Ad Rant: Why the Walmart Clown is funny

WalmartOf the hundreds of comments on my Ad Rant about the Walmart clown, half thought the TV spot was funny enough to pee their pants, and half thought the people who were lol-ing and rotfl-ing were morons and Neanderthals. You can't make people laugh at something if they don't think it's funny.

But what struck me was the number who seemed to think that the "clown" in the ad really did step on the sharp, pointy toy unicorn, that he was really in pain, and that the children in the commercial were really terrified and would grow up to have coulrophobia, a fear of clowns.

In other words, although they knew it was on television, they thought it was somehow real.

This is more alarming than the melting of the ice caps.

Because of the number of people writing in to ask why this ad was funny, here is the Official Ad Rant Explanation, including why knowing how commercials are made is vitally important to the experience of humor.
Before you go complaining that "it's just a commercial, lighten up" or that explaining a joke takes the humor out of it (both of which are true in many circumstances), just think: if the topic was good enough for Freud ( see Jokes and Their Relation to The Unconscious), it's good enough for Ad Rant.

CAUTION: Spoiler alert!



The Setup

A dad has spent hours getting ready for his Big Moment: He's going to come out in full clown regalia and surprise the kids at his daughter's birthday party. By the seriousness with which he gives himself a final look in the mirror, we know he has his heart set on bringing tears of joy to the faces of these innocent children.

The Action
At the moment of his grand entrance, he inadvertently stamps down on the sharp spike of a toy unicorn that has been left carelessly on the floor. Instead of the funny opening he has prepared, the clown collapses into a prolonged scream of agony. And we do mean prolonged.

The Reaction
The kids do the equivalent of a double-take. They look up, surprised and prepared to enjoy, but they don't realize the clown's dilemma. All they see and hear is some joker in a clown outfit roaring at them like a monster. Screaming, they scramble for the exits -- all except for one kid, probably the birthday girl. She continues to watch, slack-jawed, the instantaneous destruction of her Special Day.

The Close
Two mothers, whose conversation about shopping for party decorations at Walmart was interrupted, resume right where they left off, as if nothing has happened.

Why It's Funny
It's not because the clown is in pain. It's not because the kids are frightened, or because the parents shop at Walmart (although the legions of people who hate the mighty retail chain may disagree).

It's funny because of thwarted intentions. Not just a little bit thwarted. A lot thwarted. The humor is in the gaping disparity between what the father meant to do and what he achieved.

The father is trying his best to please the kids. He wants only to entertain them. He has spent hours putting on clown makeup and gearing up for his performance. In a single moment, because of misplaced footing, it all blows up in his face, and he winds up doing the exact opposite of what he intended: He terrifies the kids and makes them run away screaming. He has ruined his child's birthday party.

Many in the "love it" camp identified with the situation. Either they had stepped (painfully) on a child's toy, or they had tried to give every ounce of their love, only to see it backfire cruelly through no fault of their own. They're not laughing over someone else's pain and misfortune. They are identifying with it.

Many in the "hate it" camp couldn't see why "slipping on a banana peel" humor is funny. Obviously, that sort of pratfall humor appeals to a great many people or it wouldn't have entered the lexicon, but this ad is not of the banana-peel variety. We're not laughing at the clown's pain. We're laughing at the woeful, universal experience of trying our hardest and falling flat on our faces -- otherwise known, variously, as: The road to ruin is paved with good intentions, or You can't win for losing.

But ... Is It Real?
Some commenters thought that the actor who played the clown actually stepped on the toy and got hurt! Er, that is not how commercials are made. If he had gotten hurt, the ad would be sadistic, not funny. And the Screen Actors Guild would be all over the filmmakers with lawsuits and angry crowds picketing. Real pain and terror are not funny.

The people who were able to laugh at the ad went into it from the start with the knowledge or assumption that no clowns or children were harmed during the making of the Walmart ad. Nor was there any suggestion that they should have been.

