P.O.V. No.26 - Humor in Film and TV

Basic formats of humour in Danish TV-commercials

Jørgen Stigel

Many Danish TV-commercials are humorous or playful (cf. Stigel 2006 and Andersen 2004). They set out to entertain the audience while communicating a message. Some of the basic ways in which Danish TV-commercials exploit humour will be charted in this article, in terms of methods of humorous performance. Due to limitations of space, it will not be possible to consider questions regarding the effectiveness of humour as a communicative means, or whether the humour in Danish commercials might result from a specifically Danish mentality or cultural background. The general effects and advantages of humour in TV advertising have been accounted for elsewhere (for example, Weinberger & Gulas 1992; see also Stigel 2008a). The question as to whether humorous performance in commercials is rooted in a special kind of Danish humour is unanswerable because it presupposes the existence of a particular national mentality which has not yet been mapped or accounted for (see Stigel 2008b).

Humour directs attention to the way the message is performed and to the prerequisites of communication. It transforms the performance of the message into something to be experienced in itself, an event in which meaning emerges. Accordingly, humour also distracts attention from the fact that advertising is an uninvited address intended to direct and persuade. Instead, the audience is invited to take part in an experience that relies on its willingness and ability to make inferences and perform cognitive acts. Humour is an aesthetics that stimulates the meaning-generating ability of the human mind. Questions concerning relevance (cf. Sperber & Wilson 1986) also become questions of the aesthetic or experiential value, the enjoyment of the communicative situation.

Between 1989 and 1999, the aesthetic dimension of Danish TV-advertising grew in importance (cf. Stigel 2001a and 2006). In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the early days of Danish commercial TV, 65-70% of the spots were executed as factual lectures performed in presenter, voiceover or testimonial format. By the end of the decennium, this percentage had decreased to approximately 50%. In other words, there had been at least a 15% increase in fictional formats primarily performed as small-scale dramas or epic narratives. This is a clear indicator that the aesthetic dimension was becoming an important factor in commercial communication. On average, 40% of the spots had some humorous content (cf. Stigel 2006). Humour is mostly attached to fictional formats, but factual formats also make use of humorous ingredients such as subtlety, word-play, and gimmicks that challenge the presenter's role.

Both small and large scale humour play an important role in Danish TV-ads. Aesthetic considerations in general obviously influence the way in which these ads operate. This investigation will therefore primarily be guided by the question: how is humour typically performed in Danish TV-ads? In other words, is it possible to identify certain basic or persistent formats and is it possible to find developments and elaborations in advertising's attempts to charm the audience by means of humour?

Playfulness and a sense of play are central notions in any discussion of humour, but humour has many faces and many bodily expressions. Humour is often dealt with in terms of laughter, the reaction or response it causes. Accordingly, the wide variety of facial and bodily displays of humour is often neglected. These displays range from a smile, a giggle, a twinkle in the eyes, a belly-laugh, a roar of laughter or a guffaw to teasing, sarcastic, malicious, dry, mocking facial expressions and to more covert poker-face and tongue-in-cheek manifestations. Reactions to humour are to be read as bodily displays.

Accordingly, in one dimension the field in which humour operates extends from local, small-scale expressions such as subtleness, word-plays, puns and jokes, on the one hand, to large-scale performances such as comedy, drama and narratives on the other (see model below, which is partly inspired by Stern 1996). The second dimension extends from solely verbal expressions to solely physical performance controlled by the law of gravity. In a third dimension, styles can vary from sentimental romantic comedy and the unconscious or innocent funniness of small children's storytelling, on the one hand, to the satirical, ironical and mocking performance of caricature, satire, paraphrasing, parody and travesty on the other. Finally, in a fourth respect, all this can be delivered in different ways. It can be told in speech or writing. It can be presented (and performed) from a stage or a screen, as in the one-man show directly addressing the audience (e.g. the stand-up comedian). It can be dramatized and performed in small drama formats on the stage or the screen with no direct address to the audience, as in two-person sketches, or in regular plot drama with a full cast of characters (comedy). Finally, it may be simply shown or displayed, as is the case in a chain reaction or with the Elephant Man and other characters who become victims of nature's laws, of fate's strange ways or of their own stubbornness.

