Yesterday's full, unedited conversation between Rory Sutherland and Jimmy Carr from Advertising Week Europe.
Advertising clever man Rory Sutherland took to the Advertising Week Europe stage yesterday to interview Jimmy Carr. It turns out the funny man off the telly used to work in advertising and in the session, titled It's The Way You Tell 'Em, spoke a lot of disarming truth about comedy, advertising and making advertising funnier.
We thought the conversation was so good, in fact, that we've transcribed the whole session. It's a long read, but full of gems.
Annette King: Good afternoon everyone. Welcome to the very first ever event that Ogilvy & Mather has sponsored here at Advertising Week Europe. It’s called ‘The Way You Tell ‘Em’ and it’s going to be hosted by our Vice Chairman Rory Sutherland in conversation with our very special guest Jimmy Carr.
They’re going to spend the next 45 minutes – Rory, 45 minutes [stern look]. You’ve all seen him speak before so you know I had to say that. There’s a clock there and it flashes when you need to stop. They’re going to spend the next 45 minutes discussing and debating the origins of humour in comedy and the role that they do and that they should play in advertising today.
David Ogilvy was famously fond of the Claude Hopkins quote that ‘people don’t buy from clowns,’ since he saw the art of selling things through advertising as a serious business, though he did soften in later years on this front, having seen some evidence to the contrary. I wonder what his point of view would be if he were on the stage with us today. So with that question in mind, over to you Rory and Jimmy for what I’m sure will be a riveting 45 minutes.
Rory Sutherland: Just to make you even more worried I’ve just bought one of these Behavioural Economics watches, which is called a Slow Watch. It’s got one hand and it only goes round once every 24 hours. So it’s completely relaxing because you just go ‘Oh look, I’m only about three degrees late!’ Whereas actually, a minute hand spooks you. That’s going far too fast.
Jimmy Carr: Well let’s definitely focus on that. We’ve got 45 minutes and that’s got literally fuck all to do with anything. I’m interested in Annette’s opening remark there that people don’t buy from clowns. I wonder was he in a McDonald’s when he had his revelation? ‘Maybe they do. Maybe Ronald has something here.’ People do buy from clowns don’t they?
RS: What always mystifies me a bit is a lot of kids find clowns deeply spooky.
JC: There’s actually a special name for people that are afraid of clowns. They’re called ‘mummy’s little benders.’
Clowns have to register their facial design to make sure that other sex offenders don’t use it. Fact.
Come on. Advertising, comedy, quick, questions.
RS: I’ve failed on my first aim which was to make the whole session completely unamusing, rather like that guy that wanted to host Neil Armstrong on a chat show an not mention the moon landings once. So I’ve failed in that bit.
But you’ve written a book, which I’ll plug, even though there are very few copies left on Amazon – The Naked Jape, with Lucy Greeves, who’s a copywriter. You were actually an advertising man yourself, briefly, and then you went client side because you- actually you might like to tell us why!
JC: Because it was much easier. When I was working for an advertising agency people were phoning me up and asking me for shit. I thought ‘who are these people?’ ‘What do you mean you want tickets for a Grand Prix? I want to go!’
RS: Interesting that I never spotted that.
JC: It’s more fun being a client. And marketing is more sort of- I worked for Shell, briefly, in marketing. It’s an easy job working for an oil company in marketing because have you got a car?
JC: There’s a little thing that tells you when you’re out of petrol – my job done! You’d best get some more.
RS: I suppose what fascinates me is that first of all I think there is a cultural war on comedy and that, as you quite rightly said earlier, it comes from both sides. You have a kind of Mary Whitehouse brigade who don’t want you to say things and you equally have pressure from the left. My view has always been that there’s a huge value in comedy in that creating a space or a context in which people can say what they like is just hugely important to any kind of social organisation. If you think about it the fool in King Lear is the only person who’s talking any sense, for example. That court jester role.
JC: There’s real example of that comedy adding value to society and being able to say the unsayable. The Great Wall of China was meant to be painted and it was the Emperor’s fool that made jokes about it. Because he was bankrupting the nation building a wall and he wanted to paint it and the fool went ‘well, he’s a fucking idiot.’ And the Emperor didn’t. And it saved them as a nation. It’s a weird thing where comedy can have that.
It’s interesting the idea that political correctness now- especially in advertising. Advertising’s in danger of getting a bit boring. There’s fewer funny adverts being made than there were and it feels like that’s a very – I don’t know why I should particularly feel [this] – but Britain does comedy particularly well I think. In TV and film and stand-up. I think we’re good at it. And we don’t seem to do as much in advertising. I think partly it is that thing of the right-wing Mary Whitehouse kind of brigade ‘ban this filth’, but also the left wing saying ‘well you can’t say that.’ I think it doesn’t leave the client much room to go ‘I don’t want to offend anyone.’ I don’t think they should worry about offending people.
