Commentary

Waiting for the Funny: TomTom Squanders Python Genius

It is hard for me to imagine a situation where a little John Cleese is not in order. Ex-Monty Pythoner Cleese was not only one of the driving forces of that troupe's best writing, but in the dozen or so episodes of Fawlty Towers, he and former wife Connie Booth created one of the high points of TV comedy. When Cleese sends his towering frame into managed chaos, when his splayed limbs belie his inner frantic state, there is simply nothing like him to behold. When his writing is on target, it layers absurdity onto absurdity at a merciless pace that makes you gasp for breath as a Fawlty Towers episode hit its slapstick climax.

And so the decreasingly popular TomTom "Break Free" video spots on Facebook are a let down, at least for this Cleese-ian who otherwise finds the comedian's deep-breathing worth a titter. In order to promote its new in-car service for avoiding traffic jams, the company has Cleese in a car in traffic doing a series of longish routines that either never quite get to funny or take as long to get there as the bogged down traffic.

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In one of the six two-minute spots Cleese and daughter play a nominally witty game of I Spy and in another Cleese tortures his passengers with a childish anti-traffic ditty. The funniest bit of all involves Cleese complaining about never being notified by officials what is causing the traffic jam. In this case, however, a constable does happen to knock on their car window and tell them the holdup involves a messy suicide of man who threw himself in front of a truck. After voicing concern and sympathy to the officer, Cleese and daughter say what they really think as soon as they are back along: "selfish bastard."

That initial funny video did garner TomTom more than 2 million video views, according to its count on Facebook, but there have been diminishing returns. The last of the six (ironically a fairly funny treatise on the futility of honking in traffic) is down to 15,000 views. Alas, this one actually has a visual punchline.

Funny is in the eye and belly of the beholder of course. For all I know Cleese himself had a hand in these videos and was responsible for the too-wry-by-half approach. But it would have been nice to have a more comically inspiring front end for the larger user-generated project TomTom has in mind. They are soliciting user videos in which people sing to the series' theme song, Queen's "I Want to Break Free." Many of the user entries are more interesting and creative than the Cleese series. Even better, the program is localized, with a global reach to the campaign that has nation-specific versions with local videos for more than a dozen languages and regions. 

Many of the UGC clips offer some good tips that the Cleese bits could have used. It is Web video after all. People have itchy mouse fingers and don't really lean back waiting for something funny to happen 90 seconds into a clip. This ain't the BBC.
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