The repertoire of humour and comedy thus extends from subtle verbal expressions to physical performance controlled by the laws of gravity, from the sentimentality of sentimental comedy in which we laugh with the characters to the harsh mockery of irony, satire, parody and travesty in which we laugh at the characters. And humour covers a multitude of different expressions, emotions and genres. Although a smile is said to be the shortest distance between people and although shared laughter might unite us, humour also includes ways of acting and reacting of a more malicious kind.

What is generally experienced in humour is incongruity; phenomena, concepts or ideas that are normally incommensurable are brought together and, both in spite of and due to the incongruity, surprisingly produce good sense. The resulting collision of 'in spite of and due to' establishes the cognitive space of imagination, the sudden experience of "the presence of two partially or fully contradictory scripts" (Raskin 1985). In this way humour builds on or activates a problem solving mechanism: incongruity-resolution.

As incongruity involves experiencing the unexpected, humour can also involve arousal or emotional alertness. At the same time, cues are normally provided to reassure the audience that the experience of the unexpected will be confined within the safe limits of playful behaviour: "It is just for the fun of it." The creation of connections between seemingly incompatible elements and across what are normally incompatible levels of understanding, expression and imagination is pleasurable. The collisions involved in such juxtapositions might also manifest themselves in a more physical way, just as the body generally serves to degrade spiritual matters. A commercial for the Danish brand Stryhn's Leverpostej (liver paste) in April 2003 features a rather irritating, officious and slim workout instructor training her team while yelling an endless tirade of instructions. Suddenly an enormous box of Stryhn's liver paste falls from the sky and knocks her out of the scene while the text reads: "Wouldn't you be better off eating a piece of bread with Stryhn's?" Of course, this act of substitution does not literally advocate killing or wiping out fitness instructors; rather, it positions Stryhn's as an expression of a relaxed lifestyle in contrast to the obsession with mechanically disciplining the body. In cases like these, exaggerated performance, degradation and disparagement are manifest ingredients of humour.

Within the 'secure zone' of humour, it is possible to perform in ways which might be embarrassing or painful in another context. The circumvention of taboos, political correctness and other kinds of social conventions is an integral part of humour, as Sigmund Freud (1905) points out. Freud also notes that humour involves a sense of playful ease in transcending mental barriers and in moving in unexpected ways from one domain of imagery or meaning to another. Accordingly, humour challenges our tendency to manage the contradictions, collisions or ambiguities of life by compartmentalising them. It is part of a more general aesthetics of conflict and collision calculated to activate dormant mechanisms of the human mind (cf. Stigel 2008a p.59-64).

Whereas Freud theorised humour from an individual or psychological perspective, Henri Bergson (Le rire, 1900) emphasised the notion of the comic as a social phenomenon. Bergson's main point is that laughter and the ridiculous are closely connected with social sanctions, and thus with painful and embarrassing emotions such as shame. Automatism is a central category for Bergson, as inflexibility of mind, body or character is sure to provoke laughter. Society is suspicious of mechanical or eccentric behaviour since it seems unconscious and because it isolates itself from societal norms. Accordingly, in the Stryhn's example, the surprisingly brutal execution derives its 'legitimacy' from the mechanical fitness instructor, whose tyrannical automatism 'deserves' correction.

Incongruence leading to resolution, arousal within safe limits, and degradation for fun or for edification are the catalysts activating the collisions of humour. In the following we examine Danish TV-commercials more closely to investigate how they use humour both to engage and to entertain. The sample of TV spot commercials is partly the same as in Stigel (2006) i.e. the month of April 1989-1999, partly a sample from spring 2003 (January-May) in order to identify developments and elaborations.

