Kings of comedy

What's the recipe for a funny ad? The creatives behind some of the most humorous TV and cinema campaigns share their craft and select their five favourite comedy ads created by other people.

Walls 'thank you' ad by Saatchi & Saatchi
Walls 'thank you' ad by Saatchi & Saatchi



A few words about meerkats. They are cute. They spend a lot of time on their hind legs, which makes them semi-pre-anthropomorphised. They are fairly exotic. The hard work is already done.

They also sometimes rape their young, but that's not relevant.

We started working on the Comparethemarket.com business at VCCP in 2008. The senior creative Matt Lloyd spotted the market/meerkat pun and we were briefed to do something with it. Some of the initial concepts were surreal Aflac duck-style slapstick, some were ethically dubious "meerkatsploitation" stunts.

But it became clear that the conceit should be some kind of fictional conflict between two completely different but similar-sounding businesses.

A lot of the decisions about the character were made in about five minutes. He is Russian because Russia seemed a likely place for an obscure online meerkat-comparison business to thrive. He is rich because he's a Russian businessman. He wears a cravat and smoking jacket because we have no idea what rich people wear.

If comedy isn't just "whatever's funny", it's tension. Someone needs to be frustrated. The Comparethemarket campaign is based on conflict and Aleksandr is at his best when he's indignant. It helps that he's small and furry and oddly spoken, but it's more important that he's got a problem he can't solve. There weren't any real "jokes" in the first ad, just an explanation of a ridiculous situation. (Add to this the brilliant vocal stylings of Simon Greenall and the character-animation of Darren Walsh.)

We love comedy in advertising. And we would love to see more of it in UK advertising. Americans seem to do it effortlessly. Perhaps it's because the accent is the most naturally attuned to snappy dialogue. Perhaps it's because they're allowed to do violence, which usually trumps all the snappy dialogue in the world.

We don't hate puns. Puns can be great because they give you permission to do something fantastical in a very short space of time, which, in advertising, is very useful. Puns can also be terrible.

We overwrite. There's often a joke to be had after the joke and some of the time it will be funnier than the punchline. An unfortunate side-effect of this is overlong scripts. This has been a big problem in our career. Cutting a script down to length can destroy the rhythm of your writing, which can destroy the comedy, which can wreck the ad, which can get you dead-legged in a toilet by the managing director.


Audi "tell Charles I'm on my way" by Bartle Bogle Hegarty

Blackcurrant Tango "St George" by HHCL

Orange "film board" by Mother

Pimm's "prison holiday camp" by Mother

Ikea "elite designers against Ikea" by Karmarama


Since man has been able to write in a form other people could read, he wrote jokes. We have used comedy through the ages to make sense of or laugh at our condition and the way we live. And advertising is no different; what a perfect medium to engage in the way we live and what relationships we have with brands and each other. A form of social commentary that cuts through and becomes the new playground and office catchphrase entering the vernacular as if it had always been there. I'll never forget when Yan was queuing up in a McDonald's behind some London schoolgirls who, on seeing his rather large glasses, turned to him and said: "Should've gone to Specsavers, mister."

It's the perfect opportunity to be liked, even to be loved. They say that humour is often used by children as a social currency.

For us, being funny in your communication is extremely rewarding both for the brand and the consumer. It raises the bar and creates positive expectations and warm anticipation. The key is: how can you perform your own branded, recognisable comedy without falling into the generic trap?

We have been involved in - as I'm sure many others have before and since - many conversations with brands concerning "what sort of funny are we?". This always makes me laugh. I tend to picture Eric Morecambe or Seth MacFarlane sitting in a room procrastinating over what style of funny they want to be: "Am I belly-laugh funny, or more of a warm, knowing wit?"

But, before you get to funny, you need a brand idea that can take it. A robust thought that positions you with a simple point of view to which the comedy can be wrung out of. For example, Dr Pepper was a very clear trial strategy ("try it, you might like it"), and we just twisted it into "what's the worst that could happen?" - it's not like your trousers are going to fall down in front of the whole class? Finding this truth that teenagers would rather be swallowed up by a hole in the ground than be embarrassed in front of their peers became a rich vein to tap into and for the brand to be aligned with. And using the American teen-movie genre as a place for it to live allowed us to push it further for a UK teen audience.

