"Please place your baby in the overhead bin for landing."

My pals at Hub San Francisco did it again. They have such a knack for the wonderfully absurd. (If you haven’t seen their stuff, check it out.)

Binge-reading?  Holy smokes, what a great creative idea. Legs for days. Why hasn’t anyone thought of this before?

Now they’ve done it again with new work for Texture, an app which provides unlimited access to magazines. A flight attendant is simply walking through a plane, talking about how Texture causes binge-reading and trying to get a rise out of them. And I can only imagine the hundreds of alternative lines they wrote for the flight attendant. I can imagine that dozens of them were completely inappropriate. Right, Hubsters?

Pay close attention to the performances by the binge-readers. What remarkable acting. Meryl Streep, eat your heart out. 

A Magnficent Asshole

Everybody's talking about Coleman Sweeney, Asshole. 

I started to write about this new spot because I thought it was comedy.

Turns out, even though they say asshole over and over, it’s a beautiful story about redemption.

Not only is this a great advertising idea - anyone can become a hero by choosing to be an organ donor - they take it to the end of the line. They created an asshole. And they called him an asshole. Why is Coleman an asshole? "He was born to it." Beautiful.

Oh, it has all the hallmarks of comedy with a misguided, can't-help-himself, unstoppable comedic hero. Satisfying. Triggers my "thank-god-that's-not-me response.  

Then he dies.

And suddenly it's drama. The noble, unknown world of a hero. Whose strengths or purpose in life are only revealed after his death.

The interesting thing is that the inciting incident of the story isn’t Coleman’s death, it’s his decision in the past to check the box for organ donation. And he lived his life as a secret hero.

We don't know why he checked that box but that's OK. I'm just as satisfied not knowing the reason as I am with not knowing why he's an asshole. Sometimes people are the way they are - inexplicable.

Kudos to the creatives and their agency (and their client) who understood that being preoccupied with likability is bullshit and for having the guts to bring Coleman Sweeney to life.

Also, in the youtube comments, a bunch of people wondered if he donated his actual asshole. Ah, assholes...

Angry Yogi

Angry yogis are a mystery to me.

I volunteer for a humongous yoga gathering at Grace Cathedral every Tuesday night. Humongous as in 700-yogis-humongous. An amazing evening of live music, gentle yoga, community. My job is to organize the bodies, which are stuffed in every corner. So we always put out empty mats to establish a pattern on the floor so people can follow that pattern. These aren’t for claiming. 

That night I was helping a guy find a space among the 700 bodies when I saw one of my empty mats which I pulled it away to give him the space. A woman appeared out of nowhere, bristling.

Her:     That...is...my...mat!

It wasn’t her mat. She'd just walked in and claimed it. Resentment was oozing from her pores. I was knocked sideways by it.

Me:     What…oh… sorry. Did you rent this mat? 

Her:    Of course, I did.

She hadn’t. She continued.

Her:    Would I use a mat if I didn’t rent it?

A magnificently manipulative and derailing question. Touche.

Me:    I uh no…you might have gotten confused…

Her:     I’m not confused.

We’ve been counseled to not engage in conflict in the space so I wished her a good practice and walked away (as she aggressively stabbed at her phone, probably about the asshole who touched her-but-not-actually-hers mat.)

I’m fascinated by people who practice “the best defense is a good offense.” It’s so far from my own perspective of the world (“the best defense is to hide behind the nearest rock”). Attacking instead of taking responsibility. If this happened on screen or stage, it would be the stuff of comedy. Misguided anger, extreme narcissistic reaction, masking her own unknown stuff. 

The art of compassionate comedy understands that her behavior isn’t her fault. (Her responsibility, yes.) We have no idea what has happened to her to give her this rather insane perspective of the world. And yoga might even exacerbate things. With this distance, we can see how absurdly comedic this poor, struggling woman is. (We're surrounded by this illness. Just watch the thousands sharing the same struggle at the GOP National Convention?)

Anybody want to make a comedy about angry yogis?  I’ve got an opening scene.

