Requiem For a Vanished Art

The names etched  on the comically lopsided tombstones scattered about the small graveyard are mostly illegible,.shrouded as they are  by the long gathering moss of abandonment and neglect.

The names belong to the masters of a craft (dare I say Art?)that today has  all but vanished,having been shouldered out of the way by new technologies, shunted toward pasture by the industry's fickle trends and rendered gaunt by the whittle of time itself.:  I am referring, of course,  to the brilliant wits of comedy radio commercial. This  tribute at the foot of of the newest gravestone is timed to the  rise in its perfect perpendicularity,  commemorating  the recent death of octogenaria Dick Orkin , who--even as  his obits  appeared--still held his throne as the top practiiner in the field. (Think the beloved "Grandma" spot for American National Bank.)

I thought this might also be a propitious opportunity  to not just eulogize Dick Orkin, but to brush off the moss from the other gravestones for the sake of the making their names legibly memorable.

For starters, let's bow to the starters:  Stan Freberg and Bob-and-Ray were the first giants;both; claimed their repute from comedy radio shows, then expanded their gifts into comedy  commercials.  With their zanily dry wit Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding sold Piels Beer , and other products with persuasive understatement.. Freberg pitched in with his broad brand of parodic  frivolity selling everything from pizza rolls to political candidates, With dedicated unseriousness, both seriously hawked the product virtues by barely mentioning the product names.  Somehow, they  usually nudged their sponsors' sales figures beyond all expectations.

In the sixties, Chuck Blore emerged with his hip West Coast catalog of far-out miscellany, production sorcery, and catchy music calculated to catch listeners by surprise. Blore was the Go To specialist if you wanted radio that was, well, special.

The seventies and beyond  any pretenders to any and all thrones were usurped by Dick Orkin, first with his  comedy serials like his eccentrically hilarious  Chickenman series,  then--with sparkling dialogue and   odd characters as his metiers,  he evolved into commercials with the assistance of talents like Bert Berdis. For half a century, Dick managed to assemble  a spectacular caravan of comedy commercials that reached deep into the marrow of
America's funny bone.

The four leading lights I've just sketched--all  amalgams of  writer, performer, director and producer--are the ones I consider the touchstones of  comedy-commercial virtuosity.

Other inhabitants of the graveyard (some still alive, by the way)  worth mentioning:

Stiller and Meara (yes, George Costanza's surly TV dad teamed with his real-life wife Ann Meara trading drolleries on behalf of sponsors.

Bob Arbogast, whose nightly half hour comedy show kept my sneaky teenage self awake well beyond the bedtime allowed by my deaf mute mother, who, of course, never caught me listening.  Nor did I have to muzzle my guffaws.

Alan Barzman, another West Coast creative whose comedic flair occasionally missed the mark, but mostly didn't.

Mal Sharp, the imaginave s mind who worked with Blore and was the brainchild of the ersatz  man in- the- street interview so copiously copied on TV today.

Two Chicago voice actors--Joel Cory and Wayne Juhlin--who periodically strayed away from the landscape of mere performing and into writing,producing and performing spots marked by crisply offbeat dialogue and barefaced whimsy. (For a fine-wine client, Wayne conjured up a Scandinavian spokesman whose day job it was to close the eyes of sardines just before they took their places  in the rows of   the tin,)

I'll confess right now that I probably stumbled past a few names  that deserve noting.   Blame my leaky hippocampus.

Why the graveyard metaphor? I defy you to flick on the the switch of your radio and try try rummaging around to find a funny commercial that uses dialogue (not the ones with cartoon voices that insultingly tip you off to their intentions  of amusement), a shaped character, a peculiar situation,  an ingeniously plotted narrative, or any inspired acoustic device. Hence, this requiem  for the cast of comedy artisans with the rare skill of seducing your imagination into photographing the characters, painting the setting, and engineering the motion,  Nothing on a TV or movie screen relieves you of that pleasurably stimulating task, does it?

Today is my memorial service for these titan of the air waes, the day vid farewell by laying  on the graves of their genre the bouquets they so sumptuously warrant.

A personal postscript  :  Though I had no personal friendship with either Chuck Blore or Dick Orkin (I spent about an hour of my life in Orkin's actual presence,  I proffer this grievously  tardy expression of gratitude to both.

During my first ad agency job, we were pitching the STP account and, in my rookie naivete,I wrote two spec radio commercials and offered them up to Creative Director Larry Postaer, who really liked both, but ruefully explained to me that it was the agency's long held policy to farm out all radio projects to Chuck Blore, who had never been known to produce a radio spot his group didn't  themselves create. But Larry, ever boldly assertive, broke the rule and asked Blore the consider producing the spec scripts.  Lo and behold, Blore  was so heartily impressed, he offered to produce them. The following week, I found myself at Chuck Blore "Color Radio" Productions in lA, where Chuck informed me my spots would be produced three days hence. In those intervening days, Chuck invited me to sit in (and  even contribute) to his brainstorming sessions, as well to observe him direct and produce his own commercials.  Those three illuminated days proved to be an unparalleled tutorial for me.  A university where I could earn a Master's Degree in writing and producing radio commercials didn't come close to existing.  Nor does one exist today, I'm sure.  I learned how to approach and process an idea, strop my dialogue, develop a repertory company of voice actors and--most of all--how to put together a polished commercial in the studio.

Though we were practicing our craft in Chicago in the same period, Dick Orkin and I met in the flesh but once.Yet my ego's health is deeply indebted to him.  First,  because he told me by phone that --contrary to his ironclad self-covenant and  contingent upon his script approval--he'd like to be a performer in one of my radio spots,  And--guess what--it happened, the only time anyone remembered his ever doing it before.  A short time later he called to ask me if he could include one of on my spots in his traveling  sales pitch ,posing as a radio seminar. I eagerly consented.  About a year afterward, Dick announced a change of headquarters.  He was heading his wagon-train of  talent westward to Hollywood, not only to produce radio spots but to try to slip into prime-time TV as well. (He succeeded by doing regular comedy bits on the Carol Burnett show,)  But before he departed Chicago, he was interviewed by a Chicago newspaper and was asked by a reporter who would replace him as Chicago's number one radio creative.  He named me.  (I still have the clip in my possession.)  By this time, I also had in my possession three Clio statuettes, all for radio work. But  please take my word for it, that endorsement from the great Dick Orkin eclipsed all three Clios , and in my self-esteem remains today more cherished than any accolades since.

 

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