Another thing is that humans respond to humans. The brand has to have a role, but will never be the star - all it can hope to be is part of the fun. Great characters and actors are imperative, as are the writing and direction. The brand will win because people see it as being brave, switched-on and insightful, and then the people will reward you with some of their hard-earned cash.

While we were at Mother, we worked on 12 Orange Gold Spots and the first nine Orange Wednesday ads, which featured some great actors. Our favourites were Sean Astin and Roy Scheider.

Our influences are far and wide, from our families and friends, to movies and TV shows, to books or comics. But whatever they are, they are based on the human condition: stories about us and how we live.


Carling Black Label "Dam Busters" by WCRS

Cinzano "Leonard Rossiter and Joan Collins" by CDP

ESPN SportCenter "Jimmy Key" by Wieden & Kennedy Portland

E-Trade "out the wazoo" by Young & Rubicam

Nextel "Push It" by TBWA\Chiat\Day


My mum once had a very lovely boyfriend, Peter. Every time Peter watched Tom And Jerry, he'd wet himself. Not just a dribble, but a full-on piss. Peter was 45 years old.

It's a subjective thing, comedy. One man's Tom And Jerry is another man's The Kumars At No 42.

My own attempts at comedy are littered with catastrophic fuck-ups.

I thought that the idea of a psychic duck selling Domino's Pizza was a ball-achingly funny one. Most people didn't (it didn't help that we took the idea all the way through the business to the extent of having the phone lines manned by a recording that would say: "Hello, I'm a psychic duck, and I know what pizza you want ...").

Jon Burley and I found the idea of Brian May strumming individual power-chords for each of the ten ingredients in a McDonald's Big Tasty one of the funniest things anybody had ever thought of. Jill McDonald (the president and chief executive of McDonald's UK) didn't. You could sort of tell after Jon was acting out power-chord number three.

I thought using a period drama to sell Thomson was funny (with a main character called Fanny). No-one else did.

I thought killing clowns with big trucks for Tango was funny, and getting the R White's Lemonade bloke to sing in mock-Japanese was funny. Wrong on both counts (and, regrettably, a little racist in the latter case).

Trying to get a physical guffaw from a real-life person via an advertisement is about as difficult a task as you can set yourself.

When Chas Bayfield and I wrote Blackcurrant Tango, we didn't aim for guffaws. We just wanted people to find the concept amusing and enjoy the ride. We didn't try too hard to be funny.

Which is maybe the first half-assed rule of writing comedy - just let the comedy happen. Don't force it. If the rhino in your ad isn't funny, don't put a tutu on the fucker.

Other equally half-assed rules learned from bitter experience would be:

Don't write comedy when off your tits.

Beware using a TV comedy director - they have made their living by pointing a camera at people much funnier than they or you or the cast of your ad are.

Tell your missus your brilliant comedy idea and, if she starts to weep in fear for your family's financial future, you might want to have another go at that brief.


Malibu "traffic jam"

Tango "slap" by HHCL

Paddy Power "chav tranquiliser" by Crispin Porter & Bogusky

John Smith's "ball skills" by TBWA\London

Fruit Burst "berries and cream" by TBWA\Chiat\Day


We were in the kitchen when it happened. "Alright guys?" Then he hit us with it: "Been asked to write a piece on comedy, but Matt and I aren't funny, so do you want to write it?" We look at him. He's eating BBQ Beef Hula Hoops for breakfast and wearing a grubby old Honda T-shirt he probably got as a freebie back in 2002. He's pretty funny from where we're standing. Funnier than anything we could think of, for sure. "Just crack it out in ten minutes, yeah? Don't think too much about it." Then off he trots.

DON'T THINK TOO MUCH ABOUT IT. The old fella knows his onions, all right.

You see, for us, if we start thinking too much about writing comedy, we're doomed. When we work on Paddy Power, we try to write everything off the cuff. Start overthinking and it usually loses that raw, naughty edge. And things are way more fun on the edge. We're the idiots who send those replies to all-staff e-mails, then sit there sweating. It's the same for Paddy Power. If we're not dripping in sweat on play-out day, something's afoot.

