Mark Burns’ ability to help companies tell their stories better is no joke
Everyone knows the power of a good joke. It can entertain, of course. It can ease the tension of a sticky situation. It can even teach a life lesson if you’re paying attention.
Mark Burns (BBA ’08) knows something else about a good joke, maybe even a comedy secret: A good joke can help build a better business. Burns is founder and executive producer of Chicago-based Punch Up Creative, which helps people and companies tell their stories through comedy and satire.
Launching his own company created a perfect melding for the high school filmmaker who dreamed of a future in the movies and the college student who decided business would be a smarter choice.
“Film was always in the back of my mind but it didn’t seem practical and in the end I’m glad I didn’t do that,” say Burns, a finance major who opted for business school over film school after he quickly fell in love with UW–Madison on a campus visit. “It’s kind of crazy how in a roundabout way I found myself back in that world.”
With Punch Up, Burns leads teams of professionals to create video content, produce live events, and develop experiential learning sessions. He’ll work with a network of freelance actors and comedians, production crews, and writers to enliven—or “punch up”—the often mundane aspects of the business world that are familiar to anyone from the CEO to the new hire.
“With a corporate event or a training video, you have a captive audience and a message you’re trying to get across,” Burns says. “We just help make it a little more digestible.”
Burns’ path to his own company was, in the truest sense of the word, funny. His high school zombie films—Bad Chili and Bad Chili 2: Chili Con Carnage—leaned heavily on jokes from The Simpsons. His college internship was with The Onion, the popular satirical newspaper and website then based in Madison.
By the time Burns graduated, The Onion had moved its headquarters to his native Chicago and he joined the company as a financial analyst, then became a business analyst. He worked with account management, contract negotiation, and monetization of content, and began his professional experience with video production.
“That was being the responsible person in a room full of sales and creative people,” says Burns who, like other Onion staff, sometimes appeared in the photos that accompanied the fake news stories.
— Mark Burns (BBA '08)
Founder and Executive Director of Punch Up Creative
From there, Burns stayed in the funny business by moving to Second City Works, the professional services arm of the famed comedy theater that has launched the careers of a multitude of stars. Second City Works uses methods honed on the performance stage to create professional development content and events.
As a creative project manager, Burns learned how to produce videos, run events, and direct a creative team. Just as valuable was access to Second City’s classes in improvisation, writing, directing, and creative producing.
“I had no interest in being a performer but the improv class was valuable,” he says. “It teaches you to listen better and think quickly.”
After five years at Second City, Burns wanted to spread his wings and be involved in all of aspects of the projects, so he launched his own company. He knew he had the creative network to tap into, and made the leap in 2018.
With Punch Up, things like training videos become entertainment. Witnesses in a Judge Judy-type trial make a case for the features of a new cellphone instead of a traditional narrated video about the product. A corporate executive can get a Tonight Show interview treatment at an annual meeting, complete with a host and a couch, instead of giving a speech. An internal video about corporate culture might add inside jokes about how employees want more variety in the office kitchen’s condiment selections.
“It’s totally over the top and ridiculous, but it works,” he says.
Burns is serious about what engaging employees in a company’s product or culture might mean for its bottom line. Though not always a serious guy, he’s also not the comic some people expect him to be.
“I’m not particularly funny,” he says. “At Second City I used to say I was the fun-ruiner. I’m the one who tells writers what they can’t do. I’d say, ‘We can’t have an elephant in the script. And we can’t have hang-gliding.’
“As a producer, you’re the realist,” he adds. “But I like to let people play for a long time before I start shooting things down.”
Still, it’s an entertaining way to make a living, and he enjoys the niche that he’s created for himself with his company. After all, funny business is still business, with the same risks and rewards.
“Starting a business was like jumping out of a plane without a parachute,” he says. “But I’m lucky, it’s worked out.”