RS: I met Jennifer Jacquet, who’s the world’s leading expert on shame at NYU, and she said one of the problems is-
JC: You met her? What was the context there? What had you done?
RS: Actually, a very good question. One of her points is that being outraged is just too cheap. 30 years ago you had to buy a stamp, you had to paint placards, organise a protest. Now you have these electronic means of communication, which just allow you to create synthetic outrage, effectively.
JC: Yeah. That’s a very interesting point actually because it’s also that thing – it’s OK to offend someone, but it’s OK to be offended. That’s fine. It’s a weird thing when people are offended on behalf of someone else, which I don’t think counts. I think it’s bullshit. I think when people go ‘well I get that that’s just a joke and that’s designed to make people laugh and release endorphins and build rapport. I get that, but I don’t think those fucking idiots will get it so I’m offended on their behalf.’ You just think that’s the most patronising thing in the world.
RS: What’s also interesting about that is that what you’re doing when you do this is you’re playing a status game, which is saying ‘I’m a high-status person who understands. These people need my protection. Which is automatically elevating yourself above the people you’re claiming to defend. And there’s something slightly kind of game-theoretical about it, which is a bit nasty I think. But it’s always done with the appearance of being fantastically well intentioned.
JC: In comedy, if you think about the intent of it, rather than if there’s offence or it’s about something that feels transgressive or taboo, the intent of all jokes is the same. My favourite quote about comedy is ‘a joke is the shortest distance between two people.’ When you think about what all jokes are saying, it’s the same thing. It’s ‘I like you and I want you to like me.’ But it’s an awkward thing.
Especially, I think men are very bad at bonding. I think the reason men tell more jokes socially is because they’re bad at going ‘I really love you, man.’
RS: That’s quite unnerving.
JC: They’re very weird about that so that’s what you’re doing when you tell someone a joke. I think lots of people have that relationship with fathers or brothers, where they’re a bit emotionally stunted and they feel like if I tell a joke then- That’s the reason comedy DVDs, I think, were such a popular present – because they were easy to wrap and guys could go ‘I like this and I like you and you’ll like that and that’s our thing.’ It’s a lovely thing to share and it builds social cohesion. And really that’s where I think it relates to advertising because it’s about trying to build a group. If you have a funny advert and people laugh at it then they feel that’s their thing.
RS: To form a group you need to have one thing in common, but that thing can be pretty arbitrary. So if you share a sense of humour or whatever you will automatically bond regardless of other differences separate you.
JC: I think that’s an odd thing with being a comedian on television. Obviously, not everyone likes you but the people that do come up to you on the street or in bars and shops or whatever and there’s a familiarity there because people assume that you’re a friend. It’s not like – people lose their shit when they meet film stars or singers. I could never do that. People come up to me and go ‘here’s one for ya’’ and tell me a joke. It makes the world a very friendly place, being a comedian, and I’m amazed advertising doesn’t use that more because you feel very well disposed to anything that makes you laugh.
RS: I read an interesting insight the other day, which was that if you want to accelerate the adoption of electric cars, the guy who’ll do it isn’t George Monbiot or Al Gore. It’s Jeremy Clarkson.
JC: Not this week. He’s got a lot on his plate!
RS: Because if you want to change people’s minds in a way that doesn’t create resentment or grievance then you can use humour in a way that is in a sense what you might call- If you take The Economist advertisement ‘”I never read The Economist” Management trainee. Aged 42.’ Which was the first Economist ad. If you write down the proposition of that it’s pretty odious. It’s ‘unless you read this magazine, you will be a loser in business.’ And no one can actually say that. But make it funny and you’re allowed to say something which no one resents, creates no offence or pushback.
JC: Is there a world if they tried to do that now as their fist advert, someone would go ‘well actually there’s a lot of very junior people who are a little bit older and actually you’re kind of offending them.’
RS: Yeah. They’re called advertising planners. They tend to be the voice of the Guardian reader within the agency. But even within an agency. I came to the conclusion after 26 years working in advertising that the only way to run advertising agencies actually is you create a corporate culture where you can say stupid things and still be promoted. If those stupid things are interesting or they lead somewhere or whatever.
JC: That certainly explains your role here.
RS: It certainly does! But it was only after 25 years in advertising I found myself in other corporate cultures. If you take the civil service, if you say one thing that’s remotely silly it’s basically career death.
