Chase Bank has a credit card called the Freedom Card. The card is Chase blue, somewhere between twilight and the interior of a geode, and the world around that card, at least in the company’s advertising, is black and white. Black-and-white customers swipe the card at black-and-white supermarkets, drop it on receipts at black-and-white restaurants. The palette of Chase Bank—black, white, blue—is visually distinctive, at least in the short and square world of bank branding: Wells Fargo is Old West and Citibank has a texty whiff of northern Europe; Bank of America is nothing in particular, and who even remembers what Capital One looks like?
Comedy can and does exist within the confines of black and white, but it’s generally a result of intentional pastiche—Zelig, Ed Wood, the entire oeuvre of Guy Maddin—or of a mix of budgetary constraints and indie sympathies—the smart-dumb Forbidden Zone, the dumb-dumb Clerks. Broad comedy is generally best as a big dog of a thing: ungainly, slobbering, literally dirty—a shambling Judd Apatow production, the downright homely work of Harold Ramis. To choose black and white in the mostly-color present is to choose a lap dog over a golden retriever.
A recent and ubiquitous Chase Freedom commercial, “Cash Back Footloose,” stars a lap dog of a man (named Ben Grant, according to the Freedom Facebook page) who wears a crisp gray suit and carries a blue guitar—besides the card, the only color in the ad. He wanders through locations where Chase customers are using their Freedom Cards and sings a parody of the song “Footloose,” from the movie Footloose, in which the lyrics have been changed to enumerate the cash-back rewards of a Chase Freedom Card. This is intended to be comedic, but the starkness of the color palette paired with the mildness of the send-up makes it hard to register the commercial as comedic.
The lyrics don’t help much, either. At a barbershop: “Gettin’ cash back on what? / Close shave and haircut.” In the parking lot of a hardware store, where a man with a dog loads a fan into his truck: “Fan for the ceiling, / you’re gonna cool off that hound.” At a department store: “Tonight you gotta get your cash back / on new slacks.” Cut to a diner, continuing the chorus: “Use Freedom on lunch with Jack. / Everybody get, everybody get.” This bill of goods doesn’t come off as funny; it comes off as random. (A ceiling fan? All right, sure.) Grant’s delivery isn’t clearly smirky, or goofy, or especially earnest. It’s just sort of perfunctory. His energy level is about that of a greeter at Banana Republic.
Between the flattened art direction, the lack of comic signifiers in the surroundings, and the question of just how inane the song’s lyrics are intended to be, it is on the surface impossible to tell whether this ad is meant to be received as humor. In all likelihood this is the result of applying what is meant to be an ironic, absurd formula to the not-particularly-ironic-or-absurd banking industry. But the outcome isn’t not-funny—it’s anti-funny. Startlingly, novelly so. There are beats where jokes should go, but instead there are only placeholders. The camera repeatedly cuts to customers as if they’re going to have a funny reaction to Grant’s antics, but they just smile blankly. Even the dog, that hallmark of dum-dum double-takes, only stares impassively into a middle distance when Grant sings to it. (Also, the singer’s name, which we never learn in the spot itself, is an inverted rim-shot: it’s meant to be a portmanteau of the presidents on the hundred-dollar and fifty-dollar bills, respectively—a theoretically clever ploy whose result, “Ben Grant,” is so bland it’s completely unworth the fiction.)
There is a school of smarter-than-thou anti-comedy that aims for this kind of thing, that aims to sabotage the very idea of a joke. Its proponents trade on deliberate lousiness or stony non-sequiturs, and always on the awareness that what they’re doing is outside of comedy qua comedy. But when a Tim and Eric, or an Andy Kaufman, or a Norm Macdonald tells a non-joke, it still telegraphs as comedy, regardless of the content being delivered. The effect is a tension between the material and its presentation, and that tension can be plucked for laughs.
The tension in “Cash Back Footloose” is intolerable: thirty seconds of windup and no pitch. Chase is attempting to establish a bankish brand at the same time as it’s trying to put on the persona of a wiseass spokesperson, and makes no effort to reconcile the two identities. The discombobulation is payoff-free and freshly baffling—good lord, Ben Grant doesn’t even finish the song: he just lets it hang there on “Everybody get, everybody get,” at least three ticks shy of a punch line. He winks at us when he sings this line, like we’re in on the joke, like there’s even a joke there.
Is there? It’s so deeply unclear that it’s exciting anew, an unprecedented level of remove, one that likely isn’t even deliberately achievable. Ben Grant, if only accidentally, is a frontiersman at the arid edge of comedy, blundering his way toward the ungettable, promising us we should get it anyway.