Finding funny writers in the age of writing-less portfolios

Right now at Arnold, I’m doing something not many creative directors get to do anymore: I’m running a group that turns out a whole lot of funny (and the occasional “funny”) content. We are in a near constant cycle of idea generation, script revision, casting, self-loathing, shooting, editing, wincing, re-editing, re-wincing, rinsing and repeating. Not that I’m complaining, it’s the best job in advertising outside of hand-modeling.

But finding talent to throw into this high-speed comedy tornado has been a challenge. We just don’t see the right portfolios. In fact, I’m not sure they really exist anymore. Today’s activation-heavy, two-minute-case-video, what-if-we-made-a-vending-machine-that-accepted-human-tears style ad school portfolios may work well for the majority of creative directors at today’s agencies. But when what you need are writers who can spit out funny scripts like one of those cash cannons spit out fake hundies, those same portfolios can be hard to judge.

So, a few years back I told creative recruiting that I just wanted to meet funny people, and that I didn’t really care where they came from. Since then, we’ve had a huge influx of truly amazing writing talent. Here are a few places we’ve been looking that maybe other folks haven’t.

Twitter

Twitter is a comedy writer’s paradise, and a great place to find writers who understand how to construct and land a joke. In recent years, Twitter has served as a great tie-breaker for me. I meet a lot of writers with competent portfolios and good personalities who want to work on funny things, but simply haven’t gotten the chance yet. A quick view into how and what they write for themselves can either seal the deal, or signal that maybe lack of opportunity isn’t the only thing holding them back.

Performers

Great performers write with delivery in mind. And great script writers need to understand character development and the beats of the spoken word. So, we’ve had great luck with hiring people who have spent time performing – whether they’re stand-ups, improv troupers, theater majors, or just weirdos making funny little movies with their friends.

Friends of funny friends

We’ve made a point of staying connected to the community here in Boston. We’ve had a number of creatives who were active in the local stand up scene; we’ve mined their relationships and hired other comics (and then promptly crushed their Tonight Show dreams with our 70-hour work week). We’ve operated similarly with local improv groups; not only do our folks take sketch writing classes, and develop their presentation and performance skills with improv classes, we’ve used those connections to identify and hire local talent.

Art directors

Yes, even the occasional art director can turn out to be a comedy-writing asset if you look hard enough. We once hired an art director with a weak portfolio largely on the wings of how charming the writing was in his email begging for a job he was woefully unqualified for. He turned out to be a killer art director and a funny writer to boot.

Other weird places good writing might be hiding

In just the past five years we’ve hired a writer from an animated children’s show, a greeting card writer, and, most recently, a special ed teacher who was also an award-winning screenwriter and film director in his spare time. All three were great hires. So, yeah, apologies to the children of America for poaching your talent.

Interns

About a year ago, when sifting through an especially unfunny batch of portfolios, I wondered to myself if there were any undergraduate programs where comedy writing was taught as an official discipline. I found only one, and that program had just been founded a year prior. It was at Emerson College, which is about 500 yards from my desk at Arnold — seemed like more than a coincidence. Since then, we’ve been mining that program for talent, and are hoping to establish a more formal relationship with that program going forward.

The future of funny

Obviously, funny short-form video content is hardly a new discipline. But thanks to new platforms, it’s never been more relevant, even as our ability to identify and develop talent in that realm has, in my view, never been weaker.

Based on 10 years of trying to constantly reload a Gatling gun of funny video content, my simple advice for finding funny writing is to prioritize innate writing talent, and a genuine love for making people laugh. Find people who would be writing funny things whether they were working for you or not.

You can train people on platforms and show them how to optimize 30 seconds or 15 seconds or 6 seconds. But you can’t teach them to love rewriting a joke 40 times to get the cadence exactly right, or sitting around late into the night, riffing until we have way more funny ideas than we could ever shoot.

No, you can’t teach a person to be funny. But I’m hoping you can reteach an industry how to be. And identifying great talent is a start.

Sean McBride is executive creative director at Arnold

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