Have you seen Chris Rock holding a toilet seat for MCI's 1-800-Collect? Never has a prop been more appropriate. "He's just terrible in those spots," laments Entertainment Weekly TV critic A.J. Jacobs. "He's such a great comedian, and they try to adapt his edgy style, but it just comes off as so grating." Isn't that often the case? How come commercials that feature standup comics and sitcom stars aren't funnier? How come so many aren't funny at all? Maybe it's an unfair question. Comedy is mostly in the writing, after all; and how many sitcoms, with all their highly-paid writers, evoke so much as a titter, even as the laugh track roars? Maybe these commercials aren't supposed to be that sidesplitting anyway, for fear the laughs will blot out the product.
"No way," says Hungry Man director Bryan Buckley, whose comedy work includes a spot with Eric Bogosian playing an excitable Red Sox fan for an ESPN baseball promo. "That whole the-spot's-so-funny-I-can't-remember-the-product is a bunch of crap from the '60s. It's just a failure to push the envelope and be really funny. And it's a problem of timing. How do you cram something really funny into 30 seconds? It's not easy."
But fine examples do exist. Seamlessly blending standups and product was arguably done to near perfection in a 1994 campaign for 7-Eleven and J. Walter Thompson/Chicago. "Comedians were a natural for us, since so many of them were already doing 7-Eleven jokes in their acts," says JWT CD Jeff York. Directed by SNL parody master Gary Weis, funny folks Louis Anderson, Gilbert Gottfried, Brett Butler and Carol Leifer open their respective spots with a bit of pseudo 7-Eleven standup, then cut to the store where they check out the "new" customer-friendly 7-Eleven, making points about low prices and wide aisles in a relaxed, persuasive, even fairly humorous manner. "If we can win over the toughest critics, we can get other people to give the place a second chance," was the strategy, says York. It worked, producing double-digit increases everywhere it ran in regional buys. The comedians don't seem like they were dragged into the store, York points out. "They seem like they really went there, like they're real customers. We let them be themselves."
It sounds like a modest achievement, but it stands out among commercials standups. At the top of this heap may well stand Denis Leary, whose spots, led by last year's Lotus Domino campaign for O&M/New York, aren't really laugh-out-loud funny -- they just throw perfect strikes down a bile-slick bowling alley.
"They're brilliant," says WestWayne/Atlanta's Tina Traber, copywriter on a BellSouth Mobility campaign starring Leary's fellow fumer Dennis Miller (more of whom later). "The Lotus spots aren't built around Leary. There's an idea behind them, and he just strengthens it." The idea is to contrast frivolous Web activities -- like surfing -- with serious Domino business applications. So Leary walks around sneering at assorted Internet dilettantes, and in one spot he has a bizarrely disjointed conversation with Dragnet's Jack Webb.
"It's just a question of borrowed interest," says Joe Pytka, who directed the Lotus campaign, reworking the scripts with Leary, he says, who then improvised most of the dialogue. "You get a charismatic performer like Leary to talk around the product. It's clever conceptually to do that, so the commercials have a high entertainment value yet they still represent a product benefit."
"Leary is not shilling for Lotus," says Chris Wall, CD on the campaign. "He's a guy who thinks all this hype about the Internet is stupid."
And standup comics, in a sense, make serious endorsers. "They pretty much stand for honesty," says Wall. "They say what they think in a world where it's not permissible to say what you think. When you use them correctly -- to talk about issues in a no-bullshit way -- it cuts through the traditional expectations of the corporate crap you expect from commercials. They're really the voice of the customer."
Leary, it appears, is a sharp customer in his own right. His early MTV promos, directed by Ted Demme, are paragons of the genre; his British Holstein Pils work, directed by Frank Budgen -- including the outrageous "He's An Asshole" song, which Leary sings addressing a drunk driver -- are internationally acclaimed.
Dennis Miller's commercials make a fascinating contrast with Leary's. Miller stepped aboard the very popular computer-generated M&M's campaign, from BBDO/New York -- the work was at one time No. 2 in USA Today's Ad Track poll, with a whopping 45 percent "like a lot" rating -- and he actually jokes in a talk show parody spot that "commercials can kill your career."
Some people aren't chuckling. Says JWT's York of Miller: "They're writing below his talents, not to his talents. They could pull Mike Douglas out of the retirement home and have him do M&M's, and it would be just as impactful. Dennis Miller needs to look at how much he's making and what that check is costing his reputation."
