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Evan Silver on Why We’ll Always Need Funny Ads



Co-founder and director at comedy production specialist, Reform School, on his career so far, the power of humour, and working with Jack Black for Gorillaz

Evan Silver on Why We’ll Always Need Funny Ads

Evan Silver is an Emmy-nominated, Cannes Lion-winning director. Inspired as a youth by New York’s vibrant fringe art and punk scenes, as well as his creative director father, Evan began to document diverse subcultures on video, which led to a passion for filmmaking and comedy.

After studying design and advertising in college, Evan has since directed Super Bowl commercials, viral music videos and award-winning films for Comedy Central, Funny or Die, MTV, HBO, ESPN, The Daily Show, and Conan O'Brien. His work has been recognised by Glaad, Imagen Awards, The One Show, Gracie Awards and The Guardian.

In 2021, he and his partner, Ryan Ennis, founded Reform School, a “boutique collective of filmmakers and creatives from entertainment and advertising” that specialises in creating comedic content in a variety of mediums. 

Speaking with LBB’s Ben Conway, Evan talks about his career journey so far, and how humour is Reform School’s key to opening tough topics. He also discusses swapping Uber anecdotes with William Shatner, why ‘surreal’ and ‘terrifying’ are perfect bed mates, and how he stayed safe in Venice when filming with Jack Black and Gorillaz.

LBB> What creative content inspired or interested you most when you were growing up? Do any TV shows, films and ads stand out to you? 

Evan> I grew up watching everything from movies, music videos, and stand-up comedy to weird cable access shows. I would desperately try to stay awake at night to watch Saturday  Night Live or David Letterman with my brothers. They introduced me to classic comedies like ‘The Blues Brothers’, ‘Spinal Tap’, Monty Python films, and ‘Airplane!’ - which was directed by comedy legend David Zucker, who, in a twist of fate, is on Reform School’s commercial directing roster.

LBB> How did downtown New York’s fringe art, punk and skateboarding scenes influence you as a person and a creative when growing up? 

Evan> Skateboarding in downtown NYC was my introduction to all these cool scenes happening in music and street art. This was right before Supreme opened. I was hanging out with skaters from all different backgrounds and cultures; super creative kids making each other laugh all day. I picked up a camera and started filming, which led me to filmmaking. 

LBB> When did the possibility of working in the advertising world appear to you? How was your journey into this industry? 

Evan> My dad, Al Silver, worked as a group creative director at Grey and Benton and Bowles  (which became DMB&B), so I grew up on advertising. Eventually, I studied design and advertising in college. My first professional step was landing a job at Margeotes Fertitta & Weiss, led by Jeff Weiss. He was an incredible creative and mentor to many young creatives, and I learned more from Jeff than I did at college. Mark Waites, from the agency Mother, was working there as well. I was thrilled… until I decided I wanted to be a director. So, I enrolled in film and acting classes at night, taught myself how to use cameras, and made many bad short films. I eventually got into MTV on-air promos where I could write and direct comedy sketches, music videos and long-form documentaries. It was a perfect place to practise my directing skills with very little interference creatively. 

LBB> What’s the most important lesson/piece of advice you received early on in your career? How does it influence you and your work today? 

Evan> Your work should feel like you. It’s not enough to be great; you also have to be unique.  

LBB> When and why did you found Reform School? What were (and are) some of the company’s key goals and philosophies?  

Evan> Two years ago, my partner at Reform School, Ryan Ennis, and I noticed massive paradigm shifts in the culture and our industry. One year ago, In response, we founded Reform School as a diverse, modern alternative to a traditional production model. We are a boutique collective of filmmakers and creatives from entertainment and advertising that support and push each other creatively. 

LBB> You describe Reform as a “comedy-based production company” - how is the company adapted and set up specifically for comedy? How do you see comedy in advertising at the moment?  

Evan> As a production company, we decided early on that we never wanted to be everything to everyone. We focus on comedic storytelling in all its subtle shapes and awkward forms. So, all of our directors incorporate humour into their work in differing styles. Our goal is to use comedy to create viral, culturally relevant work. I think there will always be a need for comedy in advertising. Otherwise, we’re all gonna be haunted by non-stop cinematic montages with voice-overs. 

