Advertising’s a joke, isn’t it?

 In the same week as some newspaper TV sections were trailering a TV programme about a man who can’t stop hiccupping, a new comedy about the advertising world, The Persuasionists, kicked off.

Which might suggest that the people behind it understand media schedules. If your competition is a man who can’t stop hiccupping,  that’s got be a relatively weak week on TV.

But although that is a) good for drawing audiences, it’s actually b) less good if it means the gimlet eye of AA Gill is drawn towards you.

I’m not sure I’d want Gill reviewing this. Especially because Gill always refers to TV industry people he doesn’t like as “Tristrams” and the credit for director on this show reads Tristram Shapeero.

That may, in itself, be an anti-AA Gill joke.

But talking of comedy names leads me to the name of the agency. When you hear that the fictional outfit is called HHH&H,  that either amuses you or it doesn’t.

Me, it amuses very much.

But it does raise the question of whether the agency is based on HHCL. God, I hope it is. Anywhere that was as dysfunctional, f*cked-up and hopeless as HHH&H would be a good place to work.

Although I like to think that there may be some very minor nuances of difference between me and the babbling, violent, and catastrophically inept ego-maniac of a boss.

I may be wrong.

Earlier on in the week, an article in the Indy complained that the programme wasn’t enough like Mad Men. That’s a bit like saying that Come Dine With Me isn’t enough like Match of the Day.

This is a sit com, not a drama series. So the big question is – is it funny ?

I really wanted to like it. I wanted to laugh like a drain that’s been smoking spliff and then been told not to laugh.

But it didn’t quite grab me in the way I wanted it to. Of course it’s notoriously difficult to judge the first episode of a comedy. Because you’ve got to build the world. And comedies work best when they’re just automatically accepted – not being judged, as a first episode usually is.

You’ve got to lose yourself in comedy, not analyse it.

This episode had some inspired comic acting, but, in my view, not enough situation. It just didn’t seem real enough.

Some years ago Les Blair made a film about advertising called Honest Decent and True, which was so well-observed and so close to the reality of advertising that it was almost unbearable to watch.

It was absolutely brilliant. And that’s how I’d want to do a comedy about advertising right now. Keep it close to reality – because the reality of advertising is crazy enough to be funny without being underscored with hyperbole.

I’ll probably end up eating my words when this turns out to be the most popular comedy since Father Ted – but the show just seemed too stylised, too comic book.

Whenever I want an ad to be funnier than the script I am looking at, I  advise the creative team to dial up the pain. With all the desperation, panic, and paranoia in ad agencies, I’d have thought that the more real you make it, the funnier it’s going to be.

And I may be the wrong person to write about this, anyway.  I don’t watch many programmes on TV these days – preferring instead to use my 55″ Hitachi plasma  to act as a section of moving wallpaper with either polar bears from National Geographic HD or lingerie models from Fashion TV moving sinuously over it.

I’m not sure I’d set the  Sky + for this, because there are no ad breaks to fast forward through, and I’m usually in at 10pm on wednesday night – but I’d definitely watch it again.

It’s got real potential – some funny characters and the writer, Jon Thake, knows how to come up with  great lines.   

In terms of the characters, the central figure is a copywriter played by Iain Lee. Previously Lee has been rent-a-presenter on various channels so far down the Sky EPG that only the full-time unemployed would ever get to them. But this is his first character part, and I thought he was really good in it.

Adam Buxton plays an account man who’s terrified of everybody.  

But the main comedy plaudits go to a scary cockney client who shouts “Gertcha” when he orgasms,  and a crazy Head of Global played by Simon Farnaby who strides around with an oversized pencil, the maddest hair since Kramer from Seinfeld and a very funny accent that could be Eastern European, Dutch or Finnish.

It’s worth watching the show just for him.

In terms of the writing –  I hired Jon twice. First time through, he wrote some of the funniest ads ever to come out of HHCL, including Pot Noodle’s Slag of All Snacks. I always knew that he was a naturally gifted comedy writer.

Second time through, at TBWA, he arrived on the very same day I left, an incident of such poignance and sadness to me  that I fully expect to see it recreated as a side-splitting scene  in episode 4 or 5 of the series. 

  • KEVIN WHITLOCK

    I watched this last night and had half an hour of my life taken away that I’ll never get back. It was the most inane and irritating piece of shit it’s been my misfortune to watch in a very long time.

    The writing was so lame, the jiokes so feeble, the acting so gurningly OTT, the “characters” so wafer thin that it made the horrific “Two pints of Lager & A Packet of Crisps” look like “Last Year At Marienbad”. The laugh track didn’t help either.

    A cynic might suggest that suggest that ad agencies are stuffed full of people who think they can write and can’t.. A few of them can, but not, on last night’s evidence, the bloke who came up with this turd – scripting a 30 second TV spot is very lifferent from crafting a six-ep 30-minute sitcom.

    Whoever commissioned this deserves to be put in the stocks.

  • Grilla Login

    Andrew M. Niccol, writer of one of my favorite movies ever in the history of Grilla’s is one of that rare breed, Kevin. Captured both the zeitgeist, and my fevered imagination.

