How advertising can be the King of Comedy again

By David Kolbusz

Illustrations by Sebastian Schwamm

Let me start with an admission: I am not funny. Never have been. I am animated to a fault, enthusiastic bordering on the pathological, quick with a response, and overly observant – all of which contributes to the illusion of a certain comedic might, but I struggle to get laughs. Which is not to suggest that I can’t get laughs if need be. Just that it doesn’t come naturally to me.

The reason I have managed to craft a handful of advertisements over the course of my career that would be branded ‘funny’ is because I believe I have good taste in comedy. I have a strong sense of what is funny in the work that other people make and – if forced – I’m able to craft work that functions in a similar manner. I am adept at understanding the science of comedy. I can break it apart and tell you why something works.

This tends to run counter to the public perception of how humour operates. Most people think one’s sense of humour and their ability to write funny is an intangible quality. Something innate. And while I know a handful of people who are naturally funny – as if born with the gene – I believe humour can be learned.

The practice is more codified than you’d think. If you understand how to take apart a car’s engine, in all likelihood you can build a car. What it doesn’t mean is that you were born to be a mechanic.

But before I go about expounding on how and what makes something funny, let’s all agree a premise: comedy, in the world of advertising, is broken. I’ve heard countless industry luminaries complain about it and I’ve read innumerable column inches dedicated to bemoaning the recent dearth of funny ads.

Illustrations by Sebastian Schwamm

So how did we get here? I believe the answer is simple and it’s something I’ve spoken about at a length matched only by my passion. Cause-based advertising – work that is dedicated to promoting social good – has rendered funny advertising unfashionable. Clients and agencies alike have confused having a brand purpose (which I, too, believe is essential) with the need to do good in the world or align with a particular cause.

Work that is made for the express purpose of getting people to feel something profound and emotional has rendered laughter an illegitimate reaction in jury rooms world-wide. Comedy is perceived as trite. Less-important. We don’t give out a lot of prizes for funny work. And so we stop making funny work. Comedy advertising is the unwitting victim of current industry trends.

Comedy advertising is the unwitting victim of current industry trends

It doesn’t mean that ads that try to make you laugh aren’t out there – the advertising landscape is littered with stale attempts at humour on behalf of brands. It’s just that the best practitioners of our business are more focused on making work that will add weight to their trophy shelves.

So how do we get back to a place where we see more of the stuff that makes us convulse involuntarily and our faces hurt? I offer these six steps as a starting point.

Step one: Seeing more great funny advertising starts with awarding the great funny advertising that’s already out there. It’s still around, hiding in plain view. Barton F Graf still makes it. The good people at Wieden + Kennedy, The Martin Agency, BBDO, Fallon Minneapolis, and the New York arm of the operation that currently employs me still squeeze out some gems. New kids on the block like Erich and Kallman and Office of Baby do a good trade in comedy advertising. But no one heralds it. It doesn’t make the year end lists or Cannes prediction sheets. And so it dies a quiet death after its media buy runs out. Give this type of work the credit it’s due and people will make more of it.

Step two: Add intelligence to the funny work you do. I have a slogan that I trot out whenever creatives go for obvious gags: comedy dates, wit endures. You go for a broad punchline – something that cues as inherently comic for the sake of it – and you might get a short, sharp laugh from your audience once. If you write with heart and truth, the material will resonate with far greater effect. The re-watch value for something funny and clever is far greater.

Step three: There is an adage that comedy needs a victim. I don’t entirely believe that. I believe the best comedy has an element of sadness to it, which sometimes manifests in victimhood. But comedy is a cathartic response to pain. The deeper you explore pain, the more resonant your comedy will be.

Step four: Craft is an important part of making great comedy advertising that lasts. Writing, casting, performance, the line break on a poster, the timing on an edit of an Instagram story – it all matters. So spend as much time crafting your funny ads as you do with the serious stuff. And let’s not forget aesthetics. Just because something’s funny doesn’t mean it has to look like shit.

Step five: The English need to step up their game. There was a time when advertising from the UK rivalled – if not beat – American agencies when it came to comedy. You’ll notice every agency I cited in step one was from the new world. It feels like British comedy advertising is stuck in a bit of a rut, most of which you can put down to recycling. We trot out the same tropes and devices we’ve been using for the past decade, to weakening effect. Mockumentaries – stale. British people breaking with their traditional reserve and doing something strange – stale. Outspoken Americans plunged into situations where their brash ways conflict with traditional British reserve – stale. Wacky situations involving some kind of animal – stale. I’ve just described 90% of all British comedy advertising at the moment. There’s no danger to our humour any more. It’s almost as if we’re making work not to be noticed. To blend in and be safe. Comedy is at its best when it wrong-foots and surprises. I remember fondly a time when Steve Henry made it his mission at HHCL to create work that was as entertaining – if not more so – than the programming on television. This needs to be our collective ambition.

Perhaps the greatest social good we can do is to help people take their minds off the global shit show for a while

Step six: Another way out of the comedy rut we find ourselves in – both home and abroad – is diversity. We need to be hearing from different voices. It’s a quick and easy way to keep things fresh. Think of the funniest, most compelling work being made in the comedy world right now – Lady Bird, Atlanta, Insecure, Broad City, Master of None, Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, Glow, Catastrophe, Transparent, Lady Dynamite, Fleabag, the stand-up of Tiffany Haddish. Notice a pattern? White men are not the gatekeepers to what’s funny anymore. The entertainment world has caught on. It’s time we caught up.

So let’s start dazzling people with our wit again. We as an industry have forgotten that the most important part of our job, aside from selling whatever it is we’re being paid to on behalf of our client, is to entertain. The world is a fucked up place. We need a few laughs. Perhaps the greatest social good we can do is to help people take their minds off the global shit show for a few minutes with a bit of gut-busting escapism. Sorry this wasn’t funnier.

David Kolbusz is Chief Creative Officer of advertising agency Droga 5 London and a judge for this year’s Creative Review Annual

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