By Marcus Honesta.
Humour, most will agree, is a very personal thing. Many prefer English produced programs such as Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Absolutely Fabulous, The Office and The Vicar Of Dibley and believe they are far superior to American humour found in series like Seinfeld, The Simpsons, Family Guy, The Big Bang Theory, Saturday Night Live and Modern Family. If however, you ask 100 people what their favourite commercial of all time is, chances are the majority of them pick a funny one. So what makes a commercial funny? In under a minute, and more often less than 30 seconds, it has to make you laugh and actually conveys some information about the product or service on offer and make you want to buy it. Humour, I suggest, is the hardest of all the genres, to write.
Quite a number of my advertising colleagues think the following spot is hilarious. An equal number think it is in poor taste.
So, what are the mechanics that make a commercial funny?
LET A JOKE LIVE ITS NATURAL LIFE
Telling a joke and making people laugh is hugely dependant on timing. Just ask any stand up comedian. A commercial has the best chance of being funny if the joke it contains can live its natural life and not appear contrived of artificially manipulated.
A smart, well written script is essential. Insightful observations of human nature are excellent fodder for humour. Properly paced visuals and dialogue will give the performers the time to deliver the thing they are being paid to do – act. Most 30-second scripts I see these days are, more often than not, 60’s. Copywriters it seems, share their DNA with cattle auctioneers and callers of horse racers.
Even if you have a great script you can still, if you don’t make the right decisions in pre-production, end up with a mediocre ad. But you definitely can’t make a great ad, (Short film, feature, play or whatever), from a shitty script. Being funny, most experienced comedians say is really about taking a joke and trying to find a way to not lean in to it or hit it too hard. It’s about keeping the moment honest. A well-known stand up friend of mine said, “If no one’s trying to be funny, they’ll be way more funny”.
Comedy is also about rhythm. This makes the 29-second time span of a typical commercial a tricky constraint. My stand up friend said, “The joke or moment can’t live its natural life and you have to collapse it”. “There’s a skill to do that and it takes a while to acquire. It’s all about finding where the dramatic friction is. What the characters want, what’s in their way in the scene, and how they try to overcome it.”
IMPROVISATION IS SOMETIMES THE KEY
The good director uses improvisation to help prevent lines from sounding too rehearsed or unnatural. Very often shooting the same thing a thousand times makes it worse. It’s also about options. Comedy can be a volume business. Stuff you think is singing on the shoot can die a quiet sad death in the edit suite. And vice versa. Something you didn’t think played well or fell flat on the day can inexplicably soar in editing.
Good casting is critical. The correct selection of characters is the key to a successful end result. As I said previously, a lot of mediocre performances in commercials are due in part, to scripts being over written. Then some directors and / or copywriters demand a script be read in such a way that the actor is deprived of the opportunity to contribute.
“Improvisation allows an actor to live the moment in real-time,” my stand up friend says “Improvise and you’ll start getting the rhythm of real speech, with all the hiccups and starts and pauses and things that would never happen if someone sits there and orders – say it exactly like this.’”
HOW TO CAST THE RIGHT PEOPLE
When casting a project, one of the most important qualities to look for in actors is how watchable they are. My stand up friend says that when he is casting he is always looking for actors who can do a lot with a little. He looks for what he calls, inside-out actors, or interior actors, where you can see a lot going on behind their eyes. John Mortimer always said actors have to be very watchable, which is innate, you can’t teach them how to do it. It’s also about finding people who look like they fit the role, rather than an actor making choices. Older Actors tend to be more reserved and wait for the camera to roll before they truly embrace a role. The younger ones leap right in boots and all.
Most believe that on the set what’s important is the ‘building blocks of the scene’. They’re talked about incessantly. “What’s the intention of the character? What’s getting in the way of your character? And most importantly, “How to we overcome any perceived problem.”
THERE WILL BE TELLING MOMENTS
Whether you are writing or reading a script, there will always be a crucial moment in it (a look, two words, a bird shitting on someone’s head) upon which the humour is dependant. Sometimes it’s a throw away line right at the very end that clinches the story and has audiences rolling in the isles. Whatever it is everyone be sure that everyone involved in the shoot knows what it is and gives it the respect it deserves.
Another secret to mirthful success is capturing and embellishing moments of real human behaviour. People laugh because they recognize themselves in what they’re watching.
Another important quality is comedic friction. A great script writer said, “Violence is funny whether it is emotional or physical. In a script that means finding where the friction is coming from, then it’s about finding the places where people are trying to not reveal what they’re thinking. Also, awkwardness is funny.”
Tip Top Omega 3
My stand up friend also says, “It’s not necessarily the joke that’s funny, but the reaction to the joke. That’s what gives you permission to laugh. “They think you need to actually see the joke coming out of the character’s mouth, instead of watching the character who is reacting.”
Its good to remember what the great John Cleese said about writing comedy: