Chef Boyardee All-Star Band: Steve Gadd, Paul Shaffer and Will Lee

Front Row Seat

I had the best seat in the house – right behind a gleaming 48-channel Neve mixing console.

Cartoon commercial for Saturday morning.

I was sitting in the control room of the Warehouse recording studio on West 46th Street. Don’t look for it today. Like many of New York’s recording havens, it’s long gone, a victim to rising rents, laptop recording and a seismic shift in advertising tastes.

This morning, however, the Warehouse was in its full glory – a spectacular state-of-the-art recording facility.

No better place to record a silly soundtrack for a Chef Boyardee kids’ commercial.

The Session

This studio did a lot of advertising business. It was run by Lucas/McFaul, two renowned composers and producers. (In fact, David Lucas produced Blue Oyster Cult’s hit “Don’t Fear the Reaper” – and played the infamous cowbell on the song.)

Today’s session was trickier than most. We needed to record music that matched cartoon animation. So instead of playing to a steady musical tempo, the timing would be dictated by the visual action.

Go wild with Chef Boyardee Zooroni. Animals spring to life from the can.

Audio Overload

Like most kids’ commercials, the audio track was bombastic, loaded with vocalists, a backing band, kids’ dialogue and sound effects. (Listen for yourself. Watch the commercial below.)

Now comes the moment of truth. How would the music composer arrange all these audio elements to perfectly match the cartoon animation?

What’s the Score?

In the control room, I asked to see the musical score we’d be recording.

Swing into action with Chef Boyardee.

Yipes, just as I feared. It was a musical obstacle course. There were “split bars,” where musical measures change abruptly, not to mention key modulations and tempo shifts.

I braced myself for a long morning of trying to get a perfect take – or having to settle for one that was close enough. Back then, there was no digital editing, just reel-to-reel tape.

Beat of a Different Drummer

At every recording session, the drummer is critical. Here’s why. The drummer lays down the rhythmic foundation. All the other musicians follow the drummer’s timing.

Today’s session would require a well-versed, highly skilled drummer who could fearlessly navigate this musical maze.

I turned to Nick DiMinno, the studio producer, and asked who was booked on drums.

“Oh, we got lucky,” he replied. “Steve Gadd was available.”

OMG Gadd

Steve Gadd’s musical credits are legendary. (Listen to his drum work on Steely Dan’s “Aja.”) He’s also played with Paul Simon, Eric Clapton, Paul McCartney, James Taylor and so on.

In other words, Gadd is the consummate studio drummer. So what’s he doing at a West side studio this morning playing on a kids’ commercial?

Hey, Must Be the Money!

Top Musicians Like to Jingle

For union musicians, playing on TV commercials is extremely lucrative. You get paid your session fee, then get paid residuals every 13 weeks that the commercial airs. If it’s a national spot that runs for a year, you end up with a hefty paycheck for about 90 minutes of work.

It’s hip to be a Hippo.

During the jingle music heyday of advertising, in-demand studio musicians would play two to three different recording sessions a day. You’d see the same first-call players again and again at different studios across town.

On this particular session, I remember two other familiar faces on the other side of the glass in the tracking room: Will Lee on bass and Paul Shaffer on keyboards, both from The Late Show band with David Letterman.

Hearing Super Power

The first time you hear playback in a recording studio, it’s a mind-blowing experience. Imagine the world’s greatest stereo on steroids. You’re overwhelmed by the sparkling clarity and powerful depth.

And at today’s session, I was listening to a room full of world-class musicians playing on a TV commercial I wrote. Talk about your golden ticket to a private concert.

The Run Down

Finally, the band was ready for a run-through. The composer gave last minute instructions. And the cartoon animation was cued up on a large video monitor in the studio.

Steve Gadd concentrated on the TV countdown. He clicked his drum sticks together, setting a tempo.

Get on board for fun with Chef Boyardee.

With a decisive thump of the bass drum, the band launched into the music.

Thirty seconds later, it was over. In the control room and recording room, everyone looked at each other, astonished. It sounded surprisingly tight, no major mistakes.

The recording engineer seized the momentum. He quickly hit the talkback mic on the mixing board.

“Okay everybody, sounded good. Let’s record one.”

For the Record

The tall 24-track recording deck behind us whirled to life, its 2” tape reels spinning smoothly.

Again, Steve Gadd watched the start of the video monitor and clacked his drum sticks to set the beat.

Spark your imagination and let it ride.

I stared at the TV screen and listened intently. Again, the band roared through the music, the drums nailing the cartoon action with pinpoint precision.

In the control room, we sat motionless as the last downbeat faded away.

Was it possible? Did I just hear what I think I heard?

Proof Is in the Playback

Nick DiMinno turned to me and asked, “Check the playback?” I nodded.

The audio tape recorder was rewound and synched to the video deck. We watched the playback.

It was perfect. I mean perfect. Steve Gadd had read that musical chart as easily as a Sunday newspaper. Absolutely flawless.

