As promised, an interview with the writer of Spicy Meatball: my favorite commercial of all time.
I know you’ve been asked this a million times, but… how did you come up with Spicy Meatball?
Actually, Roy Grace and I were 50 miles apart at the time.
He was at an editor cutting a spot we shot and I was snowbound in Northern Westchester. Roy called me from the editor and we were talking about coming up with another spot, Roy stepped away for a moment to look at a splice the editor had made and while he was away from the phone, I suddenly remembered a spot I had done for Buitoni in Rome. None of the performers we cast could speak English and in the spot there were 4 kids. Buitoni had made 3 kinds of instant pizza and each of the first 3 kids were supposed to tell the viewer which pizza they loved and the 4th kid was supposed to say, “I love them all”.
Well, nobody told the 4th kid that he wasn’t actually supposed to eat them on every take and what happened was that kid No. 4 got sick and we had to let him take a 2 hour break until he felt better, When Roy got back on the phone I told him about the incident and we decided that it was a good idea for a spot, so the next day, we worked out the spot, did a storyboard and presented it and sold it to the client. Roy and I wondered, before we presented it, if anyone else had presented a similar spot to the client because it seemed like such a natural idea for someone to have thought of previously. As it turned out, nobody has ever presented anything similar to Alka-Seltzer and they liked it and we went ahead and did it with Howard Zieff.
Incidentally, in the original storyboard we presented, the line was “Mamma mia, that’s marinara” but someone on the client asked if, in addition to overeating, could we make the object spicy as well, so we promptly changed it to a spicy meatball.
I can well imagine someone in 1968 saying “it’s a bit too inside, the average consumer won’t get it” etc. Did that happen?
An art director as Doyle Dane said that to me. He thought people would laugh at the spot but wouldn’t remember the client’s name.
He apologized to me the following week because he had gone to a party on the week-end and not only was everyone talking about the spot, they all knew it was for Alka-Selzter.
Was “spicy meatball” the first time you worked with Howard Zieff? And did you consider other directors for the job?
I had worked with Howard before on Whirlpool, but Roy did many more spots with him on Volkswagen.
What was it like working with Howard Zieff? He seems to have been the hottest director in New York. I love his work.
My comment on Howard was that he was the only director I worked with who would shoot the exact spot exactly as I wanted it, even if I wasn’t at the shoot.
I worked with a number of other good directors and I don’t want to slight anyone, but I think even they would agree that Howard was special.
I love the casting on that spot. Can you tell us a little about that process and who you cast.
There were actually 4 actors in that spot but most people only remember two; Jack Somack who was the guy who had to eat during every take (not really, he had a bucket near his feet which he spat into after every take) and Fran Lopate, the woman who handed him the plate. The slate man was Ronny Graham who we later used as Mr. Dirt for a campaign Roy and I did for Mobil, and the make-up man was Anthony Holland, one of the original Second City performers. If you look closely at the spot, you’ll see Ronny removing the slate and you’ll also see Anthony moving away from Jack after he’s hit him with a powder puff.
Casting was very important to us because the spot would suffer if you didn’t cast the right people. I have to say thjat I never shot a spot where I felt later that I had cast the wrong performer. That is not to say that I never shot a bad spot, only that I never picked the wrong actor even if the idea for the spot sucked.
What was the public’s reaction to the spot like? I personally found myself unable not to utter the line “Mama Mia that’s a some spicy meat-a-ball!”. I bet there was a lot of that. Was it a pop culture hit too?
The client received hundreds of complimentary letters, some of which they forwarded to us. I remember one letter in which the writer said he laughed so hard that he fell down and broke his ass. References to “Spicy Meatball appeared in many newspapers, Bob Hope did a spoof on it on TV (which was a mistake, because the spot itself was a spoof and you really can’t do a spoof on a spoof and be as funny). It even appeared in “Little Anny Fanny” in Playboy,
Which of course, neither Roy or I ever read.
Did you catch any flak from the Italian-American Anti Defamation league? I have felt their wrath.
There was such a rumor, but as far as I know, the client never heard from them. The spot was taken off the air when it’s cycle had ended, not because of any threats.
Anyway, the Italian-American Anti Defamation League was
Was started by Joe Columbo, who rumor had it, was the head of one of the “Families”
You worked at DDB at its very peak. What was that like?
It was like no other place because no other agency had so many special creative people. A number of other good agencies came after Doyle Dane such as Scali McCabe, Ally & Gargano, Wells, Rich and Chiat/Day and they all had excellent creative people, but none got big enough to have quite as many.
Who was your boss at DDB? And what was the path that led you there?
