I was John Denver for a night and murdered people: 3 ways to grab an audience with your web content
When I was 13-years-old I wrote, directed and starred in a variety show act in which soft-spoken country-western singer John Denver murdered random deep-woods hikers with an iron spatula.
It was summer camp in the Appalachian Mountains of Eastern Pennsylvania. It was the late 80s. Times were good. We didn’t have Netflix or Internet even and so had to entertain ourselves with elaborate concoctions like this. Left to my own devices, I came up with the idea of a nature-loving celebrity singer turned homicidal maniac.
Ironically, the audience loved it. They hadn’t experienced anything like it at summer camp before maybe. Maybe they liked the off-kilter humor, or the juxtaposition of Denver—one of the kindest, most gentle of celebrities—dispatching random passersby with a pancake spatula. It might even have been the repetition of the farce. The bodies piled up quickly.
Whatever the reason, I became a camp celebrity overnight. (Later performances—as I got older and somehow more deranged—were less successful. When we performed a skit involving an opium-addicted South Korean exchange student turned unhinged zombie devouring groundhogs in the moonlight, for example, faces dropped to the floor and stayed there.) But at 13, I was sure that if a Hollywood producer had been at the Camp Bernie Variety Show that night, he would have given me Orson Wellesian carte blanche on whatever project I wanted to make next.
I think about that play from time to time, especially when I think about how I got here—using stories to help get messages across for people who have tuned into the power of storytelling.
That’s almost another story. That story would involve a kid with an odd sense of humor getting into college and then grad school, a kid who’d started turning some of those bizarre scenarios in his head into dialogues and short stories and then novels. By then he wasn’t a kid anymore, he was a man, but his imagination hadn’t really veered too far afield of John Denver butchering campers with an iron spatula.
From skit to short story, audiences still dug it.
And I think that’s because something about what happened that night at the Camp Bernie Variety Show and the trajectory my life took as a storyteller are connected. If I had to pinpoint the relationship, I’d probably say it had to do with how Denver’s strange story was told.
Call it quirk
Audiences like oddness. Call it a twist, call it fresh, quirky, weird, off-beat—you can still appeal to a wide swath of listeners even when you’re doing something they haven’t experienced before. Or maybe especially when you do. The very contrast of Denver and murder hit a nerve.
South-Korean opium-addled groundhog butchers, on the other hand, are always going to be a tough sell. But John Denver—ripped out of his normal soft-spoken, environmentally-conscience context—was a joke people were willing to be let in on. A joke they followed through a slew of bloody deep-woods encounters à la Quentin Tarantino, all the way to the final bow.
It wasn’t that we were making fun of Denver per se—nastiness never sells either—it was the juxtaposition of all that Denver represented with a context that didn’t fit him at all. It was absurd, and it worked.
Repetition is comfort food
You’ve heard it before. An unfunny gag used once is just unfunny. Hear it repeated seven times in a row and you’re laughing your head off. In terms of straight storytelling, this principle can be traced through the Grimm Brothers all the way back to Homer. It’s the same principle that got us The Three Little Pigs and Goldilocks.
Repetition is order and structure; it’s the comfort food of storytelling. We grow up with it from our earliest lullabies, and carry it with us into adulthood, whether we know it our not.
But a story with repeated episodes is also something else—it’s ear candy for adults. We can’t leave the campfire until we get to the third and final episode, because that’s where the payoff is. (If you’re still with me, maybe this is starting to make sense.)
As storytellers, we strive to take the universe apart and put it back together again by the time Goldilocks tries that last bed that’s just right—and either gets eaten by the bears or runs away.
As listeners, you’re waiting for her to get eaten by those bears.
Be funny or die
I wouldn’t put it just like that, but I’d say the funniest things you see on your daily news feed are probably the ones you share and remember. Some of them are turning our collective conscience into slush, but that’s another story.
A day at the office sitting before your laptop can feel a lot like an escape from a restaurant with a million paparazzi at your back. Those moments when a message comes through clearly and effortlessly, and also manages to hit the sweet spot where you throw your head back and laugh—that line, or patch, of copy is up there with the Buddha’s vision under the Bodhi tree. I’m sure if there was any way to bottle it legally, Monsanto has already tried, and failed.
Which brings me back to John Denver.
There’s really no way to ensure that a piece of writing will work. Just watch a stand-up comedian perform and see for yourself—watch a movie, read a book. No doubt it’s hit or miss. But—and John Denver the spatula-wielding psychopath can bear me out—you will see the elements that work used again and again across media and platforms.
Find an unexpected juxtaposition, repeat it a few times, and try to make people laugh. You do that and you’re almost guaranteed to hold an audience’s attention.
Unless you’re butchering groundhogs in the moonlight.