Well, surely, we don’t want our brands to look like Jay Leno’s The Tonight Show, that exercise in the painfully agreeable. Jay Leno used to be a comedian:
"President Bush is recovering after an illness in Japan. His medical advisers were very clear. They said to the President, "Get plenty of rest and drink lots of fluids.""
"Plenty of rest, lots of fluids? I thought that was Congress’s job."
Now, Jay uses EZ humor. Retirement happened a while ago. We’re just waiting for him to leave.
Jay’s story is the story of a several brands. They begin with edge and intelligence and then trade this away for growth. They grow large without even as they wither within. EZ branding, it’s everywhere. Big simple branding propositions. Repeated endlessly. Argh. Retirement can’t come soon enough.
Jimmy Kimmel is another story. I liked the fact that he promised his talk show was going to be a "funny version of the Tonight Show." And I like the fact that he manages to express two very different parts of contemporary culture: wicked clever and Man Show stupidity. The person who can pull this off is a genius or the head writer at a Frat house. The brand that can pull this off, well, name one. ESPN, maybe. Apparently, Kimmel is up 17 % among adults 18 to 49, so a lot of brands ought to be taking notice.
But there is trouble in this little paradise. Kimmel is making a host of compromises. He now wears a tie. The show is no longer live. He dutifully stands up for his monologue. Yes, the numbers are growing, but it is not clear that the potency of the proposition can sustain itself.
This is an old story, the trading away of credibility to get to success. It looks as if Entertainment Weekly may be engaged in something like this. (The current cover showing Matthew McConaughey under the desperate title "Sexiest Man Alive or Serious Actor?" is but one indication.) It’s always the same. The compromises begin to accumulate, the numbers spike nicely, and within a year or two the thing has jumped the shark.
The lesson from Jimmy Kimmel and his handlers may be this: take grow only if you can have it without compromise. If you need bigger numbers, start another brand.
This week I’ve been watching Craig Ferguson on The Late, Late Show, and I wonder if he is a new model of the talk show host…and perhaps the brand.
First, Ferguson reverses the trend. We are now accustomed to actors who started as comedians (Bill Murray, Eddie Murphy, Robin Williams, Steve Martin, Ray Romano, Martin Lawrence, Will Ferrell, the list is long). Ferguson is a comedian who started as an actor.
Second, Ferguson is the picture of animation. If he were any more animated, he’d be a cartoon character. I counted 15 vivid, distinct, arch expressions and then gave up. This guy just loves to mug for the camera and he manages to get from "fiendish glee" to "mock horror" in the blink of an eye. This may be his acting training. In any case, there is no such thing as dead air in this show. Even when the guest is shambling along, Ferguson is furiously digging around them for comic material with the joy and accuracy of a truffle pig.
Third, Ferguson builds an interesting relationship with the audience. He actually opens the second segment by saying, "Welcome back, my cheeky little monkeys!" I tried and tried but I just could not image David Letterman ever saying anything like this to his audience. (No mugging for Dave. His is a kind of Protestant, Midwestern, Carsonian theater of the small gesture and restrained reaction.)
Somehow, Ferguson has got around the "tell a joke" model and creates the impression that everyone in the studio is already party to a joke in progress. In the process he creates an irresistible bonhomie. No need to get the party started. It is already well under way the moment Ferguson starts talking. He insinuates a co-conspiracy and we the audience, go, "well, ok, fine, you’re on." The on-air relationship is, in the words of our favorite linguist, Michael Silverstein, maximally presupposing. It assumes what other comedians must labor to create.
Fourth, Ferguson is actually a pretty good interviewer…this separates him from most of the competition and especially David Letterman who is certifiably hopeless. And being an interviews lets him open up the guest list to include guests as diverse as Edward Norton, Ming Tsai, Xzibit and Paula Poundstone. Norton showed distressing signs of taking himself seriously as the auteur and grand actor, but dear old Ferguson just kept beaming good humor at him till he loosened up. He got Xzibit to make fun of himself and talked Ms. Poundstone down off the ledge of career insecurity. Ferguson proves to be as engaging with guests as he is with the audience.
It’s all very Scottish, this humor is. I have seen something like it before in a little pub several miles outside St. Andrews (aka the middle of nowhere) where people would entertain one another with playfulness, wit and dexterity that left yours-truly silent with awe. There are elements of the music hall at work, with people vamping and camping their way through cheeky, off color jokes and stories. And it is completely inexhaustible in what we might otherwise think is the Fergusonian style.
So it’s not as if young Ferguson has made all this up on his own. But, to be sure, he has, by this time, made it his own, and his opening few minutes of stand up are an exercise in effortlessness and sheer comic facility. He’s very good at this. It’s as if the American comedians have made a fine art of taking things out, baring things down, searching for the mot juste and then timing delivery to within a millisecond of perfection. Ferguson appears to subscribe to the Grand Central Station idea of train travel. Missed a joke? Never mind, there’ll be another one along in a moment.
What does this have to tell us about branding? I think the Fergusonian brand is one that brims with lots of things, and shows itself more interested in vividness than consistency, majesty, or even clarity. A Fergusonian brand is playful, a little surreal at times, vivid, changeable, unpredictable, insinuating, co-conspiratorial, and a little hyperactive. A Fergusonian brand breaks out of the "keep it simple, stupid" rule book that governs many marketers. Most of all, the Fergusonian brand works from an abundance model. It’s not about crafting a couple of words and delivering them with surgical perfection. It’s about more, and then more, and then more of that more. Marketing by profusion. Not everything will work. And that’s ok. Now we know. It’s kind of the way Hollywood used to make movies, and the way Jerry Lewis used to make jokes.
If there is a brand in the world that captures the Fergusonian approach, it is, I think, Geico.com. There seem to be lots of Geico ads running at the moment: the gecko, stone age man, the workout parodies, the tiny house bit, the geico squirrels, the interpretive spots starring Mini-me, Little Richard, Peter Graves, Charo, and the guy who does the voice over for action-adventure ads. It’s hard to believe all this stuff comes from a single agency. (As far as I know, it does, from the Martin Agency in Richmond, Virginia.)
I mean, surely, there will come a time when the brand will want to gaze out on its customers, and salute them with a fond "hello, my cheeky, little monkeys."
I couldn’t actually find anything on YouTube that was guite as good as the Ferguson I got to see this week, but here are a couple of examples
Craig Ferguson Vampire Bats Locusts here.
Late, Late Show – November 3, 2006 here.
Late, Late Show – November 14, 2006 here.
Hibberd, James. 2006. Kimmel’s Old School shift Wins Following. Televisionweek. December 18, 2006.