Creative Critique: The World Of Puddy

Cadillac Seville
Agency: DMB&B Detroit
Copywriter: Rob Hendrickson
Art Director: Alan Rado
Producer: Leslie Rose
Director: Matt Penn

Agency: BBDO New York
Copywriter: Steve Peckingham
Art Director: Michael IIlick
Producer: Steve Torisi
Director: Baker Smith/Tate & Partners

American Express/Superman
Agency: Ogilvy & Mather New York

He had a marginal role on a TV show that was supposed to be “reality based” and “personal–the more embarrassing the better.” The show’s mandate was also to include “no lessons” and “a lot of lying and scheming,” according to one of its writers. I refer, of course, to Seinfeld, which ended its long run last year. It lives on in syndication, but its most powerful cultural afterlife is in advertising–in launching all those semi-celebrity endorsers.
There’s Newman, of course, and that J. Peterman guy. But this particular moment in time cries out for a column in praise of Puddy. That’s David Puddy (actor Patrick Warburton), Elaine’s sometime boyfriend, Jerry’s sometime mechanic, a big, likeable lug. Puddy is a handsome man in command of himself who, on the Seinfeld set, had the emotional range of a rock.
And that’s what was funny.
On a show where every human failing was microscopically analyzed by the unremittingly unsatisfied group, Elaine was even more exhaustingly loud, brutally frank and laser-like in her ability to find flaws than her male counterparts. In contrast, boyfriend Puddy was so understated and impermeable, he could be mistaken for a stump.
A man like that, who can do physical comedy but can also seem imposing, who can even modulate his voice to sound godlike, gives advertisers a lot to work with.
For one thing, in the last 10 years in advertising, the irony/cynicism ante has been ratcheted so high, there’s almost no selling message that can be said straight.
At the same time, the depiction of men is slowly changing from the image of buff, hairless, shirtless types to the other extreme–hairy, big-bellied sports fanatics who sit in the stands at games and let it all hang out, baring their sports obsessions and their fat, painted, jiggling chests for all to see.
On Seinfeld, Elaine was crazy about Puddy until she found out that he was a “face painter”–he would go to New Jersey Devils games with his friends, with his face and chest painted like the devil (not that there’s anything wrong with that).
So as a type for advertisers, Warburton fills the irony and manly man slot in a freshly weird way.
He’s big and Baywatch buff, yet he’s not a bodybuilder type. With Puddy, there’s not a lot of pain and ambiguity–he’s comfortable with his failings as a man, but he’s also able to make straight lines sound so compellingly deadpan and robotic they could have come from The X-Files.
Nowhere does this New Puddy World Order work better than in a recent campaign for GM’s Cadillac Seville. “Lucky” is one perfect postmodern spot, a breakout commercial, the one that could make people who would otherwise snicker at a Cadillac start re-examining their feelings and conspiracy theories.
Actor Gil Bellows, who is now known as the lawyer from Ally McBeal, is shown tooling along a country road in his Seville STS when he’s pulled over by a motorcycle cop, played by Warburton.
Our man Puddy is in full regalia–boots, helmet, stick you name it. And he works that uniform while walking up to the car. As soon as he talks, however, he’s like an authority figure from a parallel universe. He asks for a license. The driver asks whether he was speeding.
“Negative,” says the cop. Then he goes into a wildly promotional description of the “North Star system, with performance algorithm shifting that gives you incredible control.”
“So I have just one question,” Puddy says, finishing up. “Do you feel lucky [ominous beat] Mr. [ominous beat] Johnson?” “Yes,” the driver says. “Yes, I do.”
The “Do you feel lucky” line has become as much a part of the mass culture as “Where’s the Beef?” Not only can Puddy make a line like that his own, but he can also, in another Cadillac spot in which he plays a park ranger, talk about a feature for sharp, curvy roads called Stabilitrac and not make it sound like something out of an old Energizer bunny parody.
A Cadillac Seville spot called “Bonding” features the incredibly talented Gregory Hines sitting behind the wheel as straight man, while Warburton, a security guard peering in through the car’s window, steals the scene.
Puddy was also the voice of Superman in a commercial last year for American Express. Here, Jerry Seinfeld walks along the street with the Man of Steel. In the Seinfeld universe, the self-reflexive Superman muses on his fame and his job, and sounds slightly annoyed as he says, “They ask me to bend stuff a lot.”
But perhaps the biggest acknowledgement that advertising is having a Major Puddy Moment is that Warburton also stars in a Super Bowl spot for Crispy M&Ms called “Floor.”
Even though he appears in a living-room setting, in casual, Docker’s-guy-like duds, he still carries a weird authority, especially as all 6 feet 3 inches of him looms over this little M&M in booties.
“Crispy rice center, milk chocolate. Sounds good,” he says, in his patented staccato delivery. In sudden fear for its life, the M&M drops to the floor. “Can’t eat a candy that fell on the floor,” the little chocolate says. But that’s not enough to stop a guy like Puddy. “Why?” he utters, in the most hilariously, barely breathing deadpan. “Whose rule?”
Seinfeld was all connotation–using words and phrases that were funny by virtue of the actors’ inflections. Most of the characters were a combination of smugness and hollowness, anxious citizens of the modern consumer culture. They were looking for stimulation and satisfaction, but acted more like bored teenagers at the world’s largest mall.
That’s where Puddy stands apart. He can fill that void, be the enforcer at the mall, the guy who can see the forest for the smart-ass trees.