JC: It’s an interesting thing though, in advertising. I don’t know what it’s like to work in an advertising agency now, but it’s got to be 15, 16 years ago now when I was last in one – you had a lot of breakout rooms. There’s a lot of ping-pong and foosball being played but no space to say interesting things. And that would be a more interesting space in an advertising agency, where we’ve got one room where we can slag off our clients. One room to go ‘there fucking idiots at Ford. Why won’t they let us make a good commercial.’
RS: There is an interesting thing. If you take quite a lot of the great advertisements produced. If you take Apple’s, for example, Think Different, it actually started as a practical joke. They had a fairly boring campaign which featured effectively living people. And it said ‘Think Different’ and you had to have Richard Branson and it’s kind of alright.
JC: I think most adverts feature living people.
RS: I think someone as a joke put up Hitler or Stalin or someone like that. And obviously you’re not going to do ‘Think Different’ with Stalin because that’s probably not very Apple, but somebody else then went and started putting up Hitchcock and Gandhi and then produced something famous. So there’s this element in a lot of mental progress that you’ve got to climb Mount Silly before you can get to the bright, sunlit uplands beyond.
JC: It’s an interesting thing with the creative process as well. That idea that you have to be able to say anything. There can’t be any bad ideas in that room. It is that Walt Disney thing of having that creative space where you can do anything and then another space where you think about ‘actually, is that a good idea?’ Maybe that’s what planners are actually for – stopping you from doing something too stupid.
RS: It’s actually a significant problem because when a solution to something is seemingly trivial, and sometimes it is – Edward De Bono thought that the solution to peace in the Middle East was Marmite. I’m not making that up. He thought it was due to a zinc deficiency.
JC: Surely a mezzanine floor is the answer to the Middle East. More space. Solved that - let’s move on.
RS: Start with the easy ones. Would you more or less take that to such an extreme then that you say ‘this is comedy. If it is funny and if it is clearly said in a comedic context anything goes. There is no line. No censorship. No restriction.’
JC: Yeah. You either believe in freedom of speech or you don’t. That strikes me as the thing. And even if you allow- and the Daily Mail, they’re very good at doing what they do. Their job in society is being outraged and they’re fucking brilliant at it. They will take any story and go ‘oh my God! I’m shocked. I’m going to sit down and have some sweet tea. My God. I think I might feint.’ But actually being offended is not that bad is it? You just go ‘ooh I don’t like that.’ It’s just a fancy way of saying ‘I don’t like it.’ I do. It’s kind of OK. I’m of the opinion that it’s not for everyone. There’s no universal comedy audience, but there’s an audience for that kind of humour. There’s an audience for Frankie Boyle saying very extreme things and there’s an audience for Mrs Brown’s Boys. And they’re absolutely valid. They scratch the same itch. They make people laugh.
RS: You’ve said in the past that in some ways it’s rather like your sexuality – your sense of humour is something you’re sort of born with. You don’t have much choice over what you find funny.
JC: I don’t think you’ve got any choice. You [the audience] work in the advertising industry, so probably you’d like to watch QI and find it brilliantly funny and witty or something on Radio 4 and think that’s brilliant and fun and witty; and some of you like Mrs Brown’s Boys and feel a secret shame that you like very broad comedy. Your sense of humour so chooses you.
The best example of it I can think of is the cognitive dissonance of a very edgy joke. And by that I mean if I tell a very edgy joke.
RS: Go ahead.
JC: No. It’s not the time or the place. But I’m back here at 11. Good luck everyone.
But if you tell a very edgy joke sometimes you’ll get a laugh first and then you’ll notice 20 people in the first three rows put a hand up to their mouth and what’s happening is the laughter is like a reflex. You laugh so quickly at something and then your conscious mind kicks in and goes ‘what the fuck are you doing?’ and you try and throw it back in. So sometimes the best reaction to a joke is a laugh and then a sharp intake of breath. But you laugh first because that sense of humour is a reflex you on a very pure level. I think it does relate to sexuality. I think it is that raw. You don’t choose what turns you on… You’re a very attractive man. I didn’t want to have to say that.
RS: It’s OK. I’m used to it.
It’s an interesting question because you have something there which is patently a tool for- there’s a very interesting book in which Daniel Dennett said that the very origin of humour is that the brain needs to have an error correction device, so that when you spot incongruity, in order for us to be encouraged to remove those errors we need to have an incentive. So you’d have an orgasm, which is an incentive for men to not spend all their time playing Call of Duty.
JC: Yeah, that was the original Darwinian theory.
RS: It kind of was like Call of Duty.
JC: That’s why we have opposable thumbs as well.
