Growing up Orthodox Jewish, JJ Adler used childhood TV - and the commercials that came with it - as a window to the world outside of her community. She ended up going to film school in an attempt to become an editor, an endeavour that got her a job at satirical news publication The Onion to help launch its video product, the Onion News Network. She eventually became head director despite joining as an editor.
Today, JJ is an award winning director and writer who has helped create comedy spots for companies including GEICO, P&G, SC Johnson, Virgin Mobile, Nestle, Coke, Verizon, McDonald’s, Pepperidge Farms, etc., and with The Martin Agency, McCann, R/GA, Mother, Droga5, Ogilvy & Mather, Grey, DDB, VMLY&R, PKT, JWT, BBDO, and many more.
In 2019 JJ directed sketches all across Netflix’s critically acclaimed Astronomy Club: The Sketch Show, and released the buzzy short film, Places, Thank You Places written by and starring Gary Richardson (SNL).
In 2020 JJ joined up with EP Greg Jones to launch Ruckus Films, a production company with a tight-knit roster of comedy specialist directors.
LBB’s Addison Capper chatted with JJ about her path to directing and the state of commercial comedy today.
LBB> Let's start with a bit of background. How did you get into filmmaking? And more specifically, how did you end up specialising in comedy?
JJ> I grew up Orthodox Jewish. I wasn’t married at 20, so I had to get some sort of a job. I decided I wanted to go to film school to try to be an editor. My parents were like, “Sure, do arts and crafts until you get married. That sounds fine.” So, I went to film school. I met a classmate who ended up bringing me along to a job at The Onion where I was helping to start a video product with them, the Onion News Network. I came on as the editor. But we did R&D there for six months and by the time we launched the project, I’d been promoted to director. I ended up working there for five years. So, the bottom line is I got into directing completely by accident, and I got into comedy even more by accident.
LBB> How did you feel about comedy and advertising when you were a kid? Did any parts of your childhood signal that this might be where you'd make your career?
JJ> I spent a lot of my childhood looking to TV for answers as to how the world worked outside of my small religious community. Of course, when I was growing up there were fewer venues for TV shows which means commercials were a bigger deal, right? So US ads were more of a way I could connect to a larger American cultural experience. Like, all these big inside jokes. People of my generation will always remember the Skip It theme song, for example. I always felt like there was something super special about being able to access that commonality.
LBB> You cut your teeth in unbranded comedic work - what led you to advertising? What was your first branded job?
JJ> I was doing short-form comedy at The Onion. So it seemed like a natural fit to get into a different type of short-form comedy. I basically got headhunted for my first branded job, which was a Capital One commercial for Tool. It was a part of those Visigoth campaigns that Eric Joiner was doing, and I did a branded digital series for them. Which was so exciting! There was – and still is – such great comedy work out there wrapped up in just 30 seconds. I just think it’s such a cool, unique little art form.
LBB> You launched Ruckus Films in 2020 - what inspired you to launch your own production company?
JJ> I had been working with Greg Jones (Ruckus EP) for about eight years before we launched Ruckus. We have so many great client relationships and just felt like it was a good time for us to do the whole production thing on our own, try to do it a little bit differently than what our experiences had been. We wanted to build something that was really transparent with directors and focused on making our directors our partners in this business. And we wanted to be sure we’re creating content that everyone is proud of first and foremost – as opposed to being hyper-focused on just the bottom line.
LBB> You've got a nice, short roster of comedic directors. What did you look for when building it and what are you looking for when it comes to signing new directors?
JJ> We want a roster full of distinct voices. We don’t want to collect people who are kind of doubles of each other. We’re looking for directors who have a really clear, unique point of view and who have great performances in their work, specifically in their comedic work. We look for people whose sense of humour feels innovative and fresh. The other main thing that we really look for is personality. We like to surround ourselves with people who take the work – but not themselves – seriously. People who know how to play well with others and just have fun on set. Because we do.
