What's So Funny?

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What's the current character/nature of comedy in advertising? Where's it headed? Who's funny, what's funny, and why? These days, is comedy in advertising primarily about providing entertainment on behalf of a client (to foster positive attitudes), or can selling and comedy go together? We asked an assortment of funny people who work in various aspects of the business to tackle these issues in a 500-word essay, and each of them did it in his own funny way. Some ignored our instructions entirely, but hey, that's what comedy is all about: improv!

Cliff Freeman, chairman/CCO, Cliff Freeman & Partners

How do you write 500 words on comedy in advertising? This is about the 25th issue of some magazine about the subject. It's all been said and there wasn't much to be said that anyone should get all worked up about anyway. That's 42 words so far, and so far I'm not being condescending or boring. So far, I'm nothing. So far, so good. However, in an effort to stumble forward I will make the observation that there didn't used to be so many or any articles on comedy in advertising. But now, since 50 percent of the commercials are attempting to be funny, there's all these articles. I'm stuck now, I haven't got anything left to say. OK, I'll say I loved, loved, loved the Outpost commercials. I loved it when the wolves attacked the band and chewed on people's legs and when the kids cried when they were tattooed. I loved the guy getting electrocuted in the Budget spot and the one with the guy cracking walnuts in his ass. I don't care if someone doesn't like it and I wish for their own sake more clients felt the same. Because this kind of advertising endears the brand to the consumers left standing. They are militant supporters of the brands. There are way, way more supporters than necessary to build a very, very healthy brand. This is, in some way, my whole rationale for the existence, the raison d'etre of Cliff Freeman & Partners. I, we, the agency, have done many things everyone seems to love, and that, of course, feels good.

I should end this thing with that sentence. But I have to write, by my reckoning, 269 more words. OK, how about this: I don't give a rat's ass about taste. The Four A's wanted me to give a talk on "taste in advertising" - what great movie, what great piece of art, what great anything was "tasteful"? Who can relate to tasteful? We want to build a relationship between the brand and the consumer built on shared realities of life. We want to create a "club" of like-minded people. Oh my God, somewhere along the way writing this I've become pompous. I liked myself at the beginning, but now less. Who cares? We're doing good, we won the Grand Prix at Cannes. I'm glad we do comedy well; it seems to be paying off.

Remember that the next time you think, "Do I dare?"

Tracy Wong, Creative Director/Chairman, WongDoody

Comedy was, is and will always be the driving force in what we as "experts" consider what is creative in advertising. What's truly funny five, 10, 20 years ago is still funny today. But the one real thing that's "big" in funny is the introduction of "extreme" comedy, sort of an offshoot of everything "extreme" that's been generated in popular culture. The awards shows have been dominated as of late by generators of extreme humor, most notably breakthrough stuff like Outpost.com and Fox Sports. Stuff that pushes the envelope on broadcastable humor, as well as the taste levels of clients and consumers alike. "Extreme" comedy has been a veritable gold mine for its creators, such as Cliff Freeman. So my guess is the game for agencies attempting to ascend the mount of creative accolades is to keep outdoing each other in this vein. Further and further, the envelope will be pushed until the "extreme" bubble has been burst by show judges and consumers growing tired of it. It's not close yet.

As far as how humorous work affects sales, we should leave that up to the clients to tell us. But if it's at least memorable, it's ahead of 99 precent of the crap out there. Relevancy, to me, is the biggest issue around using comedy to sell. A humorous concept that's relevant to the product is obviously an easier buy for a client and, I have to believe, more effective in results. Take for instance the Cannes Grand Prix-winning Fox Sports Net campaign. The product, a regional sports report, is the Siamese twin to the comedy - absurd sports specific to a region. Hilarious. Makes perfect sense.But not being relevant comedically can work too, to the extent of becoming a part of popular culture. Take "Whassup?" for Budweiser. Hilarious, but the product is shoehorned in. The problem with any lesser media budget might be that the comedy overshadows the product.

An editorial aside: Honestly, as much as I love humor in advertising, it would be great to see serious, smart stuff win again, much in the vein of what was cranked out by the great firms of the past like Ally & Gargano, Scali/McCabe/Sloves and Doyle Dane Bernbach. But "smart" just can't outshine comedy in a dark conference room crammed full of judges. Sigh.

