Advertising Week 2014: The 30 Second Gag

When you gather together the brains behind the UK’s best comedy programmes and stick them on a panel, you’re guaranteed a few laughs. But what do these comedic minds believe is the golden ticket to chuckle camp when it comes to funny adverts? Hoot’s creative director James Rawlings found out…

Hoot's James Rawlings looked on with alarm when once presented with this mathematical take on comedic advertising...

Hoot’s James Rawlings looked on with alarm when once presented with this mathematical take on comedic advertising…

What’s the most important thing about making comedic ads?

Jim Field Smith (Episodes director): Flexibility in scripts throughout the process. Improvisation is usually what makes for good comedy.

Bex Rycroft (Green Wing/The Mighty Boosh writer): Things change on set – you have to bring the writers back into the process so that initial spark of comedy can evolve rather than being lost. The script should never be locked down, especially when working with naturally funny people.

David Kerr (Fresh Meat director): Agreed. In the case of JP’s character on Fresh Meat, we auditioned God knows how many obnoxious public school boys. Jack Whitehall was the only actor who brought warmth and humour to the lines. So then the script evolved around him. Although I disagree about the improv – for me most experimentation happens in the writing room. The worst five words you can hear from an agency or client on an ad set are, ‘wouldn’t it be funny if…’

So when it comes to ads, why do so many miss the mark?

Stephen Gash (QI Commercials): It’s the approval process in agencies. It mitigates comedy. An idea usually goes through way too many voices of authority before coming to life.

David Buonaguidi (Karmarama chief creative officer): Transmitting a sales message is fundamentally different to comedy, and some marketers will focus on one to the detriment of the other. There are too many other agendas at work too, like writing to win a Lion or a Pencil… Essentially advertising isn’t currently spontaneous enough to accommodate great comedy.

So is this an unfixable problem?

Jim: No. The Cow & Gate commercials I did entirely hinged on flexibility. We threw the storyboard out the window, let a band of babies loose on a recording studio and rolled the cameras. It’s about building a trust with your client that allows you to be more experimental.

David: With just 30 seconds to work with, you have to establish what the non-negotiable points are for a client. What’s the key sales message? Are there any limits to the direction you run in? If you’re set clear parameters and then allowed to explore freely within them, there is always room for a comedic approach.

So, how do you become funny?

Bex: You can’t. But you can create an atmosphere – as an ECD and such – where people can be their best. Where they’re allowed to be funny. It can’t be taught, but it can be curated.

And what happens when you’re ‘allowed to be funny’? In Jim’s case, Will Ferrell frolicking among flowers in a plug for Old Milwaukee. Comedy gold.