I once directed a spot with a very large shirtless man who had enough back hair that it looked like he was wearing an animal pelt. He stood next to his elegant Mother in a formal foyer of a suburban home. After a few uncomfortable beats, he lunged over and gave her a big, hairy hug. It was very awkward. Awkward to watch and awkward to shoot. I was in heaven.
I live for these moments. As a kid, I fantasized about standing up in church and yelling like a madman. In directing comedy spots, I kinda feel like I get to do that for a living. Awkward comedy is the antithesis of the slick, more conventional spot. The moment when you have no idea what’s coming next is a goal I shoot for.
The hairy man commercial is taking awkward to the extreme. And if you can get away with it, all the better. A more relatable awkward moment will ideally create empathy. And it’s the unspoken mutual understanding that graces the screen, screaming covertly, “Damn that’s awkward, I know because I’ve been there!” It’s because you can relate, you care just a little. And if you care, you’re invested. These are the moments that resonate with the viewer because of our shared human experience. Even if they know they’re not that character, the goal is to elicit a laugh in recognition of the situation.
Because I’m naturally drawn to work that is unscripted or allows for improvisation, I frequently look to actors who are versed in improv. Casting non-actors can also be an advantage; they are unvarnished in their performance, which can provide some true uncomfortable comedy. A lot of professional actors with many IMDB credits can be too self-aware for this kind of comedy. That’s why non-union or real people casting can be a good thing. It’s the green actors that don’t quite have that pre-conceived idea of how they appear on camera who can be priceless.
Many times, it starts by finding an actor who is a little awkward by nature. In that case, what you see is what you get. They may not be adept at range or options, but they can hit that perfect note by just being intrinsic to who they are.
In some cases, whether with seasoned improv performers or non-actors, I try to confuse a little and catch them in that moment of retracing their life while trying to understand a direction. When you can get the actor to feel the situation for what it is - unfamiliar, unfortunate, unorthodox - the performance will be most effective in channelling the feeling of…awkwardness.
We are used to seeing things with so much finesse and self-confidence that a moment that makes people squirm a little can often amplify the concept and its impact. When it comes to directing awkward comedy, imperfection and trust have to work in unison to paradoxically deliver the perfect moment of laughter. Because what's the worst that can happen? Falling flat with awkward comedy? That would be awkward.