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Spikes Asia

The Art of the Steal

I am a comedy writer, and I am here to teach you how to steal.

I’ll explain. Everyone is always talking about new media and creating content. But the truth is, you never create content. You only re-create content.

I am going to tell you about my career as thief. For almost 10 years I wrote for Conan O’Brien on Late Night and The Tonight Show. Before that I wrote for the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. We did four or five shows a week. A monologue with three to 10 jokes, every night, plus sketches, comedy bits.

How did we manage to create a brand-new show every night? We didn’t. Why? Because it’s impossible. Because there are no new jokes. Everything’s been done.

So how did we do it? We stole. Usually from ourselves, but also from our friends and rivals.

What I would do is look at areas and stories that had worked before. For instance, not long ago America had a president named George W. Bush. Remember him? Every night for almost 8 years, every late-night show did jokes about how mentally challenged he was. Why? Because these kind of jokes had worked in the past, and therefore it was safe to assume they would work that night, too.

So I would go to Google News, look for a story on President Bush and find a way to write a joke that would call him dumb. It’s not that hard. Then after six or seven years when I couldn’t find a new joke, I would find a new way to use an old one.

One example: When Bush got his first iPod, we got footage of him showing it off to reporters. After the footage, the host said, “There was an awkward moment when one of the reporters said, “That’s not an iPod, Mr. President, that’s a garage-door opener.”

It got a laugh….. sooooo. A couple years later, shortly after he left the presidency, Bush got his first iPad. We showed him demonstrating the iPad and came back to the host, who said, “There was an awkward moment when one of the reporters said, “That’s not an iPad, Mr. President, that’s an Etch-a-Sketch.”

Same, but different. A perfect example of how I stole from myself. But as talented as you may be, you can’t just steal from yourself. You have to steal from others, too. Is this unethical? Absolutely not. Because you don’t steal word for word. I’m talking about taking a topic and addressing it in similar but unique way.

All ad campaigns, all jokes, all movies are built on premises that have been done before. It’s what you do with those premises, what twists you find, that make you a new-media genius.

For instance, one time a rival show did a joke about a brand of peanut butter that had started marketing its product pre-sliced. That’s right. It was flat strips of peanut butter, wrapped in plastic like American cheese. The rival show did a joke whose punch line went, “It’s perfect for the mother who wants to make her kids peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, but doesn’t want to put down the bottle of scotch in her right hand.”

A good joke, but more importantly a good premise. So I wrote one: “Peanut butter singles are the perfect way to tell your children, ‘Mommy doesn’t love you.’”

With Bush, you might ask, “Why did you only do jokes about him being dumb?” Not only did the audience like the Bush-is-dumb jokes, they expected them. And if instead they got a hilarious critique of his welfare policy, they wouldn’t laugh as hard because at some level, they were disappointed.

Think about roasts. Roast lineups usually consist of at least one woman, one ethnic minority, one person known for abusing substances, and always at least one fat person. If Jonah Hill is there, is it unoriginal to call him fat? Yes. The trick is to do it better than anyone else. A comedian named Jeff Ross told the best joke. He noted that Jonah had starred in Quentin Tarantino’s spaghetti western, “Django Unchained.” Jeff said, “When Tarantino asked Jonah to star in a spaghetti western, Jonah said, ‘You had me at spaghetti.’”  It’s funny, it’s smart, and yet at heart, it’s just a fat joke.

Same with heist films: The leader gets the gang together, they plan the perfect heist, something goes wrong, but they figure out a way to improvise and get away, only for something to go wrong again afterward. And then there’s a twist.

What makes them worthwhile and fun is to see how the filmmakers did something a little different with the exact same material. You go because you want to see what’s different, what’s special.

How does this apply to you? You already know. You’re all selling products that have some differences—but many, many similarities. And you know that while people claim to like ads that are different, what they really like are campaigns that remind them of things they’ve seen before. Your job is to give them themes and items they’re comfortable and familiar with—but with a new viral video, a catchphrase.

So what do you do? You take the best of the old content and re-create it for your own purposes. You surround yourself with with what has worked before and what has failed before. Then you add your point of view. If you look at something you like, and you’re a creative person, that something, that idea, can become familiar yet new and different.

And make you rich and successful.

+ Watch Guy Nicolucci’s  exclusive interview with ogilvydo here.

Hollywood and advertising agencies speak to the same consumers. What can we learn from the film industry in bringing people around a project to create profitable content? You’ll soon find out in the session by Bates CHI&Partners at Spikes Asia 2014 on Hollywood’s Collaboration Model.

Check updates of the Spikes Asia conference on ogilvydo here.

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