An Imperfect Guide to Directing Funny Commercials

Why Comedy Is the Most Effective Way to Advertise

My nieces tossed my home office like burglars looking for the master safe. They were after my Sharpies so they could draw signs for our family picnic. In the top desk drawer, Gabby, an 8-year-old ragamuffin, found pencils, an oversized eraser, a half ream of printing paper, and a 128-count box of Crayolas. Crayons raised over her head, she was outraged: “Uncle Mike, why do you have crayons?” The others laughed.

One by one, I taped a series of storyboards to the wall that I had drawn in crayon for an upcoming shoot. With one eyebrow raised, and as serious as an attorney in cross-examination, Gabby asked, “What exactly do you do for a living?”

The following are guidelines, thoughts, rules of thumb, best practices, recommendations, strategies, good-to-knows, alarm bells, harbingers of doom, and stuff that’s only going to work in specific situations. It’s a good place to start the conversation about directing commercials that involve humor.

CAMERA AND LIGHTING

Shoot wide shots for setups so the audience understands where everyone is physically located. Keep the blocking simple.

Shoot reaction shots close and shoot them early, capturing the freshest reaction to the line. After an actor has been through the joke a dozen times, it will sometimes weaken the performance.

Flat lighting works just fine for comedy. Unless the gag requires moody lighting, put the extra time, money, and effort into other line items.

REHEARSALS

Figure out how much time you’re gonna need to rehearse. Some actors and comedians are better with very little rehearsal, while others need to be warmed up. These facts frequently dictate which actor’s close-up you shoot first.

I often play the music bed on set for rehearsal, so everyone picks up the vibe of how the commercial will come together. Note: After they’ve heard the music about 10 times, someone will be plotting to have you killed, so don’t overdo it.

If there are a lot of special effects to be added later, or the punch line involves a special effect, the talent won’t always be able to easily visualize it. Spend time in rehearsal helping them see your final vision through storyboards, animations, or any tools necessary. If they understand your vision, they’ll give a much more nuanced performance.

TIMING

Timing is everything in comedy. The slightest pause might express much more than rushing into the next line. Pauses allow the audience to project their emotions onto the character. Rushing or even overlapping dialogue might convey a reckless urgency that’s funny. Sometimes you can fix timing in editing, but it’s best to capture it on the set. Note: I just made every editor who’s reading this very happy.

Don’t let anyone telegraph the joke. It’s called tipping. You need to hide the punch line from the audience. There are a variety of ways actors subconsciously telegraph, the most common of which is anticipating the punch line rather than reacting to it naturally. Another frequent mistake is telegraphing the joke with music. If Mozart popping out of a cake is the joke, then harpsichord music ahead of time lessens the impact.

Know when to get out of the way. If you’ve hired great talent, if you’ve got a great crew, and if you’re prepared, often you just need to step back and let them do their thing. I’ve seen spots ruined with overcoaching, unnecessary setups, and directors basically inserting themselves into the performance. Sometimes you’ve gotta let the dogs run.

ADJUSTMENTS

Prepare at least a half-dozen through lines for every character, especially minor characters. A through line is how the actor will play the scene. For example, I might tell an actor: You need him to give you the loan. Play it like Fred Flintstone driving home from work, late for bowling night.

I like to use cartoon characters for through lines, but you can do the same with pop-culture references. It’s a quick way to snap the talent out of the direction they’re taking and put them in a radically new environment. One of the richest ways to frame cartoon characters is playing against the stereotype of that character. For example, Yosemite Sam is forced to give away a gold nugget he found.

Once I had a minor character with one word in the script, “No,” and he couldn’t deliver it. Since that fiasco, each time I step on a set every character (including the background fill) has a through line, a backstory, or at least a flaw to play. Nothing stalls a shoot faster than trouble with the minor characters.

The turning points are the laughs. The dialogue isn’t always needed to make them laugh; however, the structure is required. In a funny commercial, that’s the punch line. A character in the script or audience plays a specific through line, and then a new piece of information is introduced. After that point, the through line might change or stay the same. Prepare for both options. Make sure the audience sees the impact in the character after the turn.

Understand the characters and situations in the script well enough to give the talent freedom. Some of the funniest lines I’ve written were, well, improved by the talent. Always have time in the schedule to let the actors run wild with their own interpretations. I can’t tell you how many times it’s been pure gold.

Show up with alternative lines. Yes, you can ask the writer to pen a few alternative lines, but there’s no reason you can’t do it too. If you ask the talent to do the same, they might require a writing fee, but that said, I’ve had talent show up with alternative lines. Shoot the approved script, but leave room for alternatives.

RED FLAGS

Please, please, please, no drama on the set. Hold people’s hands. Grease palms. Beg. Bribe. Steal. Lie. Promise. Do anything you can to keep the peace with the talent, crew, and client while shooting.

Make sure you add extra time in the schedule when working with children and animals. Good luck if you have both in the same shot. I will never do that again.

CAST AND CREW

Hire comedians. They understand the subtleties of humor, they’ll typically have better improv skills, and they always have a great sense of timing. Just a word of warning: Having a lot of comedians on the set at the same time becomes challenging. Early in my career, I cast eight comedians for a BECU bank commercial. We finished on time, though only because I acted as part lion trainer, part therapist, and part wet nurse. The spot won a few national awards, but I can honestly say I earned my money that day.

Hire the right people. Some comedians are better at physical comedy, while some only tell jokes. If you need stunts, juggling, or magic tricks, hire specialists, not an actor or comedian. If you’re building a Rube Goldberg machine or the script involves a lot of funny props like giant bowling pins, you’d better start by hiring a great prop master.

LAST THOUGHTS

With all that said, you shouldn’t always follow the rules. Find your own way. Have fun. But no matter what, hold on to your inner child. And don’t let anyone take your crayons!

And since this is an imperfect list, I’d love to hear some of the tips you use. Please contact me at the links below with your thoughts.


Mike Johnston is a production executive and advertising creative in Seattle. He is available for freelance assignments consulting, writing, and directing. Find samples of his work and more articles on advertising on the website Family. Click here to contact him.