Writing funny TV ads

Two years into my ad career i found myself working on Bud Light.

Bud Light was one of the biggest TV advertisers in America. And their advertising was really good. The brand grew at a breakneck speed for years, so the brand guys were pretty chilled out about the advertising.

And there was a constant need for new funny ads.

It was ideal from a career point of view.

I loved beer and i loved TV and i was young.

I had never done any TV before.

But I have always been able to wring laughs out of people.

I grew up working in a bar in Ireland. I think that helped.

But more importantly i had a good handle on what makes America laugh.

I had studied the culture intensely. Thank you Nick at Night in the 90s!

Americans love slapstick. So i figured that might work. And it did.

My first beer ad was voted best beer spot of the year by Ad Age magazine.

If you’re not a naturally funny person, you’re going to have difficulty writing funny ads.

Just as I’m not suddenly going to run the 100 meters in less than 10 seconds just because i’d really like to.

Really comedy is mechanical. It’s about beats and timings and tone. It’s musical.

It sometimes helps me is to pretend that my idea is not funny and is actually really serious. And treat the execution of it really seriously.

This has the effect of giving it a unique executional tone. It also distracts me from worrying.

Most funny ads just try to look and feel funny. And thus can be texture-free. Texture is what makes your ad stick in the mind.

Simply giving your comedy a nice cool look can really help.

What works best for me is comedy where the viewer has to work just a little bit to make sense of what’s going on. This way they get more involved in your story and laugh harder when they get it.

The biggest compliment anyone ever paid my work came from !!!NAMEDROP ALERT!!! Sir John Hegarty.

He told me that I instinctively understood the screenwriting maxim of enter late/leave early.

I had never heard of this maxim but it sure sounds good. Speed matters.

And if the viewer has to struggle just a little bit to make sense of your ad, they will be that much more involved from the outset.

So, for example, if your ad is set in a bar you don’t need an establishing shot of the exterior of the bar. It’s a bar, we get it! Get on with your story.

But the biggest secret to having funny ideas is this.

Get your funny ideas down to their simplest form. And then ask people what they think of them.
Pitch your friends, your spouse etc. Are they laughing?

The reason this is important is that it establishes you as Mr Funny Guy. Your ideas are on the line. Your ego is at stake. It takes courage to be funny.

And this is a real audience with useful feedback, so use it. You’ll find that you sharpen your ideas up a lot when you care about the reaction of your audience.

And the ideas that everyone likes and instantly laughs involuntarily at (watch their eyes!) are the funny ones. Keep those! And only those.

It really is that simple.

13 responses to “Writing funny TV ads

  1. @kentcarmichael

    Thanks. This helps.

  2. “Most funny ads just try to look and feel funny. And thus can be texture-free. Texture is what makes your ad stick in the mind.”

    Exactly! I’m bookmarking this. Thank you for the pointers.

  3. I have to admit you are pretty funny Vinny. Not as funny as Dane Cook but pretty funny ;-)

    Oh wait Dane Cook isn’t funny. You had better not cast him in a Cheez-Its commercial or your career is over I tell you!

  4. Great post, Vinny.

    Funny is hard.
    Much harder than smart.
    I love enter late, leave early.

    Thank you.

    • Funny is hard George. Totally agree.

      Smart AND funny is the ideal. Enter late/leave early and many other great storytelling tips originated in William “Butch Cassidy” Goldman’s book “Which lie did I tell?”

  5. loved this entry. keep the knowledge pouring, por favor!

  6. Great post, Vinny. Entertaining, didactic, and it just ring true. But, a question and a request:

    Q: The notion of having the viewer struggle just a little bit seems to contradict the advice to skip the establishing shot in the bar, or the advice to keep things extra simple. Explain, please?

    R: My kingdom for some examples. An ad with texture. An ad that enters late and leaves early. An ad that is simple. I could come with examples of what I think you mean, but I’d like examples from YOU, since you (unlike me) clearly know what you’re talking about!

    Cheers!
    Martin

  7. Martin. To answer your question. Yes they do seem at odds with one another but they’re not really. The enter late/leave early refers more to economy of story and energy. Knowing that it’s a bar doesn’t necessarily clue you into the story. It just eliminates an unnecessary shot. And because you’re starting “in the middle” of something, the viewer’s interest is involuntarily piqued. We are conditioned to makes sense of things. So it’s not really a problem.

    Here is an example that i did years ago. And it’s set in a bar! The joke here was in the repetition of the greeting and the staging of it (very thin ice). Clearly something is going on. But nothing that interesting. Nonetheless the spot is moving along at breakneck speed. New characters are introduced. Beers are served. There’s a guy on the phone. Everybody greets everybody else. There’s two other guys at the payphone. Their contribution doesn’t really add much.

    When i say “texture” I mean a vibe that comes from the casting/production design/wardrobe and overall look and feel of the piece.

    In this instance, we went with an actual Italian bar restaurant in New Jersey. And you can smell the cigarette smoke in the carpet. This was the real deal. Not a nice clean looking TV bar that you’ve seen a million times.

    And look at the cast. We have a middle aged balding guy in our hip and cool beer commercial! Not a cast of young gym going wannabe actors.

    And the whole thing is dark, just like bars really are at night. Not the gleaming hyper lit “fun zone” that so many beer ads inhabit.

    All that adds up to texture Martin.

    Please excuse the image quality. i’ll try to find a better one

  8. Love it. Thanks for taking the time. I liked how it all adds up to…texture.

    It puzzles me we don’t see texture even more often. It’s hard…but not that hard that a talented person wouldn’t be shooting for it every time. It’s this intangible “voodoo” in texture that I find so interesting.

    Cheers,
    Martin

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