“Sometimes you can’t see yourself clearly until you see yourself through the eyes of others.”
Many years ago there was a small stand-up comedy club called Cool Runnings in Melville, a suburb of Johannesburg. It was like a tiny sweaty cave where almost every comic worth his or her salt would do a set.
My friend Oscar Strauss and I were going to make a short film about a comic who had never been on stage. We followed him around for a couple of days, watching him rehearse and interviewing him about his material. Then came the big night. Within 30 seconds we realised this might be the worst idea we had ever had. This guy was ridiculously bad. I actually stopped filming because I was so embarrassed. He wasn’t funny so any empathy you had for him from the interviews went out the window. So, we ended up with a film without an ending.
But because of this doomed project I spent a lot of time there. And one night, I think it was Open Mike night, an interesting event happened. An older man got up and began to tell jokes. He was metronomic in his pace and didn’t listen to the audience. It was like he was reciting a shopping list. And because of this, the jokes just weren’t funny. You could see he had rehearsed over and over. He was robotic. Nothing would stop him. Even as the ice-cubes that were being thrown hit him in the face, he just kept going. He had made two cardinal sins. He had ignored and wasn’t listening to his audience. And, he had eliminated any shred of humanity out of his performance.
Humanity is a very underrated quality.
This is something Microsoft found out this week. They created what they called an artificially intelligent Chatbot called Tay. They released it online and within 24 hours it had become a holocaust denying racist. It was programmed to learn from interactions it had with real people on twitter. And, as you can imagine, they fed it the most racist, offensive stuff they could. A perfect algorithm, destroyed by a couple of trolls in a single day.
This shows us two things. Firstly, people very seldom do what you want them to do. They are unpredictable, so you better have more than one approach, as most great comics do.
Secondly, artificial intelligence, not to mention human intelligence, seems to really struggle with context. Which of course is everything. Just ask Microsoft.
The power of context. Comics are not just funny because of what they say. They are funny because of how they say it. And when they say it. This comes from listening. Perhaps the most human thing we can do.
My entire advertising career has been about listening and understanding context. You have many long conversations when making a commercial or piece of content. You lock down the art direction, the lighting, the script and storyboard.
And guess what always becomes tricky? The tone. The context. I have spent years in meetings where either the client, director or the agency normally end up saying this phrase:
“That’s not how I saw that in my head.”
And that is after many rounds of discussion and research. So, like that metronomic comic from all those years ago you can have all the information and still not get it right because the picture you are painting is not what your audience is seeing. A great comic makes you see the same picture he has in his head. Great creatives can do the same.
This is very seldom done just with information or data. At best, that just gives you a starting point or target. At worst you get Tay. As Einstein said information is not knowledge. You still have to do something that transforms information into an idea. Information doesn’t connect, ideas do.
What normally gets you there is a common human experience, a shared feeling and let me stress this, really listening. Humanity or a word I like, humanness. This sadly seems to be something people in our business are frightened of these days. People are far happier believing there is a clinical, logical process or list to create what every brand wants. Emotion and feeling. This is madness.
This is what I often find so strange about our business. Imagine advertising was stand-up comedy. There would be a huge amount of thought put into the venue. The food would be good. Fantastic wardrobe. Great lighting. There would be weeks of discussion and research as to how you create the perfect jokes. They would be written down and then read out perfectly by someone with perfect teeth. Everything would be perfect.
Nobody would be laughing though because we would have forgotten one thing.
Human beings don’t want perfection. They want connection.