Director Profile: David Shane
David Shane on getting the comedy out of the cringe, asocial media, his horseaddiction & surprising Jeff Goldblum.
As absurdist playwright Samuel Beckett observed, “there’s nothing funnier than unhappiness” and comedy director and writer David Shane is adept at mining the deep sadness of human frailty to find the excruciating laughs that make ads go viral and win awards.
His short films and spots for Currys PC World and HBO Go deftly explore the toe-curling and the awkward, while there’s probably nobody sadder than guitar ‘hero’ Alan for Doritos. David Knight meets a man who just keeps winning with his portrayal of losers
Everybody knows that comedy is a serious business, but describing what David Shane does as a serious business hardly does it justice.
Shane does not just take his job seriously, he is totally absorbed by the process of directing comedy commercials. Surely few of his peers go about their task with such enthusiasm, commitment and sheer love of the craft. And when it comes to delivering the idea at the heart of a script, he is not deterred if there is a big Hollywood star in front of the camera who might be intent on doing something different.
This, it transpires, is what happened when Shane directed Jeff Goldblum in AMV BBDO’s commercials for Currys PC World, which aired in the UK in the run up to Christmas last year. The Spare The Act series of ads feature Goldblum appearing suddenly in ordinary British homes and offices, offering to improve gift-giving scenes where disappointing presents have been handed out.
In Jigsaw, Goldblum steps in for Maggie, who has just received a baked bean jigsaw puzzle from her husband, to show him just how happy she would have been had she received her heart’s desire – a new tablet from Currys. “The campaign is both a parody and a love letter to acting,” Shane explains, talking on the phone from New York. “It was very important that we cast someone who seems to take the craft of acting really seriously, but who could also poke gentle fun at himself.”
Although the scripts were originally written with Dustin Hoffman in mind, Goldblum was well equipped for the role. “Jeff loves to improvise, and I come out of that tradition,” continues Shane, before adding that a “sticking point” developed with Goldblum while shooting Jigsaw. “I said: ‘You have to become Maggie now, and it has to be a deeply emotional moment.’ And Jeff resisted a tiny bit.
He thought that it would be funnier if he were going through the motions. My point was: I’ve come 3,000 miles to see you become emotional.” It took a while for Shane to get what he wanted. “Suddenly, on the tenth take, Jeff got it. And basically did what you see there.”
Finding the drollery in the dysfunction
Shane comes out of a rich tradition of American dialogue-based comedy in advertising. His take on the genre can be likened to smart, modern, usually indie US comedy films, where the laughs are derived from character and situation rather than one-liners. In both his commercials and in a prolific run of comedy shorts, which he writes or co-writes himself, his special subject is the deeply flawed, often delusional behaviour of his fellow man.
“If there’s a note that I hit, pretty obsessively, it’s about dysfunction and awkwardness – that’s a lot of my comedy almost across the board,” Shane muses. “I’m also looking for real behaviour – which is something that some people say shouldn’t be in an ad. But I think people laugh when they recognise themselves – and we’re all pretty fucked-up.” In the case of Currys, he notes that despite the unlikely fact of Jeff Goldblum appearing to sort things out, the ad contains relatable truths.
In other words, we have all been there. “I think it struck a chord because, you know, gift-giving is fraught. It’s so much about what’s underneath the surface. Questions are raised such as: ‘Does he like me?’ and ‘Does he listen to me?’”
Another recent Shane-directed series, Awkward Family Viewing, for HBO’s streaming service HBO Go, successfully observes the tensions of family life and bagged him a gold, three silvers and a bronze at Cannes 2014. In What’s He In, we witness the squirming discomfort and rising irritation of two late teens having to watch Game Of Thrones on the living room TV with their parents, who constantly make annoying, incorrect interjections about the actors in the show. It is very funny because it is so true.
In Writers’ Room, for New York Lottery, rather than observing the truth of normal human behaviour, he nonetheless creates a realistic portrayal of an ordinary, slightly nerdy guy who’s ended up in an unrealistic/fantasy situation – having won the lottery he’s ‘that rich’ he can hire his own personal team of comedy writers who feed him a constant supply of cracking one-liners that garner him big laughs wherever he goes – from the supermarket to the dry cleaners. It’s a delicious idea about the possible uses of unfeasible riches that Shane delivers by playing it almost like straight drama.
In his short films – he makes two or three a year – he tends to go darker, exploring more extreme levels of delusion or awkwardness. In The One, co-written with his regular writing partner Scott Organ, and produced by B Negative, the film projects arm of O Positive, a stalker falls in love with every woman he sees, taking a positive emotion into a deeply uncomfortable area. In Playdate, from the same team, and showcasing co-writer Scott Organ’s note-perfect acting skills, a couple commit a succession of social blunders at a pretentious dinner party.
Playdate is funny because it is almost unbearably excruciating. It also follows one of David Shane’s strict rules of the genre. “Comedy is conflict, right?” he says. “That’s one of the clichés that’s always objectively true. There’s no getting away from it.”
The tears of a high-school clown
David Shane’s knack for humour is quite possibly in his genes. Growing up on Long Island, New York State, he’s the son of Jerry Shane, a stand-up comic and actor who appeared in TV shows of the 60s and 70s, such as Ed Sullivan’s Talk Of The Town and The Tonight Show. Shane Sr died in a car accident in 1979 when David was still a child.
He describes himself, perhaps not surprisingly, as “kind of an angry kid. I would retreat into my room a lot, living in my head.” He also routinely played the clown at high school. “It was definitely more important to get laughs from my classmates than good grades, which is probably why I was suspended twice.”