Everyone’s boss at Doyle Dane was Bill Bernbach because he was the Creative Director when I started there. I personally worked directly under Dave Reider, who was the Copy Chief. Dave was a wonderful writer who has never gotten the recognition he deserves. The path that led me there was that after I got out of the Army (drafted, not a volunteer) I realized that I could spend my life in the Army and I would never have to worry about having a place to live, 3 meals a day, clothing I could wear during the week and clothing I could wear on the week=end and even a little money to spend on beer, beer and more beer.
Realized I had to find a different vocation, I took an aptitude test that the Veterans Administration gave and after scoring it they told me that I had the ability to be an English teacher, am artist or a bon vivant. Putting all those talents into one area led me to a mailroom where I was 1 of 12 mailboys. From there I took a job as a menswear writer with a chain of department stores, then I became a promotion writer at an ad medium, ultimately a menswear writer again, but this time at Montgomery Ward. It was almost impossible to get a job in an agency then because you couldn’t get an agency job unless you had agency experience and you couldn’t get agency experience because no agency would hire you without experience. It was Catch 22 before Joseph Heller wrote it.
I finally got an agency job at the age of 30 (I started in the mailroom at 23) and I won a Gold Key from the Copy Club in my first year.
I know you worked at Daniel and Charles with Jerry Della Femina and he mentioned you in his legendary book.. But can you briefly describe the creative ad scene in NYC at that time?
I think I described that in my answer to the last question. But here’s a sidelight to that. Jerry was busy one day and asked me if I could take a requisition off his hands. It was for an ad that had to appear in The New York Times the next day.
Al Amato (the art director I worked with on the ad) and I did the as post haste, the AE took it to the client, the client approved, we produced it and the next day it was in the Times.
The night of the Copy Show, Jerry and I left together, me carrying my Gold Key and Jerry telling me what a dunce he was because if he hadn’t given me the requisition, he would have been going home with the Gold Key. Actually, Jerry can be so convincing he almost had me believing I should give it to him.
You worked with Roy Grace. What was he like to work with?
Roy and I basically grew up at the same time, saw the same movies and had similar experiences, so if one of us came up with an idea, the other would almost instantly understand it and know where it led.
Roy Grace and yourself joined Gilbert advertising (which was renamed Gilbert, Grace and Stark) in 1972. What was that experience like? (For the benefit of our reader, hello Trevor, I should point out that Gilbert Advertising was one of the coolest shops in NYC in the 60s. Perhaps not as heralded as DDB but a hot shop nonetheless)
The fact that Roy and I both left after a year is as much of an answer as I want to give. You can fill in the blank spaces.
Random question. I remember seeing a writer named Stuart Herzbrun in the Art Director’s Club annuals of the 1960s a lot. Did you work with him at DDB? And do you know what became of him? Just curious.
There was a writer at Doyle Dane named David Herzbrun and I guess he’s the one you mean. I never worked with him because we were both writers and I only worked with art directors or by myself is I was doing radio. David was in the German office when I joined Doyle Dane and his art director partner was Paul Wollman, who I did work with. David and Paul did the famous Volkswagen spot that asked the question “Did you ever wonder how the man who drives the snowplow gets to the snowplow?” They did it fopr Germany as a 30 second spot but it ran as a ^0 in this country. David did work at Ogilvy after Doyle Dane, but I don’t know where he went after that. He wrote a book entitled “Playing in the traffic on Madison Avenue” and I heard that he died a few years ago, but I’ve also heard that I died, so I don’t how much you can trust the stories that go around.
What was it about the advertising industry that attracted you to it in the first place?
Realizing that I didn’t want to spend my life in the Army, at least our Army. I never was in any other one, so maybe I didn’t give a chance.
It is my considered opinion that Spicy Meatball is easily the best TV commercial of all time. What is your favorite ad of all time and why?
I don’t have a favorite ad. Being in the business and being exposed to so much good work that others have done, if I chose one it wouldn’t be fair to the others.
And, what is your favorite ad among all the ads you’ve ever done?
I don’t have a favorite but one of the ones that has been played back to me over the years is an ad I did for Ohrbach’s Department Stores many years ago. The headline was
“A women of 40 will never look 30 dressing like 20” but without the visual that Charlie Piccarillo shot, it misses something. You might find it in an annual in the late 60’s or early 70’s.
What advice, if any, would you give to someone contemplating a career in advertising in 2011?
The best advice I ever got was from Jerry Della Femina when we were both working at an agency named Fuller&Smith&Ross (the only agency I’m aware of with 2 ampersands). We were in a meeting with the entire creative staff and the creative director was soliciting dieas for a pitch we were going to be working on. Jerry and I were in the back of the room and at one point, I said something, but no one in the room heard it. Jerry then shouted out exactly what I had said and everyone commented positively on it. Jerry then turned to me and said “Schmuck, speak louder”, Unfortunately for me, I never took Jerry’s advice, but fortunately for him, he did.
And now, my final words, Vinny. Goodbye and good luck.