Well it’s interesting what comedy does from a Darwinian perspective. It rewards linguistic ability and building groups, ultimately. And that’s what your industry is trying to do. You’re trying to build a group that are into your thing. It’s a great way of mediating conflict in a non-violent way. Humour dissipates conflict a lot of the time. It also rewards noticing difference. So if you’re on the savannah and you spot a leopard’s tail, the ‘aha’ moment and the ‘haha’ moment are pretty similar.
A lot of comedy is about tension and that tension being released. That’s the reason why I think taboo and transgressive, edgy comedy works very well because you’ve got a lot of tension around those subjects anyway. There’s always a lot of tension around sex in most societies, so when you get that tension when someone talks about that openly you get a release and that release is a laugh. It always works in the same sort of way.
RS: Dennett does this linguistic analysis which is in a surprising number of languages the word ‘funny’ meaning humorous and the word ‘funny’ meaning strange – it’s the same word, which is quite interesting.
JC: Not to get too boring but all jokes work in the same way. So the set-up of any joke sets up an assumption. It makes you make an assumption in the set-up to the joke that you find is erroneous in the punch line. They all work in the same way. It’s very boring when you-
RS: So even that business of appearing in front of a small baby and then pretending to hide?
JC: Yeah. It’s a suddenly revealed, previously concealed fact. It’s how jokes work. They all work in the same way and they’re just endlessly pleasing to us. It’s just difference and you clock that and the endorphins are our minds rewarding us.
RS: It’s rewarding us for noticing the thing. So it’s interesting here. You’ve patently got a mechanism, which in terms of both forming groups, which is fairly essential to advertising.
JC: And humanity! To a lesser extent.
RS: Then you have also changing people’s minds, or allowing people to change their minds without creating resentment or a feeling of loss. What’s interesting about it is that no one suggests there should be – not that we’d want a Ministry of Humour, but it does occur to me that actually British humour may be a sort of competitive advantage. Having a culture like this-
JC: Well you get to that thing of where would we be without a sense of humour? Germany. I think we value humour above a lot of nations. Not being able to take a joke is almost like the worst thing you could say about someone. ‘He can’t take a joke’ or ‘he’s a bit humourless’. It just feels like ‘he’s a dick.’ Whereas there are cultures where it’s OK to not have a particularly well-developed sense of humour.
RS: Now [name garbled], who does translation of advertising into lots of different languages, he makes the point – I’m not sure he’s right entirely – but he says that it’s only in Britain or the Anglo-sphere and the Nordic countries, and also in Jewish culture, where humour is associated with being intelligent. In Germany you can be funny, but it’s basically associated with being ‘Mike Hunt’s [sic] off his trolley’, basically the office clown. The idea that it actually correlates with intelligence is an Anglo-Judaic thing. This is the problem with making advertising funny – if you had to produce an ad for, literally, not only different languages but completely different cultures, there’s a hell of a lot that doesn’t translate, simply because it depends on shared consciousness to start with, for example.
JC: Yeah. And clowning is a different area, which I’m not an expert in. But certainly linguistically, we’re very blessed with the English language. That seems to be what drives comedy.
RS: Yeah. My German friends think we’re cheating.
JC: We’ve got a noun and an adjective in the right place to be funny and there’s lots of words that have double meanings. It just seems to lend itself to comedy. But I’m always amazed when I travel, when people learn English they get English comedy. I was in Iceland the last couple of days doing shows and the standard of English there is very good and they all seem to get the comedy. There’s something inherent in English, I think, that lends itself. It’s a great thing when you’re learning the language, when you travel round Europe doing shows, people get to a level and they sort of really know when they’ve learnt a language when they get a joke in it.
RS: Henning Wehn of course is a fantastic case. Scandinavians basically share our sense of humour at least while they’re speaking in English. The Dutch do as well. Also there are some strange things in that the Pythons just wrote off the idea of going to the United States at all. They just said once you’ve created Monty Python, the idea of taking this to America was something they didn’t even contemplate. Because they just said the idea was so ridiculous. And no one is more surprised than them when the whole thing – it was probably more of a college cult thing there than it was mass, but it is surprising how humour can travel quite unexpectedly.
JC: I think advertising maybe suffers from too much analysis. Too many people going ‘they won’t get this’ [One person claps enthusiastically]. Thank you. That’s that planner that was recently fired.
RS: Also of course you have the disadvantage that you have to get the thing perfect before you fire.