And you can never be sure it'll work when comedy outshines "smart." We created some work last year for a family-owned Mexican restaurant chain called Azteca. The strategy was to overcome consumer concerns about authenticity by reinforcing the family-owned aspect. So we created a Mexican soap opera theme that revolved around real Ramos family members, who star in the spots, and their obsession with great Mexican food. During the pitch process, among the six "episodes" we proposed was one that concerned an uncle being kidnapped and interrogated about the family's secret recipe for guacamole, with the abductors threatening to sneak canned guacamole into the restaurant. It was one of our favorite ideas. Our clients, the restaurant's founder and his nephew, told us they couldn't buy that one. Puzzled, we asked why. They proceeded to tell us that one of the uncles had actually been kidnapped in their hometown in Mexico and it was a "sensitive" issue.

Charles Stone III, Director, Storm Films

When I was asked to participate in the comedy issue, my friend Scott Brooks (aka Dookie from the Bud "Whassup?" spots) came to mind. We've been friends since childhood and we seem to appreciate the same things about commercials and movies. I hope our mini-conversation of sorts is enlightening.

Sunday, late afternoon phone call.

Scott Brooks: Hello?

Charles Stone: Hey.

SB: Oh, hey.

CS: Yo, I got a few questions I wanted to ask you.

SB: Aieght.

CS: It's about commercials.

SB: Aieght.

CS: Aieght . . . . What are you doin'?

SB: That one of the questions?

CS: Naw, man.

SB: I'm watchin' TV.

CS: True. OK, here we go then, What's the current character slash nature of comedy in advertising?"

SB: Slash?

CS: Huh? . . . Oh, slash, you know that line between the words character and nature. It's sort of like a hyphen on a funny angle or like a ramp or punctuated slant, you know? Somethin' like that.

SB: Is that the art school description, dude?

CS: Aieght man, back to the question. So what is the current . . . You know what? Now you got me wonderin' what the slash means. I mean I know, but you know, does it represent an "and" or an "or," you know?

SB: Whah?

CS: An "and" or an "or" . . . (dead silence) . . . H'llo?

SB: Move to the next question. You ruined that one.

CS: Sorry . . . OK. Where's it headed?

SB: That's part of the last question. Isn't it?

CS: Oh, true, true. OK, next question. Who's funny? What's funny and why?

SB: You. Your questions and because I said so.

CS: That ain't funny, Scott.

SB: Yes it is. Next question.

CS: (exhales in frustration) Aieght. Is comedy in advertising primarily about providing entertainment on behalf of a client - in parentheses!!! - to foster positive attitudes - end of parentheses!!! - or can selling and comedy go together?

SB: Yeah.

CS: (agitated) Yeah, what?

SB: Yeah, they can go together.

CS: Man, you are boring off camera! (Scott erupts into laughter.) That was supposed to be an insult, Scott.

SB: (Still laughing) It's that commercial on TV, you know (laughter) where the kids are skateboarding on that homemade half-pipe (laughter). The last kid goes flyin' down the ramp without a skateboard, as if that was gonna be OK and he busts his ass!! (laughter). That spot gets me every time. (laughter) Aw, man, and what's brilliant is it's such a simple idea,you know? `Specially in today's TV remote-MTV-cell phone-fast-food-drive-thru society YouknowhatI'msayin'? (laughter) It's like you can't be too complicated nowadays! Oooh, man, that's some funny shit. Heh, heh. I mean, I may not even buy the bottle of Sprite because of the spot, but man, is it funny! (laughter, followed by dead silence) Hullo? Yo, Charles, you there?

CS: Thank you, Scott.

SB: Whah? Wha' do you mean?

CS: Nuttin', B.

SB: Oh. . . . Aieght.

C. H. Greenblatt, Nickelodeon Animation Storyboard_Director/Writer for SpongeBob Squarepants; formerly an art director at Y&R/New York.

