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 Battan Death March of Comedy in Advertising

Last night I’m watching TV with my teenage son and he’s putting up with his insane dad’s nightly anti-advertising/media/entertainment rant. And what fueled my wrath? I realized I hadn’t laughed at an ad in years.

Oh, I saw a guy in a funny hat mowing the lawn. I saw a quirky AT&T spokeswoman with some mildly absurd customers. I saw two great comedians acting mildly preposterous in a politically themed Bud Light commercial. And I felt my life swirling down the toilet of time. And I’m not laughing.

Generally speaking, the comedic premises are always inventive and delightfully absurd. We in advertising are really good at those. After all, we’re trained to develop advertising concepts. But within these beautiful “what ifs”, people simply aren’t doing do what people do. They don’t respond and react in a human way to the absurdity around them. They act cool, their responses mildly ironic, rarely freaking out. Or they act desperately goofy, like my friend Todd at a seventies party last week.

There are so few of these flawed and driven heroes anymore. As radio, the land of strong, blind, industrious characters, diminishes in focus, we’re left with beings passed off as humans. These aren’t comedic heroes. They’re faux humans trying to please millions.

And what is a comedic hero? It’s us. We struggle. We put on airs. We lie. We primp. We fat shame. We shame our own fat. We honk at traffic jams. We’re nice when we’re angry. We’re angry when we’re embarrassed. We buy “Three Minute Abs”. We attempt to unite the nation by preaching divisiveness. We eat Ding-Dongs to help ourselves feel more balanced. We fill silence with chatter. We blame the weather for our moods. We feel crappy about ourselves one moment then feel grand when we get into our BMWs.

We’re not mildly absurd. We’re unequivocally absurd!

And as we struggle, we do all kinds of outrageous things (see list above). The blind struggle in the quest for balance is at the heart of comedy. It reflects and celebrates our struggling human condition. We’re just a bunch of human beings doing our best even though our best is misguided yet immensely hopeful.

And this glorious struggle is what’s missing in advertising.

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

And when characters aren’t doing their best, nothing happens. It’s the duty of a comedic hero to drive things to the end of the line, to do what he/she must do in order to win. Most great comedic premises in advertising dribble away into nothingness when the logo mercifully pops on and we’re onto the next dish of pabulum.

Advertising is designed to inflame desire for products and services. No argument here. But when characters act inhumanly, there’s a separation between our message and our audience. At best, it’s mildly whacky wallpaper. At worst, enraging. (But that’s just me. I clearly have too much time on my hands.)

Jeff Goodby once said that advertising, as an uninvited guest into our homes, has an obligation to not bore and yell at the residents. I’ll take it a step farther. This guest has an opportunity to help us laugh at our preposterous humanness. And along the way we can sell a boatload of Pampers. Who’s kidding whom?

 

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.