Non-stop Doorbells Ringing

I got the best voicemail complaint the other day. Far, far funnier than the spot about which he was complaining.

Here’s the spot. Not my best, possibly annoying, but I’m entertained by it…

Then I got this voicemail…

I feel for this guy. One moment he’s driving his truck, the next a cacophony of doorbells and cash register rings are crashing in his ears. The upcoming presidential elections are stressful for him. He might be suffering from PTSD. And this spot was too much for him. He was so freaked out by the sounds he projected that the announcer was also freaking out, just like he was.

Aren’t human beings great? It would be easy to dismiss him as a crank. But don’t we all misinterpret reality then assuage our anger by lashing out at others?

I’m with him. Advertising is annoying. And I’m sure my commercial was, as well. At least to one one person. Sorry.

I’m Annoyed With Cannes Right Now

Full disclosure – I’m in a crabby mood. And when I’m in a crabby mood, I shouldn’t be reviewing comedy. But what the hell.

I just went through all the Cannes big winners and this spot amplified my annoyed state. Don't get me wrong – it’s a fine spot but a Gold Lion? I saw it’s punchline looming on the horizon like the 60-foot tall Wendover cowboy at the edge of the Bonneville Salt Flats.

In comedy, we long for the unexpected. But in “Party”, we see the two characters shake hands and we make the assumption that we’ll see the old guy eating pizza.

Which is exactly what happens.

And a story which fulfills our expectations is merely a first act.

The art of comedy guides our expectations and delivers something else. We expect the man to show up with pizza. (I try to refrain from rewriting spots here but I can’t help myself. That said…what if another complaining neighbor knocks on the door and our old man, with pizza, starts the negotiations all over again.)

I imagine (which means it’s not necessarily true) that within the judging room at Cannes the “contagion of comedy” took hold when one highly respected judge chuckled and everybody else chuckled and soon they were all nodding their heads in agreement that this spot was indeed hilarious.

Jesus, I am crabby.  

Laugh, You Robot!

This is funny…

Why is it funny? I’ll tell you why. Something fucking happens! In stand-up it’s called the second story. The first story sets up an assumption – “Oh, the guy is too ashamed to say his real name." That’s where your mind is going. (You feel that?) Then the second story rips you out of the first. And you laugh. 

If you didn’t laugh, you’re a robot. Or you've got better things to do. Or you're laughing on the inside and you don't know it.

Lawson Clarke, advertising thanks you.        

 

What Happens Next!?

There’s a painful trend happening in advertising over the past few years – wonderful comedic premises where nothing happens. Oh, the premise happens but the characters basically do nothing. It’s like we’re all drinking the same mildly-ironic flavored Kool-Aid. Drives me nuts! All these funny premises gone to waste! 

To begin, I love Geico ads with their long history of a client and agency unafraid to throw comedy out there on a nearly weekly basis. Kudos. And I admit I feel bad criticizing advertising creative because I know how hard it is to dream up and make happen. That said…

In this spot, two scientists are confronted with an alien life form which which is “growing at an alarming rate”, eventually swallowing up one of them. 

Here's what wrinkles me. A scientist, being devoured by an alien life form, would not just stand there. He would do something. He would at least acknowledge that he’s being devoured. He might study the creature as it envelops him. He might struggle. He might freeze in terror. He might regard it with fascination. He might protest that the other scientist refuses to come to his aid. He might screech like a wombat. He might continue with his experiment while covered in alien – struggling with a beaker or getting slime on a microscope. Or his struggles might something even worse to happen.

His choice would reflect his capacity as a young scientist. He wouldn’t do what he wouldn’t do – like gain unknown strength and tear himself free (drama) or crumple in tears (tragedy.) But a comedic hero always struggles, always takes it to the end of the line. It’s this industrious that makes him human. And funny. It’s this striving in the face of impossible adversity that connects with other human beings. And creates laughter.

The button of him pushing back his glasses has nothing to do with being a curious scientist. It’s just a mild sight gag.