I don't know crap about advertising. No one does. And if anybody walks up to you and says otherwise, I want you to straighten your finger and jab them in the eye. Advertising has proven itself to be an alchemical science at best. There aren't any steadfast rules that guarantee results. That's why we all lie in bed at night shaking violently, hoping that tomorrow we think up an idea that's better than the one we thought up today. At my first art director job in New York, I worked under a creative director who always explained to me that my boards weren't funny because I didn't follow the rules of comedy. "K is funny. Things in threes. Fat people." The part that I always found cosmic was we were supposed to be speaking to people my age, and here was someone 20-plus years older telling me what people like me found funny and cool. Everyone's sense of humor is like a dog's anal gland. We've got our own unique stench and we feel the need to spray it on everything. I don't want to smell your piss all over my storyboard, goddammit, I want to smell mine. Does that make my idea inherently better and funnier? I think so, but in reality, no. It's just that I usually opt for the fresher idea. Too many creatives fall back on comedic formula and convention like it was a 10 dollar hooker. It's easy. So the joke waddles towards us with a large red flag yelling, "Get it? Do you get it?" Yes, little joke, we viewers are now like the cheap hooker - we saw you coming. You reek of intended comedy. Sublime and subtle humor is often just too hard to pitch and sell through layers of frightened bureaucracy. I've never sold a commercial by telling the client, "But it's really funny." It takes cold facts on how this ad meets the objectives, how clearly it communicates, what it says about the product and company. If it's humorous, that's just a little topper. It really takes bold decision making to approve fresh comedy, and you can't count on the middle-middle management guy in charge of East Coast sales to have the same sense of humor as you. Or to have the same sense of humor as his boss. Or to have any sense of humor at all.

My partner and I purposely once made a board funny just so we could get out of working on a certain account. We already knew how uptight the client was from a previous nightmare. So we figured we could throw something together in half an hour that they'd never buy, show up with a couple of sketches and some dialogue, and at least get a gold star for effort by our creative directors. It backfired royally. The agency loved it. The client loved it. It tested amazingly well. We produced it. Sales shot up. My mother was proud. Everyone I talked to had seen it and liked it. I'm truly happy it all worked out that way. But that client was not supposed to buy funny work. The agency tried to repeat the success with a lackluster sequel, and since then nothing worthwhile has happened. The client de-evolved: they reverted to being paste eaters who made boring commercials. Instead of learning a lesson in good advertising, they proved themselves to be merely a Darwinian fluke.

Advertising is just a tool that we wield with unknowing abandon like a monkey with a laser pointer. Occasionally we can strike the audience in the eye and blind them. I'm certainly not someone who could predict when that might happen. I've seen storyboards that were boorishly unfunny mutate into hysterical commercials through smart casting, directing and editing. And I've seen the opposite. So if you come up with something that seems funny, and you can sell it, and people laugh at it and remember what the ad was for, then God love you. But don't ever pretend like you really know what you're doing. I'll be first in line to jab you with my finger.

Colin Mochrie, Actor, star of Whose Line Is It Anyway?, sundry ad campaigns, and the short film Truth In Advertising

Since the beginning of time, men and women have searched for the answers to the same basic questions. What is the meaning of life? Is there life after death? And, of course, what is funny? After a couple of hours study and research, I figured out the solutions to the first two questions. Actually, they were so simple it seemed almost criminal to just give them to people. So if you would like those answers, send 10 bucks and a self-addressed, stamped envelope to: Colin Mochrie Answers the Big Questions of Life,P.O. Box 4433, Flin Flon, Manitoba.

The third question gave me a bit of trouble. What is funny? What isn't funny is a much easier question. Everyone cries at basically the same things: the loss of a loved one, the breakup of a relationship, long-distance commercials. To find something common that everyone can laugh at is almost impossible. How often have you told a funny story to someone, snorting with laughter throughout, struggling to maintain your composure, only to end up with them staring at you while you mumble, "I guess you had to be there." The range of things that make people laugh is vast. From slapstick to Noel Coward, from gross-out comedy to satire, the scope is so wide that you would think there would be one thing that would tickle everyone.

Comedy is a precise science. It is very mathematical, which makes me laugh when I think that I make a living at it. I always hated math. I still break out in a sweat when I see a logarithm and I don't even know what one looks like. But I digress. It is because of the mathematical aspect of comedy that, to me, advertising is the perfect medium for funny. Whether it's a magazine ad or a TV or radio commercial, everything has to be concise because of restraints of space or time. You need that one strong image or just the right amount of words to get your point across and get the laugh. It sounds simple, but as the man said, "Dying is easy, comedy is hard."

