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.