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.