JC: In my business we have writing rooms, so if we’re writing a show that’s it for the week and you can write jokes, you can reverse engineer, you can come to the joke and then think. We have to get it past like one level of a producer. We have the producer in, pitch them the jokes and then go ‘alright, we’re going to do that in front of the audience’ and that’s it. And when I do stand-up I don’t have that even. All I have is – Lenny Bruce said ‘the audience is a genius’ and what he meant by that is the audience – I’ve been a comedian about 16 years and not everyone likes it but I’m pretty good at writing jokes, but I don’t know whether it’s funny until I tell an audience. You get a musician and they can play the violin and even if they’re on their own it’s still music. I don’t know if it’s a joke until I tell an audience and they laugh. It’s weird with advertising. It’s like you have to jump through so many hoops so as an advertising agency you then have to go to pitch to the client and then the client has to go to corporate. So when you get a funny advert out, it’s such an achievement. Because you’ve got such huge feedback. And then you have to see whether it affects sales in a good way. I’m so blessed that my feedback loop is almost immediate. If I say something and it gets a laugh, great, and if it doesn’t I’ll say something else.
RS: I read Stuart Lee’s book recently and he says that he will tweak the structure and content of a joke repeatedly in front of an audience until he gets it just right. There was something about Gary Lineker being a velvet owl or something. But he would experiment.
JC: Yeah. You do that and it is that thing. Lenny Bruce was right – the audience is a genius. Not only do they decide what is and isn’t funny, but they also regulate comedy. You don’t need the Mary Whitehouse crew or the Guardian telling you what you can and can’t say. An audience will tell you. If you go too far with a joke an audience will just [stand in] stony silence. And if you get it right they’ll laugh and be teased but not offended and it works. They regulate what you can and can’t say by definition.
RS: What happens if you just have a complete disaster and bomb for a short time. What’s the best thing you can do?
JC: Listen. I think we’re doing OK. Don’t panic is the first thing. We’ll open it to questions if it goes really badly. It doesn’t really happen in that sense. If they don’t like you they’re not going to like you. They’re not going to change. There’s no way to be someone else entirely. That’s all you’ve got.
RS: And you have those occasions?
JC: No. Very rarely.
RS: So tell me how you got started. So you were at Shell, working in marketing?
JC: I just started doing gigs. I went to the Edinburgh festival, did lots of shows. I just liked it. I like the kind of circus of comedy. It’s a really fun world to be in because we’ve got nothing. We’re the lowest rung of the entertainment ladder. We’d like to be in showbusiness but we’ve got no skills. Jokes are things that dads tell to kids that are being too loud in the back of a car on a long journey to kill time. It’s just ‘alright. I’m here. Loads of people have turned up. Argh. Here’s one for ya’’
RS: So in your spare time while you were working at Shell you’d go on-
JC: Yeah. I’d go out and do gigs and I thought ‘I’ll go and do this. I’ll go and give it a go.’ It was like a quarter-life crisis. And it was before, really, the big comedy boom. There’s been a big boom recently. And I think party that’s the changing world of media the past couple of years – the idea that people don’t watch television as much anymore, or if they do watch television, they certainly watch content, but they watch it on their computer or their phone. I think people really crave going out and having an experience in a room. Being part of a collective is a really fun thing so that kind of event driven.
RS: So like music? Recorded music sales fall; live events grow.
I’m intrigued also. There used to be a great thing in comedy that one of the problems was you wanted to go on television to do stand-up because obviously it made your name. The problem was you’d burn through material very rapidly. Does that problem still exist?
JC: Not really. Generating material is quite easy for me. You go and see some people’s comedy shows and there’s a narrative arc across a 40-minute routine, which is great. They’re building a statue from marble. I’m making something from Lego. It’s like 300 jokes in a row, so it’s just brick by brick, building up some gags. It’s a piece of piss. It’s easy.
RS: Someone said they wanted to know about your early childhood. I know you said your mother was the funniest person you ever knew.
JC: Yeah she was very funny. Very sort of – she would say the unsayable a lot. Yes she was really funny.
RS: Did you have an inkling of this in early life?
JC: No I’m always very suspicious of people who know what they want to do when they’re 12. I doubt many people when they’re 12 go ‘I want to be an advertising planner. It’s the best thing ever. I really want to drill down into these demographics. Basically, ABC1s, I think, are the market.’
It’s a weird thing. I sort of fell into it, I think, arse backwards and it’s been really fun. And TV, people think that’s the aim – that’s where we want to be. Actually live stand-up is what you do for a living and everything else is gravy. That’s the job and most people I know that are comedians think of themselves as journeymen. So you’re not trying to get anywhere or do anything. You always get asked in interviews ‘what next?’ and you think actually this is fine.
RS: So it’s a kind of craft thing and you practice the craft.
JC: Yeah. Like being a musician. It’s just a fun life.
RS: You described yourself as a ‘plastic Paddy’, which is your Irish background.
JC: I always say I look like this because my dad’s Irish and my mum’s Roger Federer. I suppose ‘plastic Paddy’ is a fair term.
