Transcending the Quotidian by Means of Household Products: Pitchmen and their Place in Society

Image

“Stop having a boring tuna, stop having a boring life,” exhorts peddler of the Slap-Chop hand-operated food-dicer, former comedian and ex-con Vince “Offer” Shlomi, as he uses the device to aggressively and impeccably mince canned fish.  “Look, you’re going to have an exciting life now.”

It’s two a.m., and everyone else in your household is in bed, dreaming their electric dreams.  You’re still in front  of the tele, awake—if the state of t.v.-watching, a state physiologically indistinguishable from classic hypnosis—can really be called ‘conscious.’ You’ve been quite a trooper tonight, pounding out primetime switching between the three major networks, cruising right through the talk shows and Late Late shows, making it through the no-man’s land of stale sitcom reruns.  Now, you’re in that sodden, sorry position of being too tired to keep watching, yet too tired to trundle up the stairs to bed. Your options are rapidly dwindling, as all your favorite channels end their nightly programming, successively ceding their airwaves to the pitchmen.

But you’ve secretly been waiting for this point—the light at the end of the tunnel, a guilty pleasure beyond compare.  There’s a certain piece of American received knowledge, ingrained in us perhaps most strongly by the plot structure of our movies, with their gratuitous and ubiquitous deus ex machinas, that can be summed up by the oft-misapplied saying, ‘It’s always darkest before the dawn.’  As if a meteorological fact could have any bearing upon the chaotic, unscripted, and poorly directed human drama.  O, how anthropomorphized our view of reality is!  But I digress.

We’re not talking reality here, anyway; we’re talking Television!  And in Tvland, the cliches all come true; here, good things really do come to those who wait.  And Ford knows you’ve waited tonight, slogged through the hours of garbage, teetering on the edge of oblivion and despair.  But here they are, to the rescue!  Those transcenders of the quotidian, the Pitchmen.

The Pitchmen, purveyors of truth, justice, and the American Way, peddlers of the vast cornucopia of “As Seen on TV” goods, defenders of every patriot’s birthright, vindicators of every tinkerer’s dream that one day You Too can invent some silly contraption, hit the big one, and name your yacht after it.  These are the heroes of today, their medium, the infomercial, the very shape of modern gospel.  These are the men who can take a mundane everyday activity, like cleaning, cooking or exercising, and transmogrify it into a heroic act of creative self-affirmation. Don’t dice veggies, Slap-Chop them!  Don’t snuggle under a blanket, use a Snuggie!  Don’t tone your abs by doing crunches which require effort; use the Ab-Lounge, with its contradictory implication of fat-burning by reclining at leisure!  Don’t just wash your clothes, Oxy-Clean them with magical bubbles! Don’t unclog sink drains with some gunk from the store, demonstrate your virility and Turbo-Snake them!

The Pitchmen’s goods appeal to our desire for short-cuts and easy solutions.  Their pitches take the trappings of our ordinary lives, and place them in the realm of the stars, our modern gods—on the TV, under the lights, in front  of the camera, and thus worthy of our respect and admiration.  They show us a world where chores are cinematic events, and at the end offer us a course of action, a ticket to that world.  A way You Too can appropriate the trappings of this Glorious Lifestyle  and Exalt Your Self, most often for the scandalously low amount (a number scientifically chosen for its aesthetic appeal and acceptability) of $19.95, or a few payments of said amount, plus shipping and handling.

Take Vince Offer and his Slap-Chop pitch.  Cradling his product like a living thing, Vince says, “Look, it pops open like a butterfly for easy cleaning.”  Note his use of natural imagery.  He’s blurring the distinctions between the  domestic, culinary realm, and the forest, the green realm, where life is robust and abundant.  He’s speaking to the housewife’s yearning for the freedom of the outdoors.

Dicing onions, he says, “You’ll be slapping your troubles away with the Slap Chop.  Life’s hard enough, you don’t wanna cry anymore.”  He’s tapping into every viewer’s personal sadnesses, and channeling that deep emotional pain into the consumerist drive, that great unifier and leveler of all human passions.

