The Progressive Insurance Dr. Rick commercials caught me off guard. The concept is that new homeowners become like their parents, and fictional Dr. Rick can coach them back to being cool. We’re never told how older-looking Dr. Rick broke the mold (Dad joke: maybe the company is just being Progressive), but clearly he’s got the secret. Normally I can’t stand ploys to get my money, especially if they attempt comedy. But the Dr. Rick ads are funny, and I believe it’s because they use the foundation of traditional comedy.

Roots of Comedy

There are several different types of comedy, but the earliest record is of satire and parody from ancient Greece and “satirical and witty character comedies” pop up repeatedly throughout history. Many philosophers (including Plato) objected to humor, thinking it was based on making others feel bad (“superiority theory”). But, like the Bee Gees, satire and parody stayed alive. And the Dr. Rick ads expertly satirize reality by marrying physical humor with witty dialogue. This wasn’t an accident.

Arnold Worldwide, the ad agency behind the Dr. Rick commercials, did their research. In meetings with psychologists they learned of parental introjection—when a child absorbs their parents’ traits. Initially, Arnold Worldwide thought the “switch” clicked over when the children had kids of their own, but they found it actually occurred when a new home was purchased.  

Quite a Character

The writers have tapped into the reality that (the majority of) viewers see themselves as these characters.

But having data points that were relatable wasn’t enough: they needed someone relatable. In the 2017 Progressive premiere “Group Session,” the character is simply called Rick, the leader of a support group for people who are turning into their dads. Rick, played by comedian Bill Glass, has few lines, allowing props (“World’s Greatest Dad” coffee cups), wardrobe (close-ups of socked feet in sandals), and the attendees’ comments (“I text in full sentences”) to shine. But by the second ad three years later, “Rick” became “Dr. Rick,” and the character’s screen time, demeanor, and amazing one-liners shined brightly.

This persona humor uses Charlie Chaplin’s unique formula. Chaplin’s sight gags (like the classic slip on a banana peel) were funny, but his characters, especially “the Tramp,” were psychologically relatable to his Depression-era audience. Creating a funny character is deeply intertwined with how the actor performs physical humor.

In the ad “Methods,” Dr. Rick asks, “Do we really need a sign to ‘live, laugh, love’?” And when the owner confidently confirms, Dr. Rick patiently disagrees, “The answer is ‘no.’” By the end of the commercial, another woman, Julie, proudly recites the “house rules” on her sign, which Dr. Rick grabs and throws into a trashcan. The moment is hilarious because the answer is communicated surprisingly quickly and through a drastic, non-verbal gag. But the subtext shows that even Dr. Rick can grow impatient.

The character isn’t just relatable because he mildly loses his cool, but also because he uses drama to add dimension. So it’s no surprise that Arnold Worldwide creatively modeled the Dr. Rick ads off of the sitcom – characters in funny situations. Think of modern sit-com characters like Michael and Dwight from The Office, Moira from Schitt’s Creek, Captain Holt from Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and Gloria from Modern Family. The humor isn’t just in dialogue, but physical humor coupled with the cadence and mannerisms of the role.

The Dr. Rick ads have developed characters with distinct personalities. Even Dr. Rick’s clients have character names (and nicknames!), like Tom “Jalapeno Poppers” Pritchard (played by Chris Witaske). Most ads don’t invest in characters, and if they do, it’s rarely done well. Even Progressive’s Flo is one-dimensional and overused. Flo was entertaining in the beginning, and it’s great Stephanie Courtney has made a career from playing Flo, but (after 175+ ads, yes… 175+!) the magic is gone. And as any comedian knows… timing is everything. Progressive ads use sharp dialogue to fully develop characters in less than a minute.

Writing in Cars with Comedians

And that dialogue leans heavily on classic comedy, like the 1940 hit His Girl Friday, which is renowned for the fastest dialogue of any film. A typical script is one page for one minute of screentime, but with the same runtime, His Girl Friday’s script is more than twice as long. Likewise, Progressive makes every second count.

Chief Creative Officer at Arnold, Sean McBride, says they have to cram five to six jokes into thirty seconds. Sometimes the observational humor is short, as in “Seminar”: “The waiter doesn’t need to know your name.” And sometimes it’s closer to a Dad knock-knock joke, like in “Shopping Mall,” where the character Tom asks a boy by a pond, “You know what kind of fish those are?” The kid says, “No,” while Dan can’t wait to deliver the punchline: “Eh, don’t be coy.” Concise and precise lines.

But I believe a major contributing factor to the writing success is that Bill Glass is allowed to improvise. When a blue-haired guy walks by and Dr. Rick says, “We all see it,” that was largely ad-libbed. How can you go wrong hiring talented writers and talented talent?

When I first saw these ads, I thought, The lines are so good, I bet they have diverse writers — and they do. Arnold Worldwide created a comedy residency where they hire diverse comedy writers for two months to learn and prove themselves. Our world has never been smaller, so why are we still subjected to small-minded creativity and inside-the-box marketing? The more diverse the creative team, the better the advertisement can be.

But studio execs are often afraid to greenlight creatively risky projects. Often those in power want to appeal to the largest audience, which means not offending that demographic (but someone will always have hurt feelings or attempt to “cancel” others). Some have accused the Dr. Rick ads of being ageist. But the viewers’ presuppositions influence their critique on writing. Bill Glass brings an interesting perspective to the heart behind this writing:

I call it “triple regeneration.” The kids laugh when the parents are acting like the grandparents, the parents laugh when they’re starting to act like their parents, and the grandparents are laughing that their children behind them are starting to turn into them, so I think I’m getting a kick out of the fact that it’s so relatable to every sort of chapter of a family.

