The future will have no human pitchmen. They will be PitchBots, digitally assembled to hawk a product to the proper demographic. They will never flub a line. They’ll never embarrass a sponsor by word or deed. They will be unique, funny, memorable — and they won’t be real.
Pitchmen must be real. Really excited, if needed; really serious, if that’s what the product requires. Really sincere. Really, really interested in making you not just want their product, but like yourself for wanting it. Selling is an art, a performance and a bit of a grift, as well. You know the pitchman is being paid, but he can persuade you that he’d pay for the opportunity to let you know about this fine product.
They ought to be extinct by now. Modern ads are either emotional and sincere, with millennials using apps while a ukulele plinks away, or strange and ironic, with lounge-lizard versions of Col. Sanders singing about chicken tenders in a tiki bar. One guy talking to the camera — talking to you out there in TV Land — it’s an anachronism, mostly confined to infomercials and people selling pillows or hot tubs. It’s a leftover relic of the days when you had to get up and fiddle with the rabbit ears.
It’s a dying art, but that doesn’t mean it’s dead. Consider, for instance, Fancy Ray McCloney. Nothing he does could possibly be called dead.
“I’m a human PHENOMENON,” he announced. (Even when he isn’t pitching something, he talks in capital letters.)
When it comes to pitches, he’s the alpha and the omega.
“I write them, I direct them, I produce them and put them on the air,” he said. “I’m a one-stop shop. I’m a Renaissance man.”
But he’s also respectful of his pitchman roots, which, in the Twin Cities, all lead to one source.
“Mel Jass is the man,” McCloney said. “He is my mentor, my hero, and if you put me in the same sentence, it’s beyond honor.”
Jass — he had a good job, as he would say — was king of the local pitchmen in the ’60s and ’70s. Every TV market back then had one — a guy who did the afternoon movies, or the noontime show for the housewives, and popped in during the 10 p.m. news to hawk cars. They didn’t have to be handsome, and they didn’t have to be flashy. What mattered was The Name, which they applied to their sponsors like a Good Housekeeping seal.
“Mel was without a doubt the greatest pitchman ever,” said Al DeRusha, who directed Jass’ afternoon movie show and the “Wonderful World of Movies” in the evening.
“Never ever used a fact sheet, a Teleprompter, nothing. It all came from Mel. I went on a lot of sales calls with him. He’d sit down with the owner, and he’d say, ‘Tell me a little about your company.’ He’d listen for five minutes, and then he’d say, ‘Oh, you want me to say this.’ Boom! Five minutes right there. They’d be amazed.”
Ad-libbing in an office is one thing, of course. It took a different skill to spiel it all out on camera — especially when the crew got bored.
“Back then, everyone was live and direct, living black and white,” DeRusha recalled. “So one time, he was doing commercials for Muntz TV; you could get some special record albums if you bought the TV. We pulled a joke.”
Although there were still several minutes left until the next station break, he signaled that it was time for an ad. The stack of records Jass picked up contained some legitimate album jackets, but also a few prank ones with obscene titles.
“He starts laughing, but he thinks he’s on the air, and he keeps pitching,” DeRusha said. “No sweat, no problems. No ego. Easiest man to work with. About all he would do was say, ‘Al, what’s the next commercial?’ I’d say, ‘It’s Plywood Minnesota.’ ‘OK, give me the drawer’ or whatever, and he’d stand on it to show how strong it was.”
One night, Rudy Boschwitz, the owner of Plywood Minnesota, showed up at the studio and joined Jass in his on-air escapades. If you were sick and tired of kitchen drawers that broke when you stood on them, this was a revelation. More than that, it was funny — and it moved the merchandise.
Boschwitz wouldn’t play Stan Laurel to Jass’ Oliver Hardy forever. The wood merchant became his own pitchman. His ads seemed to run all the time. They all had the same shots of carpet and countertops, the same descriptions of the great deal you’d get — and then they’d all end with Boschwitz in his plaid shirt, capping the spiel with his trademark line.
All together now, Minnesotans: Direct from the factory — to you!
It worked because it wasn’t slick.
“I never thought I would be a recognizable TV figure,” Boschwitz said, “but after a few years, I’d get recognized in public. But I always wore a plaid shirt, and a ‘Plywood Minnesota’ jacket, so I was advertising full time.”
That’s the key to the profession. Always be pitching. If someone sees you on the street, you have to embody the cheer and conviction you brought to the ad.
Which brings us back to McCloney. The Human Chocolate Orchid! The Surrealist Poet, the Dali Ali! He started out in comedy — the prettiest practitioner of the stand-up art, he called himself. He had a cable-access program from 1989 to 1999, where he interviewed celebs small and great, told jokes and shone brighter than the studio lights.
“That’s when people realized I was more than just a loudmouth,” McCloney said. “I could articulate a message, and that changed the whole game.”
It goes beyond just selling something, he said.
“I got this product in my hand, I’m lifting it up, but what it’s really about is lifting up our spirit. Make the pitch fun and funny and full of life and joy — warm you up and make you feeeeeel good, and when you feel good you think: ‘I’ll buy this, right here.’
“There’s something POWERFUL going on! When people see me on TV, they feel the POWER that reaches through their TV set, and they realize their greatness and they realize their joy and their joy connects with my joy, no matter what’s going on with their day — you know, you got family issues, you got health issues going on, but then you seeeeee that Fancy Ray commercial come on and when it’s over, you’re going to be smiling.”
Does he really believe all the stuff he says? Doesn’t matter; for a moment, he has you. If he doesn’t sell it to you this time, he’ll try again. He’ll only stop when everyone’s bought it — and then he’ll pitch you something else.