  • Richard Falk

    Christ, it was painful. I’m genuinely shocked that the writer had worked with HHCL among others, as I confidently posted on another board that he had “clearly never spent five minutes in a real advertising agency”.

    Steve’s right, of course: the sidesplitting “Honest, Decent And True” is the yardstick for any ad industry parody. That was so accurate that I saw many people I know in the characters. In contrast, “The Persuasionists” proffered ridiculous stereotypes, ludicrous plot contrivances and terrible dialogue with punchlines you could foresee by about five minutes. Even the terminology was wrong: who in our business talks about “slogans” and “adverts”?

    But truth is very definitely funnier and stranger than fiction. As a young copywriter, barely out of my teens, my first big London agency came as a huge culture shock. This was not least due to my creative group head: a borderline alcoholic, drug-addicted, probable psychopath who came to work with a syringe in his briefcase. One morning I asked him what he’d done the night before, and he responded: “I spent the whole evening levitating four feet above the ground”. Another day, he told me had slept badly because “a demon came to me in the night, and kept telling me not to be afraid, because it wouldn’t hurt me”.

    One of my longest-lasting memories from that agency was struggling with a particular ad, with no help whatsoever from the more senior creatives. I had to ring the client, who was at a hospital with her extremely sick mother, and when she didn’t like the amended copy she broke down in tears and wailed: “My mother’s dying and you can’t even get my fucking ad right”.

    There’s a very funny sitcom waiting to be written about our profession.

    This unmitigated pile of poo wasn’t it.

    Richard

    http://uk.linkedin.com/in/richardfalk

  • Soap Box

    Kevin&Richard, so you didn’t find it funny then? Grilla, A M.Niccol is indeed a very good screenwriter. Steve, humour is a funny thing, pardon the pun. i’m with you, i prefer much closer to real, which is why i like a lot of
    of American writers, they’re more my thing than brit com, sit coms. humour is a very personal experience and who knows why things make us laugh, they just do or don’t.
    i worked with a very talented director once called Steve Burrows, he wrote a wonderful scene called ‘The Rules Of Comedy’, i can’t cut&paste the link, probably because of copywrite, so if you want to have a look just google. Steve B is the guy not saying very much. i saw two romantic comedies recently, the second better than the first simply because the characters were more real/less caricature.

  • Soap Box

    what is it with this blog? what’s with all the gaps? they’re not there when i post! doh!

  • TESS ALPS

    I thought it had potential. You’re right Steve, first episodes of comedies are curates’ eggs. And Simon Farnaby was extremely funny.
    As for accuracy, I wonder how accurate a portrait of IT departments the IT Crowd is, or of hospitals Green Wing is. One thing it did get right about the advertising industry was the proportion of women and non-white people in middle/senior management mind you.

  • Grilla Login

    Soap Box: this blog is sponsored by TFL, so, “mind the gaps”.

  • Jonathan Staines

    No two ways about it, this “comedy” was a stinking heap of horse manure. Cardboard sets, awful, desperate acting for laughs, a feeble script — not credible in any way. It also seems to be based on an adverising agency from 40 years ago, where creatives are writing ‘slogans’ for cheese that the ad man takes on a board to sell to the client in a wood panelled office. Hello? It’s 2010. What a missed opportunity to write something bang up to date, smart, witty, genuinely satirical and very funny. Instead we got this. Apart from anything, it just looked cheap.

  • Rob Sellers

    I am not a copywriter at an ad agency, so no bitterness about not being the one with an exciting BBC commission to write a sitcom. However, I watched this and was really, truly disappointed. Like other people here, I find working at an agency hilarious – we find ourselves in both personal and professional situations that surely never happen in other working environments. Is there really the need to parody an agency this much for most people in the UK to find the ‘Sit’ comedic? The writing of dialogue was truly, truly awful. Almost school play standard. And the worst thing was the complete and utter absence of any originality. There have been some brilliant new comedies in the last couple of years – Miranda, The Thick of It and The Inbetweeners come to mind. All very different styles, but all challenging the bog-standard sitcom format. I really hope this disappears quickly, as I had managed to convince my family and friends that agencies were interesting and fun places packed with clever and creative people. The Persuasionists undermines this on so many levels.

  • paulc-c

    It really was drivel.

  • Chris Worsley

    toss up which was worse – the dialogue or the ‘acting’. much furious mugging going on so probably due to having to deal with the abysmal script.

    I turned it off after about 10 mins due to nausea

  • Ashton Thornton

    I haven’t really worked in advertising yet, so i wasn’t judging this programme from an advertising perspective, only as a general viewer. I lasted just past Adam Buxton saying how ‘Leave it aaaaaat’ was funny because cheese gets better the longer you leave it out. I didn’t change the channel. I turned the tv off.

  • Dara Bell

    Think advertising execs get badly represented. No one has done a decent job. You get police represented amazingly in Life From Mars. I think you need John Simm in one of these shows.

    Really I think you cannot beat the colour of the actually agency people. If anyone wants entertainment watch Rory Sutherland at TED. If you want colour and fun look at the people behind Collette Dickson Pearce. No one at the BBC or in television can recreate the colour in the industry past and present

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