Learn your ABC’s and 1, 2, 3’s!

Nick and I looked at each other, stunned.

“Play it back one more time” I requested, just to be sure. Again, I could find nothing wrong.

“Do another take?” asked Nick.

“No need,” I answered. “This is the one.” The first take was a perfect take.

One and Done

Nick hit the talkback button on the mix board to speak to the musicians.

“Okay, thanks everybody. You’re done. Turn in your union session forms before you go.”

King of the Drum Throne

Steve Gadd leaped off the drum set and headed to the control room.

Unlike the other session musicians, Gadd carried a personalized tear-off pad that had his union payment information pre-printed – all he added was the session date and location. (Which shows you how much he’s in demand.)

An adventure in every spoonful.

In the control room, Gadd handed Nick DiMinno his form. The studio producer had one more request for the renowned rhythm king.

“Steve, before you go, we have a new electronic drum machine called LinnDrums. Would you mind recording a few extra tom-tom fills on it?”

Gadd looked curiously at the black finger touch-pads framed in a wooden case that was set up on the mix console.

“Sure, no problem,” he said.

The engineer cued up the tape deck and I sat next to Gadd as he joyfully overdubbed tom-tom accents with his forefingers, like a small boy pretending to be a drummer. Absolutely, utterly, surreal.

Three passes later, he was done and out the door.

The Mix Doesn’t Do Justice

Unfortunately, the commercial below was transferred from video tape that had deteriorated over many years. The aging affected the picture as well as the audio track.

The Big Finish – Thank Goodness!

Also, when this music was recorded, audio for TV commercials was never mixed at full fidelity. During that time, most TV sets had a tiny 6″ speaker with a limited range for sound. Vocals and dialogue were considered the priority, so they were pushed louder than the band.

Long story, short, you’re not going to get the full, thunderous impact I felt that day. But the thrill of hearing a perfect take – on the very first take – is a feeling I will never forget.

Copywriter: Joseph Ehlinger. Art Director: Mary Ellen Cohen. ACD: Nick Pronovitch. Creative Director: Gerry Miller. Agency: Young & Rubicam. Client: Chef Boyardee (American Home Foods). Music Production Company: Lucas/McFaul (David Lucas, Tom McFaul). Studio Producer: Nick DiMinno. Recording Studio: Warehouse

This commercial was archived with the help of the Paley Center for Media. Please support their efforts to preserve and celebrate our extraordinary video history.

KFC: Non-Union Jack and the Beanstalk

We were having a cow. The Screen Actors Guild was on the brink of a strike and we couldn’t find the right actor to play Jack in our “Jack and the Beanstalk” spot for KFC. No Jack. No commercial.

Just $5.99 – Magic Beans not accepted.

You Don’t Know Jack

KFC liked the storyboard. It was relatively cheap to produce – a simple studio set and only one on-camera speaking role.

That’s why picking the right actor for Jack was critical. He carried the spot. Right from fade up, you had to buy him as the classic Beanstalk Jack: boyish, playful, mischievous and all the other fairy tale tropes stuffed into his serf-like costume.

Giant Deal – 9 Pieces of KFC Chicken.

We held several casting sessions at Young & Rubicam and came up empty. Next, we hired an outside casting agency.

At the same time, we were all too aware that the Screen Actors Guild threatened to strike during our shoot schedule. This disruption could cost the client dearly because we had already booked to the production studio.

Backup Jack

“We need a backup plan if there’s a talent strike,” the film director told us. He turned to me. “Joe, I’ve seen you do the script. Go to the casting agency tomorrow and tape an audition. That way we’ll have a non-union option, in case the client doesn’t want to cancel the shoot.”

And 4 fresh buttermilk biscuits.

Was it lunacy for me to play Jack? Not completely. I had red hair, a cartoon face and a wide, toothy grin. Also, I wrote the script. So I knew how the lines were supposed to be delivered.

“Wait, one more thing,” the director said. He raised a Polaroid camera. “Let me get a head shot of you to use as a reference for the casting director.” Flash!

Face-to-Face Weirdness

The next day, I walked into the downtown casting agency.

A dozen faces turned my way – and they all looked like me! A bizarre doppelgänger reunion. Funhouse mirrors printed into 3-D human beings. Red hair, cartoon faces and toothy grins. The casting director had taken the Polaroid reference to heart.

An assistant hurried over with a sign-in clipboard. She glanced at my looks and nodded that I was in the right place.

I filled out the sign-in sheet and turned it in, eavesdropping on the young male actors waiting to audition. They bragged about gigs they had booked, parts they were up for, and the best slopes to ski in Aspen. Sounded like more fun than copywriting.

The assistant returned with my sign-in sheet. I’d left some spaces blank, such as talent agent and union affiliation. I brushed aside most of her questions, but she insisted she needed my age for the form.

Now the casting spec for Jack’s age was 16-20 years-old. I know. I wrote it. The other actors peered my way, sensing an imposter in their midst.