Here is what happened on the set of that commercial, more or less, because commercials are always made this way:

It was filmed over a very long day, with multiple rehearsals and "takes." There were frequent snack and juice breaks for the kiddies. Each child had a parent or guardian present on the set.

The actor in the clown suit did not actually step on the unicorn! If you pause the ad at the moment of the foot stomp, you'll see a close-up of a clown shoe crunching down on a unicorn. This is known as an "insert shot." It was filmed separately, and the actor was probably not involved. It could have been accomplished with a special shoe made with a rubbery or spongey sole attached to a broom handle. Someone on the set, probably a crew member, plunged the shoe down on the spike over and over until the director was satisfied that they had gotten the shot they wanted. The splat! sound at the moment of impact could have been added later; the sound of a melon squashing, for example. The children were off having a snack during all this, or not on the set at all, because they were not required for this shot. Children get antsy when they're told to sit quietly with nothing to do, so the director would not have wanted them around.

The child actors are not frightened. If you look carefully, some of them seem to be laughing. Pause the ad when you see their faces. You're seeing them from the clown's point of view, but the guy in the clown suit was probably not present while this was being shot. The camera is standing where he would have been. The children are simply getting up and running. The director might have said, "OK, now run run run to your mommies!"

The shot of the children running away in "terror" was rehearsed over and over, to the point where the kids were getting bored and restless. Since this shot, like every shot in the ad, was rehearsed many times, the director undoubtedly tried to keep the kids happy and engaged so they'd stay alert. They probably had the kids do several different reaction shots, including one of them laughing, if only to warm them up. They would have had to make it as fun as possible so they could capture a feeling of excitement, urgency and spontaneity, even after a long day.

It was shot out of sequence. The child actors did not witness a clown prepare, jump, hurt himself and scream. Each part of the script was filmed separately, and not all in order, so they couldn't have gotten the full effect of the storyline. The closeups of the mothers talking and the father preparing for his entrance could have been done before the kids were assembled on the set, or after they had gone home. Ditto for the shots of the little girl who stays at her mother's feet; when we see her head-on, she was probably told to look at something at about the same height as where the clown would have been standing. She would have had to stay that way, without expression, for several takes. She was reacting to ... nothing.

The clown rehearsed at first without the scream. When it was time for the actor in the clown suit to jump down two steps onto a flat, unicorn-less floor (see above), they would have rehearsed it many times, at first without the scream. They had to get the landing and the physical placement of his body right. Over and over. The director might have asked for more or less time between the stamp and the beginning of the howl. After the actor tried out a few yells, the director might have said, "That's great, I love it. Now try it with a higher pitch." The actor would be standing there, listening seriously, preparing himself mentally, waiting for the director to say softly, "... and, action!"

There were delays. In between takes, the director would be consulting with the cameraman and the sound engineer. They might pause to adjust the boom microphone hanging just out of frame, or for the makeup person to powder the clown's face so that perspiration from the hot lights wouldn't cause the light to bounce. When the children were on the set, they'd have to experiment with where each one should sit, how they should sit, what they should be doing when the clown enters. There would be several run-throughs without the camera rolling. By the time the kids actually looked up to see and react to the actor in the clown suit, after the director said something like, "Settle down, everyone. And ... action!," they had practiced it so many times that the main problem was to make it look fresh, as if they were actually terrified.

The parents rehearsed them over and over. To prepare first for the audition, and again if their child won a role, the parents rehearsed the kids at home. "OK now, look really really scared! Yes, that's great! You're my little star!" The kids would have received positive encouragement to "act" scared, not "be" scared. Children who audition for TV commercials have already taken acting lessons, and probably singing and dancing lessons as well. It's rare to cast a child actor with no experience or training, because the most important thing on the day of the shoot is that the kid have patience and can follow directions.

In short, there was no actual pain or terror on or anywhere near the set of this commercial.

You're STILL free to find the ad not funny, or not to your liking. You're just not free to blame it on the pain and suffering of this particular actor in a clown suit, or this bunch of willing and boisterous child actors.

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