It’s true, not a single one. As a comedy director, you think I’d come loaded with an arsenal of witty one-liners, classic set-ups, and unexpected punch lines but you’d be sadly disappointed. Don’t get me wrong, I love to laugh, and think I’m funny, but the type of humor I’m attracted to is situational. For me, this holds true of both life and commercials. Let me explain.
I studied improv with The Groundlings and Upright Citizens Brigade. One of the most important lessons I came away with is the idea of “the first unusual thing.” If, for instance, two people are having a mundane conversation about the weather, at some point something unusual is said or done — a mispronunciation, a stammer, or a verbal or physical gaffe. Most people don’t pause to reflect on these often slight missteps, but I do. I can’t help myself.
“How’s the weather, Sam?”
“You think it’ll rain?”
“I don’t know.”
“Can you look?”
“You can’t look at the weather? What’s wrong with you?”
Okay, granted, not a hilarious premise, but it’s a start. We’ve now created a character that literally can’t look at weather. That’s weird, right? Why can’t they? Who’s stopping them? Are they frightened? Is it genetic? You can see how even the most ordinary conversations inevitably take a curious turn at some point. And curious is different, and different is funny.
But does anyone even want funny spots anymore? I hear this question a lot, and my answer is always a resounding yes. We live in turbulent times, both politically and socially. Comedy is, and always has been, a respite from our daily lives. When families face the very real struggles of health care, war, and putting food on their tables, an overly dramatic, musical paean to laundry detergent doesn’t feel appropriate. (Although, now that I write that, it does sound kind of funny.)
So of course, as a comedy director, I still love a funny script, whether it’s physical or dialogue driven. And because nowadays most actors have studied improv, they’re open to exploring scenes and waiting patiently for that first unusual thing to occur. Sometimes it’s as small as an odd glance or big as a hilarious retort. Either way, it’s a moment that could never have been scripted in advance. Agencies and clients also seem to appreciate this “magic” that seemingly happens on set. But it’s not magic. It’s preparation and practice and the confidence that whatever happens after the director calls “action,” there are no accidents, only opportunities.
If you watch a commercial closely, it’s easy see the difference between these types of improvisational performances and more rigid, stick-to-the script line readings. Before I was a director, I worked as a copywriter at a time when print ads were much more popular. After writing thousands of headlines, my copywriter friends and I began to notice, and despise, certain rhythms in our writing. A 1-2-3 punch we referred to as “Da Da. Da Da Da Da. Da Da!!!” headlines. It was paint-by-numbers comedy and we hated ourselves for contributing to it.
Today, this rhythm still permeates a lot of commercials and you can see and hear it coming a mile away. Those “buttons” that follow the logo at the end of a spot are usually so tightly scripted and focus-grouped, it’s no wonder audiences aren’t surprised or amused. And if comedy isn’t surprising or amusing, then what’s the point?
I know many talented directors for which this method would scare the shit out of them. They like to have every line, movement, and joke tightly scripted far in advance. Sometimes it works just fine and you’ll walk away with a perfectly good joke. But like I said, I can’t remember any jokes.