“28,” I muttered to the assistant.

“28?!?” chirped the adolescent look-alike sitting next to me, “Don’t you think you’re kind of old for this part?”

Direct Express

Suddenly the door to the audition taping room swung open. The film director spotted me with a warm welcome.

“Joe, c’mon in,” he ushered. The other actors gaped as I strolled to the inner sanctum of all casting sessions – the taping room.

And yes, oh yes, there were just deserts to come for the impertinent young actor who declared me too old to play Beanstalk Jack.

A short time later, I watched his audition on the TV monitor with the film director.

“Hm, he’s not quite right,” I commented absently, “Too young, don’t you think?”

Missing Jack Finally Found – on the West Coast

Good news, at last. SAG extended negotiations, which delayed the strike. Better yet, we’d found the perfect Jack. (Which ended my shot at non-union stardom.)

Who wore it better? Pro Actor Jack on the left vs. Copywriter Joe on the right.

We had opened up the casting search to include Los Angeles. (Casting call to casting sprawl.) The client loved the talent’s audition tape and told us to book him. We’d meet Beanstalk Jack for the first time on the soundstage in a few days.

Shooting at Silvercup

It’s a New York production institution. A ton of classic movie work has been shot at Silvercup, as well as TV shows, such as 30 Rock, Sex in the City and The Sopranos.

We arrived early on shoot day, excited to see the set. The designers and scenic crew built a spectacular beanstalk and a detailed cottage façade for the closing scene.

We were then introduced to our actor, who flew in the night before.

Meet Beanstalk Jack

He had a great character face, even better in person than on the audition tape. And while I don’t remember the actor’s name, he struck me as being in his late teens, a good sense of humor and understood what we were going for. Sigh of relief. Send him off to wardrobe and makeup.

Long Distance – Jack traveled in from Los Angeles.

Open Wide

We shot the commercial’s opening climbing scene in the morning. The goal was to get all the action in one continuous shot.

There were a few factors to consider: the optical shake in the beginning and the Jack’s reactions to the Giant’s dialogue, which would be overdubbed later. By noon, we’d put a number of good takes in the can. Lunch break! Crew, one hour!

Lunch Break Cocktails?

In the commissary, we sat with the talent. He ordered a Scotch on the rocks from the waitress. Our old-school agency producer Charlie Capuano arched an eyebrow. The actor’s cocktail was brought to the table. Jack tipped back a long, leisurely sip.

Look, I don’t want to be a buzzkill, I thought. Must be exciting to book a national TV spot. Fly to New York. Get put up in a nice hotel. And collect a big cash payday. Why not celebrate. On the other hand, this guy’s a minor and there are underage drinking laws. I mean, who’s responsible for him out here? The ad agency?

Not to mention, we had a full afternoon of shooting ahead. Nobody wanted to see a tipsy Jack fall off the beanstalk and break his leg on a bucket of chicken.

Watch your step. Jack climbs down after a home delivery to the Giant – pre Grubhub.

In his gravelly voice, Charlie broke the silence. He spoke to the actor, oil charm mixed with vinegar warning.

“Hey, maybe you shouldn’t be drinking. Aren’t you a little young?”

Beanstalk Jack looked up at us, comical in his costume, Scotch glass in his hand.

“How old did my agent tell you I was?” he asked.

“Nineteen,” replied Charlie dryly.

Beanstalk Jack grinned.

“I’m 24. I have proportionate dwarfism, that’s why I’m small. I play a lot of fairy tale parts.”

Chicken Thief – Jack makes off with the Giant’s drumstick.

Charlie and I traded glances.

Well, I thought, at least it makes the drumstick look larger in his hand.

Copywriter: Joseph Ehlinger. Art Director: Marcia Wilk. Creative Director: Brian Dillon. ACD: Mario Morbelli. Producer: Charlie Capuano. Agency: Young & Rubicam. Client: KFC. Production Facility: Silvercup Studios, NYC.

This commercial was archived with the help of the Paley Center for Media. Please support their efforts to preserve and celebrate our extraordinary media history.

Hiring Michael Bay to Shoot My Short Film

It was a very short film. Thirty seconds to be exact. And it didn’t star Mark Wahlberg, Will Smith or Megan Fox.

Star Power – Crunch ‘n Munch toffee popcorn and peanuts.

No, the hero of this film was a waxed cardboard box filled with toffee-glazed popcorn and a smattering of peanuts. The star’s name? “Crunch ‘n Munch.”

So how did I end up with a blockbuster film director shooting my snack food commercial? Easy. He needed a job.

‘Discovering’ Michael Bay

It wasn’t me. Credit goes to a young woman producer at Young & Rubicam. I was sitting with my Art Director, Bruce Cumsky, when she walked in with a stack of Director’s reels on ¾” video cassettes.

She said there were a couple of good directors within our budget (not extravagant). However, there was one new guy who caught her eye. His film had a great look. He knew how to compose a frame. And how to move a camera. In other words, a young, hungry, up-and-coming shooter.