The writers have tapped into the reality that (the majority of) viewers see themselves as these characters. So the writing and characters are contributing factors to the commercials’ successes, but I think the way the ads are shot is also crucial to their appeal. 

Direct(ing) to Video

The Church needs to be willing to laugh at itself. The gap between humor and heresy isn’t a fine line.

James Burrows has directed over one thousand episodes of programs (or are they called TV shows?) such as The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Cheers, and The Big Bang Theory. No one would question the methods of such a successful TV director, even if they are pretty weird. When he directs, he actually closes his eyes, explaining, “[W]hen I plan it, I know I’m going to get the shot. So I just listen to the music the cast makes.” It’s logical that a prepared director would be concerned with timing and delivery, not just funny lines. In Progressive’s “Group Outing,” the character Julie loudly enunciates into her phone, “I’m having a big lunch and then just a snack for dinner. “So,” Dr. Rick interrupts, “We’re using a speakerphone in the store, is that a good idea?”

That little beauty was director Martin Granger’s handiwork. In fact, Granger won the 2021 AICP Award for Humor for this specific commercial. Rightfully so — the speakerphone bit isn’t just humorous in calling out an annoyance, the director also had Dr. Rick interrupt, hilariously ending the conversation. Furthermore, we don’t hear Julie’s answer to his question. It’s actually funnier to not hear the response.

Although James Burrows hasn’t directed any of these Progressive ads, his mantra of preparation and focus on sound is seen and heard in the Dr. Rick commercials. “Gameday Shopping” shows Dr. Rick helping Keith navigate the “minefields” of grocery shopping. Dr. Rick’s voiceover is played over the grocery store exterior which is synced to him seated at his desk. Scenes in the market follow but are fluidly interrupted one more time by Dr. Rick again at his desk.

Both desk scenes keep us visually interested by breaking up the store shots, but also provide room for laugh carryover. We’re given time if we audibly laughed from Keith’s last gag to recover and hear more. A willingness to listen is crucial to directing comedy, but it seems to be necessary for enjoying it too. And it seems there are a variety of ways to interpret that listening.

Kant Take a Joke

Some viewers have been offended by the Dr. Rick ads. I can sympathize, but it begs the question: could it have more to do with preconceived opinions than with intentional harassment? Humor has always had critics, but it shocked me that historically, some thinkers viewed comedy itself as “bad.” This disdain was common among philosophers (from Plato and Epictetus to Hobbes and Descartes) as well as within the Church. “During the Middle Ages the Church strove to keep the joyous and critical aspects of the drama to a minimum, but comic drama survived in medieval folk plays and festivals…” It was religious philosopher Immanuel Kant who first proposed that comedy wasn’t bad, but to be fair, he didn’t say it was “good” either, just that the desire to feel superior to others wasn’t the only possible motivation. 

Often the biggest concern regarding comedy is that it’s inappropriate. When we say “inappropriate humor” there is a large spectrum of what people are comfortable with, but discomfort usually stems from social norms or belief systems. Two people may enjoy bathroom humor and despise raunchy, R-rated jokes, but for a mixture of wildly different reasons. When Dr. Rick says, “We all see it” about the guy with blue hair, the connotation is about social etiquette (appropriateness): judge if you must, but at least don’t verbalize it.

The subjectivity of humor aside, enjoying satire seems to depend on the ability to laugh at oneself. In one clip Dr. Rick asks, “Who else reads books about submarines?” with his client sheepishly answering, “My Dad.” The first time my family saw this, we all yelled, “That’s Grandpa!” At Christmas I played the clip for my parents and they got a kick out of it.

In the same way, the Church needs to be willing to laugh at itself. The gap between humor and heresy isn’t a fine line. I’ve built meaningful relationships with people (folks who want nothing to do with Jesus) in part based on how I respond when they bait me with some joke about the Church that others usually find offensive. I laugh and joke back. We’ve established a rapport now where they’re comfortable talking about real issues of faith and the Church.

I have a sneaking suspicion that the person mocking how weird Christians are is deep down looking for a religious person to be honest about their “bizarre” beliefs. Often the time for engaging banter is treated with sanctimonious seriousness, and the place for significance is often treated like open mic night. For several decades we’ve had Christian comedians and, sadly, even pastors, who fancied the pulpit as an appropriate venue for stand-up routines. But recently Christendom has produced more “unprofessional” humor (and much of it is pretty funny). There are Youtubers and Instagrammers and TikTok’ers, but there are organizations too, such as Sunday Cool Tees who make T-shirts and funny videos, or The Babylon Bee, a Christian satirical news site (similar to “The Onion”). The Bee’s video “The Christian Woman’s Starter Kit” is a great example of the ability to see true generalizations about Christian culture and laugh about it. 

That’s Comedy!

Not everyone will enjoy Progressive’s satirical Dr. Rick ads. But a willingness to consider them as good-natured, traditional humor might open new roads, so to speak — possibly a more relaxed common ground between generations (as Bill Glass pointed out above), a greater enjoyment of the evolution of clean comedians, or more opportunities for approachable honesty with those outside the church.

If you’re like me and enjoy the Dr. Rick ads, it’s probably because they are refreshingly familiar, built on a foundation of traditional humor in comedic characters, witty writing, and expertly executed directing. I’m astonished to say I’m a fan of the Dr. Rick ads and would happily watch more commercials if they were as funny. A fan of money-grubbing commercials — now that’s comedy!