Need a good laugh? Look no further than the Transportation Security Administration.
Yes, that TSA.
Almost since its inception in 2013, the @TSA Instagram handle has been winning the internet thanks to its bizarre, shocking and surprisingly funny posts on life at the airport.
“People don’t expect to come to a TSA Instagram account and see corny puns,” said Bob Burns, who runs the TSA’s Instagram account and blog. “I think the reason for the success is not only the humor but also the shock value of coming to a government-run blog and seeing the stuff we’re finding and the approach we’re taking to communicate about it. Yeah, you’re being funny, but it’s actually funnier because it’s coming from a government agency.”
Here are some recent examples of @TSA posts:
For Burns, an Army veteran who spent seven years playing in a band before deciding it was time to settle down, it’s been a similarly weird, and hilarious, journey to unexpected stardom.
In 2002, Burns took a job as a TSA screener at Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky International Airport and soon worked his way into a communications position at the TSA’s Washington, D.C., headquarters. He started the agency’s now famous Instagram account in 2013 and has since amassed 864,000 followers with posts that average more than 10,000 likes.
The account has been spotlighted by everyone from late-night host Jimmy Kimmel, who joked that TSA uses “more hashtags than a 13-year-old girl,” to Rolling Stone Magazine, which named it No. 4 on its list of 100 Best Instagram Accounts, edging out even Beyonce.
Earlier this week, we asked the 47-year-old father of two (yes, for the record, he’s an expert at “dad jokes,” too) about his social media strategy, the weirdest items he’s seen and what else his future may hold.
What was your goal when you launched the TSA blog in 2008?
(My administrator) wanted us to appear as human as possible. He didn’t event want the agency seal to be on the blog. He set the tone in the beginning, be yourself and be human. We’ve used that formula since then. We’re not in the entertainment business, but we do entertain to get people to come back and read our material. If you’re just posting about aviation security it can be pretty dry. We’re making people laugh and learn and come back for more.
What posts seem to be the most popular?
People tend to comment the most about the crazy prohibited items, but as far as likes it’s usually the TSA canines. Dogs and cats rule the internet.
You recently posted a moving letter from the mother of an autistic boy detailing how a TSA agent helped him through a recent trip. The post also highlighted the TSA Cares program, which was created to help travelers with special needs. How did that post do?
On Instagram we try to entertain, post quirky items, make people laugh. We posted that with no humor at all and it’s up to almost 20,000 likes. (Note: As of press time it was up to 32,000 likes.) We’re building all those followers with humor, then you’ve got them there when you have a serious message.
Do you have a history of humorous writing?
At Christmas I’d write the annual Christmas letter for my family. It was filled with lies about the great things my family had done. Throughout the years people had told me how funny they were…
What do your wife and daughters (13 and 9) think of your celebrity status?
I’m not sure they really understand it. … This time last year CBS News came to my house to interview me and asked my 9-year-old, “Do you think your dad’s funny?” She said no.
What’s the weirdest item you’ve ever posted?
A gentleman came through with a movie prop, a dummy from “Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2,” and presented it for screening. It was just the right size that it could be placed on the X-ray belt. To date, it’s the weirdest thing I’ve seen.
What’s the most dangerous thing you’ve seen?
I remember several live grenades. And once there was a gentleman who had two 1-pound cans of black powder and detonation cord. He had no malicious intent. He said, “Well, my father died and I was cleaning out his garage and use these to blow up tree stumps.” You’ve got some people worrying about if they can bring toothpaste and nail clippers and you’ve got this guy packing 2 pounds of black power and detonation cord.
You’re nominated for a Webby Award in the “weird” category. Is that a compliment?
People ask, “Are you glad you’re in that?” Yeah, because it is weird. People don’t expect that these kinds of things are being brought through TSA checkpoints. On average we find 70 to 80 firearms in carry-on bags a week. We’re changing the conversation from, “Did you see the line at TSA?” to, “Now I know why the line was so long.'”
Any #tsagoals you’d like to mention?
I think TSA needs a coffee table book.