Can You Hear Me Now?
When you work in commercials, you often find yourself employed again and again by the same behemoths. Microsoft, McDonalds, IBM, UPS, Coca Cola, a whole bunch of dot-coms, these are some of the folks who've forked over to me over the years what I would consider large amounts of cash -- no doubt to them, all told, a blip on the corporate spread sheet that amounts to less than their daily budget for nondairy creamer.
But out of all of them, the company I've probably had the most repeat business from has been Verizon. They really keep this town in commercials. Over the years when James Earl Jones was their spokesperson, we worked together enough to get into extensive discussions of his favorite television shows ("Deadwood" and "The Sopranos" -- for an older guy, he seems pretty okay with profanity).
And, as you might guess, I've also worked multiple times with the Test Man. You know, that guy in the glasses who's in all the Verizon commercials, who used to walk around with his cell phone saying, "Can you hear me now?…Good!" until they stopped using those lines altogether, so that now he generally just gets to stand there and nod and look sympathetic.
Not that he really minds. Test Man is, in reality, a very nice guy named Paul who is pretty happy in his job, probably because he's living the dream -- if not that one of superstardom then the dream of never, ever having to give a thought to paying for retirement. So he's more than willing to put up with whatever goes along with being the Verizon spokesguy. Like the jacket.
"What is this made out of?" I asked him when I worked with him most recently, feeling the material as I wired him up. "Some kind of microfiber?"
"No," he said with an appreciative wag of the eyebrows. "Gabardine."
"Ooh, wool. That must be hot."
"Yeah, it's wonderful on a day like today, so comfortable."
"But in the winter it's probably good."
"No, it's not warm enough in the winter. Cold in the winter, hot in the summer," he said cheerfully. "It's grrreat." Making royalty bank does wonders for your sense of humor.
On this particular job, we were not only working with Test Man but with The Network. If you've seen the commercials, you know that The Network is a seemingly endless mass of people who are supposed to look like they're the ones making America's favorite phone and internet network go, 24/7. My advice: when you work with The Network, make sure you get to set early because if you don't, even though many of them are digitally matted in in post, they still form one hell of a big line at the catering truck between you and your breakfast burrito. I found this out the hard way.
Mind you, actually being part of The Network doesn't look a like a picnic either. They're extras with no lines who are shipped to set on a couple of decidedly un-deluxe commercial buses, and are really only distinguishable from one another by their props. The Network comes with its own 12 plastic tubs of props. The four-page list of them that I swiped during lunch reads something like:
6 black and tan leather tool belts
3 red hole punches
6 flat-head yellow screwdrivers
6 orange Phillips-head screwdrivers
7 car chargers, in package
17 spools blue cable
7 Motorola flip phones
3 Nokia bar phones
16 pairs work boots
4 lanyards, 3 w/nametags
1 UHF/VHF switchbox
2 yellow Ethernet cords
8 black flashlights, 1 broken
25 white hardhats with Verizon logo
47 black umbrellas
53 red umbrellas
10 maroon EAR noise reduction headphones
24 white hardhats with Verizon logo
One poor guy had a hard drive strapped to his back all day.
"Is it heavy?" one of the other extras asked him.
"It's not light," he answered.
And a lot of them are also regulars who have done the Network shtick a few times. As evidenced when the guy from the agency who appears to be the keeper of the Network concept (who comes to work on a motorcycle and wears a Harley-Davidson t-shirt) got all of the extras together in the morning for a meeting.
"How many of you have done this before?" asked Rebel Agency Guy.
Maybe half of the hands went up.
"Well, this is going to be a little different than usual. Generally, the thing about The Network is you're always, always working. But this time, you're supposed to be feeling a little celebratory. We're not sure exactly how that's going to work. So I just wanted to let you know, those of you who've done this before, that we're doing something a little different, and we'll just have to see how it goes."
It turned out that this little pep talk had to do with the fact that in this spot, The Network has to applaud for the main characters who, apparently, are making world class use of their Verizon service by doing things like watching music videos constantly to get cues for their personal style or giving lost Japanese tourists directions from their GPS. Basically, they're being applauded for spending as much money on a cell phone as humanly possible, though I suspect that this is not what the campaign intends to highlight. At any rate, with Rebel Agency Guy lurking over his shoulder, Ben, the director -- one of those interesting people who is not, himself, funny, and yet somehow can create a very funny commercial -- gave his own specific direction about how The Network should behave.
"So you're working working working then when she comes out, you have to applaud, and then you have to go right back to working. Everybody got that?"
Paul, meanwhile, who arrives in his own private car and needs no direction because he has his shtick down, mostly stood around, quietly killing time sending text messages on his Sidekick. I'd imagine one of the perks of being Test Man is free text messaging for life. Another, since he's now a celebrity with his face plastered above the Lincoln Tunnel, is getting a lot of requests from members of The Network to sign autographs and pose for cell phone photos, which he handles quite gracefully.
"People stop me on the street all the time," he told me. "Sometimes they ask me questions about their bill, I don't really have an answer for that. But now that I have an assistant, she'll get right up in people's faces, which is great. We tell people there are a few things Test Man doesn't like. He doesn't like to be touched. He doesn't like to be picked up."
Of course, there are also certain things that Test Man probably is not supposed to do. At one point, he turned to me and whispered, "Are we potted down?" before leaning in confidentially to the actors who play a family in the spot -- two parents and a teenaged girl who absolutely loves to text message. "They're like the big tobacco companies. They're not going to tell until they have to. But it's definitely going to be a problem 20 years down the line. I mean, they're microwaves."
By now, I guess Paul's level of caring is pretty low. At one point, I was watching him stand calmly at the center of a large scene of chaos, where they were trying to place the 50-odd Network people behind him, rearrange them, rearrange them again, swap out props that they didn't like for new ones -- magenta headphones for green headphones, wire cutters for a phone charger -- the typical nonsense that attempts to satisfy all the folks in video village who need to be satisfied and takes much longer than it could possibly need to. As we both stood there, doing the waiting which forms the better part of our day, Paul caught my eye and mouthed, "I need a new job." But even if you have to do the same thing, day after day, year after year now, especially when you might rather be doing, say, Shakespeare, or whatever it is that you thought you'd be doing when you got into this business in the first place, which definitely is not this, who's got the strength to walk away from that paycheck? Sounds familiar. Only he makes way more money than I do, even more easily. Maybe I can relate to him better than I can relate to me.
And of course, am jealous of the big advantage of Paul's being a noncelebrity celebrity who has no dialogue: that he needs next-to-no coverage. While we'll have to spend a full day shooting the rest of the spot, he's able to be entirely shot out in a couple of hours and get out of that jacket, into a private car back to the city, and back to whatever it is Test Man does when he's not testing.
Which he did, and God bless him. But first he went around, air-kissing the clients and saying his goodbyes. He gave me a quick wave.
"See you I'm sure. We've done this like a hundred times together now, right?"
"Something like that," I said.
Just then, one of the other actors came over and shook his hand. "Well, it was very exciting meeting you."
"I know," Paul said, "It's like meeting Sharon Stone, isn't it? I get that a lot."