RS: Coming from Wales, you actually defended this very reasonably-
JC: You’re Welsh are you?
JC: I like that joke-
RS: Go on then.
JC: One of my best friends is a Welsh guy and I asked him how many sexual partners he’d had in his life and started to count, then he fell asleep.
RS: But that refers to the North Welsh. Let me make that very clear.
JC: Yeah, sure. In Cardiff you’re too busy fucking your sister.
There you are. Those jokes. I’m not really sure at what stage that becomes an offensive thing.
I think one of my favourite jokes just in terms of the form of it. And it’s not that funny but I really love the format. It’s an Irishman walks into a library and says ‘fish and chips, please’ and the librarian goes ‘this is a library.’ He goes I’m sorry [whispering] ‘fish and chips, please.’ It’s a brilliant, crazy logic. And as much as you can reverse engineer comedy and you can analyse it and go ‘how that was written was they started off with the punchline and worked back’, sort of like the same way you’d write a murder mystery – you start knowing who did it an then you take away enough elements so that it creates a story. You can reverse engineer a joke but you never come up with something brilliant like that. You come up with something that’s very serviceable and fun, but really funny jokes have to be a little moment of inspiration.
RS: There is a kind of formula thing, which is knock-knock jokes or light bulb jokes, probably started fairly feeble and they’ve just become a thing on which people riff. So you get the occasional thing where there’s a formula. This is the great thing about dissecting a joke – you make a horrible mess and the frog dies. That actually there’s some element that- the peculiar thing about humour is it’s entirely about the reaction it creates.
JC: It’s interesting when it relates to advertising though, because the kind of comedy that I’m talking about – mainly one-liners – that is the kind of thing that I do. There is a premise that you can’t hear a one-liner more than once because the surprise is such an important part of it. And I don’t think that is true. Actually the funniest ad on TV at the moment I think is the P&O advert that Rob Brydon does. I think it’s brilliantly done. It’s not laugh-out-loud funny, it’s just funny and it’s charming and actually if you see it three times in a day it’s not annoying. It’s a weird level. They just pitched the level absolutely right.
I think often the reason advertising shies away from comedy is they go ‘we could spend all this money on an ad and want it to run for a year. People are going to get bored of the joke.’
RS: But they don’t get bored of the joke.
JC: But I get it. The John Smith’s or whatever – if you do a series of ads that have got the same sort of theme and they rotate, it’s really nice.
RS: It’s hard to do, actually. The comedy of something that makes it rewatchable, it’s not exactly the same as greatness, is it? So I’ve never had the urge to watch Citizen Kane again, but I can watch Ferris Bueller’s Day Off – I’ve probably watched that 15 times. The same quality applies to jokes. I don’t know if anyone’s read P. G. Wodehouse, The Clicking of Cuthbert.
JC: I think I speak on behalf of everyone when I say no, I haven’t. Have you met people? I mean I’ve read The Huffington Post.
RS: Well it’s a short story that is so good that I can read that several times a year and probably still do. There was this thing that Douglas Adams used to do. He would dissect Wodehouse’s style, take a paragraph and just spend ages working out what makes it so funny and try and work that out.
You made a point about obviously there’s the brevity thing. There’s the thing about, what is it? I’m not gay, unless from Newcastle and by gay means ‘owns a coat’.
[The audience don’t react]
JC: That’s a very good example. I can make that funny, whereas you just fucking slaughtered that. Jesus fucking wept!
RS: But the peculiar thing is the extent to which the repeat of an ad is – show the Kronenbourg ad if you’ve got it up there.
JC: It would be funnier if he didn’t look like a farmer. He looks too much like a farmer now.
RS: The interesting thing about that though is that little facial expression at the end that more or less says ‘you and I, the audience, will engage in a conspiracy in this mild act of deception’. The first thing is the extent to which humour is so executionally dependent that two people can tell an identical joke and it’s hysterical in one set of hands and dire in the other.
JC: Yeah. I think that’s the reason that someone like John Lloyd, who is a brilliant commercials director, did all the Barclaycard stuff with Rowan Atkinson. Especially if you’ve only got 30 seconds to get your message across, every frame counts. And if you get a brilliant comedic director you can get it and if you get someone who’s kind of only OK or an editor that’s not brilliant. You’re absolutely right. The execution is everything when you’ve only got that amount of time. Also, it’s amazing how much you can do in an advert. It’s amazing how much you can do in 30 seconds.
RS: That tough brevity thing. One of the problems, I think, with global advertising is that you could do a hell of a lot in 30 seconds and have a lot of common cultural reference, which people would immediately understand. So an awful lot of the content effectively doesn’t need to be said. What gets more difficult is if you assume you have this completely diverse audience so more or less everything needs to be explained. That makes the whole thing more difficult.
