Comedy formats teach us content lessons

November 10, 2020 7:38 pm

Some agencies will tell you formats don’t matter. Everything is just about great content – whatever the format. This often comes from people who have never experimented with new formats.

The truth is that a good format can take you far. Look outside of tech, to comedy/politics. Over the past year, comedian Michael Spicer has gone far with his ‘Room next door’ format. He takes a prominent politician saying something silly and pretends to be an adviser – in the room next door – talking into that politician’s ear-piece. It’s hilarious.

But recently, The Daily Show in the US has copied the same format for a skit about the first Presidential debate. It’s pretty good too. Not as good as Spicer but you can see why it’d work for them, especially with conspiracy theories about politicians wearing ear-pieces. (Though that almost never happens.)

Some people have complained that the latter show ‘stole’ Spicer’s idea. But he never owned that format. All is fair in love and war and comedic formats. So going all Picasso for a moment: What can you steal?

This happens a lot in media and broader content creation. How many times have you seen a variation on an informal question-and-answer format to demystify a subject of the day? Call it Notes & Queries, Pass Notes, Cheat Sheet or something else – it’s all the same format.

I personally remember coming up with formats that use industry power lists or omnibus opinion panels to generate great content years ago, only for competitors in the IT press to then do something similar (some survive to this day). That’s fine. We could never trademark or copyright those approaches.

USPs

What’s the answer? One is to be comfortable with imitation being the best form of flattery. But a better approach is to think of formats that no one else can take from you. And that’s hard.

For example, one way to defend your content is by talking about subjects where only you have the expertise or the talent. That again comes down to talent. Maybe you have an expert that no one else can use? Maybe someone has a particularly good skill – maybe a regular email newsletter that makes your reader laugh. That’s hard to do. Ask Spicer.

More realistically, how about content that depends on bespoke research or more general data that no one else has? At the very least, others have to cite you as the source if they’re going to use what you’ve used in your content. And if they don’t? Back in my days running a publication, we had fun with a competitor who wouldn’t stop plagiarising us.

Just don’t listen to anyone saying there’s no point in innovating with content formats. Formats can shape what your audiences think of you and, at their best, they can make you stand out as innovative and always looking to do things in better ways.

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