Dying is easy, comedy is hard

by Scott Johnson, 10 Jul 2017

“I’m not laughing.”

It was the only thing advertising legend Cliff Freeman said before he got up and walked out of the room. He had just looked at the first two spots on a director’s reel. It had taken almost a year for the rep to get the chance to screen it for the agency producer. Freeman wasn’t even supposed to be in the meeting. As the screening was about to start, he just happened to walk past the door.

“Hey, Cliff, want to see a reel?” the producer yelled.

He walked in and sat down. It only took 60 seconds for him to know for certain. In all likelihood he knew after 30, maybe even 10 or 15. The director didn’t have it. He was just one more of a legion of creatives—not only directors but copywriters and art directors as well—who made advertising that was supposed to be funny but wasn’t. It is difficult to think of a worse category to fall into.

Why do so many people wind up there? After all, there are other options. It’s possible to make brilliant advertising that is poignant, provocative or smart. There is no dishonor in choosing not to be funny, provided that you do well whatever you have chosen to do instead. Yet failed attempts at humor make watching a significant majority of television commercials and online video work nothing short of excruciating. Why does so much genuinely unfunny work get presented? How does it get sold?

I picked up an important clue a few years ago at a Sierra Mist television shoot. In between shots, a small video crew was picking up footage for the brand’s web site—behind-the-scenes footage, interviews with the talent, that sort of thing. At one point, the interviewer stuck a microphone in the face of comedian Jim Gaffigan—a genuinely funny man—and asked an earnest but hopelessly dumb question: “How do you know when something is funny?”

“I usually go by when people laugh,” he said.

Not only is it a good answer, it’s the only answer. Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, it’s an answer that has never occurred to most agencies (or clients for that matter). In Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing, a playwright compares a badly written play to a poorly made cricket bat. From a distance, the bat’s proportions look more or less accurate. If you don’t know much about cricket bats, you wouldn’t know anything is amiss simply by holding it. Hit a ball with it, however, and you get a thousand bee stings from your fingertips to your elbows.

Most of the “funny” advertising we see today is like that cricket bat. If you ignore the specifics of the execution and merely let the rhythms and structure of it bounce off of your brain pan, you’d assume it was supposed to be funny. Its ethos will seem to have been informed by the conventions of 20-year-old sitcoms and primordial shtick from the Poconos. Actually pay attention to the execution and experience it in the way a consumer does, however, and you will be punished with 30 seconds (or more) of painfully unfunny advertising made even worse by the fact that its creators seem to be elbowing you in the ribs telling you when they think you’re supposed to laugh.

Everyone desperately wants to be funny. It’s one of the most basic human impulses. It’s why you stuck french fries up your nose at the dinner table when you were three. It’s why you learned to play “Battle Hymn of the Republic” with armpit noises in junior high school. It may even be why you got into the advertising industry to begin with.

Here’s something every advertising creative and client needs to hear: You’re not in the school cafeteria anymore. This is the pro game. Your audience doesn’t know you, doesn’t care about you, isn’t rooting for you to succeed. In the best cast scenario, they look at you with towering indifference. In the worst-case scenario, they approach your work with low expectations and outright disdain. That’s the pitiless arena in which you’re trying to be funny.

That being the case, there is only one way to evaluate humor, and that is with remorseless brutality. The worst mistake you can make in judging an ad that is supposed to be funny is to spare someone’s feelings. For every ego you protect, you earn the scorn of millions of consumers, and you do a disservice to the brands you are trying to sell.

There’s a reason Jackie Gleason and Sid Caesar were famously cruel people to work for. They knew what it took to be funny; moreover, they knew the terrible price they would have to pay for walking out onstage and not being funny. Nothing was worth paying that price—certainly not the feelings of a writer. Our industry would do well to learn from them.

If you want to try to be funny, find someone who has proven he’s funny and listen to his opinion. There’s a high probability he’s going to tell you things you don’t want to hear. That’s the part you should listen to even harder. There’s a reason truly funny creative directors get paid like shortstops (shortstops on the Oakland A’s, anyway). They can make ads that make people laugh. Most people can’t. More importantly, most people shouldn’t try.