My point is, I've returned form the Old World with a lot of stories and observations, and I intend to start interspersing them with the usual weekly chapter posts of the memoir. For those of you who have stuck with me this far, I'm absolutely going to finish out the book on this space. But I'm also actually going to start blogging again, since that's why I started this non-sensical enterprise in the first place.
Also, publishing the book here has given me the chance to edit, and by "edit" I mean remove whole chapters that I've already written as posts on this space. (Evidently I went through a brief period writing the book where I was so desperate for pages, I plagiarized myself. If that's not the definition of laziness, I don't know what is.)
And so: to those of you who missed me (both of you), thanks. I hope you'll keep coming back, because I had to go all the way to Europe to find out that I still have a shit-ton to say about things. But for now, let's get back to the book:
Chapter Twenty Six
Commercial Wisdom, or “Listen To Your TV Dad”
Always have a spit bucket. That’s another piece of wisdom that I stand by, especially when shooting any commercial involving food. Take any commercial where a human being is eating food, or drinking a beverage. Now, unless it’s a comedy bit, and the actor is about to spray that bite of food or slurp of milkshake all over some unsuspecting bystanders due to some real or imagined surprise, what is usually the very next thing you see the actor do after putting that food in their mouth? They smile. And that is why these kinds of commercials have a very specific name: Bite and Smile.
It sounds like the easiest thing to do in the world. The bowl of spaghetti is in front of you. Take your fork, and slowly, sexily twirl the pasta around your fork. Raise it to your lips – not too fast, so the camera can track you. Open your mouth expectantly, close around the fork, slide that sexy-ass spaghetti off with your lips, and begin to chew. Reaction shot: wide, earnest, closed-mouth smile. This is the best goddamed spaghetti ever made by man. You are pleased. No, ecstatic! Just on the southern end of orgasmic. Aaaaaannnnd…CUT! That was beautiful! Perfect timing, excellent facial expressions, the client is thrilled. Now, we just need to do it EIGHTY-SEVEN MORE TIMES.
I want you to try and imagine what your life would be like on a single day, if I asked you to take a bite of pasta once every 45-60 seconds or so – for ten straight hours. If you are imagining yourself dead, or contracting celiac disease, then you’re about on target. And that’s why a spit bucket.
I remember my first bite and smile. It was a national commercial for an Italian chain called Johnny Carino’s. We had to report for work at one of the restaurants at 3AM, because the producers didn’t want any real people in the restaurant while we were filming. We were dressed in acceptable attire, arranged around tables, and the food started coming. I found out that I had one of the few close-up shots for this commercial, a tight shot on my face as I’m wrapping my lips around a wonderfully cooked piece of steak.
The First Assistant Director asked me if I wanted a spit bucket, with a matter-of-factness that I didn’t think was appropriate for the word “spit.” I hate that word. (Irrational, I know. I’m also weird about “goiter,” and “pusillanimous.”) I replied that I did not. I had expressly not eaten dinner the evening before, knowing that I was getting up in a few hours to gorge myself on Italian food. I was ready. Bring the meat.
And they did. And they kept bringing it. And I kept eating it, long past the point where I was actually full. But we kept shooting the scene over and over. From different angles. Multiple takes on every angle. This went on for hours. At the point where I physically started to turn green, I believe I had the thought that I was working with the Cecil B. DeMille of bite and smiles. I watched the faces of the other actors at my table, as they progressed from amused, to concerned, to disgusted, to outright horrified.
When at long last the director (whose name I cannot remember, and I’m almost sure my mind did that on purpose, because if I did know his name my brain would probably put me in a fugue state long enough to track him down and murder him, and I’d wake up in a convenience store with no clothes on) decided he finally had the shot, and it was time to move on, I asked if I could be excused to go to the bathroom. I will not describe what I did in that bathroom; I have already told you a story that illustrates my family’s genetic pre-disposition for projectile vomiting. What I will tell you is that, by the time I was finished, the owners of Johnny Carino’s likely had no choice but to demolish that bathroom (and probably that whole side of the restaurant), but not before burning it down.
A few years later I did another bite and smile, this time for a well-known baked goods company. I was no longer the hip, leather blazer-wearing single guy out with his friends at Johnny Carino’s. Now I was the sensible dad, with an adoring wife and two young daughters, ready for a day at the office in a crisp suit and tie. The heroes of this commercial were the baked goods: a selection of prepackaged donuts, donut holes, cinnamon rolls, and coffee cake. Picture the Middle-American family, gathered around the kitchen island on a weekday morning, about to dash off to work and school, but not before enjoying a plethora of packaged, processed sugary carb-bricks, all laid out and presented as though Martha Stewart were about to pop in any moment.
One of the young actors playing my daughter (let’s call her Amanda, not her real name, because I’m friends with her on Facebook and she’s a teenager now, and she would knife me if I used her real name) could not have been more excited about the fact that she was going to spend the entire day eating donuts. That is the equivalent to an eight year-old of winning the lottery while riding your trained unicorn to Disneyworld. I had worked with this young lady before, and had built some rapport. As delicately as I could, I raised the idea that eating donuts all day might not be good for her stomach, and there was an actor’s trick I could teach her so that she could avoid a bad tummy ache later. A little trick I liked to call Spit That Shit Into A Bucket (I didn’t tell her that). She was horrified at the thought of “spitting gross chewed up food” into anything.
The cameras began to roll. Every take, we would each take a bite of something, smile, look at each other, act like it was the best shit we’d ever eaten, then – CUT! Everybody would reach for their own bucket. Me, my tv wife, and our older TV daughter - but not Amanda. She would happily keep on chewing and swallow, and look at us like we were crazy for passing up what had to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. We started to get into a groove, and the shoot was going well. Until about thirty minutes later, when I heard the director yell “Action!,” and we all started moving about the kitchen, doing our thing, reaching for our baked goodies, and quite suddenly I heard “Cut!” That meant a busted take, and when I looked around the set I saw Amanda still on her first mark. She was supposed to have moved with me over to the kitchen island, but she looked rooted to the ground. And she wasn’t moving. And she was very pale.
I walked over to her, put my arm around her.
Me: “Hey kiddo. You okay?”
Her: “I think I’m ready to spit now.”
Instantly a production assistant appeared from around the corner with a large Styrofoam cup in hand, and gave it to Amanda.
Me: “There you go.”
Her (looking at the cup, then at me): “It needs to be bigger.”
Cut to Larry looking directly into the camera in wide-eyed horror.
Her: “You should probably hurry.”
Production only had to shut down for an hour, which is about how long it took the Wardrobe Department to locate a suitable replacement for the dress that Amanda destroyed.Always have a spit bucket.
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