F*** Likability

“But is he likable?”

I’ve heard “But is he likable?" a hundred times, from both clients and account directors. And it always takes a huge amount of effort for me not to thrust my head through the drywall.

Oh, I get it. In real life, likable is a good thing – pleasant and friendly. And unlikable is a bad thing. I get it!

But let’s understand something…

In real life, we find people unlikable because we have don’t have the luxury of the filter of the screen or stage. They’re right there in our laps pushing our buttons! I have a theory that if you took all the people who drive us nuts in real life and put them on TV, we’d find the enormously funny and likable. Because we don’t have to deal with them! (Conversely, all of those characters we love on TV or films, if you stuck them in your living room, you’d want to throttle them.)

I say any character who is authentically striving is likable. When we make characters “likable”, we’re killing their souls. Comedy thrives on characters acting out their misunderstandings. (Hell, Hannibal Lecter was likable and he ate people.) 

And the only characters we find unlikable are those who are acting inauthentically. And advertising is filled with these mealy-mouthed, “Oh, god please don’t hate me" types. 

Our industry is so creatively meek and hesitant, so afraid of ostracizing its audience. We’re like that agency traffic person I used to work with. Laura would meekly knock on our office door (which was always wide open, by the way) and hover while she waited for us to acknowledge her. Made us nuts. On the other hand, there was Brenda, god bless her, who just barged in and told us to hit our deadlines and called us “lazy assholes”. Loved that. She was doing her job. She wasn’t asking us to like her. She just told us to get our shit together. Then she left. Awesome.

The art of comedy understands that people are doing their best. And when they do, no matter how misguided, we accept them. 

Susie Greene in "Curb Your Enthusiasm"

Zach Galifianakis in “Between Two Ferns”

Danny McBride as “Kenny Powers”

 

These characters are so arrogant and misguided, simply doing their best with what they know. We don't forgive them for it. We love them for it.

People who seem creepy are the ones with an unspoken agenda. And advertising’s unspoken agenda is “Please like me.” Likability? Fuck that. This is comedy, for chrissakes. People act in all kinds of bizarre ways. Let's go with that.

 

“So I walked into that dealer’s office …”

For a dealership event commercial, this is a good one.

Premise – If you scratch the surface, this is a Groundhog Day world. Which begs the Groundhog Day question, “How many dinners with this man bloviating have there been so that his family has memorized his spiel word for word?” Twenty? Fifty? 100? Grade: A

Characters – Everyone is suitably annoyed. And helpless. (I’ll even forgive the goth daughter cliché. What the hell. I’m feeling generous. Maybe it’s her aggressively irritated eye-roll. Grade: A

Performances – OK, I get that the boy would say to his dad, “Good one, Dad.” But in the world of comedy, heroes are blind and wouldn’t be able to sense sarcasm. Which means the boy could have really leaned into the line. And it would have been comedically satisfying for the dad to not hear it. Grade B+

Writing – “So I walked into that dealer’s office …” Great. Anyone who starts a sentence with “So, I…” is an immediate character clue. Like the phrase, “That’s how I roll.” Grade B+

Comedy Quotient – No jokes, no real punchline, just a prolonged character sketch. A big serving of blind, ego-driven striving mixed with a healthy amount of justified annoyance. I’ve watched it dozens of times and find the whole thing immensely satisfying. Grade: B+

The Magic Phrase for Selling Comedy

I’m in the thick of this right now – how do you sell comedy? I give you the magic phrase...

 It’s worked a hundred times for me. It’s so easy. You don’t sell. You be humbly transparent.

After presenting a bunch of perfectly reasonable ideas, you shuffle the last one around and look slightly confused. Maybe even rub your eyes. Then sigh.

Then say...

“This one’s kind of crazy … I don’t know what I was thinking … I don’t even know if I should show it to you.”

It somehow magically puts them on your side. They all chime in, “Go ahead. I’m sure it’s fine. It can’t be that bad.”

Plus, it’s all authentic. It is a crazy idea. You don’t know what you were thinking. And you don’t know if you should show it to them. (Well, that last one is a little manipulative. I mean, you brought the damn thing to the presentation.) Plus, you're not selling the funny which can be like a  slow motion car wreck.

After that, you've got to keep the fucker alive. That's a whole 'nother post.

I'd Do Him

“The Check Out” is one of my and my teenage son’s favorite spots. We’ve watched the awkward, revealing looks between the two men a dozen times – trying to figure out what each one was thinking

Handsome Man: Yeah, I’d probably do him. Why not?

Our Hero: Hmm I’d do him. I’m in Vegas, right?

Subtle, rational, revealing.