WB First things first: Why is violence so damn funny?
ES I think almost all comedy is from other people's pain, whether it's physical pain or emotional pain. I've always believed real comedy is just relief - we're laughing in relief that it's not happening to us. Physical pain or violence might be the clearest way to show that - and in commercials you have to be quick anyway. So the reaction is like, "I get that, I'm glad it's not me, it's funny." But it has to be done in a smart way. I hold to a Monty Python school of comedy, which is always smart. Some people try a more gratuitous approach, sometimes with fart jokes or random violence, and it's like, "So what?" If it's not smart, it will just turn people off.
WB The Mike's Hard Lemonade spot in which a lumberjack chops off his own foot is pretty Pythonesque. What kind of reaction has that been getting?
ES People's visceral response was, "Can you do that in a commercial?" Which has been a hallmark of some our work. Well, we found out you could do that. But we had to put it on late at night, like on Saturday Night Live. Because that one may have gone a bit too far. There was a little brokering with the network, but we got it on the air. And the product is really taking off.
WB How did all this craziness get started? When you came to the agency was there a conscious decision to move in this direction?
ES Cliff called me when I was at Letterman and asked if I wanted to work for him, and I said, "I really need time to think it over." And I called the next day and said, "OK, I'm ready." He'd previously approached me when I worked at other agencies.
WB He saw something in your style he liked.
ES I think the main thing was that he knew I was a good dresser. So anyway, when I met with him I said, "I respect the Staples and Caesars stuff, but to be honest that's not something I want to do or even can do". And his response was, "I don't want to do it again either." And he meant it. Cliff wants to explore different things. So the first thing we did was the hockey jokes for Fox. And on the heels of that we did Outpost. And that's when we sort of set a new tone.
WB Outpost seemed to have such a huge impact on advertising, particularly on other dot-com ads.
ES It did stir up a lot of debate with dot-coms, because during the boom times it celebrated this idea that `We can do anything.' And one camp said, `Why does advertising need to do this, it's not smart.' While the other camp felt it was brave and adventurous. I always thought it was one of the smartest campaigns we've ever done. The agenda was so simple - just get web hits. And the campaign really did do its job.
WB In hindsight, would you have changed those ads so they told people precisely what Outpost was? That seemed to be the main criticism, that the campaign was funny as hell, but didn't tell the viewer anything about the client.
ES I would do it the same way. The truth is, we explained to the client that the initial campaign would just introduce ourselves, which we did. And the second campaign would specifically sell the attributes of the company. But by the time the second campaign rolled around, there was such turmoil within Outpost that it never got a fair shake. But I thought the strategy of starting out with a bang was a sound one.
WB Tell me about the reactions to the gerbil spot. Did you get attacked by animal rights activists?
ES We just got a lot of e-mails. It was a 50/50 split between "This is the funniest thing I've ever seen," and "You are going to burn in hell." Of course we used little fake stuffed animals in the ad, but a lot of people didn't realize that. The funny thing about the "Wolves" commercial for Outpost was that we had a bunch of wolves on hand ready to attack the band, but they were too friendly. They started literally licking the band members. So we brought in the German shepherds and painted their backs to look like wolves.
WB Do you ever feel any guilt over being the guy who started all the dot-com advertising madness?
ES No, I don't feel any guilt over originating it. I would feel guilt over perpetuating it. I don't necessarily think the dot-com ads were any more reckless than other kinds of advertising. You know, a beautiful commercial of a landscape can be just as reckless if I don't know what they're advertising. The real crime is producing something that is pointless.
WB Have you ever done any ads that are serious?
ES I never have, but I would love to. We recently pitched Powerade with a couple of serious campaigns, and I think their reaction was, "What's going on, this isn't funny." We get trapped because of the work we're known for. In another case, we were pitching Americans for Gun Safety, and I thought, this is our chance to show we can do something serious. And then the meeting starts and the lead guy says to us, "You know that Caesars commercial where the chickens fall off the truck? That' s what we're looking for." So we're in a Catch-22; we're obviously one of the better comedy agencies, and because of that no one will give us a chance to do serious. Actually, my dream is to produce something like that Guinness spot with the horses surfing. That's easily the best commercial of the past couple of years. The director of that, Jonathan Glazer, just came out with the movie Sexy Beast ...
WB That's a great movie.
ES ... yeah, but honestly, I thought that Guinness commercial was a better film than Sexy Beast. But it's a funny thing - if someone came to me and said, "How about doing a beer commercial with horses surfing on the waves," I probably would have killed that so fast.
WB I like the Fox Sports ads with the two white kids playing in the NBA, but I've got to ask you - has anybody outside of awards shows actually seen these? Do they ever run on TV?
ES Well, Fox Sports and ESPN are in a similar boat in that they only really run their campaigns on their own network. But the difference is ESPN runs the hell out of theirs. The biggest Fox run was regional, and actually, it must have run a lot in L.A. because I got a number of calls saying, "We gotta make this a movie." When I first heard that, you know, your first reaction is to say, "Oh, my God, a movie, how great!" But if you stop and think it through, these two characters may work in 30 seconds, but two hours? I think after about a minute, it would be death. That's actually my worst fear - to make a crappy movie that everyone would see. And this would definitely be crappy.
WB What was it like working on the Letterman show?
ES Everyone asks that and I think they expect to hear how incredible it was. And it just really sucked. It was the classic Wizard of Oz thing, looking behind the curtain and seeing, "Oh, that's how it's done." It was frustrating because there's this very small box of humor they operate in. If you watch the show for a week - which most people don't do, they just watch it every once in a while - but if you watch for a week, it's the same joke night in and night out. And when you pitch stuff, they'll say "Conan did that three years ago," or "Dave doesn't want to hurt his back," or something like that. And the other thing that surprised me was, I thought it would be people in a room tossing ideas back and forth. But instead, you're in a small office from 10 in the morning till midnight, and you just slide ideas under the head writer's door. And he might get back to you or not. The best part of it was telling friends I worked for Letterman - but the reality soon caught up with that.
WB Do you think ad creators could cross over and make good TV shows?
ES It's strange - commercials directors have obviously made the crossover to films at a pretty good rate, but for some reason copywriters aren't doing that as much. We've been kind of left behind as the bastard children. But as sure as I know anything, I know that creatives at any agency could produce better TV shows than what's on the air now. They would easily come up with fresh ideas that would cut through. Think about the Jukka Brothers - that would be better than any show on TV right now.
WB Do you see yourself returning to television writing at some point?
ES My interest in TV and movies is always on the back burner; I'm meeting with people and discussing pilots. But having seen that world behind the scenes, it's not pretty. So I wouldn't quit advertising to pursue that. It's funny, I was in law school before advertising, and that sucked, too. At one point I found myself reading the same statute like 400 times over and I still didn't get it, so I thought I better quit. It made me appreciate advertising. Letterman was the same thing. I think you just need periodic departures in hell, and then you'll come back and say, "Ah, advertising!"
Graduated Clark University, 1989. Majored in philosophy/sociology.
Southwestern Univer-sity School of Law,
1989-90. "I went for one year and quit, `cause I sucked at it."
Larsen Colby, Los Angeles,1991-93.
Chiat Day/New York, 1993-94.
Earle Palmer Brown/Richmond, 1994-95.
Wieden & Kennedy/Portland (worked on Nike and ESPN), 1995-96.
FCB/San Francisco (worked on Levi's), 1996-97.
Goodby Silverstein & Partners,
San Francisco, six days in 1997.
The Late Show With David Letterman,
New York. Staff Writer, Summer 1997.
Cliff Freeman & Partners, New York, 1997-present