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How To Make A Hilarious Ad, From A Master Of Short-Form Comedy Directing

The man behind “Swear Jar” and those amazing HBO Go ads breaks down his process for getting laughs on camera.

How To Make A Hilarious Ad, From A Master Of Short-Form Comedy Directing
[Photos & Videos: courtesy of David Shane & O Positive]

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If you ask 100 people what their favorite commercial of all time is, chances are the majority of them will come back with a funny one. But what makes a commercial funny? In under a minute, and often less than 30 seconds, it makes you laugh and actually conveys some information about, or the spirit of, a product or service. It may seem easy every time you see Jeff Goldblum in a hot tub, but TV and the web are awash in chuckle-free hot garbage.

HBO was responsible for some of the funniest ads of the past year, on any platform with its the award-winning HBO Go campaign featuring awkward conversations one family has about and around and during a variety of the network’s hit shows. The brilliance of these ads lies in their subtle ability to weave familiarity and absurdity into moments that rely just as heavily on what’s not said as they do on hilarious lines. And it should come as no surprise that they were all directed by David Shane.

Whether the HBO Go ads, or the legendary, proto-viral-ad, “Swear Jar” for Bud Light, his unique take on A-Ha for VW or his recent Funny of Die short “Plane Crash,” you start to notice the hallmarks of Shane’s humor. Everyone looks and talks like a real person, instead of an actor playing a real person. You’re not only laughing at what’s being said, but how it’s said and the reaction to it. The laughs are in the faces as much as they are in the words. He’s directed a string of consistently funny installations of the ESPN “This is Sportscenter” franchise, including a recent, tragi-comic look at Metallica’s post-Mariano Rivera years, and also made an affecting story of undying love for Nerve.com. Shane, a director/partner at production company O Positive, has won every flavor of ad award over the years but this year outdid himself by being named the most awarded director at the ad industry’s biggest event, the Cannes Lions, on the strength of the blockbuster performance of the HBO campaign and additional work including VW.

Bobby Hershfield, executive creative director of HBO GO’s agency SS+K, says Shane is the complete package. “He’s a writer so he can make scripts better,” says Hershfield. “He’s an actor so he’s incredible at getting performances from actors. And of course, he’s a technical director who’s not afraid of trying new things and always bringing passion to the set. He makes everyone around him better.”

Co.Create spoke with Shane recently about what makes a commercial funny, what he looks for in a script and in casting, and telling a dick joke with real emotion.

Let A Joke Live Its Natural Life

“The best thing in the world is when a joke can live its natural life without being artificially manipulated,” says Shane.

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It always starts with a smart script, one with great moments and, ideally, spaces for the actors to act in. Which, according to Shane, is rare. “Most 30-second scripts are really 1:20 if you want anything close to the rhythm of real speech in the spot,” he says. “Copywriters, and I was one of them, share a little DNA with cattle auctioneers, reading their stuff at twice the speed of light.

“You can make a mediocre ad from a great script, but you definitely can’t make a great ad, or short, feature, play or whatever from a shitty script. It’s really about taking a joke and trying to find a way to not lean in to it or hit it too hard. It’s about keeping the moment honest. If no one’s trying to be funny, they’ll be way more funny.”

Comedy is about rhythm, says Shane, which makes the typical 24-seconds-or-fewer timespan of a commercial a tricky constraint. “The joke or moment can’t live its natural life and you have to collapse it,” he says. “There’s a skill to do that and it takes a while to acquire. It’s all about finding where the dramatic friction is. What the characters want, what’s in their way in the scene, how they try to overcome it.”

Find Room To Improvise

Shane’s quest to make things seem as real as possible can be tough when a scene needs multiple takes. The director uses improv to help prevent lines from sounding too rehearsed or unnatural. “Find the room to improvise and try to create the opportunity for the actor to live that moment for the first time onscreen,” says Shane. “I don’t understand shooting the same thing a thousand times. It’s not a play, you only need it once. It’s also about options. Comedy can be a volume business. Stuff you think is singing on the shoot can die a quiet sad death on the editing table. And vice versa–something you don’t think played or fell flat on the day, suddenly soars in editing. So I’m a total options whore, so I can find those moments.”

