Barbara Lippert’s Critique: Promo Mojo

We’d all like to think we’re hugely talented media connoisseurs, if not superior but undiscovered comedians, with our own woulda-coulda stories: We were much funnier than Ray Romano in high school; Jerry Seinfeld stole “the pick” from your friend; your sister wrote a song similar to Phoebe’s dumbest one in third grade, yada yada.

Given this sea of sadly misplaced or about-to-burst talent, what if there were an 800 number to call, where a team of experts, aided by their patented software systems, would scientifically assess whether an idea or phrase is certifiably funny? (And, in turn, spit out gradations of funny, like the colors in our terror-alert system?) Moreover, what if hundreds of these comedy surveyors all sat in a giant, futuristic white room with undulating curves (a humorsphere?), like a souped-up PBS pledge drive crossed with a NASA control room, looking at their wafer-thin screens while plugging in key words and taking this being-the-authority-on-funny thing deadly seriously?

Then you’d have this inspired, layered and verbally adroit new TBS branding campaign. It seems the Turner superstation (a funny term in a lame, giant-satellite-dish-of-the-’70s kind of way) doesn’t want to be seen as any old variety-driven channel anymore. TBS is now television’s “very funny” network, having bumped its syndicated reruns of Seinfeld and Friends to prime time, where it is also running such contemporary comedies as Sex and the City and Everybody Loves Raymond, among other recent acquisitions.

So this humor-assessment concept is a really big and clever branding idea—and there’s endless potential in the format. The spots are beautifully directed by Jim Jenkins of Hungry Man, who made his name with the hilarious Rocky-in-the-nursing-home ad for Turner sibling TCM. The casting and direction of the telephone operators, with their deadpan responses, is especially fine. But there’s so much going on overall, from the bizarre setups and funny physical details to the rat-a-tat dialogue, that each spot requires several viewings. That, too, is by design.

Many cable-network promos are so entertaining that they run constantly, almost as content. (Notably the HBO “Water Cooler” spot.) Along with HBO, ESPN, Fox Sports, MTV, Discovery, Animal Planet and the History Channel have all done exceptional work. Why so much good stuff in this category? Perhaps because the chain of command on the client side is shorter, and since this is cable, they’re selling a very specific identity and niche. They have the luxury of not being all things to all people. (That’s why broadcast-network promos are so painful.)

That said, there is one spot that’s a jumble of cuts of fringe characters from the various series—Seinfeld’s Peterman, Uncle Leo, the Soup Nazi and Estelle Constanza; Bunny and Stanford from Sex and the City. It even ends with big yips from Marcel the Monkey of Friends fame. It’s fun to see these actors in a different context, but I found this spot the weakest, since it’s trying too hard to be a crowd pleaser. (Various fringe characters do make cameo appearances in the other spots, however.)

So, like a copy of a Xerox, let’s assess the funniness of spots that in themselves assess what’s funny. I like bits and pieces of each—a line here, a bit of acting there. No single spot is in itself amazingly side-splitting, but they are all intelligent, and the slow accretion of detail in every case is highly amusing and worth watching.

My two favorites are “Name” and “Strange Fruit.” In the former, an office worker calls 1-800-TBS-FUNNY from her cube to say that she’s got a boss who consistently calls her suck-up colleague by the wrong name: It’s Raphael, but the boss calls him Duane. Under further questioning about Raphael, who loves his name and has signs and pencils and mugs to show for it, the operator asks, “And in high school he was voted most likely to …?” And the caller responds, “Die alone.” The operator says, “OK, that’s painting a picture.” On the page, the line doesn’t seem particularly hilarious, but the way it’s delivered here, it’s genius. (So much of comedy is subjective, after all.)

“Strange Fruit” is set in an art gallery. Usually I hate the way advertising always makes fun of gallery shows as pretentious and inscrutable—it allows viewers to feel superior, when artists deserve our respect. But this is damn funny, because the elements are, as summed up by the operator, “fake fruit, pompous jerk and arm candy.” Is that funny? Yes, especially when the arm candy says she wants to buy something “really big and really expensive.” And one of the pieces, as the gallerist tells the couple in reverently hushed tones, is named, This Is Not a Boating Accident.

This campaign is mighty funny. But then again, I don’t have the special software on my computer, so who am I to judge?



TBS

Agency

Publicis, new york

Worldwide creative director

David Droga

Executive creative directors

Duncan Marshall,

Howard Willmott

Senior copywriter

Eric Quennoy

Art director

Jason Levine

Executive producer

Colin Pearsall

Director

Jim Jenkins/Hungry Man