I call this the Portlandia Effect – creating absurd worlds where people are all in agreement. Which can be very funny. But even the characters on Portlandia, while all in agreement as to the rules of the world, but their struggles take them somewhere.

Even with an ordinary bar of soap, Mr. Bean struggles to solve his problem. 

My old boss, Jeff Goodby, always said the same thing after I presented a spot to him. “What happens next?” (Usually this was followed by an absurd suggestion like, “I don't know…maybe a marching band appears.”) I would shuffle back to my office muttering, “He just doesn’t get it.” Then I’d begrudgingly come up with an actual ending and it would be better.

Steve Kaplan, the legendary comedy teacher, defines comedic premise as, “An impossible situation that could never happen. But since it does happen, what happens next?” There’s that Goodby thing again.

All we have to do is let the characters do what they would do. There’s the juice, not the Kool-Aid.

Rant over.

 

 

 

No Evidence of Human Life

I just ran across this eloquent :36 video of Brian Eno talking about how the ease and precision of technology creates music that is all the same, devoid of humanity.

 

Isn’t this true in advertising? Yes, while technology is partly to blame, the real issue in advertising is fear. I understand that hundreds of thousands of dollars are at stake with every production, and millions at stake in media, and thrown together creates a lot of fear.

“The temptation of the technology is to smooth everything out.” – Brian Eno

So fear is our technology.

“…what you gradually do is homogenize the whole song until every bar sounds the same…until there’s no evidence of human life at all in there.” – Brian Eno

And while this wallpaper appears to work, through the shear muscle of media dollars, it’s empty. And more and more money has to be spent to brainwash people that what they’re seeing is the authentic human behavior. (In comedy, we celebrate the flaws of human beings, not their strengths. It relies on hard truths, not placid agreements. That's why the art of comedy is beautiful!)

We, as advertising creators, might not even know we’re perpetuating the same bullshit!

We know what we see on TV. It’s familiar. So we replicate it over and over again. And in the end, humanity is not served. In fact, we’re all agreeing to the same nonsensical rules, nodding our heads like so many doomed lemmings. This heartless version of humanity only serves to perpetuate more heartlessness. This is like changing ourselves to fit everyone else’s idea of who we should be. Fuck that. 

Stop Bossing People Around

What the hell is with all this desperate comedy in advertising? Have you ever noticed that the least funny people are the ones who believe they’re the funny? Of course, you have. We’re all guilty. And when only one person laughs, our self-deception is complete – we’re funny. Never mind that everyone else in the room looks like someone farted. For a theatre director/teacher's perspective, check out this talk by Patsy Rodenburg and her discussion of Circles.

Comedy in advertising can be overly controlling and needy. In advertising comedy, people don’t act like people act. This is not to say people don’t act insanely. But there’s a smell of desperation – “Please, please find this funny. Please laugh.” (Stand-ups call an unpleasant night of no-laughter, “dying”. Conversely, after a successful set, “they killed”. So much death in comedy.) 

You see, advertising is born out of salesmanship. And the mistaken rules of salesmanship insist that the salesman browbeat, bully, charm, dance and never take no for an answer. (I have a friend, a salesman, who told me once, “The selling doesn’t start until the word ‘no.’” These people are insane.) 

The salesman’s controlling neediness blends into comedy in advertising. In the desire to make people laugh, to create something funny, we writers and producers (and actors) lean into the world of what Patsy Rodenburg calls 3rd circle energy – controlling yet needy, sucking the air out of the room, pushing people…usually away.

This is not to say our characters don’t exist in 3rd circle. They strive and bluster and absurdly try and try. But we writers/actors ideally listen and react and chronicle in 2nd circle. We take them seriously. We don’t judge. We don’t follow and we don’t lead. We’re simply in the pocket.

“If you’re doing something funny, don’t be funny doing it.” – Buster Keaton

Comedy that lives in the blustery 3rd circle world doesn’t invite people in. It actually is repellent. So if we’re trying to attract human beings to our goods and services, let’s invite them in. Patsy says the best way to seduce someone is to simply be in the 2nd circle. Desperation isn’t sexy, or funny.