HAMS ACROSS THE WATER; A TRIO OF AMERICAN COMEDY DIRECTORS IS KILLIN' 'EM IN LONDON, GIVING RISE TO THE QUESTION, IS BRITISH AND AMERICAN HUMOR ALL THAT ALIKE?; EYE U.K., TOUR U.K.

By Published on .

Most Popular
WHAT DID THE ENGLISH MAKE OF CALVERT DE-Forest? The former Larry "Bud" Melman, who currently stars in a goofy MCI campaign, was part of the "Late Show" entourage that recently spent a week broadcasting from London, along with Dave, Paul, Anton and those madcap East Asian cutups, Mujibur and Sirajul. While surely a stunt aimed at boosting ratings during a sweeps month, this brief export of the cream of American television's late-night comedy crop seems somehow to be a poor tradeoff. We sent them Larry "Bud," while they've sent us John Cleese.

When it comes to making commercials, the import-export quotient seems equally out of whack. While top Brit directors have been shooting spots in the States for years, the roster of American directors who've been finding regular work in the U.K. is about as long as Timothy McVeigh's list of potential character witnesses. Nevertheless, a few modern-day Yank directors are carving out a little niche for themselves in London, and interestingly enough they're all comedy directors. While Joe Sedelmaier has been cracking them up in Saatchiland for years, he's been joined recently by Crossroads Films' Mark Story and Crash Films' Billy Kent. Both were working in London as recently as last month, Story shooting a campaign for (of all things) the British National Lottery via the old Saatchi & Saatchi and Kent shooting a Burger King campaign for DMB&B.

The English work going to American funnymen is an eclectic mix that somewhat defies what conventional thinking would suggest they'd be appropriate for. While Sedelmaier has brought his own unique perspective on comedy and applied it to the British temperament-a transition, some say, that at times can lose something in the translation-Story has managed to shoot work that's both very American in its look, feel and pacing, as well as work that seems utterly British. Likewise, Kent's comedy bears no clearly "American" label-it's just plain weirdly funny.

This cross-cultural phenomenon raises questions about the difference between British and American styles of comedy, and whether members of one culture have any particular advantage when attempting to do something funny in a more or less foreign environment. After all, British and American humor isn't completely interchangeable. So is funny funny everywhere? And why is it that in a country that has produced so many talented commercials directors, many of whom have a flair for comedy, Americans like Story, Sedelmaier and Kent have managed to find followings?

As far as the yucks go, yes, to some extent funny is funny, but only when it can be seen in fairly broad terms. Sedelmaier says that the Brit style of humor tends to be more reserved, less physical than our own. Says Kent, "All jokes have punchlines-you just need to make substitutions. You know, 'a girl from Essex' instead of 'a girl from Jersey.'*" What American comedy directors seem to do best is apply their more wide open comedy styles to the more wide open way that British agencies like to work with directors, as Sedelmaier did with his hysterical Roysters snacks campaign for Gold Greenlees Trott last year, or when they import an American technique and unleash it on Brit audiences, as Story did with his goofy man-in-the-street campaign for Snapple and Banks Higgins O'Shea.

It's been decades since American directors Bob Brooks, Lester Bookbinder and Lee Lacy came to England to show the Limeys how we made commercials in the States. Since then, few Americans have managed to find success in the U.K. (For a look at the experiences of American creatives working in London, see page 44.) In the realm of the stylists, Carlton Chase moved to London and rejuvenated his young career; in the comedy realm, the arrival of Sedelmaier was something of an event.

"Joe is a unique talent who transcends nationality," says Robert Saville, who along with his partner Jay Pond-Jones is joint CD at GGT. "He produces brilliant work with an American view." That viewpoint can be the deciding difference for British creatives working with Americans; it explains why, when Saville and Pond-Jones shot the Roysters spots with Sedelmaier last year, they insisted on working in Chicago. Saville believes the classic Sedelmaier spot features his pricelessly unique casting of slack-jawed American dimwits, and he contends that this approach, while universally funny to watch, doesn't always work as well when done with people from other cultures. Roysters is positioned in the U.K. as a classic American snack; hence, says Saville, "These aren't English ads, they're American ads for a product that's sold in England." He believes that if they had tried to do this campaign in the U.K. with an English director, "it just wouldn't have come off."

Garry Horner, an art director at WCRS who has worked on several campaigns with Story, admits that the advertising community in the U.K. has a huge pool of talented directors to choose from. "But we also have the foresight to look wide" for talent, he explains. "You can reap the seeds of a fresh point of view when you get a director from another culture. Mark uses the timing and pace of American comedy and ties it with the dialogue of British comedy. The result is work that's very clever, but has a distinctive style."

Indeed, if any American can be said to be making an impact in London right now it's Story, who shot eight campaigns there last year. The director explains his success this way: "I believe what the English are looking for is a cross-pollenization between English and American humor, so that a unique type of humor is advanced." The differences between the approaches are one of reserve vs. abandon. "On the English side there's a great reticence; they hold the comedy back, it's much tighter," Story explains. "We let it play, we make it more obvious. I think the English get to see that it's OK to play it a little bigger, and it turns out funnier than all the stuff on TV that's held pretty far back."