Crash Films director Billy Kent, who at one time had the privilege of shooting Martin Short for Cartoon Network promos, says of Miller, "He's actually quite talented on his own show, and I'm sure he's a good writer, so how can he say, 'I'm going to act in this'? It's such high-visibility stuff, and it does affect how people relate to his character. I thought Dennis Miller was above this kind of thing, but I guess he doesn't care."
Lest we be too quick to judge, DDB Needham/ Chicago producer Greg Popp, who worked on the outstanding Rold Gold "Pretzel Boy" campaign with Jason Alexander, says that he isn't so quick to judge anything in a business that's nearly all compromise. "If you're saddled with boards where a talk show host is interviewing M&M's, Miller would be extraordinary for the role, from a producer's point of view. I know how people have to struggle to handle all the criteria presented to them."
As for M&M's, BBDO exec CD Charlie Miesmer says the agency found this: "Miller is a straight man for the pretentiousness of the M&M characters, who are rife with human flaws. His acerbic wit puts them down." But wit is in the eye of the beholder, and plenty of people beheld an execrable spot. Miller's best excuse for his substandard performance may be that the talking candy is added in post. "There's nobody there who he's talking to," says Miesmer. "He's playing off empty space." Miesmer insists that "a social critic talking to two candies is pretty funny," but Miller's M&M's gig has melted down. "We don't want to go with any one long-term face," Miesmer explains.
Miller has other less promiment commercials work under his belt. In an oddly similar situation for Victoria's Secret -- directed by Penny Marshall, who's been on both sides of the camera in this genre -- he played an uncomfortable straight-man counterpoint to supermodels. Then there's his regional campaign for BellSouth Mobility, from WestWayne/Atlanta, directed by Stiefel & Co.'s Peter Kagan, in which Miller plays directly to the camera as a wise-guy spokesman, awkwardly veering between social commentary about the "phone as social plumage" to product points like "no roaming charges."
How did he get involved in this? "We thought we could get away with hiding copypoints in his delivery," says writer Tina Traber. "The client wanted all the copypoints in there regardless of how it was going to come off with Dennis Miller saying them, which hurt the spots immensely." Unfortunately, there was no ad libbing or rewriting involved. "Mr. Miller didn't care to see the copy until the day of the shoot," Traber says grimly. "He's in it for the money and he'll tell you that. He doesn't care how he's used or what he's used for, as long as the zeros are there."
So the cynical comedian is actually -- cynical?
In this category, "some guys will participate in the writing, some won't," says a veteran producer who prefers to remain anonymous. "These guys hate themselves for selling out, but the money is so big, they go for it. If one guy is getting better writing in his spots than another guy, it might be because he's more selective. And the disdain may come through in the performance. Does anybody really believe that Dennis Miller gives a shit about M&M's?"
No one may believe that Seinfeld superschlub Jason Alexander gives a damn about fat-free pretzels either, but last year's Rold Gold "Pretzel Boy" campaign was still a hit. The spot was No. 3 in the 1997 Ad Track, with a 34 percent "like" factor and tied for sixth with a 28 percent effectiveness quotient. It seems everyone in the business has a kind word for these spots, in which great special effects actually produce laughs, not yawns.
Jerry Seinfeld's American Express spots also engender positive feelings. They have a 32 percent overall Ad Track approval, even higher among women. Seinfeld has been going strong for the brand with O&M/New York since 1992. If anything, his spots -- up to 32 now, with his contract extending beyond the life of his show -- have gotten better over time. "They're not sidesplitting funny," says Hungry Man's Buckley. "I don't think I've ever seen one as funny as anything in his show. But they do work."
"I don't think the commercials are earth-shattering as far as any kind of technique or communication," says Pytka. "They have the same feeling his show does: situation comedy. But he's such a great guy, he projects himself pretty well and it comes off nice."
"He speaks well to a bunch of audiences, particularly young audiences, and that's key, since we want to revitalize the image of the card," campaign creative director David Apicella points out. Only two directors have worked on the campaign in all this time: formerly Jeff Gorman, now David Kellogg. The writing "is collaborative with Jerry, pretty much like he does his show," says Apicella. "He's a good advertising guy; he really gets the strategy, though there are of course things he rejects because he doesn't think they're funny." And just like his standup act, it's not about improv. "Everything is very tightly crafted, there's not a lot of ad libbing. We usually go into a shoot with both a script and a series of alternate lines for each scene, and we'll try them both."