Incongruence of the shown and the told: playing with ideas, words and expressions.
A Citroën commercial (Citroen 2003) set on a sunny day shows a sweaty man stumble out from the roof of a tall building and glide down rapidly to land safely on top of a Citroën C5. The voice-over announces: "Rush down to your local Citroën dealer and feel the whiz of our super air-conditioning offer. You will definitely fall over when you realise the thousands of crowns you can save right now before prices rise in April. We are open for the rush this weekend." The words "rush down", "feel the whiz" and "fall" are carefully coordinated with the course of events on the screen. The example illustrates one basic type of humour: exploitation of the difference between verbal and visual expressions, mixing metaphorical and literal meaning. The mechanism parallels the play on words but goes further; two different systems of meaning are at stake at the same time. Whereas the verbal system tends to express concepts in abstract or general terms, the visual system displays concrete action, unique exemplars/characters, and specific situations or courses of events. The quantitative distribution of the format (the voiceover+ format) has been accounted for in Stigel (2006).

This difference between shown and told can be applied in more sophisticated ways to achieve a humorous effect by using incongruence to open up new levels of meaning. A Samsonite commercial (April 1992) provides a good example:

Man in safari gear and with suitcase in his arms in a jungle environment (voice-over): "When you travel a lot -." It turns out that the man is actually sitting on top of a floating crocodile (voice-over): " - you need to take precautions". The traveller is thrown off, but lying in the water, he neutralises the attacking crocodile using his suitcase. The suitcase is shown between the reptile's enormous open jaws in the last picture, accompanied by the voice-over "See what I mean?"

The message is obvious: Samsonite makes damage-proof suitcases. This is hardly news, however, as this has been the brand's claim for many years. Moreover, the exhortation "When you travel, you need to take precautions" in the voice-over is a platitude. The meaning of 'travel' and 'precautions' is transformed, however, by the incongruence in the jungle scenario and by the unusual traveller, who is wearing an explorer outfit but is hugging a suitcase in his arms. This incongruity is reinforced by his unusual and perilous situation, riding on top of a crocodile like an innocent child. The result is a surprisingly new and humorous twist to the trivial and worn out message. As in the Citroën commercial, the course of events, the character and the character's behaviour are far-fetched. Nonetheless, they open our eyes because, as they make a new type of sense at a playful level, they become likely and meaningful. Of course, 'the far-fetched' is always a threat to humour. On the other hand, it is the opening up of a new space of meaning and of unexpected ways of seeing that creates attention, common ground and sympathy. More elaborate examples are accounted for in Stigel (2001b).

Humour in TV commercials is often based on exploitation of the doubleness or ambiguity of well-known terms and expressions. Twisting meaning and concepts 'revives' familiar phrases and commonplaces so the message is communicated in spectacular and twisted or exaggerated ways. This playful distortion, displaying the difference between verbal and visual meaning, is a typical formula. The basic form exploits the incongruence between two levels of address and meaning, typically between what is said in a voice-over and what is presented visually in action on the screen. In doing so, it points at the metacommunicative level of communication.

The comic or comedian presenter: incongruence by lack of role fulfilment.
Whereas the elementary form exploits incongruence between what is shown and the verbal address in a voice-over, the comic presenter addresses the audience directly as a flesh and blood character, as is typical in stand-up. The incongruence emerges because the comic presenter does not live up to expectations to the presenter role on TV. A TV presenter (or a person presented in a testimonial) normally signals serious, eloquent authority and trustworthiness, and is in control of the situation. In contrast, the comic presenter is either an incompetent addresser or an exaggerated presenter type with a loud and larger-than-life personality. He is a clown; a victim either of his own displayed 'incompetence' or of circumstances in the scene. This parodies advertising's own modes of discourse. As a result, the communication situation is 'loosened up' and there is an unstated reciprocal acknowledgement: "We know that you typically do not take statements or spokespersons in advertising very seriously and regard them as pompous, non-authentic characters who have been directed and rehearsed in a perfect setting - so we might as well perform our message accordingly." Significantly, the rehearsal of such spokespersons or presenters in scenarios is also used as a theme or plot in some spots (e.g. Cloetta Chocolate 1992 in Stigel 1996). A recent TV-commercial for Alm.Brand Bank (August 2008) features comedian Søren Østergaard rehearsing presentation skills with what appear to be ordinary employees of the bank. In this case, the main point is to make fun of the employees' imperfect performance and of advertising's own methods. However, in this case we have left the direct address mode of the presenter format and have entered the world of dramatic (re)presentation in comedy (see below). Here we see two of the core ingredients of the comic. The first is the inability to fulfil a role due to incompetence or because of random circumstances. A main element in the comic experience is the perceived distance or imbalance between a character's ambitions, goals and intentions, his actual performance, and the affordances inherent in a role and its context. The second core ingredient is the parody and paraphrase of established modes of address. In the process, the genre and the format are also parodied.

