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The Fatal Mistake Writers Make Creating Comedic Commercials


Why Comedy Is the Most Effective Way to Advertise

I scrambled on stage slinging a clapboard in one hand. Some fans in the crowd noticed and started screaming in anticipation. As I made a giant circle with my hand – signaling for all cameras to roll – a deafening roar rose up from all corners of the auditorium. Pop! The sharp sound of the slate was like a starter’s gun. The place erupted.

In the fall of 2009 the band Alice in Chains played an invite-only concert for fans and friends at Experience Music Project in Seattle. They were a megaband of the ’90s grunge scene that had been shelved after the passing of the original lead singer, Layne Staley. But that night the advance single from their first studio album in almost 15 years was the number-one rock song in the country. And I was directing Alice in Chains history: the video of their return performance.

Jerry, Sean, Mike and William were all smiles walking toward me on the gangplank – the only way on or off the platform. This was it. They were about to return to the stage for the very first time in years. And I was trapped standing in the middle of the most important shot of the whole show.

It was a moment. It was the moment. Not calling out the most important moment in the script is a fatal mistake made by many in comedy, drama and storytelling. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been handed a script and the punch line or moment of revelation doesn’t have a description of what’s happening for the protagonist. Aristotle referred to this moment as anagnorisis in his timeless work “Poetics.” When it’s missing, it’s a recipe for disaster.

WHAT IS ANAGNORISIS?

Aristotle defined anagnorisis as “a change from ignorance to knowledge, producing love or hate between the persons destined by the poet for good or bad fortune.” It’s the reversal, the punch line or a change of circumstances in the plot. It’s the moment that fundamentally changes how the character is now going to relate to the new world or to other characters in the story. When the audience experiences this moment it makes them feel closer to the character.

The following are three memorable reversals in movies.

The Empire Strikes Back

The Sixth Sense

Fight Club

In comedy, anagnorisis is the moment immediately after the punch line – typically the reaction shot. As storytellers, we want to take a moment for the audience to appreciate what just happened. It’s also a critical shot that makes the audience empathize with the character. Together, it makes the audience feel something as much as the punch line does. Writers do this by describing how the character feels or what the character does immediately after the punch line.

It’s a shot you’ll find in every Doritos commercial ever made.

WHY CALL IT OUT IN THE SCRIPT?

For all the people who refer to themselves as storytellers in this business, there are very few who actually understand story. The first red flag is when they say they’re “natural storytellers.” They’re not. (Rant over.) It’s important to describe this moment in the script so the director – who may or may not understand story – puts this important shot on their shot list. It’s important so the editor – who may or may not understand story – includes this important shot in the rough cut. If you’re a writer, you need to save the production from the “natural storytellers” in the process.

TIMING IS EVERYTHING IN COMEDY

In comedy, the presentation builds to the punch line. In a 30-second commercial everything is extremely compressed, and the last thing you want to do is shortchange the anagnorisis. Always ensure there’s enough time for the moment to emotionally land with the audience before moving on to the logo. Therefore, if you don’t account for this shot in a 30-second commercial, you’ll cut the emotion from the punch line. In other words, you’ll undermine all the hard work you’ve done before that moment.

To borrow a phrase: It’s not the plot; it’s how the characters react to the plot. Always describe how the character reacts to the punch line. It’s the reason audiences feel a connection, and making an emotional connection is the whole point of creating the ad.

I was standing in the middle of the most important shot of the concert as the members of Alice in Chains were walking up the gangplank. I dove off the side of the stage and landed at their manager’s feet just as they appeared to thunderous applause. I stood up, grinning like a field mouse that had just stolen cheese outta an ol’ farmer’s trap. Concerned, she asked, “Did you get what you needed?” I said, “Yeah, I got it.”

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Mike Johnston is a production executive and advertising creative in Seattle. He is available for freelance consulting, writing and directing. Contact Mike

Wanna know some other mistakes young writers make? Read, "15 Hacks Every Young Writer Needs to Know."

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