His skills made sense for the project. It was a series of lifestyle vignettes edited to a jingle music track. (MTV was all the rage.)

The label on the video cassette read Propaganda Films, Michael Bay, Director’s Reel. The woman producer was Sean Lacey.

Getting Client Buy-In

Bay’s early Director Reel had about five examples on it. I remember two of them. One was a Donny Osmond music video. (Solo artist, not with his bros.) And the other was for a brand of bottled water, a new beverage category at the time.

Crunch ‘n Munch was owned by American Home Foods and our client contact was Carl Becker. Carl relied on a handful of “comfort zone” directors for his company’s commercials. He didn’t want to hear about artistic differences.

Over the years, Carl and I had worked on a few TV campaigns. (See Search for the Last Italian Pizza Slinger in NYC.) They had one thing in common: They all made money. Consequently, I’d built up a small reservoir of trust.

“Why risk going with a new kid director?” Becker asked. I explained that we’re promoting a teen snack. It needed a cool, music video look. Becker cocked an eyebrow. He wasn’t buying.

Motorcycle guy snacks at deserted roadside.

“Carl, remember Michael Bay’s spot for the bottled water?” I reminded him. “Water is usually free, but his commercial looks so good, people pay a dollar for it. That’s who you want shooting for you.”

Becker eased his shoulders and laughed. Michael Bay was hired.

I Love LA

One of the perks of being a TV copywriter was flying to sunny locales, staying in swanky hotels and chowing down at posh eateries – while your ad agency picks up the tab. Hooray business trips!

The Propaganda Empire

Even by LA standards, Propaganda Films was the cool-kids’ place to shoot. When we first arrived, I spotted actor Alex Winter from the Bill and Ted movie hanging out in the lobby. Excellent!

Propaganda represented a stable of hot directors. TV commercials were a way to keep them busy between film projects. Michael Bay was a new add to their roster. When Propaganda submitted their bid to shoot this spot, they gave us a low-ball price. They wanted to develop Bay’s director reel to solicit bigger – and more profitable – jobs.

Glimpse into the Future

There’s a reason Propaganda struck me as a high-volume film production factory. Because it was. Flanked by my co-workers, a Melrose Avenue-styled goth receptionist escorted us to the ad agency work space. Make yourselves comfortable, she said, spinning to leave.

It was the size of a high school gym. Décor was strictly minimal, strictly functional. There were long parachute-packing tables and metal folding chairs. That was it. Bare bones bleak done in 1984 Orwellian.

A cold realization shivered through me. This was all you needed. Give an ad agency producer a cell phone and a laptop and they were in business. A virtual office. They were doomed to become itinerant workers, wandering the Hollywood Hills, begging for storyboards and an unlimited 4G plan. It was the beginning of the end for brick-and-mortar workspaces.

Get Down to Business

The pre-production drill is pretty routine. You watch endless hopeful faces on casting videos, then narrow it down to a final few for an in-person call-back session.

I shot a commercial with Michael Bay and all I got was this lousy t-shirt.

For this spot, we had eight exterior setups. You match the storyboard descriptions to photos of real locations, then drive for hours in a van to see them in person. During this scenic tour, you pray for a pee break after swigging a Grande coffee.

We budgeted two days to shoot all the exteriors. It was an ambitious schedule, so we chose locations close to each other to minimize the crew travel time.

Meeting Mr. Bay

Oh wait, I got a ball cap, too.

I doubt Michael Bay remembers much about this shoot. Frankly, it was pretty uneventful. Bay looked young and intense. He wasn’t much for small talk. Or maybe he didn’t have a lot to say to ad agency strangers. (Can’t blame him for that.) It was just another job. In a few days, we’d all part ways. Done and done.

And ‘Action’

Come the first shoot day, I was surprised at how much production equipment was on hand. Per usual, we had plenty of HMI lights, c-stands and sandbags. Also, we had a massive camera crane.

Looking Up – Crane shot to find fire escape couple.

The first shot was a 2nd story fire escape with a young couple eating Crunch ‘n Munch. Bay choreographed a slow, upwards swoop of the camera to find the couple. Granted, the camera move looked cinematic, but the allotted screen time for the scene was only about 2.5 seconds. We’d never be able to use the full length of the shot.

Not to worry, Michael said. He was shooting some extra coverage for his own edit, which was fairly common with directors. I shrugged okay and kept the client away from the camera.

Beachin’ – Crunch ‘n Munch sparks romance.

A few hours later, we headed to the beach, where the crew set up long dolly tracks. Again, the camera glided gracefully to settle on a different young couple frolicking in front of a lifeguard boat, holding a Crunch ‘n Munch box. With each take, I counted the seconds it took for the dolly move to finish. Every one of them ran long. Still, the talents’ action looked good, so I figured we’d cut into the shot towards the end.

Devil his due, Michael marched through the day’s shot list, one setup to the next. The only disagreement came late on the 2nd day in Venice Beach. We were scheduled to do a vignette with twin girls. And the client decided to nix the scene.

