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As escape rooms continue to evolve, so do their themes and genres. First, the genre was… well, “escape.” Gradually the story became more important… even if the story was just “you’re stuck in a room, escape, OR ELSE.” The “OR ELSE” usually being death or dismemberment, or being turned into a zombie or thrown in jail or whatever.
Nowadays, as the “escape” part of the escape room becomes less common— thanks, fire marshals— plots are frequently more MacGuffin-centric (get the thing from the thing to do the thing!), which has given escape rooms an opportunity for other emotions to take center stage beside fear.
(No, really… thanks, fire marshals! In your quest to ruin everyone’s fun by not letting us literally lock people in rooms, you’ve gotten us out of a design rut!)
The vast majority of rooms are still very serious, however. The world is going to end, and everyone is going to die… and you’ve been infected with a virus and you need to find the antidote, but you have to avoid the werewolves… and the vampires… and the… mummy? Who is also a serial killer?
And that’s all well and good. I love me a good mummy serial killer apocalypse room. Some of my best friends are mummy serial killers. But what I love even more is to laugh.
Point is, I want to laugh more in escape rooms. So, hey, make more rooms that are funny, everybody! Here are some pointers.
First thing’s first, pick a theme that lends itself to comedy
When the stakes are super high and there’s a serial killer on the loose, it’s hard to crack a joke, it undermines the tone that you’ve already set with the whole, you know, serial killer thing.
Themes to avoid
- The Holocaust (this goes for serious rooms, too.)
- Anything involving child peril.
- Nuclear Armageddon
- Zombie nuclear armageddon child prison zombies again.
Now, these aren’t hard and fast rules, of course. Rules are meant to be broken. For every Walking Dead there’s a Shaun Of The Dead. (But really, can we all agree on no more zombie rooms?) (Also, seriously, no rooms about/in/around The Holocaust, please.)
Breaking the Rules
If you’re intent on breaking a rule, break it for a good reason. Or break it so thoroughly it becomes funny. For example, the new room I’m working on now does involve child peril, breaking my own cardinal rule. But it’s breaking it in such a ludicrous way (you need to save an entire orphanage of children from a condo developer) that the stakes have wrapped around from too serious back to goofy again.
(At least I hope they have, or else I’m going to be threatening all these orphans for nothing.)
Once you’ve got a theme picked out, decide where the humor is coming from. Is the entire situation absurd? (Probably… because escape rooms are inherently absurd.) Are you breaking the fourth wall? Is there a wacky sidekick cracking jokes with your players? Are there pop culture references? Poop jokes? (Everyone loves a good poop joke.)
Your answer to all those questions is: Yes.
That is to say, different people find different things funny, so go broad, but also go niche. Throw everything at the wall… not every joke is going to land, but some of it is bound to stick. My 1980s room has a visual gag involving wood paneling in an unexpected place… it lands probably about 30% of the time, but those 30% of folks have a good laugh (at their own expense, even!).
Kids are gonna find pratfalls and physical humor funny. Escape room enthusiasts love a good meta-joke. People in it for the story will read every bit of flavor text in the room, reward them for that with some laughs.
Far and away the easiest (and most effective) comedy can come from actors. Having an actor in the room with players who can [ahem] read the room, and sense how people are doing and offer help or just laughs is huge. One of my favorite escape room experiences was just riffing with our human MacGuffin while my friends actually solved puzzles. It was great!
Now of course putting an actor in the room isn’t a surefire way to get laughs. Some of my least favorite escape room experiences have involved having hosts in the room… I’ve had hosts who can and hosts who can’t, and, well, lean into strengths and lean away from weaknesses.
(I’m hesitant to say “hire improv people if you’re looking for laughs,” because improv people are the worst— I can say this because I am an improv person and I am a terrible human— but in the context of reading the room and getting people to have fun, improv folks are the best people you can hire.)
Be Smart About It
Finally, as any comedian can tell you, humor is all about…
Wait for it…
Wait for it…
Even in a light-hearted room where the goal is to— I don’t know— bake a quiche in an hour… there are times in that hour when jokes are welcome, and other where there are not. When you’re cracking eggs, sure, crack all the jokes you want. But when the clock is ticking down and there are only seconds left in the bake, maybe ease up on the jokes there, bub.
That said, a gag or reveal at the very last moment (i.e. after a group has already won) can turn a great moment into an even better one.
Leave a group laughing and they’ll love you. That goes for whether they win or lose. Not everyone can win, so even if the quiche is ruined, it’s important that everybody still leaves happy. (Maybe give them the shitty quiche?)
So there you have it. Jokes! Goofs! Gags! All of the above. A funny room will stand out in this market of dourness, so lead the way and your customers will follow!
One Last Thing
p.s. One last thing… your job starts before players even buy their tickets, let alone enter the room. Nothing is worse than someone expecting a Battlestar Galactica and getting a Spaceballs. Make it clear in your marketing that the room is a funny one. Even the best poop joke in the world isn’t going to win over someone who doesn’t want to laugh in the first place. (Turns out, not everyone loves a good poop joke.)