LBB> Where did you first learn to be funny? Or how to use comedy in your work? Were there any early projects or mentors that helped hone this part of your craft? 

Evan> The desire to be funny was always there for me growing up. Early on, I realised I was better at making my schoolmates laugh than at basketball. I loved watching ads by Cliff Freeman, and Joe Sedelmaier. They showed that a commercial could be just as funny as any sitcom or SNL skit. 

LBB> What are some misconceptions that you’d like to dispel about comedy writing and directing - especially in advertising? 

Evan> That you can just improvise all the jokes on set, and it will work out. Improv is terrific, but there needs to be a clever premise and a goal if you want it to fit into the cut. 

LBB> You’ve written and directed for ESPN, Comedy Central, HBO, Hulu, Amazon, MTV, The Daily Show, Conan O'Brien and more - what have been some of your favourite clients and projects to work on? And how do you choose which projects to work on? 

Evan> It’s hard to pick a favourite. I will say that getting a chance to write and work with Aziz Ansari on his MTV Movie Awards campaign was a big highlight since I was such a fan.  And MTV let us do whatever we wanted creatively. It was surreal and terrifying - the perfect bedmates. 

LBB> You directed the ‘Humility’ music video for Gorillaz - how did that project come about?  What was it like directing Jack Black and working with animated characters that obviously couldn’t be on-set? 

Evan> That project came about through my friend and former EP, Robert Herman at Ruffian, and the folks at Blinkink. Like most cool projects, there was hardly any budget. It demanded a well-thought-out, DIY approach. My DP, Carlos Veron, and I were stealing shots around some shady areas in Venice from skateboards, bikes, out-of-cars, etc. And then you have  Jack Black showing up on set, ripping off his t-shirt, and proclaiming ‘I’m ready to roll!’. 

Jamie Hewlett from Gorillaz worked with the talented crew at The Line to bring the animation to life. We had every shot storyboarded, so I knew where all the characters would be in each frame. It was that trick of moving the camera to time out perfectly with the song and not getting jumped in some Venice alleyway.  

LBB> You also recently worked with William Shatner - in my opinion, an actor much  underappreciated for his comedic chops - what was that project like?

Evan> It was a fantastic project because the agency creatives at Known wanted to create something that didn't feel like advertising. We wanted to get weird, and Shatner was up for it. Surprisingly, he wanted to be very involved in every step of the production and cared about the space project as a whole. We got along great, and Shatner was game to try most of our ridiculous ideas. He's obviously a true Hollywood legend, but he is also an absolute natural in comedy and told some hilarious stories about his Uber rides.  

LBB> Comedy can be a good vehicle for approaching more sensitive and serious topics - how do you feel that you’ve used comedy in this way? Does ‘White Squad’ fall into this category? 

Evan> I love to use comedy to tackle tough topics. Humour can defuse heated emotions surrounding a hot-button issue and allow for some conversation. If you can get people to laugh, they're more open to hearing another point of view. 

With MTV's ‘White Squad’ project, they asked us to tackle the issue of systemic racism in a way that connected with young people. The agency, Party (now, led by Masa Kawamura and Jamie Carreiro, had a brilliant concept. I co-directed the project with my good friend and talented filmmaker Howard Grandison. Howard and I pushed the humour as far as we could. The comedic tone was crucial, and it was a terrifying balancing act. Ultimately, we went with our gut, and thankfully people got it. It trended on Twitter and went viral instantly. We only received hate mail from white supremacists, so we know we did something right!  

LBB> Outside of work, what do you do to decompress or stay fresh? 

Evan> My wife and I have a five-year-old child who makes a powerful and damn cute counterbalance to work-related stress. There’s lots of playing, drawing, dancing, and wrestling each day. 

LBB> What do you think it is that drives and motivates you in work and in your life? 

Evan> A desire to make people laugh and create cool things with friends is pretty much it. And paying off my mortgage. That's a close second.

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Reform School , Wed, 11 Jan 2023 16:44:00 GMT