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Jonathan Zames: “When Everyone Needs a Laugh, Clowns Are Highly Employable”


The director, recently signed to Someplace Nice for representation in Canada, tells LBB’s Adam Bennett why 2022 is crying out for comedy, and reveal’s the alchemy behind Canada’s winning ‘insider/outsider’ national sense of humour

Jonathan Zames: “When Everyone Needs a Laugh, Clowns Are Highly Employable”

Anyone who thinks brands can’t be funny hasn’t met Jonathan Zames. A theme running through his career to date has been the kind of knowing, light hearted work which portrays brands that are confident enough to poke fun at themselves - and provide laughs for viewers in the process. 

On top of that, the director, screenwriter, and cinematographer has put together a portfolio of rib-tickling commercials for brands including Apple, Gillette, Tide, Petsmart, Samsung, and many more. In doing so he’s swept up awards at Cannes Lions, AICP Awards, AD STARS, and beyond. Having hit those heights with his work in the US, the Canadian filmmaker is now turning his attention to his home country following his recently-announced signing by Someplace Nice. 

To chew the fat on his inspirations, highlights, and why there’s never been a better time for comedy, LBB’s Adam Bennett caught up with Jonathan. 

Above: ‘Celebrity Assistant’, for VISA via BBDO, is a perfect showcase for Jonathan’s wry and witty approach to humour. 

LBB> Jonathan, let’s start at the beginning - what kind of kid were you growing up, and when did you first know that a career in filmmaking was right for you?

Jonathan> I was a little ham, doing magic shows, writing skits, and making little radio shows on my Fischer Price tape recorder. In kindergarten my best friend and I would play "movie making," where he was the producer making the big business decisions and I was the director coming up with the silly little ideas. He went on to become a highly successful businessperson, founding a publicly traded company, and I still come up with silly little ideas. So I guess our paths were baked in early on. 

LBB> Fast-forward to today, and what’s exciting you most about teaming up with Someplace Nice?

Jonathan> I've been lucky enough to have been on some A-list rosters, and to have established a good career for myself here in the States. But as a Canadian, I was always determined to try to break into that market too - and the time has finally come. The bulk of my work is still in the US (where I am freelance), but I would like to make a big push for Canadian work in 2022. Simply put, Estelle and Chilo are the best equipped to make it happen. They are absolute powerhouses, and what more could I want than teaming up with powerhouses?!

LBB> In terms of comedy, what kind of stuff influenced you when you were starting out?

Jonathan> My palette is a little all over the place, from pretty dopey to artsy fartsy. Some big influences are Real Genius, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Dumb and Dumber, Buffalo '66, Manhattan, Down by Law, Chungking Express, and the movies of Aki Kaurismaki and Elia Suleiman.

Above: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off was one of a number of influential comedies to make a mark on Jonathan. 

LBB> A lot of your comedy can be found in those universal moments in life which are somewhat awkward and clumsy. Would you agree with that, and what do you think makes those kinds of situations ripe for comedy?

Jonathan> Yeah, I would agree with that. As someone who writes comedy, dialogue is obviously critical. But as a director, I find the silence between the lines just as important, and yet that’s often overlooked. 

Frequently, editors will put a music track under a rough cut of mine, and my first note will be to take it out. Music can sometimes make a piece feel too smooth. It's the tiny moments where the viewer doesn't quite know what's about to happen next - those little "bumps in the road” - that make comedy to me. I mean, there is no such thing as a punchline that exists in and of itself. A punchline is only as good as the lead up to it; the anticipation. And those awkward moments, those bumps in the road, are exactly what build anticipation. 

LBB> You’ve said that Canada has “the best comedy in the world” - what makes it so good?

Jonathan> Two things. First, the culture is heavily influenced by both British and American humour, and that combination is about as potent as it gets. Second is what I describe as "insider/outsider syndrome." Canada borders the most powerful, most culturally dominant country in the world. 

Growing up, many of our TV and radio stations were literally American - broadcasting from across the border, and in many ways our cultures are identical. So, it's like we have one foot in that dominant culture, and yet we are also totally outside of it. It's like a kid whose big brother is the most popular kid at school. You're at once tied up in that dynamic, but you're also a bystander - sometimes proudly individual, sometimes with a chip on your shoulder. And pretty much every great comedian starts with a chip on their shoulder. 

LBB> As well as being a director, you’re also a screenwriter. Is directing your own screenplay easier or more challenging than shooting someone else’s?

Jonathan> They're challenging in very different ways, though directing your own work is more deeply gratifying. There is nothing in the world like seeing what has only existed as a figment of your imagination come to life in front of your eyes. I hope someone reading this will give me lots of money to make the current figments of my imagination come to life.

LBB> Your Google Cardboard Plastic ‘ad’ is an absolute classic. But, as a filmmaker, is there anything about the world of technology that genuinely does excite you in 2022?

Jonathan> We're still in the early days of the merge of practical and virtual production (LED walls, real time rendering, etc.) so that's pretty cool. Otherwise, advances in areas like deepfakes, AI, and social media pretty much just scare the crap out of me. I do hold out hope for the promise of tech to alleviate our climate crisis though. 

Above: Originally a light-hearted satire on Google Glasses, Jonathan’s Google Cardboard film arguably takes on an extra edge in the age of metaverse hype. 

LBB> You’ve also worked as group creative director for Google. It’s been said that brands aren’t as funny as they used to be, or even that they’re shying away from comedy in favour of more ‘serious’ or ‘worthy’ work. What’s your take on that, and is it possible for a big brand to be funny whilst also remaining true to their ‘purpose’?

Jonathan> The problem is precisely that brands are too caught up on their ‘purpose’. In actuality, the purpose of a brand is to sell things while ideally employing (i.e. helping) as many people as possible, and hurting as few people as possible. But somewhere along the way it became about having an ‘important’ message, and that has scared many brands away from comedy. That's not hyperbole by the way - most brands I deal with are scared to look bad. They are very literally afraid of... jokes. I don't think it's a good thing when people can't laugh at themselves.

LBB> Finally, depending on where you read your news it can feel that the world is in something of a negative state right now, with regards to climate change, social tensions, and even a war in Europe. Do you think that these wider contexts affect how receptive we are to comedy, and do they make it harder for creatives to be funny?

Jonathan> I feel bad for political satirists, but the rest of us in the comedy world aren't complaining right now. When everyone's desperate for a laugh, clowns are highly employable.

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Genres: Comedy

Someplace Nice, Tue, 28 Jun 2022 06:30:00 GMT