Joe Pytka On the Spot

The world’s most famous commercial director admits he’s given a lot of grief to people who “waste time” on the job. This week, at a New York roast benefiting VCU Adcenter, Pytka, 64, will get payback from a host of A-list creatives for decades of, as the invite says, “incomprehensible screaming.” Pytka’s hefty credits include spots for Pepsi, IBM, Hallmark, Nike and, most recently, Nextel. He’s also directed the films Let It Ride and Space Jam but remains committed to “this hackneyed medium” called advertising. Q. Why did you agree to get roasted?

A. Phil Dusenberry asked me a long time ago if I’d do it. [VCU] was the only reason I did it. I would never expose myself to this otherwise. … It’s good to have someplace that puts a structure on our profession, because it’s been kind of an intuitive and instinctive thing for a long time.

Anyone you expect will be especially harsh?

Everybody. I hope they let out every goddamned gun on the side of their ship. I hope they turn the ship sideways so I get a 21-gun salute. I hope they are as devastating as possible—because I get the last word. I got something from a very sharp dagger to an ICBM on each one of those guys. And I’m going to make notes, and I’ll unload on them at the end. But I love them all dearly.

You complain about a lack of social responsibility on commercials. Any specific examples?

[The Fox Sports Net spots] were brilliantly done but racist as can be. Here we’re making fun of the Islamic world, we’re making fun of India, we’re making fun of Russia—places that have been victimized by the West and are still being victimized by the West and are being victimized in the way we portray them.

What is the most disappointing creative trend you see these days?

I miss the high order of style we used to have. It peaked probably in the late ’80s, early ’90s.

Who are some of the best dialogue writers in advertising now?

There are very few. Bill Heater was the best ever. I see stuff now—like this Budweiser stuff, this “True” campaign. How bad is that stuff? And people think that’s good dialogue. The directing sucks, the acting sucks, the dialogue sucks. The casting sucks. Do people behave like this? I don’t see anybody behaving like this. The Coors Light twins stuff is particularly awful. It’s actually illegal—they should all go to jail.

What about Miller’s “Catfight”?

It was horrible. They should be whipped and put in prison. I find it offensive to me as a human being. And I find it offensive to my profession, because it’s not funny.

Will you do more features?

I’d like to do a feature under the right circumstances, but working on a feature’s like working in a factory. With commercials, it’s a tremendous freedom. The studios, they’re idiots. The people I’ve met in advertising are far more talented than the people I met in movies. I wouldn’t trade a Hal Riney or a Phil Dusenberry for anybody I’ve worked with in features.

What do you think of product placement?

A guy at Paramount hates me to this day because I did not let Budweiser into [Let It Ride]. They had a deal with Budweiser; I refused to let the stuff in the movie. I didn’t want a red-and-white fucking Budweiser cup in every shot. That’s the kind of battle you have to fight, and they still hate me because the guy can’t see past his own little desk and his little fucking $50,000 contract, which is going to wreck a $20 million movie.

What’s the biggest battle you fight in advertising?

I don’t fight any battles anymore. I just provide a service, and I deliver. And I’ll deliver if I have to spend my own money. It’s not just about money, it’s about your responsibility to a craft. These are the things that should be taught at ad school. Everything’s not about money—the corporate world wants it to be, but it’s demoralizing to work for money.

What work are you most proud of?

I see the flaws in a lot of the older stuff. And, this sounds terrible, I don’t think I’ve done my best work yet. That’s the amazing part of the medium, and that’s the part that I resent people not appreciating. We have technologies available that makes the process easier, makes the ability for us to tell our stories easier, and makes us able to tell stories that have never been told before, but it’s not being used properly. But the potential to do stuff now is better than it’s ever been.

What about shooting in digital?

It’s the worst thing ever. Digital now is in a state that film was in 1934.

What’s the greatest misconception about you?

I’m past that. I’m at the point in my life I don’t have to be nice. It’s not that I’m a mean person. Come to the battle with your gun or your knife or your sword or your spear. Don’t come unprepared. Don’t come in and waste our time and bring us down to your level. If you don’t understand what’s going on and this has to be explained to you, then what are you doing here?

You don’t do a lot of Super Bowl work anymore. Why?

It’s too much trouble. A lot of the stuff for the Super Bowl is obviously gratuitous and purposely vulgar. One of the worst commercials I’ve ever done was the dancing bears [for Pepsi]. I said, “I can’t believe I’ve sunk so low in my life that I have to do a bunch of fucking guys in bear suits dancing around doing ‘YMCA.’ ” Sure enough, the American public loved it, and that’s when I thought that maybe I should move somewhere else.