Ad Age just published my latest. Enjoy!
How to Be a Client Who “Gets It” – Seven Tips For Comedy in Advertising
So your ad agency is pitching you comedy. Kind of scary, isn’t it? So many unknowns. Is it funny? Will people be offended? Why are they all laughing and I'm not laughing? How do I give feedback? It’s just so…inscrutable.
I’ve had so many great clients in my life of producing comedy – marketers who “get it.” Somehow they’re able to transcend fear and naturally fold themselves into the process. Great work follows them wherever they go.
So what is “getting it”? How do you “get it” if you don’t got it? Let’s talk about that…
First, let’s reframe comedy
Comedy means something different to everyone. How can we agree on what’s funny and what’s not? We can’t. Funny is entirely subjective. But let’s try agreeing on this…
The art of comedy is about celebrating human beings as they actually exist – flawed, stumbling, blind, yet they keep going. It’s the truth of our existence on earth. Comedy is about people doing their best, misled by misunderstandings about the world and themselves. It’s beautiful and human. Will Ferrell in Elf misunderstands New York City as a magical land. Ricky Gervais in The Office misunderstands himself as a philosopher/business visionary/entertainer. They’re just doing their best with what they know. We’re all essentially comedic. Even your creative teams. And yes, even yourself.
See, beautiful. So you can relax. We’re all in this together.
Stop worrying about likability
OK, worry if you want – but worry is a waste of the imagination.
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 the people who drive us nuts in real life and put them on TV, we’d find THEM enormously funny and likable.
Any character who is authentically striving is likable. If they’re doing what makes sense to them, we cheer them on. When we insist characters be “likable”, we’re killing their souls. (Hell, Hannibal Lecter was likable and he ate people.)
Do you keep asking, “Why?”
Conversely, when characters act unnaturally (usually for the sake of a gag) you might ask, “Why would he do that?” Your confusion means something. If you’re asking “Why?”, then your audience might be equally uncomfortable. If the agency’s answer is, “Because it’s funny”, well, that’s not an answer. Character’s can do all kinds of bizarre stuff and if those actions are them simply doing their best, you won’t be asking why. You might be laughing.
Look for something to happen
After pitching ideas to my old boss, Jeff Goodby, he always asked, “So what happens next?” He was asking for a story. And in stories, something happens. So many commercials these days are shaggy dog meanderings where nothing actually happens. I saw a spot the other day with a bunch of people with square heads. I was intrigued. I saw a square-headed couple kissing. Then square cars. Then a square-headed boy with square balloons. Suddenly an unsquare car shows up and the square-headed boy… wait for it … looks at the car. WTF? Wouldn’t square-headed people have some real challenges? Wouldn’t they do something about those challenges? Apparently not. I guess they admire other people’s cars.
If your characters are challenged, they’ll do something. They’ll try something. They’ll react. Audiences long for something to happen. They don’t ask for much. Just a reward for thirty seconds of their time.
Embrace the negative
Ah, anger, frustration, blame, confusion are wonderful things. They’re the meat of comedy. Advertising tends to perceive negative emotions AND behaviors as repellent. In life, this may be so but comedy thrives on the negative. A comedic hero’s misguided negative reactions are delightful for an audience. And audiences - responding with the treasured “Thank God that’s not me” response - laugh. There’s a great feeling of superiority that comes with watching another human being struggle with their ego. It’s so … human.
Cast for flaws, not for strengths
Comedic heroes shouldn’t look like who you want your audience to be. Comedy isn’t aspirational - that’s the realm of drama where the audience experiences the “I wish that was me” response. Comedy lives on the other side – the aforementioned, “Thank God that’s not me” response. And a cast who looks like their misunderstandings is embraced.
In comedy, the audience never recognizes themselves. If they saw a character who looked, acted, dressed and made the same foolish choices as they, they’d say, “Look at that guy.” And laugh.
The blessing of producing comedy is the blessing of being alive. You never know what’s going to happen and that’s OK. So be open to ideas as they pop up. A comedic hero is always going to surprise us and will do things we wouldn’t consider. If an idea pops up that’s not on the board – from your writer, your director, even your account guy – don’t block it. It’s just your fear going into overdrive. Control is comedy’s nemesis. So if someone asks, “Can we try something?” for godsake say yes.
“There are people who prefer to say 'yes' and there are people who prefer to say 'no'. Those who say 'yes' are rewarded by the adventures they have. Those who say 'no' are rewarded by the safety they attain.”
― Keith Johnstone, author of Impro
When you say yes, you’re speaking from your sense of humor – your optimistic and aware connection to being alive and open to life’s absurdities. That’s what “getting it” is all about. And, good news, you already got it.
Sam Pond is a San Francisco-based writer, director, teacher and speaker. You can read his blog on comedy in advertising at thecomedypond.com.