National Lampoon

Neal Brennan and Dave Chappelle, co-creators of Chappelle’s Show, were trying to work a popular bit from Chappelle’s stand-up act—the comedian as actor Samuel L. Jackson touting his namesake beer—into the Comedy Central program. The pair decided that a Samuel Adams spot, “Lunch With Boss,” was prime parody fodder.

In the commercial, created for the Boston Beer brand by Big Chair in New York, executives out to lunch with their superior rush to order Sam Adams after they realize it’s their boss’ beer of choice. “That was the one Dave and I were most familiar with,” says Brennan, adding that aping a commercial allowed the director to use more sophisticated camera moves than they usually use in sketches. “It was fun to infuse it with some of that stuff,” he says.

In Chappelle’s version, the boss orders a “Samuel Jackson Beer,” and the others follow suit. A quick camera pan to the bar shows the comedian dressed as Sam Adams’ colonial pitchman. In the style of Samuel L. Jackson’s tough-guy movie characters, Chappelle lobs one obscenity after another at the viewer and at the suits around him. “Drink, bitch!” he admonishes one.

While association with a foul-mouthed character might not have been the brand’s first choice for a pop-culture mention, it undeniably made an impression on consumers who recognized the spoof and spoke about it positively in focus groups for the original ad. “We thought it was great,” says Leigh Merrigan, a rep for Boston Beer. “They spoofed it in a way that was relevant to the target.” The company was so delighted with the recognition, it sent Chappelle a giant chocolate beer as a thank you.

Spoof ads have long been a staple on late-night comedy shows—Dan Aykroyd memorably touted the Bass-o-Matic, a blender that can turn fish into puree, as an infomercial announcer on Saturday Night Live in the 1970s. For advertisers and their agencies, a spoof offers proof that their ad has become part of the collective consciousness of pop culture. And in an advertising climate increasingly abandoning the traditional 30-second spot, the association is—to quote another oft-spoofed ad—well, priceless.

“So much of what an ad is trying to do is establish brand identity, and a parody does that,” says Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. “A parody on Saturday Night Live is, in effect, another ad—one you didn’t pay for that carries a lot more cultural currency.”

Since ads strive to ingrain themselves into people’s memory, says Brennan, they are ripe for spoofing. “Commercials are short, punchy and memorable,” he says. “When you can do a funny version of a commercial, or point out observations about a highly saturated commercial, people appreciate it.”

Long-running campaigns with well-known taglines are the easiest to work with, Brennan adds. MasterCard’s “Priceless” campaign, for instance, has been spoofed on shows ranging from SNL to The Late Show with David Letterman and even The Simpsons. Joyce King Thomas, evp, deputy creative director at McCann Erickson, the New York shop that created the campaign in 1997, estimates it’s been parodied about 50 times. “It just says that it’s part of popular culture when it’s used on programming,” she says. But she’s not amused when the ads are spoofed for political reasons. “I don’t love it when someone uses it to push some agenda. It’s not original,” she says.

In fact, a MasterCard parody was taken to task in 2000, when Ralph Nader used the “Priceless” formula to critique George W. Bush and Al Gore. The ad said: “Grilled tenderloin for fundraiser: $1,000 a plate. Campaign ads filled with half-truths: $10 million. Promises to special-interest groups: over $10 billion. Finding out the truth: Priceless. There are some things money can’t buy. Without Ralph Nader in the presidential debates, the truth will come in last.” MasterCard sued Nader, claiming a violation of copyright and trademark laws, but in March of this year it was determined in federal district court that Nader’s spots were fair use.

Comedy writers creating the spoofs are generally protected under the First Amendment, although it’s customary for everything in a comedy show to be cleared by network lawyers before it can run. At Fox’s MadTV, a standards and practices representative attends weekly pitch meetings to ensure that nothing litigious makes it on the air.

Ad parodies were put to the test in a landmark First Amendment case heard by the Supreme Court in 1988, Falwell v. Hustler. It stemmed from a 1983 parody in Hustler magazine of a Campari Liqueur ad, which showed people talking about their “first time.” In the parody, Jerry Falwell was depicted stating his “first time” was during a drunken, incestuous rendezvous with his mother in an outhouse. Since the ad parody was satire, the Supreme Court ruled, it could not be deemed libelous.