After studying creative writing at State University of New York’s Purchase College, he “sort of floundered”, becoming involved in an improv comedy group and “attempting to write pretentious novels”, until someone suggested copywriting as a career. “It had never occurred to me that this was an actual job,” he says. “So I took one class at the School of Visual Arts in New York. My ads were really just a collection of jokes, but my teacher either liked them or took pity on me, and made up my book.” That led to a job in the early 90s at hot New York agency ChiatDay, where he says he struggled to fit in. “I mainly wrote weird radio commercials.”
At the same time, he was writing a comic novel about conjoined twins following very different career paths, which was then optioned as a screenplay. It didn’t get green lit, but it led him into writing jobs on TV comedy shows, including the first season of South Park. Then his old ChiatDay creative director Marty Cook asked him to improve some scripts to be directed by comedian and filmmaker Albert Brooks. “I threw some jokes into them, then Albert said he wanted final cut on the ads, and Marty explained that there was no such thing in advertising,” he recalls. “Albert left the project, and I was literally standing next to him in the room when it happened. Marty said, ‘You do it, you’re kinda funny.’”
Shane found the experience so rewarding, he resolved to do more. “I never intended to direct ads, it wasn’t on my radar. But I loved it.” Deciding to launch a career as a commercials director, he needed to boost his reel, so wrote and directed a series of promos for MTV called Matty Griper Rock ’N’ Roll Accountant, with scenes of Griper (a character based upon his own accountant, also called Matty Griper) doing accounting work for various rock stars. “It was aggressively idiotic, but people liked it.”
There’s nothing funnier than f***ing swearing
From the early 2000s, regular commercial work began to come his way, but he says: “I spent the first five or six years being mystified as to why anyone would give me a job. I always felt that my mission was to do something that was ‘wrong’ in a way – 15 degrees different from what was considered a standard comedy commercial.”
He was obviously doing something right with his consistently funny series of spots for ESPN, his gold Lion-winning work for pet charity BCSPCA and his notorious Bud Light ad Swear Jar. This spot was set in an office where the staff pepper normal conversation with swearwords (bleeped out in the ad) in order to fill the swear jar with funds for cases of Bud Light.
Shane recalls that he and the agency thought they were making a Superbowl ad. “We were deeply misguided about it,” he laughs. “When it was finished, the client said he hated it and that it would never air.” But a year later, in 2008, Budweiser’s need for content for its newly launched online channel bud.tv led to the suppressed ad finally being released. It immediately went viral, gaining millions of YouTube views, and then becoming a meme, inspiring everything from versions by high school kids to Japanese anime.
Swear Jar was his biggest success to date, bagging him an Emmy, a Clio and a silver Lion at Cannes. The manner of its success also attracted attention – nobody knew that this kind of ad would go viral worldwide. “It became a lot easier to get smart scripts after that,” he says.
Since then, his work in the US, through production company O Positive, where he’s also a partner, has included award-winning ads such as Feeling Carefree for Volkswagen (a recreation of the A-Ha Take On Me video), Pathological Liar for Land Rover, Cute Cottage for BMW and more ESPN spots. And in the UK, in 2009, Shane directed Alan for Doritos, a spoof rock video about a wannabe rock star who spectacularly fails at every regular job, finally realising his rock ’n’ roll dreams playing the video game Guitar Hero.
“I enjoy working with British agencies,” he says. “Their creatives actually let me direct, without standing over my shoulder. The best American creatives do that too, but there’s no doubt that English creatives are more inclined to give you more leeway.”
His methods for achieving his comedy usually involve what he describes as “structured improv”. Covering a scene with at least two cameras, he then throws actors lines they can use or ignore. “It’s not really about trying to get it right. In a weird way I’m trying to get it wrong – to create an atmosphere where I can be surprised.” He acknowledges that can be “scary for clients”, but the objective is to have his actors living in the moment on screen for the first time.
And in the case of Jigsaw for Currys PC World, he reveals that when deluded husband Martin plants a kiss on Goldblum-as-Maggie, it was a surprise to the Hollywood star. Shane had secretly planned it beforehand with the actor playing Martin. “Jeff didn’t even know that was coming. If you watch his reaction, it’s genuine.”
He adds that he enjoys the editing process almost more than the shooting. “It’s the final rewrite of the script, it’s where it all comes together.” And he notes that he often discovers what seemed to work on set does not translate in the edit, and vice versa. “I like to think that I see nearly everything, and that I then develop it. But the truth is something spontaneous may have happened that I missed, so you want the editor to surprise you.”
Shorter forms that are long on laughs
Hoping to utilise his experience and the skills he’s acquired in a long-form project, he currently has three feature scripts in development. Meanwhile he has come to love making short films, for the creative freedom they allow in giving a short comic scene a bit more room to breathe, plus the fact they can be hugely successful online.
Plane Crash, which takes the familiar scenario of starving plane crash survivors into the realms of dark, bawdy humour, has been a hit on comedy website Funny Or Die. He has also just completed his most autobiographical work yet: The Board harks back to his own awkward teen years in the 1980s, with a boy pre-planning his phone conversation with a girl he likes – using the aforementioned board – with excruciating results.
Once again the laughs comes from abject failure. “I didn’t use a board, but I’d cover my floor with sticky notes, with every permutation of every topic I thought might come up,” he recalls. Premiering at this year’s Tribeca Festival, The Board is arguably Shane’s most assured and heartfelt comedy to date. He also notes that that his former awkward self could never have imagined the career path he would take. “It’s an amazing job,” he says. “I love actors, I love comedy, and I do like the short forms. It’s fun to do things that have a finite life to them. I have found I am good at that.”