Barbara Lippert’s Critique: Not Too Late For Lovitz

Hey Mom, what’s for the dinner-meal-occasion? In a recent interview, Subway’s marketing director used that compound term to refer to the franchise’s move into the brave new world of, uh, post-lunch.

Luckily, the advertising sidesteps such marketing cant. This “Subway Dinner Theatre” campaign starring Jon Lovitz is new, but the concept is such a natural that it translates as something weirdly familiar, like it’s been around forever.

Part of that easy recognition is the use of Lovitz himself, whose well-known characters from his Saturday Night Live days suggest an earlier time. You may remember the The Master Thespian, a pompous but poignant throwback dramatic actor type in an ascot and smoking jacket who over-emoted in a faux-Shakespearean-inflected tenor, even (one suspects) when asking directions to the men’s room.

Lovitz brings bits of that character to his hosting job here, plus a touch of The Critic, an animated series from years back that he voiced in which he played a nasally, doughy, middle-aged white male movie critic whose favorite phrase was, “It stinks!”

Visually, the campaign is Master Thespian II: The Subway Theatre years. He’s got the ascot and the velvet smoking jacket and sits in a tufted leather wing chair, like the one Alistair Cooke used to introduce Masterpiece Theatre. But the rest of his accoutrements are pure Liberace: silver candelabra and chafing dish, opera glasses, a bell, you name it.

Visually, the idea of the evening theatre is evoked with a big red velvet curtain and a logo with a crescent moon, recurring devices that are memorable and provide a nice frame. What’s smart about the setup is that it delivers, in effect, a Jon Lovitz sandwich, or maybe a wrap: He introduces each absurdly minimal one-act (12-second) play, and then comments on the performance afterward, before opening the chafing dish to reveal Subway’s new sizzlin’ Italian Trio.

There’s no doubt the concept is perfect—it’s just a lot o’ stuff to cram into 30 seconds, and some of the spots are more successful than others.

“Terror at 5 o’clock!” is a funny idea, and riffs on a modern dilemma in an old-fashioned way (research shows that about 80 percent of the population has no idea what they’ll be having for dinner by 5 p.m.). Lovitz announces the title and rings his bell wildly. Cut to an eerily minimal set with a large clock, a desk, a phone and a highly agitated woman, going through the dinner paces in her mind: “Make something? Too tired. Pick something up? Too tired.” Back to our host, who has affected the sort of whistley, sibilant “s” suggesting the BBC of the ’40s. “She makes me anxious,” he says.

Lovitz ends each spot with the standard Subway tag: “Eat Fresh!” In his mouth, however, that phrase is an intimidating command about eight syllables long, similar to the way John Houseman used to take no prisoners with “They Ea-u-hrn it!”

The Twilight Zone sound effects and harsh minimalism of the set works even better in “The Thing.” A big old stove glows red as two teenage boys approach it with horror, and try to decide what it is.

My least favorite is “Alone at Last.” It tries to recreate an office situation—one guy types desperately on a fake keyboard as he asks his young officemate, “You hungry, Lisa? Grab some dinner, Lisa?” But he’s too late: Another guy confidently plunks the bubblin’ Subway six-incher down on her desk as he announces, “Got your dinner, Lisa.” She gets up, pulls him by the tie and kisses him.

The two previous situations were funny because they were in 1950s horror film mode. This one, with its suggestion of a modern office mixed with Lana Lang-like kiss for “my hero!” is more of a muddle. After it’s over, Lovitz exclaims, “The blond boy is a loser!”—an ending that was selected by 20,000 people who voted for it on the Subway microsite. (I thought the other one was funnier—it shows Lovitz’ dabbing his eyes with a hankie and getting so ferklempt that he can’t continue, crying, “Go to the sandwiches!”)

Indeed, this is the most integrated campaign Subway has ever done. The microsite also allows viewers to “make your own dinner theatre” and upload the digital result—some of which are shown. The radio is funny, too. “Buried Alive!” dramatizes the plight of a working wife and mother who is “buried under an avalanche of responsibility.” (And who can’t relate?) Her husband saves her by taking the family out to Subway. (“What dedding-do,” Lovitz jokes.) It’s the only spot to touch on the health issue, promoting a sandwich that has only 8 grams of fat. I guess that’s an issue Subway is staying away from in Lovitz’s presence. (As they said of The Critic: “His standards are high, and his heart’s as big as his pants size.”)

All in all, the dinner theatre device is clever and adaptable, and immediately telegraphs the dinner-meal-occasion idea. It’s no subservient chicken, but it’s a relatively sophisticated concept for Subway. It dresses up a rather pedestrian problem/solution setup in an entertaining way. My own bias would be for more critic and less theatre. He’s earned it!