Shane says a lack of freedom is to blame for the bulk of bad ad acting. “The reason I think there is a lot of mediocre acting in commercials is partly because the scripts don’t leave space for the actors to act in, because some directors and copywriters want it read in a certain way, in which case an actor is reading, not acting,” says Shane. “Improv allows an actor to live the moment in real-time, and then you start getting the rhythm of real speech, with all the hiccups and starts and pauses and things that would never happen if I sat there and said, ‘Say it exactly like this.'”

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Go Behind The Eyes

When casting for a project, perhaps the most important quality for Shane is to find actors who are watchable. “I’m always looking for actors who can do a lot with a little,” he says. “Inside-out actors, or interior actors, where you can see a lot going on behind the eyes. They have to be very watchable too, which is innate, you can’t teach it. You’re spit out of the womb watchable or not. I don’t dip into the gene pool of improv actors or comedians as much as you might think, just because I want the most honest performance I can find and usually, but not always, it’s funnier if it’s more real. I want people who say things that don’t sound like a line, just something they said. It’s also about finding people who look like they fit the role, rather than an actor making choices.”

In Shane’s short, “Plane Crash,” Terry wants a culinary experience he’s never had and sees the unique situation as a means to finally do it. He knows he can’t be too overt and has to couch his motives in nobility, or taking one for the team. “It’s always great to watch an actor, or anyone, struggling not to reveal their true intentions or feelings,” says Shane. “I’m always looking for those opportunities to work the subtext. Especially in commercials because you don’t see it as much in that space and why when you do see it there it’s so watchable.

“On the set it’s about talking about the building blocks of the scene–what’s the intention of your character? What’s getting in the way of your character? How are you trying to overcome it? What are the stakes? ‘Plane Crash’ is a collection of dick jokes but animating those dick jokes are real stakes and real emotions, and I think that’s why it works pretty well. Besides the obvious friction between Terry and the rest of the group, to me the fun one was between Ben and himself, watching him struggle to humor Terry.”

Look For Specific Moments

Whether writing or reading scripts, Shane is always looking for ways to mine the story for specific moments. “All stories, whether 24 seconds or two hours, are really a collection of moments,” he says. “Nobody tells their friends the plot of a movie over and over, but they do quote lines and specific scenes all the time. So the first thing I’m doing is looking for that or the possibility of that in a script. Moments are about real human behavior. People laugh because they recognize themselves in what they’re watching.”

Another important quality is comedic friction. “Someone said this, it may have been Freud but I don’t know because I never graduated college, ‘Violence is funny whether it is emotional or physical,’ says Shane. “In a script that means finding where the friction is coming from, then it’s about finding the places where people are trying to not reveal what they’re thinking. We never think we’re an open book, but our expressions can betray that. What’s the subtext? Especially in commercials, I’m always trying to work the subtext. What are they saying, but what are they really saying? Also, awkwardness is funny.”

One comedy rule Shane lives by is that it’s not necessarily the joke that’s funny, but the reaction to the joke. “That’s what gives you permission to laugh,” says Shane. “Sometimes I think people bleach the funny out of commercials, and even movies sometimes, by over-thinking in the editing room. They think you need to actually see the joke coming out of the character’s mouth, instead of watching the character who is reacting.”

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Always Go Faster

A commercial or film set is a manufactured landscape. Totally fake. To give the actors and situation some semblance of reality, Shane uses the unpredictability of speed to find those valuable, natural moments. “One of my directions, always, is ‘faster,'” he says. “Every time I finish a scene I do two things. First, improvise the scene. No one says any of the words on the page. It doesn’t always work but sometimes it’s magic when an actor is struggling to speak because he doesn’t have a line. Then we do it at twice the speed, because it’s true that directors and actors can fall a bit too much in love with what they’re doing. You want to get a range. Anything can get old if it’s the same thing over and over, no matter how good that one thing may be, so I always try to shoot a bunch of different endings. I realized early on, two-thirds of something can be great but if it ends badly, forget it.”

About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.

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