Barbara Lippert’s Critique: All In The Timing

These new Sierra Mist spots (two of which debuted on the Oscars) are based on a delightful premise: Cast a group of diverse improv comics (here they’re called the “Mist-takes”), place them in Sierra-centric situations, and let ’em riff.

The troupe is deftly put together—three are former MADtv-ers, and the entire crew will seem familiar to people (like me) who watch way too much television. I got a particular kick out of “Rock, Paper, Scissors.” It stars Michael Ian Black (Ed, Best Week Ever), the boy-king of all deadpan humor (and, let it not be forgotten, the original voice of the Sock Puppet), and Jim Gaffigan, aka the blonde guy with glasses who was also on Ed and has been in countless commercials. They’re shown at a reception, where they reach for the same bottle of Sierra Mist on ice. They try being polite (“You,” “No, you”), but then Black suggests rock, paper, scissors—a route that always seems to get boys’ competitive juices flowing. It’s not exactly a Solomonic solution to begin with, but then the loser, Gaffigan, cheats by coming up with a lame, absurd explanation for why his paper beats Black’s scissors: “Water makes the scissors rusty, and they crumble and break, and then the paper scoops it up.”

The scene comes off as spontaneous and funny. It’s also affecting, because in the end it suggests that the citrus-y stuff is worth fighting (and lying) for. But it held special meaning for me, as, even at my advanced age, I can’t get past the fact that paper covers rock. Who came up with this? If rock can smash scissors, why can’t it burst right though paper? No matter how many boys have tried to explain it to me over the years, I still don’t get it, and as you can see, I remain endlessly annoyed (and annoying) on the subject.

But that’s what Seinfeld did: It took observational trivialities, little pieces of nothing, and made them something. Even after being off the air for almost seven years, Seinfeld has remained the default mother tongue of comedy in our culture. Its influence extends to this campaign as well. In “Kitchen,” the joke is that after a party, Black and Nicole Sullivan (who was fabulous as Holly the dog walker in The King Of Queens) want to take their unused three-liter bottle of Sierra Mist back, and the hostess, the very cool Debra Wilson, tells them she’s heard of “regifting” but not “ungifting.”

The structure of the spots, though, is more Curb Your Enthusiasm, the HBO show that Larry David went on to write, produce and star in. The improvised nature of CYE—the actors are given scene outlines, and they allegedly improvise lines as they go—was a radical innovation, but apparently Kirstie Alley’s Fat Actress is being done the same way, and like all successful comedy, the process has now filtered into advertising.

What reminds me most of CYE is how each spot ends with a few bars of bizarrely, disconnectedly sunny music. This is exactly the way David punctuates his show (with Fellini-esque tuba and accordion circus music), even though practically every episode ends with people pissed off at Larry, who has been ridiculously argumentative, abrasive, egomaniacal or selfish. (The spot called “Germs” has Black, while playing a game of softball, asking for the first sip from the bottle, because he has a “germ thing.” It reminded me of the CYE episode in which Larry wanted to introduce the forearm shake—he wouldn’t touch Ben Stiller’s hand because he had sneezed.)

The spots seem more generous, and less snarky, than the ones with the doomed Burger King office crew. Another difference with this ensemble cast is that while there seems to be some continuity with “Kitchen” (in what would appear to be the prequel, set by the pool, the hostess serves that other lemon-lime drink that “bites”), in the other spots, each performer plays a different character with a different name.

And this group, made up of comics with chops (including MADtv veteran Aries Spears), is extremely appealing and has a powerful, memorable presence. And though I really didn’t like the spot featuring Black (the close talker) smelling everyone’s breath, the rest are fresh and appealing—especially for the category.

For example, “Post-It” has an opener that’s practically hypnotic. Yes, the group sits around a conference table (enough with the cubicle humor already), but what’s really unexpected is that each actor has the aforementioned sticky yellow square attached to his brow; scrawled on it is the name of a famous world leader or historical character. You don’t see many commercials in which the guy sporting the word “Gandhi” on his forehead asks, “Do I wear a dress?” In the end, the story is that Black has written his name, “Barry,” on the bottle—a totally uncool act, but a desperate one that everyone in an office of narcissists can relate to.

There will be 10 spots in all—a new one rolling out each week. (Reruns after 10 weeks, just like TV.)

So this would seem to be doubly hard—to use the same comic devices as TV, and to do so to sell soda. Badly done, it could be painful. But it’s not. It’s pretty crisp and refreshing and even has some edge. Cue the tuba music—I smell branded content.