Odd Man In

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Way back in June 1991, Peter Lauer appeared on the cover of Creativity, with his hand on fire, to kick off a story called "The Odd Squad," about the then-new crop of weird comedy directors. At the time, after amassing a reel of bizarre MTV promos (remember "I Hate My Miserable Life"?) and rap videos in the days when hip-hop was still exotic, he was on a hot comedy roll at Firehouse Films. Lauer was shooting frequently outrageous and award-winning work for feisty young companies like HBO, Virgin Airways and a host of Cliff Freeman clients, including Hills department stores, Cub supermarkets and Little Caesars. He was even Pauly Shore's director/co-writer on MTV's Pauly's Totally Buff Special, back when the little weasel was subversively cool. To top it off, Lauer had a faux tiger fur-covered reel, so the package would be as offbeat as the contents. But less than three years later, he was decisively off the commercials radar.

What happened? Nothing particularly scandalous. "I got involved in long-form stuff," he explains. "I wanted to get into storytelling, and it required a lot of effort to make the leap at that time, so I really focused on that." Did he make a conscious decision to get out of commercials? "No, it was more a conscious decision to get into long-form. I think it became untenable for me to be at a commercials production company because I just wasn't around. I got involved in a Nickelodeon series called The Adventures of Pete and Pete around '93, and my reel got cold. Now I'm established enough in the long-form world that I can come and go."

Indeed, Lauer, 39, is back, looking for commercials work, repped again by his Firehouse compatriot of a decade ago, Johannes Loutsch, now at New York's Link Entertainment. In the intervening years, he's amassed a different kind of comedy reel. The success of Pete and Pete, which was "a really cool show, like John Waters for kids," says Lauer, led him to direct more kid's programming for Nickelodeon and Disney. Then he moved on to an HBO series called The High Life, as well as comedy specials on HBO and Comedy Central for Margaret Cho, Julia Sweeney and others. His biggest comic coup is probably three seasons of shooting the crazy Comedy Central series Strangers With Candy. Among a host of other TV gigs, Lauer has also directed an episode of ED on NBC, and is set to helm another this month.

So why try to get back into commercials? Well, why not? "They're fun, they're quick and I used to try something on every job that I'd never done before," he says. Did he really have a reputation as a nutcase back in the day, as the cover story suggested? "No, not really a nutcase. I was strong-willed at times. But I've mellowed. People should be able to go away and come back; I had the good fortune to work with fabulous comedians in the last few years, and it was a great learning experience."

The Ohio native is one of many directors who came out of the on-air promos department at MTV. He decided to head for New York after loitering at Ohio University, "where I never declared a major," he recalls. "In my fifth year of college, I realized I might be in trouble." He eventually caught the attention of Russell Simmons and found himself directing rap videos for the likes of Run-DMC, "which was kind of weird, since I'm from a country town and I never saw a black person till I came to New York." He always had a comic bent, but just as Lauer has evolved, so has the genre. "Back when I was doing them, comedy spots were very over-the-top in visual style; and in every way. I always felt, if the concept is strong, why hit it over the head? But people would come to me at that time because I'd established this very broad style. It was kind of hard to shake that. Now, quite often, comedy spots let the content speak for itself. They're being played more naturally, and that appeals to me. If it's trying to be funny, I don't find it funny."

The marketing push behind Lauer's comeback was still being marshaled at press time, but Link partner Loutsch is optimistic, as any rep should be - but with good reason, he feels. "Peter has fans in the ad business," he points out. "People he's worked with in the past and people who like the work he's done since. There's a whole Strangers With Candy fan club in this industry, for instance." He doesn't intend to circulate a reel of Lauer's old spots. "Back when I signed Peter out of MTV, we got a lot of comments that it's a vicious kind of humor, a mean-spirited kind of humor," says Loutsch. "Humor always comes at the expense of someone or something, but MTV was all about slapping conventions around back then. There's since been a shift in the marketplace, and we're bringing him back as sort of a stealth project, so we're showing just excerpts from his long-form stuff, which is fine. There are plenty of progressive creatives nowadays who look at reels all the time of people who've never directed a commercial. There's this old school/new school thing now. The old school remains committed to product attributes and Ogilvyisms; the new school says, just entertain the viewer and attach it to the logo and the viewer will be compelled to do the investigating on his own. We saw that with a lot of dot-com stuff. Peter's well-situated for that."

What about a faux fur reel box? "Back then, the thinking was, we often compete for that one inch of shelf space," explains Loutsch. "If we put this godawful faux tiger fur on the reel, they can't help but notice it. And they did notice it. But many said, `What the hell kind of director is this?!' " So fur is out of the question? "I can't confirm or deny that," he laughs.

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