I can't tell you the number of commercials that I have auditioned for where the casting call went out for "people who can do comedy," only to be handed a script that is as amusing as diptheria. Funny people are an important ingredient in making a funny commercial, but not a necessity. In fact, the straighter a person seems in comedy the funnier they are. On the other hand, a funny script is very important. And monkeys, if you have the budget. I don't know why, but monkeys, especially dressed as humans, make me laugh. Of course every commercial can't have monkeys, though I really think it wouldn't hurt.

To help me answer the "what is funny" question I conducted an informal poll. My 10-year-old son thought noises that sounded like people breaking wind were hilarious. Ah yes, the unexpected. My friend Jim enjoyed observational comedy, the kind where you go, "Ha, ha. I've done that." My wife laughs at monkeys. You can see why we married. After talking to about 20 people, I looked at my list. Comedy came from the unexpected, the expected, the everyday experience, the outrageous and, of course, monkeys.

After analyzing the information carefully, I can now tell you what is funny in one sentence: Anything that makes you laugh. I'll be expecting my 10 bucks in the mail.

Nick Cohen, Chief Creative Officer/Managing Partner/Founder, Mad Dogs & Englishmen

"A Look Behind the Ad"

Concepting Stage

AD: Dude, how sweet would it be if they ran this? People would definitely tear it out and put it up.

CW: It totally pays off the tag. It's sweet. Do you think they're gonna give us a hard time 'cause of the needle?

AD: I know, I know, but it's on brief.

CW: They're gonna give us the "appetite appeal" speech again.

AD: What if we lose the needle?

Agency Internal Meeting

AD: So, it's no secret that this tagline is an addiction message, so we figured why not take it to the extreme?

CW: Obviously it's over the top, but we think 18-35 males will really think it's cool.

Planner: Did you actually even read the brief? We're trying to convince young men to load up on Pringles because women are addicted to them . . .

The Client Presentation

CD: We're thinking of shooting it beautiful but gritty, kind of a Trainspotting meets Matthew Rolston sort of thing.

Client: Well, er . . . yes, er, I like it, but can we focus more on the girls? I think that part of the concept is terrific . . . great work.

Finished Artwork

Client: I think it looks great, but do you think the branding could be a little stronger?

CD: Ummm. We looked at that, but it really can't get any bigger without drawing your eye away from the image.

Client: Well, I just feel like the product is getting a little lost.

First Revision

Client: Do you feel like we've lost the humor of the_original?

CD: Really?

Client: Is there anything we can do in post?

The final ad:

Tom Mooney, Partner, Headquarters

What's funny in advertising? Well, the funniest thing in advertising is that I still have a job. The second thing is that nothing's changed. We've been using comedy to sell products for years. One thing that I find not funny in the year 2001 is the same freaking guys that are writing the funny stuff today were the same guys writing the funny stuff 15 years ago. Also what's not funny in advertising is puppets. If I see one more storyboard with a puppet or with some kind of a Muppet or with a guy in costume dressed up as some ridiculous thing, I'm going to kill myself. What else is funny? That we think we're so damn important. The important part of comedy is writers. Great writers. What's funny is that every director thinks he's a writer. What's funnier is that every writer in every agency wants to be a director and stop writing.

I've been around this business for two decades and I've noticed that advertising seems to go in cycles. Who knew? Comedy has been in again for the last five years, and that's been great. I think it's really peaking right now, which is a good sign. The bad sign is we've gotten to the point of can-you-top-this comedy. People just try to reflect on other people's commercials and other people's ideas and attempt to make them funnier and try go a little further. Sometimes that produces a good idea, but mostly it just gets tired and after a while we're left with not too many original, funny ideas. When one comes along we all laugh and we love it and then everybody does it and what was funny about it gets lost.

Years ago the comedy was more about writing, it was more in the dialogue, in the situation. Today it's more in the physicality of the comedy. You have people getting shot out of cannons, driving off cliffs, blowing each other up. There is no right or wrong, if it's funny it's funny. But I think we're trying a bit too hard. It's time to get back to basics. A good idea. Now that's funny.

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