In comedy the main interaction is not between a presenter character and a presumed screen audience but between characters whose (inter)actions occur solely amongst themselves in their own 'world'. The audience merely witnesses these interactions and infers what is actually going on.

In one dimension, it is possible to view the genre of comedy (Stern 1996) on a continuum stretching from the purely verbal interactions of verbal comedy to the purely bodily interactions of physical comedy. In the second dimension, the continuum stretches from the sentimental mode of romantic comedy to the satirical mode of satirical comedy, parody and travesty. Within and between these levels and continuums, several types of combination or comic mixture occur.

In the Stryhn's example, elements of physical comedy and of its exaggerated types of punishment were presented, but the example also includes a display of the manifest didactic guidance, of verbal comedy, in which the humour is often at the expense of the principal character and his or her mania, as typically seen in 'comedy of character'. In 2003 a Schulstad bread commercial featured a short domestic comedy, in which the head of the family, a self-satisfied fool, attempts to entertain the family with a series of weak puns upon the Danish word for bake and other words related to bread and sandwiches. Although the other members of the family react to each pun with a show of disgust, he happily and childishly continues his mania. So even far-fetched punning and silly performance leading everything astray might be subject to comedy (of character).

The deliberate display of weak punning can also be combined with more manifest elements from the repertoire of comedy. A 2003 commercial for Toms chocolate dresses a cast of actors as large scale versions of the various packaging of Toms' brands. The personified brands perform a sit-com ("The Tomsens of the 4th floor") with a dialogue consisting mainly of weak puns. The costumes make the performers look absurd, as their movements are restricted by the square form of the packaging from which heads and arms appear to pop out. In this case, both physical and verbal comedy are at work as the characters move around in their stiff costumes, living exemplars and manifestations of the elementary fun in the collision between the mechanical and the human (cf. Bergson).

Comic sit-com is rooted in a collective milieu, in which different characters are more or less equal in importance. This presents other opportunities than comedy revolving around a single character. A sketch or short verbal comedy with just a few characters is ideal. A typical exemplar is the mortgage company Totalkredit's (2003) ongoing sketches. Set in a village graveyard, they feature a gravedigger and a bellringer as the central characters. The main point is the gravedigger's gentle teasing guidance of the bellringer, who lacks local knowledge. Significantly, it is local knowledge that Totalkredit claims as its own central merit. The bellringer is a newcomer who obviously has a white-collar background in a big city. Although the bellringer does his best to conform to the community's standards and norms, he is constantly floored and embarrassed in his verbal exchanges with the (literally) earth-bound gravedigger.

In 'popular comedy', the arrival of a stranger or an intruder in a well-established milieu or community is a central theme and technique. It automatically opens the way for incongruence, embarrassing situations, collisions, misunderstandings and contrasts etc. Such a character is called a disturber of the peace (cf. Klotz 1980). In the Totalkredit spots, a range of familiar and almost stereotypical contrasts are immediately at work due to what the two characters represent on a larger scale: big city vs. small town mentality, manual labour vs. white-collar labour, local knowledge and sense vs. ignorance and nonsense, and cocksureness vs. embarrassment.

In other cases, however, it seems necessary to establish the intruding character in a far more elaborate way. This is particularly pertinent if an ongoing series of commercials has built up its own special or unique universe. A good example is the Toyota series broadcast in 2003.

