In The Revival Tent

ME: Evan, I read last week in Stuart Elliott’s New York Times ad column (he succeeded Randall Rothenberg who succeeded Phil Dougherty who succeeded Carl Spielvogel, while you were working at Daniel & Charles in the ’60s) that advertisers are redoing old commercials. A couple of spots that Cohen & Pasqualina did for Alka-Seltzer at Wells were, in fact, updated and are running. Stealing from yourself, so to speak. At the end of the article, the Alka-Seltzer ad guy said that he hoped to reprise one you wrote, “Spicy Meatball.” In 25 words or less, what do you think?

STARK: I think they better do it as a 60-second because you need that much time to make it work. The more takes, the more laughs. (That’s exactly 25 words. What do I win?) Incidentally, Peter Bart was the advertising columnist for The Times when I worked at Daniel & Charles. I’m not sure if he’s the same Peter Bart who currently edits Variety.

ME: I guess we can add your voice to the “Death to the 30-Second Commercial Crowd.” Interesting that you only care about making sure it gets laughs. I thought you’d look to make a few dollars off it. Maybe direct it. Or rewrite it. Or something that earns you money others will make off your idea. In 20 words or less, what do you guess Roy Grace, the art director on the spot, would have said?

STARK: I guess Roy would have said, “Their spot will only make our spot look better.” In your next question, are you only going to allow me 15 words or less?

ME: Roy did say at one time that with you, “More is more.” So the word limit is just my trying to keep the answers within the strictures of Adweek’s page. It also provides room for me to ramble on. The actors in the spot? Members of the Howard Zieff ensemble, right? Jack Somack, NPR’s Leonard Lopate’s mother, and future Mobil Mr. Dirt, Ronny Graham. Bill Bernbach played a behind-the-scenes role in the spot, didn’t he? Someone (I think it was you) told me that. Can you elaborate?

STARK: First, let me give several performers due credit. Leonard Lopate’s mother, Fran, was the wonderful woman who kept handing Jack Somack the meatballs. And Anthony Holland, an early Second City performer, was the makeup man. As for Bill Bernbach’s contribution, when Roy and I brought our edited version of the spot back to the agency, it did not include the last line I wrote, because Roy and I thought that the door falling off the oven was a good joke to end the spot on.

When we screened the spot for Bill, he asked what had happened to that wonderful line we had at the end: “OK, let’s break for lunch.” Needless to say, we put it back in and, of course, Bill was right. There, that’s more than 15 words. Tell Adweek to give you more space.

ME: Interesting that Bernbach, who is always characterized as a “big-picture guy,” was also into details. Interesting, too, that 20 years after founding the agency, he was still screening rough cuts. More interesting, though, is that when German drug company Bayer bought American drug company Miles Laboratories, it also acquired this hidden asset of the Alka-Seltzer film library, the work of Mary Wells, Charlie Ewell, Bob Schulman, John Danza, Gene Case, Marvin Honig, Bob Gage, et al. that it can exhume, reconjure and recycle. Smart company, Bayer. Maybe I will switch from Brioschi to Alka-Seltzer.

Getting back to this e-mail interview, when we worked together on our play about an advertising copywriter who sells his soul to the devil for a headline, I remember that we did the whole thing very fast online up until the last line, which you rewrote at least 10 times—never happy with what either you or I had written.

STARK: By the way, when we showed “Spicy Meatballs” to Bill, it wasn’t a rough cut. It was finished, but we had to go back and re-record to get the lunch line in. Actually, Roy and I did an Alka-Seltzer Plus spot before we did the meatballs, and when we finished it, we screened it for Bill and the president of the agency, Joe Daly.

It was a dialogue commercial, and after we screened it, Bill said he had trouble understanding it and could I change the copy?

My response was, “Change the copy, Bill?” He said, “Yes, Evan, change the copy. You’re a writer, you have a typewriter, change the copy.” To which I said once again, puzzled: “Change the copy?” Bill started to get very angry with me until Joe Daly stepped in and said, “Evan can’t change the copy, Bill, they’re speaking on-camera.” “Is that right, Evan?” Bill asked, and I said, “Yes, Bill, the words have to synch up with their mouth movements.”

In speaking about the incident to Bob Gage later, Bob explained that Bill had never actually done a TV spot himself, so he didn’t realize that I couldn’t change it. At that point, Roy and I told Gage that maybe he should do a spot with Bernbach so he would understand what we were doing, but Gage said, “No way.”

ME: The business, even its geniuses, has trouble adapting to new media.

TEDRA MEYER, Adweek managing editor: Hi, Tom. So, did you cut anything from your column/e-mail exchange that you’d like to put back in? Right now, for some strange reason, it’s running a bit short. In other words, I’m offering you more space.

ME: Well, Evan sent me this postscript:

STARK: How come you come off wiser, funnier, more interesting and taller than me? Other than that, it’s fine. Now all the people who think I’m dead will know that I’m only dead professionally.