Fresh popcorn tumbles down the rollers.

I went to tell Michael, but he brushed past saying he couldn’t talk right now. He was losing the light and needed to get the shot off. Okay, I thought. It was his call, but we weren’t going to use it. (And we didn’t.) Still, Michael was in his zone, focused and determined. I, on the other hand, was ready to knock off for the day.

Shooting Commercials vs. Shooting Music Videos

There’s an unspoken reality in copywriting: You can write 50 scripts for each TV spot that eventually gets produced. That’s a lot of storyboards. And a lot of time spent staring at a stopwatch.

You only get :30 seconds. So you become acutely aware of the passing of time. Every precious tick of the clock. Often, the client insists you stuff many thoughts into a single commercial, so you have to organize your script carefully to accommodate everything.

Writing commercials is all about compressing time. Collapsing entire stories into :30 seconds. (Or even :15.) You crush it.

Music videos are the opposite. They’re all about stretching time. Trying to figure out how to extend your footage to cover off a three minute song – and keep it visually interesting.

That’s no easy task. Music video budgets are often leaner than an undernourished groupie. And there’s only so many times you can cut back to the drummer twirling his sticks with a heavy-lidded, stoner grin. Riveting.

For a while, it seemed every film school grad padded their reel with music videos of unknown baby bands. In turn, so did many old-school directors who didn’t want to get left in the dust.

Many of these early, low-budget music videos were a flailing sprawl. Directors shot everything that moved. They didn’t force themselves to make hard, disciplined choices upfront. So in post, bleary-eyed editors struggled to cobble together something watchable – with varying results.

Play the Home Game Version

“Are we showing the product too many times?” said no client ever.

The above digression is offered as a cautionary tale. For you budding YouTube vloggers watching commercials at home and thinking “Hm, I can do better than that,” here’s good news: Maybe you can. Give it a shot. The tools have never been more available.

However, a word of advice. Working within the tight time constraints and client confines of a national TV spot requires a peculiar set of skills – technical as well as people. So be prepared for a learning curve.

The Lost Treasure

Should have gone with smaller dog. The boy was terrified.

Sadly, a clean print of the Crunch ‘n Munch full :30 version has been lost to the ravages of time and archaic analogue video formats. Fortunately, the :15 edit has survived and can been seen below.

Celebrity Swap

Many years later, while working at a small promotional agency in Darien, Connecticut, I was swapping celebrity stories with the Interactive Director. He told me that during his late teens, he was a swim instructor and had taught Ron Howard’s kids how to swim.

I told him I had once shot film with Michael Bay. He paused and noted, “So I guess you guys are on parallel career paths.”

“Yes,” I nodded, “I guess we are.”

Copywriter: Joseph Ehlinger. Art Director: Bruce Cumsky. Producer: Sean Lacey. ACD: Nick Pronovich. Creative Director: Cary Lemkowitz. Account Executive: Tim Curry. Ad Agency: Young & Rubicam. Director: Michael Bay. Production Company: Propaganda Films. Product: Crunch ‘n Munch (American Home Foods). Client: Carl Becker.

This commercial was archived with the help of the Paley Center for Media. Please support their efforts to preserve and celebrate our extraordinary media history.

Chef Boyardee: Search for the Last Italian Pizza Slinger in New York City

You’d think it’d be easy to find an Italian pizza maker in Manhattan to star in a TV commercial. Fuhgeddaboutit. Read on.

Pizza, Pizza!

My first assignment at Young & Rubicam was copywriting on Chef Boyardee. As a newbie, I was unaware other agency creatives shunned this account.

Chef Boyardee was part of American Home Foods, a hard-boiled, tight-fisted consumer package goods (CPG) company known for grinding copywriters into pasta ingredients. No matter. I was thrilled to be working on a national brand.

Better yet, I hit the jackpot. My first job was to write a new TV commercial for Chef Boyardee Pizza Mix.

Think Inside the Box

Once a staple of family dinners, sales of Chef Boyardee Pizza Mix had sagged like loose pizza dough as neighborhood pizzerias sprang up across America. (And yes, there was a real Chef Boyardee. His Italian name was Hector Boiardi, which he anglicized.)

My job was simple. Come up with an idea that would reverse these drooping sales. Sure, I said, no problem, right away. (Gulp.)

The Client Pitch Meeting

INT. CONFERENCE ROOM – DAY.

Across the long mahogany table, I faced my clients: American Home Foods’s President DAVID JAICKS and his corporate lieutenant, CARL BECKER – two no-nonsense execs with better things to do than listen to a lowly copyboy.

I needed to pitch hard and fast. I opened with an accepted fact to get their heads nodding.

Research shows that folks love the taste of fresh-hot pizzeria pizza. It’s the gold standard. Bingo. Both nodded their heads, expressions flat.