Everything is very tightly crafted as well in the very difficult telecommunications category, but with decidedly less mirthful results. Consider John Lithgow's work for MCI 10-321 and Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer -- for example, the current spot in which he plays a protective, long distance rates-obsessed father quizzing a potential son-in-law. Comedy is subjective, most everyone will agree, but Lithgow must have been well more than three rocks from his better judgment when he took this job, money be damned (though we can all sympathize with his comparatively piddling 70 grand per episode).
JWT's York: "The agency [mistakenly] thinks Lithgow will make this turgid copy into something charming and witty."
Billy Kent: "Shocking. I was scandalized by it. He's not a funny person without funny dialogue."
BBDO's Miesmer: "Isn't that embarrassing? Who could forget his work in Garp? You don't want to reduce him like this."
Well, somebody must like this spot, which was directed by Boris Damast at Bedford Falls, who does a lot of MCI celeb work. According to Messner CD Tony Gomes, Lithgow's paternal inquisitor is nothing less than a hit, and MCI intends to continue using Lithgow -- who already has several similarly underwhelming MCI spots under his belt -- as long as he continues to produce results. "This is really a direct-response category," explains Gomes. "At the end of the commercial, we want people to remember a number and go to the phone and dial it. That's how we judge the work. If the call volume is up the week the spot runs, that means the spot's working."
MCI uses a host of celebrity funnymen -- including Chris Rock, Phil Hartman (Max Jerome, Private Eye), Larry "Bud" Melman, David Spade, Seinfeld's Wayne Knight (Newman, the devious postal worker) and Married With Children's Ed O'Neill. According to Gomes, the client is going this pricy borrowed-interest route for the simple reason that it works.
But what about the copypoints that are getting in their comedic way? "That's the reason we use [comedians]," says Gomes. "Their characters are established. It's easier to get right into the hard sell and make it more palatable. We have years of research [showing] that this works, and we also have tremendous business results."
So maybe this is the copypoint-riddled realm where it's really true -- a spot that's too funny will blur the message? "We have discussions about this all the time," says Gomes. "Our feeling is, if we create a situation that's very memorable, and it's tied into the phone call somehow, then they'll remember the product part. If the humor derives from something totally irrelevant, then you're in trouble."
Paul Reiser has managed to stay away from trouble in his three years of work for AT&T and FCB/New York. His spots were tied for 14th overall in the '97 Ad Track -- many viewers may not be mad about him, but this isn't bad for phone fun. "Reiser is an ideal vehicle for AT&T," FCB exec creative director Ted Littleford avers. "He's got an approachable demeanor, yet he's also got a wry take on life. He's a surrogate for all of us, articulating our frustrations with life."
Two members of our esteemed judging panel would like to articulate some frustrations of their own. Billy Kent: "Paul Reiser? Oh, come on. He obviously shows up for 20 minutes, they walk him down the street and that's the spot. It's like an appliqu?, they just put a star on it."
Joe Pytka: "They're just atrocious. The message is confusing and too verbal. He's a very entertaining actor, his show is great. Maybe Reiser should get the writers from his show to write the commercials or have Helen Hunt with him in the phone booth. He's spieling for AT&T instead of playing an interesting character, which is the thing he does best. It's a conceptual problem on the part of the agency."
According to Littlefield, Reiser is playing himself, which is the conceptual point. "I'd like to think Reiser is known to a pretty wide slice of our society," he says. "Knowledgeable people. We've always presented him as the guy who says Americans want simplicity in a category that's been sated with information about rates and competitive negativity. Reiser defuses all that, and he makes you see the absurdity of it all."
This may all be as subjective as long distance service preferences, but if comic celebs are delivering too much product and not enough entertainment, there are still priceless moments of levity to offset the gravity. Pytka, who worked with Michael J. Fox in the glory days of Pepsi, says, "I've had great times with some of these people. There's huge potential here, these are stars -- as long as the spots are well-written and well-produced."
Yeah, we know, comedy's all in the writing. But what if the spot is not well-written? Is there any way to save it? "Sure," Pytka says, undaunted. "You make