'Straight headline, twisted visual' isn’t just for print.

Writing tip #5

Comedy writing is hard. I’m not a comedian, I’m a copywriter, so I don’t proclaim to be an expert on the topic, but over the years I’ve won a bunch of awards for comedy spots, written for The Chaser, been interviewed by Rolling Stone in regards to satire, had 50 Cent use my content to beef with Ja Rule, and even had physical recreations of my memes acquired by a museum. So I figure I can at least say something on the topic.

There’s an old saying in advertising, ‘Straight headline, twisted visual. Twisted headline, straight visual’. Anyone who’s been around for a minute will be aware of it. The crux of it is, if you’ve got a bizarre visual for your ad, don’t write a weird headline as well. Write it straight. This creates friction between the two, and comedy needs friction. Similarly, if you’ve got a really straight image, warp the headline. Because if both are straight, you’re sending people on a one way trip to boring town. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, but this one is pretty failsafe.

Like I said at the start, comedy writing is hard. Especially when it comes to film, and this is where our business stuffs it up a lot of the time.

Too often, we try to do too much. We go over the top, we over exaggerate performance, and it ends up feeling slapstick. The art of subtlety that lives in classic print ads got lost somewhere along the way. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of great comedy ads out there, but there’s far more failed attempts that end up feeling, well, a bit cringeworthy.

One of the main reasons is we don’t carry this rule over. I saw Kevin Mulroy from Mischief describe it once as ‘Dumb setup, straight delivery’, which is a great translation. It can also go the other way on occasion as well. Straight setup, dumb delivery. Either way, there’s friction. But if you go weird/dumb setup with wacky delivery your message/punchline is likely to get lost, and if you go straight with both then obviously it’s just not going to be funny. But, unfortunately, we’ve all seen ads that fall into both of those baskets.

To Kevin’s point, straight delivery wrapped in absurdity is a great place to start. The weird situation grabs and holds people’s attention, and presents a beautiful canvas for you to say whatever it is the client wants to say. You can literally just tick the boxes on the brief. All those mandatories you rolled your eyes at in the brief? Just say 'em straight in a sea of madness.

A great recent example was the MacPac ‘Precarious’ ad from The Monkeys. Completely ridiculous scenario, very straight delivery. They’re even just listing out product features while we sit there and watch.

These Take 5 Oil Change ads (there’s tons of them) are another good example. Within the first 3 seconds, they’ve got the brand and the message out, straight as an arrow, and the rest is just absurdity. Great format.

Years ago, we got a brief from Telstra Phonewords. ‘We have a small budget and Sam Kekovich’ was basically the brief. The prop was ‘words are more memorable than numbers’. So, we just said that, and proved that, in the straightest lo-fiest fashion possible, but wrapped it in complete absurdity. (And covered Sam in lizards.) The radio spots ended up picking a lot of metal as well, which you can check out here.

In summary, comedy needs friction, so just like in a static ad - don’t twist your visual and your delivery. Because you’ll just over-egg the omelette.

Writing tip #1


Writing tip #2


Writing tip #3


Writing tip #4



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