CLOSE-UP: CRAFT/CAMPAIGN SCREEN INTERVIEW - Comedy guru teaching 'angry art' to the advertising industry. Robert McKee believes that comedy in ads is all in the set-up, Lisa Campbell says

Dogs, sex and babes in bikinis. No, we're not talking Saatchi %26 Saatchi's Agency of the Year shindig, but common themes at this year's Cannes Advertising Festival, according to the weary jury. And the one thing uniting these disparate ideas was humour or, more precisely, attempts at it.

Paul Briginshaw, the creative director at Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy, was one judge who left rather depressed by it all. "I'm a bit concerned about the world's advertising. There were a lot of lame jokes and poorly thought out and executed ads."

For the inexperienced, humour is often the second bright idea, after "let's use sex!", and it is erroneously considered an easy thing to do. Humorous ads can fall into several traps:

1) They are not funny.
2) They are funny but have no strategic insight or relevance to the
brand. They are simply "gags with tags".
3) Once you've seen them a few times, they not only wear a bit thin, but
become irritants.
4) You can't predict how viewers will respond to humour in advertising
and there's little in the way of research to help you out. In fact, it's
a wonder that clients allow their precious budget to be gambled on such
a fragile concept.

But done well, humour can catapult your brand into the stratosphere.

"Whassup? transgressed cultural boundaries and became part of the vernacular - as well as increasing sales of Budweiser - while John West Salmon's "bear was recently voted the world's best commercial in the US, where it was not even broadcast on TV. It was thanks to people e-mailing the ad to their friends that it spread like wildfire around the world.

So what is the key to comedy and, more importantly, can it be taught?

According to the screen-writing guru Robert McKee, comedy is a craft like any other and certain techniques can be taught. "But you cannot teach someone who is fundamentally not funny to be funny, he warns.

McKee, whose book Story is a bible for film students and budding writers/directors, performs seminars around the world. Companies such as ABC and Pixar regularly send their entire creative and writing departments to his lectures while his comedy seminars have attracted names such as the comedian John Cleese and the director Spike Jonze. Jonze's upcoming feature Adaptation features McKee as a mentor for the struggling screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, played by Nicolas Cage.

McKee is also attracting interest outside of Hollywood with many advertising copywriters and directors now attending his courses. His recent Comedy Day, featured on Campaign Screen, revealed comic devices, structure, genres and fundamentals such as the timing of jokes and laughter.

Al Young, the creative director at St Luke's who attended the course, says: "McKee's book Story and his seminars are an absolute inspiration. They help you to understand why things work and why they don't. In my job, it also helps me explain that to clients - it gives you that vocabulary and allows you to be more objective."

"I think, however, that writing comedy is still an intuitive act, but this course helps take away the mystery. McKee documents the science of comedy - such as how laughter works. It's very useful to know, he adds.

Humour has been described as "the Venus flytrap of advertising. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn't. But, according to McKee, it's simple: "If they laugh, it works, if they don't laugh, it does not work."

McKee claims that the comic mind is idealistic. Comics want the world around them to be perfect, but when they see that it's not, they get upset.

He explains: "Comedy is the angry art - it is an attack on social behaviour and on social institutions such as religion, politics and class. If you harangue the world about how bad it is, you will be ignored, but if you can expose the vanity and lunacy and get people to laugh at it, maybe things will change."

Comedy also depends on the exploitation of the topical as well as taboos. For McKee, no subject matter is too hot and sex, particularly, is to be exploited. Once you have got away with semen in the hair (There's Something About Mary), where is there left for you to go?

"People ask: 'Will comedy continue to be funny once all the taboos have been broken?' But I think there will always be subject matter to tap into. Nothing is sacred, he says.

True comedy is a funny story and the most important thing to consider is the set-up. Many writers make the mistake, McKee says, of concentrating too much on the gag or the punchline but the real humour is in the set-up. When you have a great set-up, the punches are almost inevitable.

McKee adds: "You know you've written a true comedy when you sit an innocent victim down and pitch your story. Just tell him what happens, without quoting witty dialogue or sight gags, and he laughs."

The set-up can create any emotion in the audience, whether fear, hatred or anger, but it's an essentially logical story. Then, out of the blue comes the punchline, which cancels the logic of the set-up. "There has to be an essential incongruity between the set-up and the punch. Laughter explodes when two ideas that we never associated with each other are suddenly clashed together in the mind, he explains.

The comic mind, he concludes, discovers a hidden connection no-one has seen before; it finds those off-the-wall ideas, fuses them together and creates an original, unexpected and amusing situation.

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