Toyota (2003) uses a whole episode to establish a character who will later become the new asocial 'catalyst' intruding upon a small Jutlandic working-group called The Toyota Workshop. His name is Søren and the introductory episode takes place in a social security centre in Copenhagen. A social adviser interviews Søren regarding his needs. His attitude reveals a rather foolish, dull and uncommitted person whose primary needs are more money, a holiday in the Canaries and a new car. The social adviser carefully notes this in his file, repeating his demands and stressing verbally what she is doing. As she reaches out for some papers, she tells Søren that his needs will be met, and, for the first time, Søren comes alive. The new papers turn out to be a brochure offering jobs at the Toyota Workshop in Jutland. Presenting the brochure with its pictures of the smiling and neat staff, the social adviser carefully reminds Søren that cars, money and travelling were his priorities, while Søren with great difficulty and obvious disappointment slowly reads the text, stressing each syllable: "To-yo-ta work-shop ap-pren-ti-ce!" The social adviser wishes him well with a hint of triumph, and, in her final gesture of fait accompli, adds: "No Jutland - no social assistance!"

The following episodes in the series accordingly portray Søren as an intrusive and asocial element. His laziness and impoliteness repeatedly cause shocking and embarrassing situations among the prim and proper staff in the Jutlandic workshop. The workshop foreman, Bruce, is innocent and dutiful to the point of naïvety, and accordingly represents the antithesis of Søren's antisocial behaviour. So the Toyota serial uses the old intruder device from popular comedy as well as the contrast between metropolis and province. However, while the device is mainly used in traditional popular comedy to show the qualities of a small community, and how social order can be re-established after uproar and entanglement, the Toyota series makes prolonged use of the asocial behaviour of the intruder character and of the anarchy he introduces as a contrast to the overly polite and well-polished milieu. Moreover, the characters and their relationships develop from episode to episode, and the comedy deepens in a later spot as the female social adviser reappears in the shop to test Søren's merits. The Toyota serial is an elaborate example of how humour and comedy are used in TV-commercials. This is primarily due to the creation of a special universe with characters who do not remind the audience of normal stereotypes.

Together with other serials (as e.g. the telephone company Sonofon's serial: Polle fra Snave (2001-03) including it's spin-off as movie) the Toyota serial represents an important elaboration of humour in Danish TV advertising. In the 1990's the actors in commercial comedy (serials) were typically characters or a comic couple already established on the scene of public entertainment. And only a very few from that scene were not in use. Also they were put into action in the style in which they normally performed and typically in a fixed setting and/or prototypical situation (cf. Stigel 2001a). But at the turn of the century commercial comedy begins to invent it's own characters in far more unique 'universes' or social settings and with storylines transcending the single episode (cf. Stigel 2003 and 2006).

In Denmark, humour and comedy have been used for didactic purposes since Ludvig Holberg staged his comedies in the early 18th century. Similarly, advertising also intends to inform, guide, teach and persuade. Holberg knew that he had to create common ground with his audience in order to make it attentive and receptive to new ideas. Humour gives access to common ground by turning the communicative situation or the delivery of the message into an experience in itself. It offers the addressee a space of pleasurable imagination. Although advertising often explicitly tells us to "imagine", much advertising actually constructs the communicative situation in ways that make imagining impossible. It directs us and leaves no space open for imagination.

In non-symmetrical communication, humour downplays both the sense of being directed by the addresser and the sense of intrusion. Endowing the persuasive action and intent with a redeeming feature, it loosens the notion of authority. Although humour distracts attention from the intention as well as from the subject at hand, it only does so in order to gain far more attention by appealing to its audiences' imagination and sense of playfulness. In other words, it also attracts attention and cognitive action to the communicative situation.

Humour opens a space of imagination and playfulness. The space can be constructed by simple puns, jokes or rather obvious and blunt gimmicks. Another fixed format involves exploiting the incongruence between what is shown on the screen and what is stated verbally, typically in a voice-over or as printed text on the screen. A third standard approach makes fun of the presenter (or related formats like the testimonial) either by turning him into a clown or a stand-up comedian, or by undermining his authority in a variety of other ways. A fourth format is the verbal sketch or dialogical exchange in a fixed, joke-like setting and with two characters who are either stereotypes or estranged caricatures. The fifth format is the sit-com performed in a fixed setting, in which an ensemble of comic characters, each fixed in their special profile, interact while punning, joking and colliding. The sixth and final format constructs a unique and 'full' comic universe, in which the characters and their relationships gradually deepen and develop in a serial form and in which all elements of humour and comedy are present.


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