So what if our commercial shows an Italian pizzeria guy who says Chef Boyardee Pizza Mix is just as good as pizzeria pizza? They lifted their eyebrows, intrigued but dubious. I pressed on.

Chef Boyardee is just as good because it now has a new exclusive pizzeria recipe. New pizzeria recipe? The client duo mulled the idea, beginning to warm. I ramped up my sell.

And what if this Italian pizzeria guy comes from New York city, the pizza capital of the world? The corners of their mouths tugged. I had their attention.

Plus, did I mention? This Italian pizza guy, he’s colorful. He’s got a ton of New York attitude and skepticism. So he’s more believable. More likable. And more memorable! Jaicks and Becker raised their chins. I went for the close.

Finally, what if – to make this commercial 100% convincing and authentic – we shoot in a real-life pizzeria and use an actual real-life pizzeria chef? His real name would be supered on the screen when he starts talking.

Advertising idea brought to life. The future TV spokesperson for Chef Boyardee.

Jaicks and Becker glanced at each other, then back to me. Becker spoke, “Okay, but you’d better make it good.”

Citywide Hunt for the Pizza Guy

Skip the usual casting call, actors were off-limits. The TV networks classified this script as an “Expert Testimonial,” which meant the on-camera person had to actually work at a pizzeria. No faking allowed.

So I hit the sidewalks in the broiling summer heat, gumshoe-ing my way to find the perfect “Pizza Guy.” From Manhattan’s East Side to the West Side, North and South, I poked my head into every pizzeria joint I came across. And you know what I found?

Hispanics working inside. And lots of Asians. Greeks, too. Plus an assortment of African Americans. A veritable United Nations of pizza slice slingers. But no classic Italian pizza chef.

I began to regret my big-mouth promise to the client.

Hot Tip at 85th and Columbus

I told my dilemma to my co-workers. Some empathized. Some grinned. Most couldn’t care less. Then a woman art director offered a lead that seemed too good to be true.

“There’s this Italian guy in my neighborhood who runs a pizzeria. In his mid-40’s or so,” she said, “Loads of personality, always wise-cracking.” I scribbled down the upper West Side address. Ten minutes later, I was on the “B” train headed uptown.

The Pizza Guy Sighting

From the 86th street exit, I speed-walked two blocks to a modest pizzeria on Columbus. Cautiously, I opened the door and stepped inside. There he was. The Pizza Guy.

He was behind the counter, joking with a customer. Definitely Italian, tall and lean. He had dark hair and thick eyebrows, which made him look stern, until he smiled, which lit up his face.

Time was not on my side. I was short of casting options and already in pre-production. I could sense this guy was no sucker. I’d only get one shot to make this introduction work.

Hey, Wanna Be on TV?

I came clean. I blurted out about the TV commercial and said he’d be great to play a pizza guy. I explained that I worked at a large mid-town ad agency and could get him an audition.

He looked at me bemused, sizing up what sounded like a bullshit scam. Stillness hung in the garlic scented air.

Suddenly I remembered, “You’ll get paid full union scale for the shoot day, plus residuals every 13 weeks the commercial is on the air. It’s thousands of dollars.”

His hand shot across the counter to shake. “Hi, I’m Tom Sciarrino.”

That’s a Wrap (er, almost)

After a video-taped audition, the client approved Tom and we shot at a downtown pizzeria. For a first-time actor, he did a terrific job. The commercial ran about a year and Tom earned a very tidy payday. (Watch it below.)

There was just one last moment of anxiety. It occurred when we showed the rough cut to our clients.

Jaicks and Becker watched the screen and nodded approvingly as our star pizza chef delivered his pitch-perfect pitch. They snorted a laugh at the end when the front panel of the box hinged down to reveal a pizza oven over the announcer’s closing line “The Take-Out Pizza You Take Out of Your Own Oven.” The mood was triumphant. Ad agency backslaps all around.

Then Jaicks, the company president, interrupted. “If the gold standard is pizzeria pizza, shouldn’t the end line say ‘The Pizzeria Pizza You Take Out of Your Own Oven?’”

Nooooo, my brain screamed. The tag line was meant to intentionally repeat the words “take out.” That’s the cleverness. His suggestion would ruin everything. Please, don’t. Not on my first commercial. I started to object.

Becker waved me silent. He spoke gently and evenly.

“Good thought, David, but I think it’s fine. I got the idea. Let’s leave it alone,” Becker said. Jaicks considered, nodded, and thanked everyone as he left the screening room. Becker followed, but just before exiting, he turned and gave me a conspiratorial smile.

My first national TV commercial was headed to air – with the right tag line.

For the TV testimonial commercial, Tom Sciarrino delivers all his lines in two extended scenes. A strong performance for his first time on camera.

Copywriter: Joseph Ehlinger. Art Director: Dan Weiss. Producer: Ted Storb. Creative Director: Gerry Miller. Food Photography: Michael Schrom. Client: Carl Becker, David Jaicks. Product: Chef Boyardee Pizza Mix (American Home Foods). Talent: Tom Sciarrino.

