Yes, though I looked nothing like Jon Hamm, in 1961 I was offered a job at a big agency, Batten, Barton, Durstine and Osborne, known as BBD&O. 385 Madison Ave. My friend Linda was a copywriter there and she touted me to her boss, copy chief Stoo Hample. I’d just had a flurry of media recognition for my comedy song, MR. CLEAN, which was the hit of a Julius Monk revue, Pieces of Eight. The song was a torch ballad to this icon of the detergent world -and this provided enough impetus for Stoo to ask me to come in and offer me a job as a copywriter.
I was 22, and he pressured me gently and convincingly in a style that was halfway between buddy-buddy locker-room slap-on-the-ass and all around literate good-guy. I thi-ii-iink maybe there was just a bit of a gay sub-text there, but he never made any move, simply implied we’d have great fun in the wild and wacky world of the ad biz. They’d just lost the services of Stan Freberg, the delicious humorist who’d tickled the industry with comedy plugs for products like Chun King Chow Mein -and I think Stoo was hoping I’d turn into a kind of junior replacement for Stan. Accordingly, the first account I was given to work on was Chun King Chow Mein. Did you ever have it? It was an assortment of Asian veggies that had been canned in a brown sauce. It was the kind of ersatz food you’d get in a formica-top Chinese eatery on the outskirts of Indianapolis. Perfectly acceptable, if your standards weren’t too high. So I came up with a concept: in an elegant Chinese restaurant -the equivalent of say, the Shun Lee Dynasty, a distinguished gentleman -a monocle in his eye and sporting an ascot- is presented with a dazzling array of Chinese specialties: chopped squab in a lettuce leaf, tender chicken in black bean sauce, a whole, crispy fish. The food looks so good, sittig in its porcelain dishes, steam wafting up to the ceiling. The gentleman avails himself of a tiny taste from each dish. Then he scowls and shakes his head disapprovingly. “Sorry,” he says. “It just won’t do. Bring me the Chun King.” Dissolve: a moment later the waiter sets a can of Chun King Chow Mein on the table. The gentleman smiles, reaches into his breast pocket…and produces a can opener. Well, I thought this was just as funny (maybe funnier) than Stan Freberg, and I brought the copy to the art department, and one of the artists did a story board on it. I ran back, all excited, and showed it to Stoo. Stoo brought in one of the senior writers, guy named Ed Hiestand, and together they showed me why this idea -my maiden effort- was unacceptable. It didn’t play to the demographic. It implied that Chun king was only for aristocrats. It demeaned the product visually (you didn’t see the food, you only saw the can). And etc. Well, maybe if there’d been a Christina Hendricks in the office, I might have stuck around, but after three or four more attempts, I became not only impatient, but contemptuous of the whole advertising mentality. Everyone lived in terror, it seemed, of the boss -i.e. the sponsor. Disapproval from the sponsor meant your head could roll. I saw men thirty years older than I, humbly licking ass…and it scared me. Is this how I wanted to wind up? Each of these men was writing The Great American Novel. And someday, they knew, they’d be able to chuck this shit-eating, depressing job for the Big Time. Yuccchh. Hey, I said to myself, you can play piano and sing and work in bars -isn’t that better than this? At least you can be your own boss (little did I know, but that’s for another post). I confronted Stoo.
He didn’t want to lose me. “Ah, sure, I know how you feel, but give it a little time -you’ve only been here three months. Hey, come on, we’ll go to MOMA, have lunch in the cafeteria.” He took me over to the museum and not only did we have lunch, afterwards we walked around the sculpture garden, admiring the Henri Moores. “Don’t we have to get back?” I wondered. “Ah, the hell with ’em,” Stoo serenaded me duplicitously. This is what it could be like, he told me, copywriters at BBD&O are privileged souls, they can take off whenever, go to museums, galleries, enrich their base of knowledge, gather fresh inspiration for the job. The sweet sound of freedom it was, Stoo merely playing out the leash, giving it some slack, allowing the neophyte this vision of the grand, expansive, copywriter life. When I glance back at it now, I’m touched by Stoo’s efforts to keep me in the fold -he wanted someone to hang out with…and he really thought I could be groomed. But a month later I handed in my resignation…and called an agent who booked piano work.