Wednesday, November 2, 2016

"A Discombobulating Illumination"

Explaining a primary reason I write, I once quoted a line from Murray Shisgal’s play Luv that went,

“How do I know what I think till I hear what I say?”

Yesterday, tangential to the central concern – repetition in advertising – I had to think hard to remember the topic; sometimes, I forget what I have written later the same day – I recalled an experience doing radio commercials that led me to wonder if I really knew what was actually going on.

So.  Writing not only allows you to find out what you think.  It offers a belated opportunity – in this case, a forty-five years later belated opportunity – to reexamine what you believe. 

And then feel like an idiot for believing something for so long that was factually incorrect.


Here’s what I thought had transpired.

Two guys, partners in a two-person Toronto ad agency, having heard me perform material I had written for Canadian radio, contracted me to write and perform a series of commercials, trumpeting the “rollout” of a local delicatessen’s assortment of frozen dinners, soon to be available in supermarkets.  After the assignment was completed, they offered me permanent employment as a company copywriter. 

That’s how I remember that story.  But…

Wait.  This is weird – although interesting and even possibly educational – so I thought I might reasonably welcome it into the narrative. 

One of the 60-second “spots” – mentioned yesterday – began:

“Hi.  I’m Salisbury Steak.  I come with mushrooms but they don’t talk.”

While revisiting this commercial yesterday, I suddenly began to wonder – forty-five years after the fact – whether “mushrooms” was actually the appropriate vegetable. 

I guess that’s who I am, I suppose, “rewriting” commercials recorded in 1971.  But suddenly I was concerned that there was a better “accompaniment” than mushrooms.  And then it came to me… with retroactive regret.

“Hi.  I’m Salisbury Steak.  I come with potatoes but they don’t talk.”

Don’t ask me why, but “potatoes” is definitely funnier than mushrooms.   

To make sure I wasn’t simply being arbitrary, I tested other alternatives:

“I come with peas but they don’t talk.”  No.  Because it is one syllable too short.  Plus, I recall a TV commercial where the peas actually did talk.

“I come with green beans but they don’t talk.”  That’s the same rhythm as “mushrooms” – “Da-da.”  Mushrooms” – “Green beans.”  You’re just changing it “sideways.”  And besides, mushrooms are cuter than green beans.

(“Comedy writers are crazy”?  I see no evidence of that.)

I wanted to kick myself for missing “potatoes.”  It’s like an arithmetic problem where you belatedly realize your mistake.  “‘Carry the seven?’” What the heck was I thinking!?!

Why had I said “mushrooms” instead of “potatoes”?  Because I take writing too literally.  (And always have.)  The Salisbury Steak in question actually did come with mushrooms.  But so what?  Who’d make a fuss if I changed it, the  “Vegetable Police”? 

“Poetic License.”  “Potatoes” is definitely funnier!

Okay, so there was that – a literary blunder.  But then, for the first time, something even more troubling jumped to my mind.  I don’t know why – the synapses of my brain firing in an alternate sequence – which sounds impressive and might be (accidentally) correct.

For the first time ever it occurred to me that allowing me to perform the commercials I had written could have been a deliberate strategy, an alluring inducement, to accept the subsequent offer of the position.

Suddenly, the event made sense in a way I had not previously considered.  I was a capable writer.  But I had never read a commercial in my life.  How come they wanted me to perform them? 

Where my inexperience immediately shone through.

I’m in the recording booth, completing the first “take” of the first radio ad.  One of the “Ad Men” comes in.  “That was terrific.  But it was fifty-nine seconds.  Could you read it just a ‘hair’ slower, so it’ll be sixty?”

I said, “Sure.”  But in my head I said, “How?” 

How do you read an entire page of “copy” exactly one second slower?  Say it’s two-hundred-and-forty words.  I’d have to read each word a quarter of a second slower than the last time. 

There are copy-reading professionals who can accomplish such feats – making the minutest adjustments.  I was not one of them. Thinking back, it seemed bizarre that they had permitted me to do more than just writing.


They knew that I loved performing and they wanted to “give me a cookie”, a “low- consequence” inducement, masking what their clever machinations were actually about.

What a fool I was!  Thinking they wanted me as a performer when they only wanted me as a writer, Norma Desmond, believing “It’s my comeback” when they merely coveted her Duesenberg.   Or whatever; I just like the word “Duesenberg.”

Who knows?  Maybe it was like I originally remembered it – I did the work, then they offered me the full-time writing job.  But now, with the alternate scenario of “contrived premeditation”…

… I will never know for sure.

I wonder.

What else do I think I know that I have actually got wrong?

Not about the complicated workings of the universe.

About what actually happened to me.


Wendy M. Grossman said...

Potatoes may be funnier, but truth counts in ads. I think you were wise not to pass beyond mushrooms. You could have been pursued by the Canadian equivalent of the Advertising Standards Agency. People would have been sending in letters of complaint: "The ad said potatoes come with it. Where are my potatoes?"

You had a lucky escape.


Fun Guy said...

Magic mushrooms can talk but only under extreme duress.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

...although aren't kumquats funnier than any other plant material foodstuff?