On Monday, we used a segment from Last Week Tonight to explore how idea-holders can sometimes be unfairly chastised (in this case: women on the Internet) to the unfortunate point that their underlying ideas become ignored. Host John Oliver brought to light this grim area of discrimination, dexterously toggling between silliness and seriousness as he highlighted some of these gender-based attacks. Since the battleground for this backlash was cyberspace, Oliver decided to bookend the segment with a pair clips meant to contrast how poorly our use of the Internet has evolved. And, interestingly enough (and quite effectively, I would add) he chose to do so with a couple of Explainer videos.

One of these Explainers was real (a 1995 commercial for America Online) and the other most certainly was not (created to mock the old AOL ad). But even though the latter was a fake, cooked up by Last Week Tonight to satirize Internet behavior, I noticed a few things as I watched this second video: I was engaged, I laughed a lot and I thought deeply about something without being explicitly asked to do so. Which made me realize that this fake explainer accomplished much of what real explainers set out to do, and that by taking a closer look at this work of satire I could learn a thing or two. But before we delve into the unexpected wisdom contained in satire, let’s first take a look at the clips.



So what can we learn?

  • The Virtue of Familiarity: When I realized that this explainer was meant to serve as a callback to the AOL ad from earlier, I felt both a sense of comfort (in knowing how to access what I was watching) and a sense of excitement (in anticipating the jokes ahead). Although most Explainers don’t have the luxury of playing off a video clip from earlier, they can harness the value of familiar story tropes to create a similar sense of familiarity. Whether it’s a love story, a hero’s journey or a tale of some horror run amok, the familiarity of these archetypes can be used to your advantage.
  • Laughter can be Gasoline: No matter what the story–whether it’s a compelling novel or a dry newspaper article–is filled with lulls. Usually what propels to keep reading (or watching) is a trust in the storyteller and a desire to find out what happens next. Even so, it can always help to provide an incentive to forge forward. And what this video reminds us is that laughter is a great device to keep us engaged and eager to stay tuned.
  • Contrasting Voices: Although the purpose of an Explainer is to relay a singular message, this video reminds us that to achieve that overarching message it can be useful to layer together a few different ones in the form of Voiceover, Character and On-Screen Text. Inherently, each of these will have a different tone and purpose, but when effectively utilized that will combine to something stronger than the sum of their parts.