Epilogue: After 36 years on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Tom’s Pizzeria and Restaurant closed its doors in May of 1994 due to rising rents.

This commercial was archived with the help of the Paley Center for Media. Please support their efforts to preserve and celebrate our media history.

KFC: Long Shoot Day with ‘One Take’ Tilly

I was writing on a KFC TV campaign called “Lake Edna.” (Not my campaign idea.) The premise was a quaint fictitious town with a KFC store. The store manager was named Russ Beeler (Actor Rif Hutton), who served as a recurring character/spokesperson.

Rif Hutton as the KFC Store Manager Russ Beeler

This particular commercial promoted a new taste test win for KFC vs. Hardees. To deliver the news, we introduced Mom Beeler, who chided her son, saying the taste test was unfair. (You’ll see why in a moment).

Meet ‘One Take’ Tilly

During casting, we found a wonderful actress to play Russ’s mother. She said she had been a longtime fixture in LA doing TV and movie work. She added that she was known as “One Take” Tilly because she often nailed her read on the very first take.

Tilly, the actress playing Russ Beeler’s mother.

Perfect. Sold. Book her.

Feeling Hot, Hot, Hot

The shoot took place on the front porch of a house in Pasadena. With clear blue skies, the cool morning sun quickly turned blazing hot. Add in the extra heat from our HMI lighting and the porch felt like a toaster oven.

Tilly was wilting. She couldn’t remember her lines. We took frequent breaks. Set up electric fans. Had lots of cold drinks on hand. And divided the script into small segments. Through it all, Tilly forged ahead – take after take, determined to get her delivery right.

One Good Take Is All You Need

With some skillful editing, Tilly came across just as we hoped: strong, sweet, charming and humorous.

In TV commercials, you tend to shoot far more takes than you’ll ever use. Tilly reminded us that all you really need is one good take. Thank you, Tilly.

Creative Supervisor/Copywriter: Joseph Ehlinger. Senior Art Director: Bruce Cumsky. Producer: Charlie Capuano. Creative Director: Michael Hampton. Director: Stu Hagmann. Agency: Young & Rubicam. Client: KFC.

This commercial was archived with the help of the Paley Center for Media. Please support their efforts to preserve and celebrate our extraordinary media history.

Breyers: How Embarrassing

It was a cool assignment: Write a TV commercial to introduce Breyers ice cream to the West Coast. There was just one little catch. Okay, maybe not so little.

The most popular ice cream in California was called “Dreyer’s.” That’s right, Dreyer’s. And our brand was Breyers. Almost the exact same name. Oops!

What are the odds? Two ice creams that sound so much alike.

East Coast/West Coast Ice Cream Battle

This spot needed some finesse. Breyers was owned by Kraft. And you don’t win many fans when a corporate giant tries to muscle in on your favorite local ice cream – especially when it sounds like a cheap knockoff.

Here’s the good news. Breyers had its own street cred. It ruled the East Coast for over 100 years, rising from the cobblestone streets of my hometown, Philadelphia. (Cue theme music from “Rocky.”)

So, What’s the Inside Scoop?

Tell a great product story. And we had all the right ingredients: milk, fruit, sugar and cream. You see, Breyers is an all-natural ice cream. Dreyer’s isn’t. And folks from Cali seem inordinately interested in what they put into their bodies. (Conversely, in Philly, we eat cheesesteaks.)

I titled the commercial “Embarrassed Man,” a self-aware reference to the market situation. At long last, Breyers comes all the way to California – only to find another ice cream with an almost identical name. Sheesh!

Finding the “Embarrassed Man”

The script had a light comedic touch. The impact had brass knuckles. And we had just the right guy to deliver it – the talented Fred Neuman.

Among his many roles in film and television, Fred Neuman would go on to become the sound-effects artist on Garrison Keillor’s live radio show, “A Prairie Home Companion.”

Biggie Score on Recall Test

Major clients, like Kraft, often test their commercials to make sure their message is breaking through. Happily, the “Embarrassed Man” TV spot scored a record high in an ASI Day-After Recall Test, which measures how many viewers remember the commercial the next day.

Truth be told, I used an old-school, ad-biz trick to boost my chances – the infamous “Burke Opening.”

Madison Avenue Trick: the “Burke Opening”

When I started working in New York, veteran agency copywriters would grouse about the “Burke Opening.” The phrase originated from a company called Burke Marketing Research, which tested commercials for their memorability.

Burke preached that when commercials opened with an outrageous, jaw-dropping scenario, people remembered them.

And since all clients want their commercials to be remembered, some would insist that their scripts start with a Burke Opening.

The Dirty Low Down

How low will a copywriter go for a high TV test score? Judge for yourself. Here’s my favorite example of a commercial with an unabashed and unapologetic Burke Opening. Watch the first few seconds and try to look away. (See? It’s shamelessly irresistible. Just what the client ordered.)

