I got to talk with one of my advertising heroes last week – Joe Sedelmaier. If you don’t know his name, you’re not in advertising or you are and you shouldn’t be. Joe is the singular auteur of advertising comedy. What a fucking thrill. “Where’s the beef?”, the FedEx fast-talking man, Alaska Airlines and hundreds of others of singular brilliance.
“You can always pretend to be serious but you can’t pretend to be funny.” – Joe Sedelmaier
I admit I was a bit nervous. After all, I’d heard stories of his direct gruffness but nothing could have been further from my experience – expansive, passionate, funny, so willing to share his life.
Here was an artist focused on his point of view. Joe insisted on total control of the sets, music, casting, he even held the right to rewrite, often on the fly. Joe just knew funny.
We talked for an hour and a half. (Well, he talked for an hour and a half. I demonstrated my remarkable interviewing genius by mostly shutting up.) So much to learn from this guy. Or just watch all of his spots. A master’s course in comedy.
Below are some quotes from our talk.
“Beautiful people? They’re the freaks.” – Joe Sedlemaier
Joe’s casting wasn’t casting. It was a parade of normal looking people who you pass in the street every day.
“You don’t want to show ugly people,” they say. And I say, ‘Ugly people? Have you ever looked in a mirror?!’” – Joe Sedelemaier
His cast looked like real people because most of them were. More than once, an older guy would come in for casting with a photo of his grand-daughter. Joe would say, “Never mind her. What about you?” Clara “Where’s the beef?” Peller was a manicurist. Joe was shooting a spot and told a producer to find someone who could do nails. They brought in Clara from a beauty shop across the street and when she opened her mouth and that voice erupted, a star was born.
What I loved is Joe’s insistence that comedy starts in reality. We’re all just doing our best, trying to eek out a shred of dignity in a world that’s conspiring against us.
“An actor would come to an audition and ask, “Do you want me play this for comedy, or straight? And I thought, you missed the whole thing. You play everything straight. All the great ones play it straight. Peter Sellers… I don’t care how absurd the situation, he always played it straight. Even farce, you play straight.” – Joe Sedelmaier
“Playing it straight” is another way of saying honest emotion. We’re just human beings trying to figure things out. We don’t do anything more than just solve the problem in front of us.
“We’re constantly reacting. Mostly, we’re just stunned. It’s not the big double-take. We don’t react for some guy in the back row of the theatre.” – Joe Sedelmaier
On Great Clients
“I’d rather deal with a guy who they call a son of a bitch than deal with a nice guy that is very insecure. If you’re insecure, I’m in big trouble. Because things happen. “Joe, you said you were going to do this.” “But look what this actor did here. This is better than what we thought.” With sons of bitches, we can have arguments but we’ll still arrive someplace.”
Joe was notorious for his directness. He insisted that decision-makers be present for the entire process. So many things would happen in the moment – the way an actor said a line, the happy accidents, a new face that begged for screen time. Yes or no was the answer he’d be looking for. And if it was a no, then they’d hash it out. Something tells me Joe always got is way. Lucky for us.
On Human Beings
“Most people are trying to make the best of a bad situation. If you slip on a banana peel, that’s not funny. What’s funny is pretending you didn't slip on a banana peel.”
You can see Keaton all over his work. Faced with the inexorable onslaught of cruel realities, human beings are simply doing their best. You can see it all over his work.
He told me how much he loved the filthy and comedically perverse movie, The Aristrocrats. It wasn’t the movie itself rather the shocked audience members. (Maybe they thought they were there to see Disney’s The Aristocats.) Clearly he couldn’t stop watching people.
“Where’s the beef?”
Did you know that “Where’s the beef?” was originally scripted as, “Where’s all the beef?” Joe told me that Clara Peller, the octogenarian manicurist who he made famous, struggled with emphysema, and couldn’t get the word “all” out. She ran out of breath. So Joe, thinking on his feet, just got rid of the “all.”
In fact, the original board for the spot featured a young couple wondering where the beef was. Joe thought this absurd. “If a young couple saw a giant bun and a miniscule patty. A young couple would say, “What the fuck is this?” But a couple of little old ladies would try to see things in the best possible light. (Like his aunts who visited his dump of a boarding house as a young man, “Isn’t this nice. Yes, so nice, Joe.”) So he changed the spec. And added Clara Peller.
“Comedy has a way of keeping things in proportion.” – Joe Sedelmaier
Comedy gives us a healthy sense of perspective. Life is tough but we persevere. Throughout his work, you can feel the weight of institutional expectations and rules. And comedy has the power to eviscerate the bullshit that surrounds us – poor service, arrogance, heartless institutions, cultural standards.
We are all just characters in Sedelmaier spots – walking around, doing our best and trying to keep our dignity.