Barbara Lippert’s Critique: Verbal Sparring

Call them Abbott and Costello in the age of David Mamet. Or Jerry and George with MBAs and no social life. These two business-minded guys also obsess about nothing—nothing but shipping stories. Familiar-looking, casual-Friday thirtysomething types, Steve and Joe were introduced in a FedEx campaign last year and now appear in six new executions aimed at small-business owners.

As part of a classic setup, Steve is the fast-talking straight man/storyteller while Joe is the sidekick who tends to get sidetracked by the details. And who can blame him? The spots are so intricately written and dialogue driven (and packed with hilarious visual cuts so quick they’re almost subliminal) that they require second or even third viewings to, as Steve says, “keep up.” (For starters in the layering department, these commercials about delivery are all about the rapid verbal delivery.)

They do get dense and head-scratchy at times. Still, processing such heavyweight banter, complete with puns and subtle metaphors and double meanings, is a pleasure, considering how obvious and annoying most commercials get when seen in heavy rotation. A switch from FedEx’s previous slapstick, the Steve and Joe show broke shortly after Sept. 11 last year and was trimmed back as a result. (This series will have a bigger run.)

In both rounds of the campaign, Steve’s yarns (or “urban business leg ends”) revolve around how a knowledge of FedEx’s many services saves the day—for example, in the face of the obsessed Hogan’s Heroes fan who forgets to send the box out in a spot from last year (“Schultz never knew there were tunnels?” asks Joe, actor Joe Narciso). You might have seen Steve (Steve Carrel) on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, where he does “Ad Nauseam,” a critique of commercials (he made mention of a certain “overnight delivery company” when he poked fun at product placements in movies).

Each spot opens with an irresistible question from Joe. “Is ‘briquette’ French for little brick?” he asks in “Grilla,” touting Fed Ex’s ground service. The opener gives Steve room to spout some French as the two stand next to a sidewalk Sabrett stand (the grill leading to the grilling, so to speak). He goes on to talk about a company introducing a barbecue grill “so big it puts all the other ones to shame.” We get a cut of chefs cooking hilariously oversized killer kabobs on said grill, a bunch of Hell’s Angels having a cookout and another group lowering a monster swordfish. Steve and Joe go on to banter about “the thrilla of the grilla,” and make all sorts of Ali-inspired boxing references, till Steve undercuts Joe’s fun.

“Is it hot in here?” Joe inquires in “Otoscope.” “It’s a steam room,” Steve snaps through the water and fog. He tells how a doctor’s illegible handwriting causes a warehouse to ship otoscopes, not stethoscopes (causing “really weird chest exams” as we see a doctor madly probing a man’s sternum with the lighted conical tip of the ear device). With FedEx, the disaster was averted so that “a potential shipping shenanigan gets a FedEx inoculation.” “I thought a shenanigan was a good thing,” Joe says. “No, that’s a hullabaloo,” Steve responds.

A spot about a “hydraulic system gaining international appeal” after a car show in Dusseldorf provides for the great visual gag of showing cars jumping up and down. “Robocat” allows for the showing of a dead-on fake Japanese commercial promoting a metal cat toy, with everyone doing a weird licking motion, including, back at the train station, Joe. The spot about claustrophobics getting stuck in an elevator is a funny concept but doesn’t lead to a payoff.

The really strange one is “Joe’s FedEx Guy.” Joe dreams that an oversized superhero in a box, a Fed Ex guy, comes alive. He supplies everything Joe could hope for and together they tour the Web site and have a requisite romantic scene—spinning in slow mo in a playground. “Kinda freaked me out, man,” Steve says, waking Joe from his reverie. And I thought that mode of boy-toy personal service was the province of UPS guys.

The original series was directed by Joe Pytka, and while the writing was snappier, the situations were heavier. This one, directed by Bryan Buckley, is visually edgier and snarkier. But still well worth scratching your head over every word.