Directing Comedy in TV Spots can be a Funny Thing

Published on in Director's Cut

by featured blog contributor, Jeremy Pinckert

If you thought that joke fell flat, welcome to why most people who think they can produce "Funny", at best usually only make "Kinda Cute".  Or at worst, make "My Friends Think It's Hilarious."  This means you and your friends are the only ones laughing. The even worse version of the last option, "My Mom Thinks It's Hilarious", needs no explanation.

Just look at the recent Super Bowl advertisements...for every person who loved Audi's Doberhuahua:

...or Stephen Colbert's Wonderful Pistachio gag.

There's another person who comments, "This is the dumbest commercial ever..." (actual YouTube comment)

The reasons outlined above are why, previously, I've never tried to direct comedic TV commercials or Web Ads.

Until now...
I'll confess, I had help.  And I'll also confess, I'm still not sure if the spot, "Last Cup", will be amusing to viewers. But if you've never produced humor, and have the desire to craft the next Wonderful Pistachios ad, the tips I learned during my process may help you:

Everything starts with the script. Before casting, before set design, before the budget, there's a funny concept.  And if the idea is truly funny on paper, your chances of ensuing hilarity are much, much higher. Test the idea with collaborators, shop it blind to colleagues, if you get good feedback, you're well on your way.</p>

Unless you're making fun of their lack of humor, using professional, talented, and funny actors is essential to your success.  It isn't that your Uncle Charlie's crazy eye tricks or your buddy's knack for one-liners aren't funny in real life, but funny on screen is a completely different animal.  Every chance of success goes back to your casting choices. Need a nearly foolproof method? Use improv actors.  Getting on set with people who can actually add their own twerks and shticks to help augment what's already a great concept will ensure you nail each funny scene, and working with professionals means they can hit their marks and deliver the same line the same way multiple times. The bonus: with improv actors you're guaranteed to get a waggle of gag reel shots!

If you really think about funny television commercials, so much depends on the timing of the cuts, and a great sound design is absolutely necessary to accentuate the funny. For "Last Cup" in particular, we shot MOS capturing no sound, and the folks at Chicago's  Noise Floor were able to add layers of ambient sound, effects, and dramatic music to make the comedic timing really work.

"Last Cup"  Directed by Jeremy Pinckert for the greater Chicago region's Sunburst Race.

If you're interested in creating longer-form comedy, Director David Dobke, of Wedding Crashers and The Change-Up fame, has written about the "Ten Commandments of Directing Comedy". Here are a few of his tips:

"Kinda Funny" means it's not working
It only looks easy when it works
If it's not funny, you've gone too far
Great comedy has great drama at its core
If you're laughing on set, be worried
You never know what you have until you put it in front of an audience

For the full list and explanations, click on DGA's "The Church of Comedy."

You may find if you're not brought up professionally in the pipeline of comedy, it's hard to find opportunities in this niche or genre.  If you're like me, despite repeated attempts to the contrary, I'm just not that funny.  And like most creatives, I'm also incredibly insecure about my work.  So if you hate my first professional comedic TV spot, or you don't like my writing, or you think my picture looks like I'm trying way too hard, or you see I'm losing my least help keep my self-esteem intact by keeping your trap shut and going out and making your own "Funny".  When you hit it big and are passing a couple Cannes Lions from your talented paws to the adoring arms of your entourage, look back on this article and remember who passed along the helpful tips, and whose work made you think, "I can do better!”

Jeremy Pinckert is a Director of TV Ads, Campaigns, Web Videos and Branded Content. His work for Explore Media has won Tellys, Best in Show ADDYs, and an Emmy Award. You can follow him on Twitter, see him on LinkedIn and check out his video portfolio reel.

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