Tips & Techniques: When They Say, "Oh... And Make It Funny"

by Mark Margulies

So here's the situation. You're again sitting in your office, contemplating different horrible fates your Operations Manager could incur when you are approached by the Account Executive. They have "that look" on their face. It's a look you've seen before. It's a look you hate. It's that, "Hey, are we buddies or what?" look, the one they whip out ONLY when they need a favor. You can't run. You can't tell them you're not in the office, and you can't feign a nap. You have to deal with them. So you have no choice. You have to bite.

"What is it?" you ask in a menacing tone, hoping to scare them away.

And then they launch into this massive diatribe about a spot you did last week that was just SOOOOO GOOD but just wasn't exactly what the client had in mind. So, just like a fish inescapably drawn to the hook, you ask the question that will dig you further into the trap.

"So, what does the client want?" Grating words as it is, but you know at this point where the conversation is going.

The Account Exec then continues to explain the exact idea the client has. The spot has to be straight, yet not too serious, and contain a touch of pathos. It has to have long term effectiveness, yet have short term impact. It should sound exactly like the Molson couple, but it should carry the client's voice in there for about 15 seconds to give it that local flavor. It should be ALL that. So you dutifully jot it all down, nod your head numbly, and gird yourself for the task ahead. Except there's one thing left. Just as they're about to walk back to the Account Exec cave or wherever it is they reside, they look quickly over their shoulder and hit you with the kicker on the way out:

"Oh, yeah...And make it funny."

"And make it funny" are the words that seem to be the bane of every Production Director's existence. For one thing, who determines WHAT'S FUNNY? Is it the client, the A.E., the Production Director, the audience? What kind of humor is going to make everyone happy?

And what if your particular talent isn't comedy? "And make it funny" might as well be the words "throw the switch, warden." What if comedy just isn't your strongest suit? Well, you can make it happen, you can make it funny AND, most importantly, you can make it effective, but you have to have some tricks up your sleeve. So where do you start? With your focus, of course.

The first rule in writing comedy spots is that just 'cause it's funny, doesn't mean it's going to work. So keep in mind that a funny idea does not immediately equal results. Remember to FOCUS, that is, concentrate on what you have to do to make this a successful commercial. Remember why the client is spending money with you. You've got to know what you want to accomplish and what you have to build on.

Now, you have to make a determination. What kind of humor do you want? Should you try for a real screamer, a chuckler, or a smile and a nod spot? Well, a lot has to do with your audience and format. Some formats preclude slapstick; others preclude "Molson" type cutesy humor. Determine what would suit your audience best. Then, listen. Take a few carts with you and listen to what kind of comedy is already on the air. See what the agencies are running. See what you've produced recently. Don't copycat a style that's already being done too much. It could doom the spot before it ever hits a stop set.

Okay, so you've determined what type of spot to do and what its focus should be. Great. Now all you have to do is write it. Gulp. What if you're not a bag-of-jokes kind of writer? Well, truth be told, you don't have to be Henny Youngman, Robin Williams, and Billy Crystal all rolled into one. STRAIGHT COPY will even serve as humor when it's written and delivered properly. Let's take two approaches, single voice and two-voice situational, just to give you an idea.

With single voice approaches, your best friend is going to be Mr. Sound Effects library, so KNOW YOUR SFX. As you develop your spot, think of clever ways to use a sound effect where one would not ordinarily go. For instance, try this copy as written:

"Remember the last time YOU tried to fix something in the house? Maybe it didn't go as well as expected. So, next time you're thinking of fixing anything from a door to a bathroom fixture, go to FRED'S...."

Now, with a deletion of a word or two and a few key sound effects:

"Remember the last time YOU tried to fix something in the house? (SFX: SPRAYING WATER) Maybe it didn't go as well as expected. (SFX: CREEK AND CRASH) So next time you're thinking of fixing everything from a (SFX: DOOR OPEN) to a (SFX: FLUSH OF TOILET) go to FRED'S...."

Here, you've taken simple copy and "made it funny" through no great brain work of your own. And you can change the approach by the type of sound effect you use. Want a more slapstick sound? Use broader effects. More sophisticated? Again, let the effects be your guide. It's a simple way to create humor without actually WRITING funny stuff.

Single voice spots also work well when you paint a broad character picture. So, by using a foreign accent or a silly voice, you can again create copy that has an effect. A Russian or British accent delivering copy will add a certain flavor that straight voices can't give. You might have a Russian accent delivering the following, "You know, Americans never had to worry about cold war. Why? Is simple. Because our houses are built with such cah-cah products over here, all you have to do is sit and wait for them to fall over on their own. Now, with detente, we know better. So we all go to FRED'S...." Not uproarious in content. It's all in how the delivery is done. And if your voice talent can't handle accents, there may be other character voices they CAN do. You can even employ the use of a Harmonizer or wrap a capstan to turn their voices into something amusing. Again, you don't have to be a comedy writer to make it happen.

With two-voice copy, humor can most often be derived from the situation. Once you establish your focus, embellish it. To continue the example with the home improvement ad, if the focus is general home remodeling, have a couple living in what was the rubble of their home. Have someone locked out of the house because they didn't go to FRED'S to get the highest quality products. A little more hip? Have two friends trying to write a RAP/HEAVY METAL SONG using the client and the focus as the basis. If the situation is broad enough and you bring home the payoff at the end of it, your copy doesn't have to scream with every line.

So when they say "Oh...and make it funny," restrain your initial impulse to throttle the Account Executive. You CAN make it funny. All it takes is a little creative thought, a good imagination, and a little inspiration. And if that doesn't work, do what a good Production Director always does in times of crisis -- listen to an old George Carlin or Robert Klein tape and "borrow" some of the better lines.