JC: You talk about the global thing. Another thing is that humour’s hardly used at all really with global branding. When you talk about your IBMs and Apples and things. It seems really anodyne and – I realise they’re trying to create brands and have been tremendously successful, but there’s no personality there. When you talk about personality brands, I think humour’s a key part of that. Adverts can be funny but brands tend to be very serious and stuck up and cold.
RS: I think a little bit of it is a financial thing, which is the proportion of money spent in advertising on categories like beer or cigars, or whatever, which were historically the funniest. The assumption was people buy this product out of what you might call the discretionary part of their wallet, which is ‘this is money I’m spending to have a laugh’ and therefore the advertising should do the same. And those are a smaller and smaller part of overall advertising on TV, dwarfed by things like insurance comparison websites, mobile phone networks – a whole bunch of categories that didn’t exist when I was a kid. That doesn’t help, I think. Some of those categories manage to be fairly funny. The meerkats are a pretty good example of taking a category which was not comedy gold to begin with.
JC: I’m amazed mobile phones haven’t gone down that road more. It seems like mobile phone adverts are always about ‘yoot culture’. Really?
RS: [O2’s] ‘Be more dog’ is probably an example of something a little bit British.
JC: I think they could make more of an effort. I’ll be honest.
RS: There is something that’s becoming a bit earnest and worthy about the whole commercial world and it’s hard to challenge it. I find it just a little bit upsetting the extent to which there’s very little wit in press advertising. I used to buy magazines largely to read the ads because the agency CDP at the time had probably produced most of the best ones.
JC: It’s an odd thing because it’s happened just recently with the online commercials or the ones that you guys make for your showreels. The famous VW ad that they made which wasn’t sanctioned by VW. Show that.
JC: That is a brilliant ad.
RS: And yet that’s not an advert. It was made by an aspiring creative team, I think. Certainly not sanctioned by Volkswagen. The interesting thing about that is I suspect in the 1970s they would have run that ad. There is an element of corporate cowardice that’s come about which is that more or less anything interesting you say will offend somebody. That somebody will now have the means to complain, make a fuss-
JC: I think maybe let’s not suggest ‘let’s get ISIS in more ads’. But it seems there’s another thing which is going on now which is online media – the idea of people watching clips and the fact that you can talk direct to people in that. Broadcasting’s gone. It’s that narrowcasting where you go ‘where that audience for VW are young people that will take the joke.’ But it gets the message across brilliantly.
RS: You can’t argue with it being on brief.
JC: Often another thing that’s quite annoying about funny adverts is when they’re just funny and you go ‘what’s it for?’ There’s nothing that ties it in.
RS: There’s another convention. I don’t know what the reason for this is but no brand, virtually, in the UK will ever produce advertising slagging off a competitor brand. It’s just a kind of unwritten law.
JC: Supermarkets, I think, started doing it, but it’d be good if they started going ‘Aldi? You’re having a laugh. They’re only there to keep the scum out of Lidl.’
RS: A large part of humour depends on mild challenge or rudeness. It’s difficult to be humorous and be nice. It’s one of the funny things, that eventually these people believe that humour, to an extent, is kind of what you might call harmless aggression. It’s almost a contradiction of terms – a means to challenge someone while not actually starting a fight. But there is a degree of- all humans to an extent – there are exceptions – but a hell of a lot of funny humour is actually nasty to somebody.
JC: Ultimately, if you start trying to please everyone in comedy you’ll end up going ‘well someone’s father probably died crossing a road, looking for a chicken.’ It’s going to happen at some point.
RS: Like one of the old Benny Hill comedy gags of all time. There was an advertisement Barclays ran about four years ago, which shows someone effectively getting a bee trapped in their clothing and having to divest themselves of clothes and jump in a lake. And it was taken off the air because it was deemed to be offensive to people who have bee sting allergies.
JC: I think bee sting allergies is very much a thinning of the herd. It’s like being allergic to peanuts – fuck ‘em.
It’s a weird thing when you say that and people thing ‘well this child, ah.’ You can’t take that as a joke. That seems crazy to me. It’s sort of an insane thing. I don’t think advertising helps itself. Also, how many complaints do you need to have to have an ad taken off television?
RS: It’s a pretty small number. A large percentage of them come from competitor companies.
[An audience member says it could be one]
JC: It could be one complaint to get that taken off? That’s got to change hasn’t it? That just seems insane that someone could come and say ‘I didn’t like it’. I’m amazed more competitors aren’t making those calls.
