Everybody wants to be funny. Jonathan Winters once made that point in a “60 Minutes” interview, and demonstrated it with a hilarious bit: a guy sitting on a porch all day Saturday holds his hands beside his ears, fanning his fingers at everyone who passes. "Guess what I am? I'm a moose!" His neighbor finally asks about his day job. "Aerodynamics."
Hell, I want to be funny. So last night I went to a free comedy class at The Laughing Buddha, a combination comedy school, open-mike series, and comedian community. It was founded by Jeff Lawrence, a former backup singer who quit the business and decided to do standup about (as he'd put it) being gay and Jewish. Not a big deal in New York, but he described doing that set in the sticks where the guys who preceded him relied on fag jokes. You have to be fearless in the humor trade.
But what the hell. Why not stop by? It would probably be me, five other losers and $4 Pabst. I was wrong. Not about the $4 Pabst, but the place was packed to the basement rafters, full of folks convinced (by show of hands) that they were going to be the next big thing. Lawrence relieved us of that idea immediately. "If you aren't doing two open mikes per night, it ain't gonna happen. And it's a lifestyle, not a career." It was a TED Talk in a cave. And it would have killed (in comedy argot) at the Association of National Advertisers conference a couple of weeks back.
That's because there's a lot in common between what a comedian does and what people in marketing do every day. Marketers and creatives have to "kill." (I hate that term, by the way. There's also "He slayed 'em" and even "Man, he slaughtered at Caroline's." Maybe we'd be more effective with ISIS if we air-dropped some comedy headliners into Syria to do sets for the caliphate.)
Lawrence made the point that you have to be an observer to be a writer/performer. You have to walk through life with a notebook in one hand and a pen in the other (I guess digital recorder is what we use now) watching people and jotting any idea that comes to mind on the absurdity of life, liberty and the pursuit of good sushi. It's obvious that some of the most memorable advertising of the humorous kind involved a copywriter or creative director doing something like that.
If you're watching ads, you can tell when there was too little observation and gut instinct and too much voodoo dancing around data. When I see a clueless campaign I wonder if there weren't a few too many numbers involved in general, too many demographic studies, too many "likes", too many surveys. When I see garbage, I have to think the brand and the agency were dancing around some data bonfire like Druids trying to invoke some spirit that only they can see. “Marketers are consumers, too.” Who hasn’t heard that a million times.
Which leads me to this insight from the other comic who lectured, Dante Nero. He was talking about how comics have the awful habit — especially new comics — of opening their set with stupid questions like "So where you from?" That's insincere, he says, and the audience knows it. They know the comic doesn't really care. It's a setup and no matter what someone says back, he or she is going to launch into some joke about New Jersey. "If I walk into a room and it's a table of four and they don't know you exist, I'm not going in with, 'So how are y'all feeling? Where you from?" An audience isn’t a “target.”
And great comedians avoid the rhythm rut. "Nine times out of ten, I can stand outside and hear the rhythm of their voice and tell you who it is,” said Nero. “The great comics change it up." Routine. It's a hard habit to break, but if you don’t, you might as well play a CD. Patrice O'Neil was a master of spontaneity and conversation. Yes, he was offensive, abrasive, and he would call out audience members, but the audience was never a “target” because it was basically a conversation he was having up there. The message here for brands is obvious.
Similarly, if the routine becomes routine, or a joke becomes frozen and painful to do, it might not be true anymore. Bid it farewell. Same with the idea of a brand evincing some timeless, immutable brand principle, the "core idea of the brand that never changes." Sometimes that's wishful thinking. Not always, but maybe fifty percent of the time. When you start thinking of a brand as a kind of Lincoln Memorial you're in trouble. I was joking with my daughter this morning about how in every picture of Jesus ever painted He has only had one expression on his face. Can you hold one expression for two thousand years? Doesn't He ever smile? I bet He cracked a joke now and then.
I get that feeling whenever someone says, "This is a century-old brand, with a rich heritage in blah blah, that has always stood for…blah blah." Nobody cares. When I hear some agency account director start talking "We have always stood of," and "The richness, the authentic strength of our brand heritage," I start thinking, "Hell, if they like drinking Kool Aid so much, they should pitch the account."
If you think you're going to convince people of something that even YOU don't believe, it won't work, or it won't work for long. Maybe it would have worked a century ago when the brand was a week old, and Facebook was just getting started. As a surgeon once said (maybe it was Atul Gawande M.D., that hyperthyroid case in Boston who makes everyone look bad, especially people like me who failed out of biology because we lost the shark we were supposed to dissect) "I'm only as good as my last operation."
Speaking of which, I went to see an orthopedic surgeon today, and mentioned last night’s event. He confessed he’s been thinking of doing a comic set himself. So, in that spirit, I'll end with a joke I just made up: "So, how's everyone feeling? How's your steak? I have to say I love modern medicine, it's incredible. It's like an assembly line. Boom, boom boom. They see you, they scan you, they put you on the plan, they put you on the table, same day surgery, in and out. I went to an incredible surgeon. Can't recommend the guy highly enough. He did incredible work on my knee. Check this out (I show the audience my knee). Look at that! It bends. I was in and out in one day. There's just, you know, it's a minor complaint, no, no, it's minor! it’s not a bid deal, but just one minor issue. The problem was my shoulder." Everyone's a friggin' comedian.