Mark Cooper, copywriter at WCRS on Carling Black Label, says that Story brought a fresh approach to the campaign. "He's good at putting layers on it, adding subtle little gags," a quality that Sedelmaier says the British tend to appreciate in film directors more than American creatives do. What Cooper likes about working with Americans is that "it's much clearer when a gag is a gag," an important skill when the essence of your humor is the subtle twist. The marvelously condescending Carling ads, in which plucky Brits triumph over their hapless European adversaries, plays heavily on visual gags and nuanced performances.

Cooper believes that Americans know how to simplify comedy, "they can distill it down to pure thought," adding that if you don't get the gags in a comedy commercial the whole effort is wasted. "In addition, they're very good with music and sound effects," giving the scripts an extra measure of yucks.

Horner says that while it can be hard for foreign directors to pick up on all the little cultural nuances and colloquialisms, in Story's case, his years spent abroad while working on the agency side "have given him an understanding of European culture." Story, he says, "is a magpie. He clones different cultures very easily, gets their nuances naturally."

"That comes from living all over the world," says Story, who worked for Y&R in Germany, Australia and Hong Kong during a six-year period. "I've had to have an understanding of the culture I'd moved to and worked in or I wouldn't have survived. I really don't think it's that hard to get across to the culture what it is you want to get across, because you're standing there with the agency, and they know it's been written in a way that makes it very obvious who you're making fun of. "

The American style of comedy, as practiced by these directors, is playing in the U.K., but no one knows for how long. Even though he's been the major beneficiary of the trend, Story isn't sold on its durability. "Like everything that isn't indigenous to England, it's just a fad," he believes. "It's just a comedy phase the English are passing through, and they'll get tired of it."

LIN TIPTON WAS EN ROUTE TO A NEW JOB AT J. WALTER THOMPson/London when an airport immigration officer discovered he was an American art director and forced him to listen to a detailed recap of a new BMW spot. "To say the Brits are proud of their advertising is an understatement," Tipton says. "They have an obsessiveness worthy of the Branch Davidians."

To work in a country where advertising isn't largely despised by the general public (in fact, for the last five years, singles from Levi's spots usually rise to near the top of the U.K. charts) is a fantasy that many American creatives share, especially if they were weaned on Design & Art Direction annuals in college. But Britain's strict immigration laws prevent all but a few from ever realizing that dream. Warren Eakins, who headed up Wieden & Kennedy's Amsterdam office, had no problems securing a spot at Leagas Delaney, where he's currently working with creative director Tim Delaney. Likewise, Fallon McElligott group creative director Mike Lescarbeau had few problems parlaying his winning portfolio into a year-long tour at Leagas in 1990.

But lesser-credentialed creatives have to struggle to secure jobs. Transfers or connections between branch offices are the best bet, but even then a London office must still go through legal contortions trying to prove an American is better suited for the job than any Brit.

Tipton was working at J. Walter Thompson/New York when he got an offer at Delaney Fletcher Delaney Slaymaker Bozell. Six months later, and still waiting for a visa, a temporary position popped up in Thompson's London office, and Tipton pounced on it. Similarly, art director Eric Houseknecht and writer Marcus Woolcott left Chiat/Day/New York and had to pound the cobblestones awhile before positions opened in the London office, where they're working on a U.K. Fruitopia print campaign and ads for First Direct bank.

So, now that they're surrounded by it, does British work live up to their expectations? Houseknecht, who says he grew up drooling over D&AD books, isn't so sure. "I've only seen about eight or 10 ads that were really brilliant," he says, adding that most of the work doesn't employ the visual punning that Americans have come to expect from British work. "People are really bored with that," Houseknecht says. At the same time, most advertising still maintains "purer, cleaner" art direction than American work. "There's nothing here that comes close to David Carson's deconstructivist style."

How closely ads are regulated is another disillusionment, Woolcott says, explaining how the British Advertising Control Council, an independent agency, guards against the unfair jabs of competitors. For instance, he says their creative directors killed one of their First Direct ads that showed the competition's credit cards- mangled. "You might get away with showing a breast here or there," he advises, "but you can't get away with slamming the competition."

Overall, say the Americans who are working in the U.K., the Eng-lish seem less jaded and more idealistic about their profession. "It seems like they're more fascinated with the ideas of advertising," says Houseknecht, who was particularly impressed in his first week when he met an account exec in a pub who wanted to discuss One Show Pencil winners.

Lescarbeau agrees. "They aspire to bigger things than some broad American agency would," he says, which he attributes in part to the fact that clients are "less likely to treat an agency like a vendor," as well as the traditional devotion to crafts like typography, which still prevails.

For instance, he cites the award-winning Ordnance Survey ads, which he wrote with Tim Delaney, as an example of how it was acceptable to labor over ads for a month, writing, revising and setting body copy. Now at Fallon McElligott, he says he returns often to work with director Roger Woodburn, who's shot many of the Lee commercials. "We love any excuse to work over there because of the craftsmanship."

As far as what the after-hours scene is like, geography plays a major role. Imagine cramming every major American agency into a quarter-mile radius. "Gossip is the No. 1 preoccupation," Tipton stresses. "They know everything about everybody. It keeps people honest because you can't hide anything." Patricia A. Riedman

In this article: