Sitdown with a Director: Bob Industries' Zach Math Talks 'Ship My Pants'

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DraftFCB Chicago recently turned Kmart into a viral sensation, with the launch of "Ship My Pants." Now slated to run on broadcast, the film has made a simple "ship from store" offering into quite the laughing matter. The director of the spot, Zach Math of Bob Industries, discusses how he and the creative team were able to mine so many laughs from a single, sophomoric line.

So what sort of task where you presented by DraftFCB?
Kmart had this business problem where they had this great in-store policy, like a lot of retailers, but there wasn't this consumer awareness. It's really important in this day and age to tell the world, if you can't find this in our store, we're going to ship it to you free. It's a very, very simple concept, but what they did was said, let's also make it really funny.

What was the original script like?
The script was fucking amazing on paper, and all I had to do was not shank it. It originally just started with the family, and then the idea of adding everything else on top of it came from the group as a whole.

Director Zach Math
Director Zach Math
Since the script was strong, what was your approach on it?
We just had to cast it really well. Also, we couldn't make it stupid, because it's inherently ridiculous. It was important to ride that line of double entendre and word play. The great tone comes from the tension going on in the viewer's mind--between something taboo that you don't talk about, and something so innocent and normal. The synapses don't know which way to go between those and that somehow produces a smile.

What was the process of developing the spot like?
It was very much a team effort. It was almost like we were working on a TV show or sitcom, where we all sit around, let ideas out, let all the happy accidents happen. It was the sort of creative environment that I find so often isn't always fostered because of fear. The creative director, Todd Tilford is the kind of guy who picks up the phone and discusses for 45 minutes things like the casting and the nuances--why do you like this guy, what about this guy? For this commercial in particular, we had that approach, and from that came this idea, let's expand it beyond the initial family and let's have the edit reveal things. So it became this idea that spreads and builds. That was important because we didn't want it to be just a one-note joke, but a joke that has a bit of life over 30 or 40 seconds.

Can you talk about some of your casting choices? I found the kid particularly funny. He was so natural.
I think that was the first spot he ever did. We were like, should we use this guy? He hasn't really acted before, but he had a kind of a raw realness. And we said, "You know what, we'd rather shoot ten extra takes with him and get a read that is so innocent." It could almost be like a "Leave it to Beaver" thing, versus a kid who feels a little bit false.

And then the seniors--I work with the woman a lot. She was also in a Taco Bell spot I directed. She was the one who says, "Wow, they better hurry up before I'm dead." The spot couldn't just be people saying the same thing, every time, it had to be different ways of saying it every time. So with the seniors, with them, it was like they just shipped their pants. We were always looking for multiple layers.

What kind of specific direction did you give the actors to get that nuance?
It could be something as simple as asking them to make a statement versus a question. With the guy off the top, it was a question. But he was delivering it like a statement. Playing with how actors deliver lines and work with them is what I really enjoy. You don't know where the happy accidents are going to come from, which is why I always cover a range of stuff. When I'm covering a range, I'll know after the first two or three takes which one's the funniest. The cool thing about comedy, you can get on the phone and pitch stuff, but where the comedy really happens is when you're sitting on set and someone delivers a line. You're not going to know until the line's actually delivered where the gold is going to be. That's the exciting part of the process.

And then it was just about playing it real, people treating the script with a true emotion, with full character. The comedy that I always love is when actors embody a character and fully commit to something even though what they're doing is totally insane. Like when I think of Sacha Baron Cohen, or other comedians I love who fully commit to their character. It produces some of the funniest shit.

Do you have a favorite moment in the spot?
That's like asking a mom who her favorite child is. But for example, the scene with the guy lying on the bed. That really to me as a punchline works really well. There was something about that actor and how he said the line. What's interesting is if you really listen to what he is saying, he, more than anyone, actually says "Ship" the most clearly. But because of how you've been conditioned, and because of his posture and how he's sitting, your brain is still riding that line.

As funny as the "Ship my pants" plays are, one of the strangest, most hilarious parts of the spot is the ending, with that weird group hug.
The client was like, "Look, we need a positive signoff." And the challenge there was, how can that be really, really funny? We just all settled on the family hugging. When a hug kind of goes on for over three or four seconds, it starts to get a little odd in an amazing way. We worked toward leaving the viewer with a small, sublime wow moment.

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