RS: Emphatically, they do. I know that. Quite a few complaints are written from the Marketing Director of an opposing company’s lover’s address or something like that. It happens quite a bit. It’s pure mischief making.
JC: Oh. Good!
RS: This is something that needs to be discussed more widely because the right to offend people in some way and also the right engage in conversation with your friends which can’t be deemed offensive by some third party who isn’t engaged in the conversation is another thing.
JC: People are trying to mediate that at the moment. It’s a weird thing where I could say something on Twitter that you couldn’t. I could make a joke about a bomb on an airplane because there’s a delay. I could be annoyed about that and make a joke and that would be fine because of what I do for a living. If any of you did that I think you’d probably do jail time. That’s the slightly mad thing. But people are only getting used to that now – the idea that their online profile is in the public domain. The private world’s getting smaller and smaller.
RS: Yes. And there’s an argument that Twitter should be judged by the light of private conversation even though it’s public. One of the things you notice – I’ve got a very interesting metric, which is if you tweet something slightly controversial on Twitter that’s funny, you get a hell of a lot of favourites and no retweets, which is the quantitative demonstration of cowardice. ‘I can favourite this and that’s fine. If I retweet it I might get HR on my back.’
JC: I think getting back to advertising, it seems we haven’t questioned whether humour is a very good way to sell things. The premise of this conversation is should you be allowed to joke in advertising or say more edgy things in adverts or take a brand to another place and make it more sort of a well-rounded character with a sense of humour, but the premise is that’s always going to be a sort of good idea. I don’t know if people buy into that or not – if humour is a good way of selling. Because that’s ultimately what you’re doing. You’re trying to sell stuff, right?
Some people are goin ‘eeeh. It’s a bit more than that. We’re building rapport with 3rd party advocacy.’ Fuck him up.
RS: Actually you probably need to say ‘engagement’ and ‘branded content’ as well.
JC: It seems to work even better. If you’re trying to get someone to buy bread from Aldi, it strikes me that comedy’s not the best way to do it. Just ‘20p. Bread. You like toast don’t you? Fucking use this. Toast it.’ You don’t need comedy there. So much of marketing and advertising is about brand building and trying to create a person and if you can’t use humour there I think you’re really up against it.
RS: I think people undoubtedly personalise brands. We don’t like people without a sense of humour but somehow we’re OK with brands that don’t have one. Which seems odd. I suppose it leads to the diminishing of personality at some level.
JC: I always wondered why they never bring people into it- I’m not touting for work here, but I’m always amazed they never bring comics in. That advertising agencies never go ‘we’ll get a comedian to write the line on that.’
RS: Brilliant point.
JC: I did some work about ten years ago. We went in and did a day with an advertising agency, a workshop or whatever, and it was really fun, but there’s a huge pool of talent out there. I’m always amazed when they do that on films as well. They make an action movie and they have one funny line in it and it’ll be shit. You go ‘well you should have just got some comics in. We could have nailed that.’
Yeah. Employ me. Come on.
RS: Interesting question. We employ musical talent to write music. It doesn’t seem ridiculous to outsource that as well.
JC: It doesn’t really happen the same. John Cleese used to be in every ad. That was the law, wasn’t it? There was a point around 1989 when he was in literally every advert and people felt very well disposed to him. But that doesn’t seem to happen that much now. I wonder why that is. I suppose ads are made pan-European.
RS: I think that’s the reason. The number of uniquely British ads as a proportion is probably smaller. That’s interesting. But you’ve raised an interesting point. There are quite a few changes happening. They happen at a speed that we don’t really notice them, but the proportion of comedians is probably a lot lower.
Finally, how do you do it? How do you produce them? Do you have any mechanism, a lucky rabbit’s foot.
JC: No. In terms of joke writing, in terms of the creative process of jokes, I think it is about being in that mindset. It’s a lovely way to see the world. If you’re trying to write jokes for the day you’re sort of looking at the world through rose-tinted glasses, so even when something horrific happens in the news, you’re trying to think of the funny angle and it actually puts you in quite a good mood. It’s a really lovely thing to be doing. So you’re constantly thinking in that two-line structure and often it is that thing of trying to go way past where you’re going to go with the joke. Say the unsayable to someone and see what response that elicits. So often you’re chatting to someone and trying to say something edgy.
RS: So you’ll take something like a disaster and then you have to flip that by trying to look at it from this positive or humorous frame of mind.
JC: Yeah. Then you find out where too far is and edge back. That’s not a bad way.
RS: This is my point, that actually you have to go too far before you can get it right.
JC: Interestingly, I think Derren Brown’s gone too far with these Malaysian air disasters.
RS: We have obviously said enough for today. So thank you very much.