THE RHYTHM OF FUNNY

Ages ago, I was shooting the kind of commercial that we’ve all seen a million times. A sitcom style set-up with some familiar character archetypes, chock-full of product information, all ensconced in the pale wisp of a joke.

As we were debating some alt punch lines, our incredibly self-aware director took my list and said “these’ll work…we’re just going for the rhythm of funny.”

Naively, I had been aiming for actual funny, but at that point in my career I hadn’t yet wrapped my head around how difficult it is to make a commercial clear that bar.

First off, being funny is flat-out hard. Saturday Night Live assembles the most talented comedians in the world for the sole purpose of creating the funniest possible 90 minutes of television. They have flexible time constraints, an in-house band, an experienced production crew, access to A-list celebrities when needed, and minimal content restrictions. Yet the end result is funny, like 40% of the time?

In the commercial world it looks a lot different. To start, you usually don’t start with the objective of “make ‘em laugh.” If you’re lucky, it’s something like “garner brand recognition through the use of humor that’s consistent with our established brand tone.” In reality, it’s more likely “drive incremental sales.”

But look at you! You buckled down and wrote something you think is funny. It’s now time to proudly present it to the client, and thus begin a series of esoteric debates about what constitutes “funny” with some people who very definitely aren’t Jerry Seinfeld.

AND THAT’S BEFORE IT GETS TO LEGAL

Should your script emerge from the gauntlet of corporate naysayers intact, you must now shepherd it through the magical world of production, where anything is possible with enough money and time. Unfortunately, you have almost none of either.

There are many talented directors and production teams out there. However, most of them work on movies and TV shows, and the few that dip their toe into the fetid waters of commercial humor are way over your budget and booked six months in advance.

Yet that commercial still needs to get made. So, you send your storyboard out on a wing and a prayer to anyone with a camera who has shown an inkling of ability to make something clever and/or coherent happen in 30 seconds. You have a few conference calls, gather the budgets and present director reels to the client. Realistically, this process should take about two weeks but the client wants it done in 36 hours. What could go wrong?

Miracle of miracles, the job is awarded. Everyone nodded along to the director’s treatment and a flurry of activity kicks off. The crew is being hired. Flights are being booked. Casting specs are due immediately. It is a blizzard of activity. And everyone is working frantically to get all the pieces and parts assembled in an impossibly short timeframe.

Director chosen, money approved, it’s time to make a million incremental decisions that will make or break the production. Here is just a sample list of questions I never thought I’d hear but have somehow answered in pre-production:

What do lifeguards wear when they’re not at work?

Yeah, but would you bowl in that?

How many people are in a typical boy band?

Has there ever been a cat in space?

How many inflatable pool toys does a typical middle class family own?

Which coffee mug is more on brand for our character?

Now, you’re at the shoot. It’s go time. “How exciting,” one would think, except that it’s super-duper stressful because these actors who’ve never met before need to develop brilliant comedic chemistry, a corporate VP just called in with some last minute script “tweaks” and your lead client is helpfully telling you how unfunny all the rehearsal takes are. Thank god for craft service breakfast burritos.

But you survived and now it’s the moment of truth. You see the rough cut, and there’s a 99% chance that it sucks really hard. You swallow the nervous bile rising in the back of your throat, along with 700 peanut M&Ms and work through different takes, music tracks and timings until you have something ready for the client to see, and, fingers crossed, laugh at.

Congratulations, you’ve just made the This is Sportscenter campaign for ESPN. Objectively, the only actually funny commercials ever made.

by Jason Schmall