Tuesday, January 7, 2014

I have a problem and it involves John Cleese and a camel.

Back when I was first getting into directing, I heard John Cleese interviewed on the radio and he said something incredibly profound. something that helped me to become a better director. A much better director.

Here’s the problem: I can’t find the quote.

I've done Google searches on every version of what I think he might have said and I came up with nothing (although –– kind of random –– I did stumble onto a quote by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec that made me laugh out loud).

As far as I know, it might not have been John Cleese who said it. Hell, it might not have even been said, which would be kind of Charlie Kaufman-esque when you think about it, how my understanding of comedy was informed by a quote that was never actually uttered and that somehow, I'm convinced I got to be a better director because of it.

Doesn’t matter. I believe it to be true. And that brings me to the camel.

Watch this spot which you've already seen:

Screen Shot 2014-01-04 at 10.37.07 PM

Ask people what the spot is about and they'll tell you it's about a camel that's happy it's Wednesday. Which it is. Only it's more. It's about a camel that's always happy it's Wednesday.

And how do we know that? The camel's office mates.

The camel is funny. Great voice. Perfect performance. Beautiful visual effects. But what's truly funny is that even though it might be our first time hearing him go on about hump day, it's their millionth.

That's what makes this spot work. So well that according to AdWeek, this spot was one of the ten most watched commercials of 2013.

And here's where I finally let you in on you what John Cleese may or may not have told me: People's reactions to something funny almost always make the funny thing funnier.

Take away the coworkers and this spot wouldn't have sucked. But it wouldn't have been nearly as good.

John Cleese knows this. I know this. And now you know this, too.

If I were wearing a hat, I'd be tipping it right now to the Martin Agency and the creative team there who worked on it (the spot, not the hat): Joe Alexander, Steve Bassett (who I used to work with back at Chiat and who is truly one of the most courteous people in advertising), Wade Alger, Sean Riley, Ken Marcus, Molly Souter, Samantha Tucker, and Emily Taylor.

But mostly I'd be tipping it to Wayne McClammy, the director. For seeing what the spot could be and letting it be just that.


  1. A true testament to the spot's efficacy in my mind was how many people strolled through the camel exhibit at our local fair and quoted the ad verbatim. Well done! (Geico should be thrilled with this effort!)

  2. Great column and insight. That said, it's maddening to hear laugh tracks on lame sitcoms. People's audio reactions to not funny makes it even less funny.

  3. Nice point, Patrick.

    None of the coworkers are laughing at the camel. If they were, I bet the spot would have been a dud.

    Who wants to break this to the networks?

  4. I love this spot but was racking my brain to remember who it was for until I read Susi's reference to Geico, which brings up a whole different issue of efficacy. But indeed, the direction is stellar!

  5. You're right, Barbara, but I didn't want to go there in this blog.

    I've decided to limit my comments on this blog to stuff that's relevant to directing. Eventually, I'll put out the advertising and marketing thoughts on my www.belefant.com site.

    Wouldn't it be funny for me to praise a piece in one blog only to tear it to shreds in the other?

  6. I think I read the same quote, and I too could not find it anywhere. The way I heard it was John Cleese saying, "When we started Monty Python, we thought the comedy was watching someone do something silly. We came to realize that comedy was watching someone watch someone do something silly."

    It's also been the basis of my career and my book, The Hidden Tools of Comedy.

  7. Very interesting article. Well done spot.