"I gotta tell you guys, it's a very big statement," says Jason Alexander—arms plaintively stretched, palms out, with a new beard unable to disguise a George Costanza passive-aggressive half-smile threatening to explode into sarcasm.
On the set of his commercial directorial debut—for Crispin Porter + Bogusky, arguably the George Steinbrenners of unflappable agency hipness—Alexander goes on to explain the ad's "big jump in style." He's trying to sell his stylistic authority to representatives from the clients, the Ad Council and American Legacy Foundation, as well as the agency team of Scott Linnen and Tiffany Kosel, who crowd a Studio City, Calif., home on a smoldering July day.
"You have a two-shot on the couple. You have a single on him. You're probably coming off the single on him, maaaaybe the two- shot on them, to … boink!" says Alexander. He lifts an eyebrow mischievously. "I think looking directly at the camera is going to be very strange. Really strange." A hint of concession comes before the kill. "I'll give it to you. You can do it. I don't mind the shot … But I don't think you'll like it when you get it all cut together."
The two spots, which break in September, comically combine courtesy message with secondhand smoke dangers. In one spot, a father will excuse himself from the table to "pass the gas," to the horror of his kids and polite dismay of his hosts. In the second, a couple is enjoying a movie at home when the woman interrupts a romantic snuggle to release a hydrogen cyanide cloud outside.
Later at lunch, Alexander explains that the agency wanted the language to be elevated, but not the shooting style. "The version that I'm pushing for is more pushed, the performances are heightened," he says.
Elevated acting and seasoned comic timing are what it's all about for Alexander and agent Lou Addesso—watching the directorial debut from the wings—who added Alexander to his CFM International stable of actors-as-directors in June, then pleaded his case directly to Alex Bogusky. In the living room of a rented home, Alexander rules the set with confidence, demonstrating moves to the child actors with deft body movement and mime, reblocking the action for improvisation shots on the fly, reading back lines with inflections that get the set laughing, adding cartoonish hand gestures in Dutch-angle two-shots.
He's complimented for making the boards come alive. "That's the job. Better than just shooting the boards—which would be easier, I think," he says, before slipping into scheming George mode to work the room. "If the audience would only get used to a good, nicely drawn board! What are we spending millions on? This is crazy. People are highly overrated."
Alexander insists he's not all about antismoking, though he recalls being "one of about six people in acting school who didn't smoke." Squelching rumors of pet-cause pickiness, he jokes that the spots he's willing to direct are "the ones they offer me." He still likes acting in them, notwithstanding biographic myth (see Wikipedia), claiming he quit acting in KFC spots over animal-cruelty accusations. "That's PETA bullcrap," he says, eating the craft services mahi-mahi and pasta puttanesca. "I loved working for KFC. I was being targeted by PETA to broker something between them. I think KFC really stepped up to the plate; PETA, unfortunately, did not." He and KFC decided they'd had a good two-year stint and that continuing wasn't worth the "disruption."
Back on set, CP+B cd Linnen—now on his third year of the PSAs team with acd/art director Kosel—needs a different "No!" from one of the child actors. Linnen acts it out to Alexander. It's not a bratty, defiant "No!" that Linnen wants, but a bordering-on-whiny, defeated "no." Alexander nails the nuance, but several takes later, he can't get it out of the boy—so he has the kids swap lines, and (not easily) the girl finally approximates the emotion.
Linnen says he was confident Alexander could direct comedy, even with no commercial reel. Besides, he'd seen Alexander's directed Seinfeld episodes and liked his mounting of Sam Shepard's play God of Hell, still running at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles.
Linnen predicts the spots will push his tagline into legend. "The Ad Council has a history of great iconic lines like 'Friends don't let friends drive drunk.' Our intention has always been to make 'Don't pass gas' as iconic a line in that great history," he says.
"Let's be blunt," says Alexander. "It's a big fart joke. In some ways, it is an extension of the old Steve Martin routine, 'Do you mind if I smoke?/Do you mind if I fart?' I think it's a great gag."