Therefore, it's often the scripts we bang out in ten minutes that seem to stick. But that suits the super-fast Paddy process. There's no time for thinking. Somebody writes something on Facebook, we bang out a load of script responses, our unfunny bosses pick one, the client presses the button and then hopefully the outcome splits public opinion. If the "PMSL jokes, bruv!" Tweets balance out the "Hideous ad" Tweets, then we're in the right area. Try to please everyone and you end up in boring, old, tepid water.

Obviously, there's no formula to comedy, but here are a few titbits we've learnt from guys much funnier than us who we've been lucky enough to work for.

The truth is funny. A lot of people don't like hearing jokes that are too close to the bone because that unsettles them. Unsettling is good. Find a weakness in people/society and prod hard. Same tactics as bullying.

Make yourselves laugh. Be strict. If something doesn't make us both laugh, it doesn't make it off the pad. Good luck if your partner's a miserable c*nt.

Take a punt. Experiment. Try out all the things you've been taught not to do. We're big fans of crash zooms, awkward holds and unnecessary shots.

Keep things simple. You want the bloke down the pub to easily explain your stupid idea to his mates. They tell you the audience is savvy, but always assume they are morons.

Finally, the ad ain't finished until it's finished. Some of the funnier stuff we've come up with has been right at the last minute. We like to make sure Joe Bagnall is on the verge of a nervous breakdown at all times.

Anyway, we could go on, but who on earth would want to know? We've never heard of us either.


Wall's "thank you" by Saatchi & Saatchi

Xbox "ear tennis" by Bartle Bogle Hegarty

Cravendale "milk me Brian" by Wieden & Kennedy

Orange Gold Spot "Roy Scheider" by Mother

Tango "megaphone bully" by HHCL


What have I learnt about how to write comedy for ads? And can I pass on some tips?

Well, I've probably learnt three things. And the first is I don't think you can really teach someone how to be funny.

I asked this question to Rob Potts, a creative director here at Saatchi & Saatchi and himself a writer of funny stuff.

"No, mate. You've either got it or you ain't," he said with the confidence of one who most certainly has "it". Then he hit me in the face with a custard pie, turned and slipped on a banana skin as he left. Born funny guy.

The second thing is to be quick.

Once you've got the script, the longer you then spend fussing over jokes, the less spontaneous and natural they will feel.

I've spent ages fannying about over this article and that's probably why it's not funny.

A joke is a brief moment in time that either works or bombs, and that's pretty much how to write the little bastards. Look at the speed with which staggeringly brilliant gags pop up on Twitter (unless you're following Jimmy Carr).

After George Osborne was booed at the Paralympics, one instantly said: "Poor old George. Not even Hitler got booed at the Olympics."

The third is to be prepared to change and incorporate brilliant things that just happen on set.

In the John Smith's "ball skills" ad, "'Ave it" wasn't written in the script. But, on the shoot, I asked Peter Kay to just say whatever came into his head as he volleyed the ball.

The fourth thing I've learnt is that there are always more than three things you can learn.

So my fourth tip is to create ideas where you can use the absurdity of situations to dial up the humour:

A man fighting a bear over a salmon.

Kay trying to put his 55-year-old mum into an old people's home so that he can put a snooker table in her bedroom.

A tiny dog that lives in a ring box and sings songs of thanks from men to women.

Thanks to absurdity, all these are instantly funnier than a middle-class family having breakfast and talking about broadband speeds.

Campaign asked for my top five all-time funny ads and they would all tick that absurdity box massively:

A podgy middle-aged man stripping and challenging a French student to a fight because the kid doesn't like the product.

Two brothers who ritually spank the MTV logo on to the backside of their little brother whenever he's not being cool.

A ridiculously fit guy telling ladies that their man could smell like him and not like a lady.

Martians laughing at humans who still peel potatoes.

A guy swapping a packet of Skittles for an endlessly singing rabbit.


Blackcurrant Tango "St George" by HHCL

MTV "Jukka brothers" by Fallon New York

Old Spice "the man your man could smell like" by Wieden & Kennedy

Smash "Martians" by BMP

Skittles "rabbit" by TBWA\Chiat\Day.

Some of the Funniest ads