When you watch as much cable news as I do, you watch a lot of ads. A lot of the same ads – for the same products – with recurring casts of characters. I could do a long, loud riff on Big Pharma’s constant pitching at us, but that’s for another time. One of the other products that sees gold in news audiences is Big Insurance. The problem with selling insurance is twofold: first, it’s a really boring product. Second, in order to buy it, we have to be fearful. The whole point of insurance, after all, is mitigating risk. This is why most insurance companies ultimately surrender to humor. Wanna sell insurance, sell funny first. The problem: not all funny is the same. Not all funny is actually funny. It’s just a fact: comedy IS hard.
Humor’s subjective. Different people find different things funny (and for different reasons). Whole cultures can disagree on what funny even is. How can we possibly explain why the French found Jerry Lewis funnier than we found him? There are degrees of humor. Not everything is laugh-out-loud funny. Some things mildly amuse and so we titter at them.
Just for the record, not everyone has a sense of humor. Most everyone can laugh, but if we zoom in on their laughter? We can see whether they’re laughing at or with the world. More importantly, we can see whether or not they can laugh at themselves. THAT is the genetic marker for having a sense of humor. If you can laugh at yourself, congrats! You’ve got one. if you can’t – Donald Trump comes to mind – you don’t.
People without a sense of humor laugh all the time but at everyone else. Turn a joke around and focus it at them and they lose their shit completely. In poker, that’s called “a tell”.
Within the comic realm, there are unwritten rules. Either you follow them completely or you ignore them completely. Andy Kaufman was a great example of the latter. You can’t hang out in the middle – that’s a giant dead zone where the audience stares back at you in silence that consumes your soul.
There are basic rules like “three’s” and “fives”. Things that play in threes and fives are funnier than things that play in twos or fours. Hard sounds (“K’s”) are funnier than softer sounds (“L’s”). Small gags will surely die when plumped up into bigger gags.
SNL learned that last rule during the 90’s and 00’s. Remember all the sketch ideas they tried to boost into feature films? I don’t mean the early films that started the idea – “Blues Brothers” and “Wayne’s World”, I mean the rest. “It’s Pat!” and “A Night At The Roxbury” stumble to mind. Frankly, even “Blues Brothers” and “Wayne’s World” are mediocre when compared to the greats (“Some Like It Hot”, “City Lights”, “Tootsie”). But, at least those movies didn’t humiliate themselves and the poor actors who (undeservedly) took the fall for some money guy’s greed. Comedy is a bit like how the Supreme Court used to define porno – ya know it when ya see it. And it’s more visible, ironically, the less it’s present!
Which brings us around to advertising.
Ad campaigns are expensive propositions. There’s a lot of risk involved (none of it insurable). Using humor adds to the risk. So, when an ad agency pitches their insurance company client a funny approach to selling their un-funny product, they’ve got to sell their own sense of humor. “Hey, I think this is funny and you will, too!” That thought undergirds the whole pitch.
At some point in its evolution, an ad exec had to pitch the idea for “Flo The Insurance Salesperson” to the folks at Progressive Insurance. Another ad exec somewhere had to sell “Doug And The LiMu Emu” to Liberty Mutual Insurance. Both succeeded – at selling the insurance companies. But, did both succeed at actually being funny?
Spoiler Alert! Absolutely not! One group succeeded almost entirely while the other missed almost entirely.
The ad team that created Progressive’s Flo (and the “team” of insurance agents around her) have created a terrific character with a full inner life plus a team with full inner lives as well! Liberty Mutual weren’t so lucky. They bought a mildly amusing sketch idea – super insurance salesman Doug and his sales partner, “Emu” – that never rises above being a mildly amusing sketch idea.
We’ll get to the “universe” shortly. What I mean is the universe in which the funny takes place. Does that universe feel real or phony? Real universes produce comedy. Phony ones don’t. Unreal universes can feel more real than real universes – provided everyone inside the unreal universe feels real. A weak idea can work provided it’s played as quickly as possible. That’s good news for Doug. Here are two examples where keeping it short n sweet pays benefits –
The whole emu thing is tricky. Animals, ya know? It’s like prop comics – do they really need the prop to be funny? Alas, with Doug and his Emu, yes. That’s a problem. Props can stop being funny on a dime. You can hit that note once. Twice. The third time? It better start evolving or it’s going to get very old very fast.
Here, in just 20 second, a sketch idea outgrows any possible humor.
The normal world seems to go long with this strange conceit about emus as… what? Companions? Viable characters with viable lives? Watching this, do we really believe that the rest of the wedding attendees buy this? Their gasp at Kevin’s intrusion feels… wanting. What’s Kevin’s complaint? The last shot is Doug’s girlfriend looking askance at Kevin.
We feel her lack of amusement for what’s going on here…
I don’t know that this is what happened, but I’d bet I’m not far off. Someone at Liberty Mutual’s ad agency has convinced themself that they’re funny. They’re amusing but good at puffing their amusing up in a room and then selling it as funny. That might work in the room, but nowhere else. It’s painful when people – for whatever reason – convince themselves that they’re funny or what they’re working on is funny. And then the flogging begins on that poor, dead horse.
Every last Liberty Mutual spot suffers from the same delusion – that they’re funny. Every single spot on the pier (with the Statue of Liberty behind) is equally wrong-headed about how funny it is.
For the record, I do NOT blame poor David Hoffman, the actor who plays Doug. He’s been given an impossible task. He fills the void with as much life as he can but Doug simply is under-written in the extreme. His inner life is one-note.
Hey, we all know people like that. And there are ways to make them funny. But, Doug – as written – has no notes other than that one. At least, from David Hoffman’s perspective, he’s building a pile of eff-you money.
By contrast, the agency handling Progressive’s account has created greatness. Progressive also has Dr. Rick and his (seemingly) uncoachable young adults (who will end up exactly like their parents).
The ads want to sell insurance, of course. And the universe they’ve created is absurd. People do, say and think strange things. But, the whole universe feels engaged with the absurdity. Great casting helps greatly. Former Groundling Stephanie Courtney is wonderful. So’s Jim Cashman and Natalie Palamides and Paul Mabon. Bill Glass is great playing Dr. Rick.
Here, in a spot from early in the campaign, Flo (Stephanie Courtney) comforts Jamie (Jim Cashman) after a tough day.
There’s a lot happening here under the surface. Both characters have to be rich and rooted for this scene to work. And – very important – it’s a dark joke (about failure). It requires lots of craft to shape the spot so that we don’t hate Flo and pity Jamie at the end of it. Both would work against the comedy.
But they pull it off! Another example – where Ms. Courtney both shines as Flo (and gives her a deep inner life) and makes her co-star look good. An improv background helps!
The payoff is terrific. Both the emu wedding and the haircut end on “awkward” beats. The emu wedding feels hollow and, well, awkward. Flo’s haircut feels authentic by comparison. Flo’s uncertainty – her growing doubt about what she’s just done – we relate to it all as an audience.
Flo hasn’t just sold us insurance, she’s sold us on how real she is. How real her emotions are (despite all the surrounding absurdity).
Comedy is hard. Damned hard. But the difference between successful comedy and unsuccessful comedy is easy to spot.