LBB> Generally, what are your thoughts on the current relationship between comedy and advertising? Is it a fruitful time for comedic ads?
JJ> I think there is a ton of great work out there. And I’m incredibly lucky that I get to bid on some of the funniest boards. But on the whole, looking at the wider scope of comedy work, it feels like safety is the course people are taking lately. It seems like just before I got into ads, like 10 or 15 years ago, there were bigger swings being taken in comedy – which reaped bigger rewards. But lately, it feels like TikTok creators and viral content, in general, has really taken over the weird, risky comedy playground that ads used to play in. I think there’s still potential for riskier, wilder, more chance-y comedy to come back, even if economics often push companies to play it safe.
LBB> It really feels like comedic work has struggled to cut through and pick up the big prizes on the advertising awards circuit in recent years. Why do you think that is? Is it a case of the work not being brave enough or priorities shifting to other types of work? Or something different entirely?
JJ> Well, the last few years have been so heavy. So it’s no wonder that socially motivated stuff outside comedy – content that’s about inspiring people in a more direct sense – are what tends to capture the most awards.
But good work doesn’t have to be altruistic. It can simply be entertaining. And lately, I feel like there is an appetite to get back to fun and delight. I feel like I personally am seeing comedy boards, comedy work, and brands, in general, being braver. Reflecting this trend. The more we all collectively push to make bold comedy – work that takes bigger swings – the more they’ll win and the more we’ll see.
LBB> When it comes to comedic advertising, there is obviously a lot to be considered in terms of the tone and content being right for the brand. What are some of the key things a director needs to keep in mind when creating funny commercials?
JJ> Early in my career, I experimented with working with treatment writers through my comedy connections in New York and LA. These are people who’ve gone on to prove they’re some of the best comedy writers in TV and in general. And they would have such funny takes on things, but they were often totally off from what would work in a commercial. They’d always involve, like, some pathetic guy farting in his grimy apartment, or other specifics that just don’t make any sense in a piece commissioned for a brand.
For commercial work, the comedic point of view has to be funny, but it also has to hit a bunch of campaign-specific notes. And with a subtle touch. You’re selling a product at the end of the day. You have to balance the comedy and the story with the brand needs and the creative goals that fired up the agency team to create this script in the first place. You want to thread the needle between those two aspects of the project and the comedic, creative spark that drew you as a director to the work as well.
LBB> As a comedy director, part of your strength obviously also lies in writing. How do you navigate this with commercials when there's an agency involved?
JJ> It’s about finding balance. I feel like my job as a comedy director is to bridge whatever gap there is between the client's goals for the project and the creative hopes and dreams of the agency team. I have to deliver a package of ideas that lands us all somewhere we’re really proud of. So, I write to try and smooth out any wrinkles that cropped up as a consequence of working an idea for months with lots of cooks in the kitchen. And also to add fun layers and twists to what everyone loved about the work in the first place.
LBB? Do you have any comedic heroes? Who are they and why?
JJ> I’m a bit of a comedy nerd in general, so I guess my ‘comedy hero’ is the whole comedy scene? In New York, in LA, any city I’m in around the world, I always go to shows. Indie shows, alt shows, bad improv, good improv. I don’t care. I like to see the next great performers as they’re coming up. Or hear a comic’s first delivery of their new material and then go back months later and to see how they’ve whittled the raw material down to something genius. Performing comedy – and writing good comedy for performance – is really intricate and hard and fun. And you really need to see an idea move through a performer and land on the audience to know whether it works. There’s so much magic in getting to experience that with a room full of other people. And to get to watch a new performer explode. Or a seasoned performer just so confidently crush.
LBB> Outside of work, what keeps you happy / relaxed / energised?
JJ> Travel, my dog, cooking, cooking for my dog, but what are we even talking about here? Is there anything outside of work for me? Am I kidding? God, I hope so!