“Guys, we’re gonna make America skinny again, one slap at a time.”  Vince is invoking nostalgia, the possibility of bringing back the good-ol’ flabless days of every viewer’s youth, and like a late-night Obama, offering the hope of Change, on a nationwide scale.  Patriotism, redemption- it’s all here, folks.  Step right up.

As Vince grinds cheese with the “If-You-Act-Now” bonus cheese grater, he improvises, “Fettucine, linguini, martini, bikini.”  Every lonely male, especially one with nothing better to do at four a.m. than watch infomercials, dreams of a romantic evening of gourmet food, of a tropical bar and scantily-clad women.  Vince, like a true beat poet, is bringing these fantasies to the surface with his free-association, free-verse rhymes, and (not like a true beat poet) marshaling them to the capitalist cause at hand.

As he sells the ShamWow reusable sponge-towel, Vince promises, “You’ll be saying ‘wow,’ every time you use this towel.”  ‘Wow’ is the closest thing we have to religious language.  It is what we say when we see a feat of superhuman ability, an act of unusual awkwardness or cruelty, or a deal that just can’t be beat.  And again, he rhymes it so that it sticks in your head, like a catchy radio tune.  If one rouses from one’s stupor, and does mutter to oneself, ‘Wow,” then the sale is cinched.  And how could one not?  It’s the ShamWow for Ford’s sake!

I was going to do another section on that paragon of pitching, Billy Mays, but concluded that his rhetoric, his swagger, and his sheer sense of style and self-confidence formed an impenetrable, steel chain-mail coat of masterful salesmanship that admitted of no prying idle curiosity.  Perhaps it is possible to dissect the phenomenon that is Billy Mays, but I, a mere mortal, surely am not worthy of such a task.  Suffice it to say that, with his bristly black beard and rolled up cuffs, Billy Mays was the walking, breathing symbol of Manhood and Chivalry, of all that our fallen civilization has lost.

Blue Skies, Real Estate, and the Game of Life: David Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross”

Glengarry Glen Ross closes with Al Jarreau singing a high-energy “Blue Skies,” jazz lightly pounded out on taps, frantic saxophone virtuoso flow in the background, lyrics charged with energy, relentlessly upbeat, “nothing but blue skies for me,” the man says, like the salesmen in the movie;  Yes, there’s something desperate in Al’s voice as he looks up—keep those drums going, pick the bass, let my scatting drown out all the doubts, the hesitations, everything but what I see in the sky, what I see for me, what’s mine, the blue sky, my friend, the field is open for me—I’m ready to close.

Every salesman must sing this song, every morning of every day—or else he will fail.  It’s just as crucial in getting him into gear as that first cup of coffee.  Over the course of the entire play, the characters climb all over each other: boasts, insults, threats, bargains, promises, compromises fly about the office like stones and arrows.  This banter fills up most of their day, because it must.  Thrillseekers call it ‘getting psyched up,’ and make no mistake, my friend, the sit is just as intense, the stakes are just as high there as with any bungee jump, motorcycle flip, or alligator wrestle.  It’s all mentality; about believing, “I’m the best, I can do this, everyone else is nothing before my sales numbers, the length of my tusks, my brightly colored feathers and my brand new Cadillac El Dorado.

In nature, mammalian society is such that, in the words of the Highlander, “there can be only one.”  One alpha male to direct the hunt, initiate the kill, and impregnante all the females.  But, that structure has been done away with in the modern world.  Now, we all can do great things, wield power, hold rights and indulge privileges, and influence events while peacefully co-existing.  But the primitive mentality still clings on and refuses to let go of us all, like some vestigial pitbull with its teeth in our ancestral forearm.  So, people organize themselves into hierarchies.  Corporate ladders.  Income classes.  Vertical spectrums of brands and labels with mutually-agreed-upon varying levels of perceived quality.  Physical ostentation, and the worship of symbols.

