HBO’s Latest Gem

‘Water Cooler’ promo from Goodby creatives is a winner

This little film, promoting the previously unheralded and unpromisingly named “Water Cooler Association of America,” is hilarious from the opening drip. (Actually, it’s more of a plink-plink-plink sound, which is even funnier.)

A sort of no-budget documentary-cum-industrial-trailer, it opens on the trade group’s sad old buffalo-nickel-style logo (a lighthouse in a circle) and plunges right into how bad business used to be, with a clipped and somber British voiceover telling us that “the American workforce had stopped gathering around water coolers.” Cut to a once proud and mighty cooler lying in pieces, beheaded, next to a dumpster, as anthropomorphic a shot as the discarded goose-necked lamp sitting in the rain in the dark, thrown over for the Ikea one.

Because we have never been asked to experience such pathos on behalf of coolers, we know something’s up. Sure enough, as the 90-second promo continues, connecting the dots (or drips) becomes fun: that gathering around the water cooler equals buzz, and that buzz equals HBO.

It’s a sophisticated, inside-the-industry joke turned on its head, from the point of view of the once-beleaguered and now-grateful-to-HBO water-cooler industry, and it never loses that focus, or the poignant stiffness that comes with it. It also has its own dramatic arc: As HBO’s shows get more popular and talked-about, the association gains confidence, and the film builds with deadpan cleverness.

Over the years, the home of Carrie Bradshaw and Tony Soprano has done some interesting promos (a ’97 spot from BBDO involving chimps was actually the first commercial to win an Emmy). Indeed, at a time of creative malfunctions in the ad industry, cable-channel promos tend to provide some of the most consistently smart and surprising stuff on the air. (Of course, if they run only on cable, and on their own networks, they have more time and fewer restrictions.)

The ESPN work also has that knowing, deadpan quality, and its latest series, explaining why we need sports, is as fresh and funny as any of its previous award winners. That goes for Fox Sports, too.

And speaking of Janet’s recent cup malfunction, the tagline of a certain now-notorious producer of private-parts-infused Super Bowl half-time entertainment seems eerily prescient: “Blame MTV.” There’s an especially amusing spot now running showing Sophie, a 13-year-old girl in the middle of her bat mitzvah, getting up to read from the torah. In front of the solemn rabbi and her entire proud family, she delivers the sacred Hebrew text in the scatty/slutty style of a Christina Aguilera tune. It’s inspired.

But back to the water-cooler industry’s little promo. The whole thing seems so deeply knowing and pitch-perfect, in terms of the oddball conversations and the stilted graphics, that I wondered what undiscovered talent was lurking over at HBO. It turns out that it all started with Noam Murro, the Biscuit director behind the famed Saturn “Sheet Metal” spot, and the creatives who worked with him on that and other notable efforts at Goodby, Silverstein & Partners.

And as high-toned and meticulously executed as “Sheet Metal” is, “Water Cooler” is plodding and awkward in all the right ways. First woman, walking down hallway: “I watched a good show last night.” Second woman, walking next to her: “I would like to hear more about that. Want to get a cup of water?” First woman: Yes, let’s get a cup of water.”

It’s like something from Eraserhead, but the next shot, in silhouette, is like bad Hitchcock. A woman so skinny she looks like a human drip and a heavy-set man flank a water cooler. “I think therapy has helped Tony,” she says. He responds, “Yeah, he seems to have killed less people.”

The best exchange occurs with another mismatched male-female pair. He offers, “Larry always says what the rest of us only think. I think that’s admirable.” After a silent beat, she blurts out, “I’d like to have sex with you.”

The reason it works so well is because it’s true: There is so much to recount about these shows, and as Sex and the City airs its final episode this Sunday, and with The Sopranos returning on March 7, offices and coffee shops and Internet chat rooms will be full of discussion and analysis, if not inept requests for sex. (By the way, I don’t like this Russian guy for Carrie, but I’m not thrilled with Big, either. And I can’t wait to see how Carmela flowers as a divorcée.)

The film ends with the water-trade people thanking HBO for various things, from “the intricately constructed plot lines” to “revealing the embalming process.” The capper is that the network modified its own sacrosanct tagline for the occasion: “It’s not TV. It’s H20.”

Thank you, HBO promo, for the intelligent laughs.