“We rarely hear [complaints] from companies,” says David Salzman, executive producer of MadTV, who estimates the show gets feedback from companies only about three times a year. “Most times they ask, ‘Can we see a copy for our files? We missed it, and everybody’s talking about it.’ ”

Two or three ad spoofs are suggested during each weekly pitch meeting at MadTV. After writers saw an M&M’s commercial by BBDO using footage from The Wizard of Oz, for example, they discussed it at the next meeting. “They said, ‘Can you believe that Turner is actually selling the rights to use classic movies?’ ” remembers executive producer Dick Blasucci. “The next thing that came to mind is, ‘What if they sold the same clip for other products?’ ” In the commercial, the movie characters are replaced by M&M’s. In the spoof, when Dorothy asks what the candies are doing in the clip, they reply, “We’re ruining classic movies. So what if you’ll never look at The Wizard of Oz the same. This idea bought an ad executive a yacht and some hookers.”

Charlie Meismer, senior executive creative director at BBDO, says he hasn’t seen the parody, but adds, “I’m flattered. It means it’s broken through into somebody’s consciousness.”

Once the idea for a spoof is hatched, producers then have to figure out how to mimic the ad on a tight budget. “Commercials have a production value of $50,000, $500,000, even a million dollars,” Salzman says. “That’s more than the budget for our whole show.”

The M&M’s spot was particularly difficult because it involved animation and a scene from a classic movie. After careful study of the film and the commercial scene, the producers and director shot the live action and filled in the animation last. From pitch to edit, the whole process took about three weeks.

Saturday Night Live has become so famous for its ad spoofs, the show has even released a video compilation. For writers at the weekly show, which is performed live except for the commercial parodies, the spoofs offer a chance to stretch their skills and work on something for a week or more rather than a few hours. “It’s a different form [of writing] than we usually do—it’s really intense, but it’s very fun,” says Paula Pell, who has been a supervisor and writer at SNL for nine years. “I think it’s a nice change for writers who do live sketches to be involved with the editing.”

The idea for one of her spoofs, “Gap Fat,” which aired in 2000, sprang from a real-life experience. “I’m a plus-size person, so when I tried to go into the Gap, I used to just walk out of there shaking my head, because they have nothing that fits me,” she says. So Pell came up with a spot that showed heavy people dancing in a choreographed number, similar to the West Side Story-inspired Gap ad showing people dancing in khakis.

“With any type of comedy, the idea comes not so much from anger, but ‘Hey, why isn’t there this?’ ” she says. Her original concept featured awkward dancers in super-tight clothing, but the idea was revised in a story meeting as “graceful, heavy people dancing.” “We rehearsed for a whole week,” Pell says. “It was fun to watch something that was not what you usually see.”

Technologically, the glossy look of commercials has become easier to produce over time. But writing an ad spoof has become harder, says Pell, as commercials have grown more sophisticated—sometimes turning into parodies of advertising themselves, beginning with Isuzu’s “Lying Joe Isuzu” ads in the ’80s.

“It’s gotten a little more difficult over the years because the comedy in commercials has gotten so much better,” Pell says. “Oftentimes they have the same writing we might have. Commercials used to have such a serious tone to them or a really corny tone. Now it tends to be a funny joke, and we can’t make fun of comedy that’s actually funny.”

Commercials that are the best to spoof are ones that “have either been played to death and we’ll find some twist on it or that have somebody who’s funny or annoying,” Pell adds.

This season included a spoof on a shampoo spot starring talk-show host Kelly Ripa, which Ripa herself did when she was guest host on the show. The spoof claimed the shampoo contained crack cocaine. While the product was called “Tressant Supreme,” it was a clear parody of Pantene’s ads starring Ripa.

Procter & Gamble took it in stride. “We think Kelly Ripa has been a great spokesperson, and she’s great in advertising,” says Pantene rep Amitra Marsh. “The spoof on SNL is perfectly fine. We know it’s fun.”

In 2003, SNL spoofed DirecTV ads, which feature celebrities reading letters from customers. The ads, created by Deutsch/LA in Marina del Rey, Calif., have a simple format and have aired a lot—two main ingredients for a strong spoof. A cartoon show, Sealab 2001, also spoofed the ads in its promos. In the SNL gag, an actor in character as Gary Busey reads one of the letters and goes off on his own incoherent rant.

“Most comedians base their comedy on common experience,” says Eric Hirshberg, managing partner and executive creative director at Deutsch/LA, who has also seen his ads for Expedia.com and Mitsubishi spoofed on MadTV and The Tonight Show, among other places. “Of course, sometimes spoofs have embedded in them criticism of the ad, but I still say they’re ultimately a form of flattery.”

SNL’s Pell notes, “We rarely do anything with an evil underbelly. We try to ride that line, making fun of something but also acknowledging that it’s part of culture.”

Show producers say commercial spoofs garner greater viewer response than other sketches. “They’re accessible to the audience immediately,” says MadTV’s Blasucci. “They know exactly what we’re doing because they’ve seen it a million times on TV.”