Off the Top of My Head

What improvisational comedy taught me about advertising

A third of the way through my copywriting career in Los Angeles, I applied to the Improvisational Acting Program at the Groundlings Theatre. For those unfamiliar with the Groundlings, they’re sort of a farm team for Saturday Night Live, turning out players like Phil Hartman, Jon Lovitz, Will Ferrell and Chris Kattan.

My ambitions were decidedly more modest. I simply wanted to grab my piece of the Ogilvy & Mather Tuition Reimbursement Program pie. If they were willing to finance my curiosity, I was certainly going to take them up on it. Little did I know I’d learn more about advertising in the following eight weeks than I had in eight years of working for agencies. Maybe Ogilvy’s management was smarter than I thought.

Audition day. Our group of about 30 people is herded into a makeshift classroom in a dusty corner of the theater building. Our instructor, an energetic moppet who looked vaguely familiar from his recurring roles in (canceled) sitcoms, explained the audition process. He would call each hopeful up one by one and then read a character description from his clipboard. Retired geisha girl. Trailer trash. Your mom’s biker boyfriend. Saddam’s charm-school teacher. At this point, you were expected to assume the character and fill three minutes describing your life. Three long minutes. That was lesson No. 1. After that, any client presentation in the world is a walk in the park. After all, you know ahead of time what you’re going to talk about.

To my right, a Brillo-haired young man with a hangdog face slumped in his chair. When he opened his mouth, the words seemed hesitant to emerge. When they finally did, they oozed out with the tonal modulation of a test pattern. He was one of the first to be called to the front.

“The man of 1,000 voices,” read the instructor.

This should be good, I thought. This guy would make Ben Stein look like Sir Laurence Olivier.

“I am the man of 1,000 voices,” began my tortured classmate in his characteristic monotone. “Each of which sounds incredibly similar.” The group busted out laughing. He proceeded to fill his three minutes with identically inflected impersonations, none of which sounded remotely like the originals. I almost wet myself. Thus concluded advertising lesson No. 2. Brains win in this business. You may not be the smoothest. Or the most articulate. Or the most versatile. But in the end, if you’re smart and can think on your feet, you can go far.

A couple of days later, I received the call confirming my admission into the program. Which, I later found out, pretty much meant my check had cleared.

The lessons on creating great advertising commenced from day one. How to block out a scene. How to trust intuition. How to get laughs by not going for them. How to work with your partner. How to listen. And how to “raise the stakes.” That last one works like this: Put two people having a drink in a bar, and you have a scene. Give them only enough money to buy one drink and you have a better scene. Put them in the Sahara, better still. The drink is holy water? The guys are both priests? Each raise creates the opportunity for richer comedy. Or drama. (Which I understand, according to Aristotle, is practically the same thing.) Raising the stakes. I don’t know how many times I’ve gone to that well over the years.

Learning what I did in those eight short weeks, I am not the least bit surprised that advertising superstars like Lee Garfinkel reportedly cut their teeth in comedy clubs. It’s a pretty good foundation for this business.

By the way, if you’re wondering how my intrepid classmates fared, three of them froze up and one was reduced to tears during the audition. Half a dozen more washed out over the duration of the workshop. One has enjoyed a modicum of success on several (canceled) sitcoms.

Sounds a lot like advertising, doesn’t it?