So, if the salesman wants to sell, he will buy that Rolex, that pinky ring, and that Armani suit. Because when he does, the mutual delusion will kick in, to his benefit—the clients will perceive him to be the most financially successful (and therefore wisest— curiously always linked qualities in the minds of Americans) one in the office, and all contracts will gravitate toward him.  Perception creates reality.  So much for the famous ‘sales office arms race,’ upon which so many fortunes have been built.  So many houses founded on sand; so many high-rise condos built on Florida swampland.

The illusion is of utmost importance here: in order to succeed, at sales or anything else, one must embrace and channel the vestigial pitbull of hierarchization, and believe oneself to be either the Alpha Male, the Alpha Female, the best, or at least the heir-apparent to that noble and age-old imaginary position.  Hence the salesmen’s strutting.

But, those skies aren’t always blue, are they? And when they’re blue, they’re not blue for us—not for Shelley “the Machine” Levine (Jack Lemmon), when he closes the Nyborg deal, not for office manager Williamson (Kevin Spacey) when he catches the thief of the Glengarry leads, not for Alec Baldwin’s unnamed character, that immortal cinematic badass and footsoldier of Mitch and Murry who utters our gospel, “Always Be Closing.”

Blue is just a word for a color, a name given to a certain mammalian visual perception of the state of chemicals in the upper atmosphere of a certain hunk of rock orbiting a certain ball of hydrogen.  The sky, whether blue or grey in the eyes of any one person, is a cosmic Honey Badger: it doesn’t care.  ‘Blue’ means nothing to the sky, just as the Sun’s ego is not boosted by meditating upon its own brightness and life-giving power.

Our value-judgements of things in the world, of the conditions of our lives, our fortunes and failures, even of ourselves, mean nothing to the world.  The world is neutral.  A sales contract is a piece of paper made of chopped up trees.  A bank account is a series of electric pulses in a silicon box somewhere.  A Rolex is a hunk of metal.  A Toll Brothers McMansion is a flimsy construct of clapboard and insulation held together by the pixie dust of a debtor’s big dreams.  Every hierarchy is a mutual delusion—but, it seems, a necessary one, at least for motivating the pursuit and accomplishment of most human goals.

As Al Pacino’s character Ricky Roma says to his client as he slides the nervous and excited man a brochure on Florida real estate:

“Stocks, bonds, objects of art, real estate.  Now: what are they? An opportunity.  To what?  To make money?  Perhaps.  To lose money? Perhaps.  To “indulge” and to “learn” about ourselves?  Perhaps. So fucking what?  What isn’t? They’re an opportunity.  That’s all. They’re an event.  A guy comes up to you, you make a call, you send in a brochure, it doesn’t matter, “There’re these properties I’d like for you to see.” What does it mean? What you want it to mean.”

What ‘it’ means for salesmen of all kinds, from CEOs to heads of state to telemarketers, what everything in this neutral, honey-badger world can be reduced to, are ‘sells’ and ‘walks.’ You sell them on this beautiful new house, on this glamorous way of life, on this glorious war, you win.  Client walks, you lose.  Wins and losses.  Things I own and things I don’t own.

But that’s just a tally in the sand.  That’s just one way to configure your world.  Why isn’t life, as Gordon Gecko insists (and tries to sell us all), a zero-sum game?  Because if life’s a game, it’s just one game of many possible ones, and as with all games, its rules are arbitrary.  If everything we know, how we live, what we believe, what binds us—is part of a giant game, then that game can be walked away from.  The board can be flipped, and the pieces scattered.  Real Estate, like so many of our activities, is Monopoly for adults.  What our founders gravely termed the “Pursuit of happiness” (O, protestant work ethic!) is a children’s diversion adapted for people who have lost their sense of humor.

So, must we play Mitch and Murray’s game? perhaps, perhaps not.  Can we create another game?  Perhaps.  But we must play some game; that much is for sure.  And that’s what Mamet’s characters, as they thrust and parry, doge and weave, deceive and believe, sell and buy, accept and refuse each other’s propositions and declarations, entrap and struggle out of each other’s binding agreements, that is what they all must implicitly conclude.  The desirability and indeed, necessity of play.  And on a rainy night, any game’ll do.