Channeling the Classic Burke

I confess. I wrote a soft pedal version of a Burke Opening to get a high recall score on my Breyer’s spot:

OPEN ON dramatic CLOSE-UP of a MAN, flustered and sheepish. TO CAMERA, he reluctantly admits, “Um, It’s a little embarrassing…”

Gotcha! No matter what comes next, you’re zoomed in. What’s embarrassing? Somebody screw up? What’s going on here?

The rest of the spot unfolds in a conventional way: talking head, ingredient comparison, ice cream slowly scooped and an obligatory bite ‘n’ smile. There’s even a mention at the end that Breyer’s is spelled with a “B” to further differentiate it from Dreyer’s. Take a look.

Coast to Coast Success

The West Coast rollout hit like a tsunami, establishing Breyers as a true national brand in the Kraft portfolio. For Kraft President/CEO Tom Herskovits, it was a cherry on top.

Creative Supervisor/Copywriter: Joseph Ehlinger. Senior Art Director: Tom Kostro. Creative Director: Brian Dillon. Producer: Hal Mathews. Director: Mike Cuesta. Talent: Fred Neuman. Agency: Young & Rubicam. Client: Breyers ice cream (Kraft)

This commercial was archived with the help of the Paley Center for Media. Please support their efforts to preserve and celebrate our extraordinary media history.

Sudafed: Helicopters, Avalanches and Wolves

Things to Do – Find four feet of skiable snow in North America in late October.

The Sudafed client just approved a new national TV campaign I’d written. The idea was simple. The shoot wasn’t. To demonstrate that Sudafed works without any drowsy side effects, we enlisted endorsements from first responders organizations – public safety groups that require 100% mental clarity.

With more than 28,000 members, the National Ski Patrol is the leading U.S. authority for on-mountain safety.

Medically speaking, Sudafed has no drowsy side effects. None. Consequently, the National Ski Patrol gave us permission to use their name in a commercial.

So far, so good, but here’s the rub. The commercial would start running in November. That meant we needed to shoot no later than October to make the air date.

Good news: The Canadian Rockies seemed the best bet to have skiable snow in late October. Bad news: You needed a helicopter to get to it. No problem. Up, up and away!

Next stop, Banff, Alberta, Canada (where elk literally roamed the streets). We prepro-ed at the Banff Springs Hotel for a few days before heading to our shoot destination at Revelstoke.

Easier said than done. It’s a harrowing three-hour drive through the mountains in frigid temperatures. At dusk, a wolf pack sauntered across the desolate two lane road, their eyes gleaming in our headlights. (If our car had a flat, we would have sent our young Account Executive out to fix it. He was our human spare.)

King of the Mountain – Breathtaking views from Mount Mackenzie, outside Revelstoke, British Columbia, Canada. At 5,620 feet, it’s the longest vertical drop in North America.

The town of Revelstoke is a rustic gem, quietly known for its heli-skiing. There, well-to-do ski aficionados pay handsomely to be airlifted to the mountain peak, then snake their way down through mounds of virgin powder on fat-boy skies.

We arrived in Revelstoke. The caffeine-fueled helicopter ski instructors trained us in avalanche safety (oxymoron), proper use of transceivers, plus the importance of emitting a blood-curdling scream if you’re about to be buried alive. (So rescuers can note your last known position.)

We were ready to shoot, but the weather said no. Snowstorms kept us grounded for the next two days. Tension mounted. So did costs. We were paying for an entire production crew to be on standby. Late in the night on Day Two, we learned there might be a slight break in the weather for a morning takeoff. 

Shortly after dawn, with the snow still coming down, Art Director (and expert skier) Mark Driscoll prepared to board the Bell Ranger with the production crew. Visibility was near zero and the rotors whipped up a stinging blizzard.

I looked at Mark in his bright red snow suit. His face was pale, lips tight and throat clutched. I don’t believe either of us thought this takeoff was a very good idea. But neither said a word. There was too much at stake: the deadlines, preparations and costs. Ready or not, it was go time.

Over the propeller noise, I shouted I’d buy Mark a beer when he got back. In my mind, I hoped I’d wouldn’t have to tell his wife if something went bad.

The helicopter lurched skyward, swallowed by the grey overcast. The chop of the blades faded as the snowflakes drifted down. An eerie stillness.

Happy ending: Mark and the rest of the crew all returned safely. And admittedly, the mountain footage they captured is spectacular. (Watch the commercial below.) But you have to ask: Was it worth the risk? For a cold medicine commercial? Well, it did improve sales…

Click this link to see the other Sudafed commercials in this “First Responders” campaign. Each another story for another time.

ACD/Copywriter: Joseph Ehlinger. ACD/Art Director: Mark Driscoll. ECD: Mark Schwatka. Producer: John Caffera. Account Executive: John Darrow. Agency: Bates. Director: Don Guy. Editor: John Monte. Client: Steve Robins, Warner-Lambert.

This commercial was archived with the help of the Paley Center for Media. Please support their efforts to preserve and celebrate our extraordinary media history.