all the more appealing to young viewers.
For kids nine to 11, preferred humor revolved around personal efficacy. Around this age, kids concentrate on trying to learn what adults expect of them regarding rules and boundaries. Accordingly, humor appeals to them if it includes topics like managing their parents, dealing with brothers/sisters and relating to friends in one-on-one situations. Also worth noting, aggression starts to play a role in humor for this age group. Boys exhibit a preference for aggressive physical humor. Girls, however, show a preference for verbally aggressive humor, including “Mean Girls”-style interaction that employs harsh nicknames and inside jokes. Not surprisingly, many of these themes can be found across a wide variety of programming options targeting kids.
Finally, pre-adolescents 11 to 14 enjoyed peer-oriented humor that involves references to fitting in, either within groups of friends or, more broadly, into the world at large. Broader issues of popularity and exclusion begin to play a big role in their lives, so humor that focuses on their place among peer groups is seen as a way to relate during a time of emotional flux. As might be expected, the larger appeal of this brand of humor skews toward 12- to 14-year-old girls, and is more often presented in live-action comedy programming targeted to kids. These shows tend to address this developmental niche based on the fact that their main characters typically deal with similar, relatable real-life issues.
So, we’re still left with one question: What do you get when you combine a rooster, a poodle and a cockatoo? On the verge of laughter, my kids replied “a cockapoodletoo!” Maybe it wasn’t as hilarious to me, but after undertaking this study, I can easily see why they laughed.
Jeff Grant was SVP of research for Turner Broacasting’s Animation,Young Adults and Kids Media (AYAKM) division and is responsible for all aspects of research for Cartoon Network, Adult Swim and AYAKM digital extensions and consumer products, including organizing, analyzing and reporting on audience ratings.
Since 2014 he has been the SVP of research for Turner Broadcasting’s Emerging Consumers division focusing on Cartoon Network, Adult Swim, Boomerang and truTV, including digital extensions and consumer products.