Illustrator: Rodrigo Diaz Mercado
“Thankfully, persistence is a great substitute for talent.”
- Steve Martin, Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life
“Your ad is the comedian who comes on stage before a Rolling Stones concert. The audience is drunk and they’re angry and they came to see the Stones. And now a comedian has the microphone? You had better be great.”
- Luke Sullivan, Hey, Whipple, Squeeze This: A Guide to Creating Great Ads.
All Joking Aside
It’s hard to get people to laugh. It’s really hard to get seven uncomfortable people to laugh in an empty bar. Especially since they’ve already seen 15-20 comics perform. Laughing can be draining.
The host says my name incorrectly. He’s managed to add both an “L” and an “R” to my last name. I walk onstage. Take the mic from its stand. An audience can smell fear, and once they have, good luck. So I pretend what I’m doing isn’t a weird breach of social contract. I say my first joke. I hear a few chuckles. Not bad for midnight on a Tuesday. I finish my five minutes. Walk off stage and bike home.
I repeat this process three or four times a week. Why keep working at something so ridiculous? Something so absurd?
Because there are great shows.
Shows where the venues are packed. Shows where all the comics are your friends. Where the audience trusts you as a comic. They go on a journey with you. They accept your point of view. They want to hear your story. They know you’re funny. These moments are to be savoured. It makes every bad show worth it. On nights like these, your instincts take over and you’re able to step outside yourself.
And that’s what doing great work in advertising feels like. You put as much effort into difficult clients and less glorious work as you do with the great ones. It’d be difficult to be proud of great work if you didn’t have a dog walker ad to compare it to. It’s all a part of the process. You put your head down because you look forward to the interesting/one-of-a-kind work. You do it for that one ad or campaign where the client trusts your instincts and lets you guide them towards a solution you believe in. And when that happens, a point is reached where the solution is bigger than both the agency and the client.
In comedy and in advertising, it’s the great work that keeps you coming back for more.
Hey, Anyone from Out of Town?
There’s no secret formula to comedy or copywriting. Comedy and copywriting share a universal truth: one only gets better by doing.
And hoo boy, is it a big, empty universe until you get good.
But that’s the fun part. Right? Challenging ourselves and discovering our strengths, weaknesses and everything in-between.
As far as I can tell, everyone fakes it for those first few years. And I’ve learned that the only way to get good at either is by trying again. And again. And again. And right when you think you can’t, you try again. It’s hard work that you have to love doing.
We’re All Pals, Here
The wonderful thing about comedy and advertising is the people. We take risks. We all come from different backgrounds. We push one another. We develop thick skins. We do and say things others only dream of. We push the boundaries of what’s acceptable. We aren’t afraid to fail. Well, when we can blame it on the occasional bad audience… the client… creative… or accounts. And that’s something to be proud of.
If you want to get good at something, surround yourself with people that are better than you. I learned that from a fortune cookie. Not from a single cookie or a single fortune. I had to get about fifty cookies before I had the right combination of words to piece together my own fortune. Sometimes you have to take your destiny into your own hands. That, or get creative with the surplus of fortune cookies in your kitchen drawer left from years of getting takeout.
Like Copywriting, Like Comedy Writing
Standup comedy is copywriting’s younger, cooler mooch of a brother. At least that’s what my brother tells me. Or says about me. I can never remember.
Anyways. I do both. I love both. And I’ve made some hilarious and not-so-hilarious observations.
- Both are career choices that make parents very uneasy.
- A pun has the power to ruin your entire career.
- Our spare time is spent practicing. No wait. Drinking. Our spare time is spent drinking.
- You have no time for relationships, but surprisingly, you have a lot to say about relationships.
- Cynicism is proportional to experience.
- Those that have never done either think they’d be great at it.
- Never jump out of a giant cake while onstage or in a meeting. It’s just not as funny as you think.
- If you bring gum, bring enough to share with everyone.
- The words “kill,” “bomb,” and “destroy” apply only to comedy.
- Telling people about your dreams is only interesting to you.
- They both have the power to ruin perfectly normal conversations and parties. I’m not fooling anyone when I test out a new joke, trying to pass it as regular conversation. The real tell is when I pull a microphone from my jacket and ask my friends, “so, anyone from out of town?” Or when I tell my friends they’d make for great ‘before’ photos in an ad.
- They’re both highly competitive industries. Except one has lots of money and the other has lots of brooding sadness.
- The best ideas come to you at night, when you’re huddled in a dark corner of your room. Rocking back and forth just waiting for that idea. But not really. I have no idea where ideas come from. You just have to be aware of one when it presents itself. Like the time I was in Grand Prairie, Alberta. There I was, sitting on a bus, and a thought occurred to me, “I need to get the hell out of Grand Prairie, Alberta.”
- Both are rooted in the moment and rely on immediate payoffs. Most jokes and ads will only ever be as relevant as the moment they’re made in. Their cultural impacts are short-lived and the vast majority go unnoticed. A by-product of this reality is the sheer amount of ideas copywriters and comedians are responsible for generating to maintain relevance. In other words, they are crafts that go hand-in-hand.
- Both require the writer to be heavily involved with the world around them. They must be pop culture junkies. Your job is to relate to people or uncover an insight that can hold an audience’s attention long enough to get them to buy into an idea. Whether that idea is an opinion, social commentary, or product, you’re job is to be entertaining. To get people to see the world differently, no matter how slight.
- Guys, where is Carmen Sandiego? Seriously. She told me she was just going out for a pack of smokes. That was six months ago. (i.e. Don’t be embarrassed to show people everything you write. No matter how terrible. Show it. There might be merit.)
- Both have left a trail of half-baked, terrible ideas in their wake. Copywriters and comedians have seen a lifetime of confused faces, cringing and uncomfortable shifts in chairs all before the age of 25. They’ve heard plenty of silence. Oh the silence. Embrace the silence. Tip: silence is the perfect opportunity for making a fart noise.
- The stronger the performance, the more the audience buys in. Confidence is key. Present your ideas with conviction, like they’ve never heard a funnier joke or a more clever headline. I had a university prof always say “sell the steak, not the sizzle.” I was a vegetarian at the time. So the lesson was lost on me.
- A copywriter and a comedian walk into a bar… stop me if you’ve heard this one before. And please tell me. Seriously. I have no idea what the punchline is.
- Steve Martin said it best: “Comedy isn’t pretty.” And neither is copywriting.
- Oh and, writer’s block is _________.