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Saturday Night Sell

For 15 years, Saturday Night Live has been giving it right back to advertisers with its commercial parodies. And nothing is sacred.

from SHOOT, September 14, 1990


THE SCREEN IS black. Suddenly, these words appear: "When you do only one thing, you do it better." The words fade out and a young, well-dressed woman is seen talking against a dark background: "I needed to take a bus, but all I had was a five-dollar bill. I went to First Citiwide and they were able to give me four singles and four quarters." Another fade out, another title: "At First Citiwide, we just make change." Then fade up on an earnest, young executive, who, a title informs us, is Paul McElroy, Service Representative: "At First Citiwide, we'll work with the customer to give that customer the change that he or she needs. If you come to us with a 20-dollar bill, we can give you-two lOs, four fives. We can give you a 10 and two fives. We'll work with you. "

It is a spot for First Citiwide, a mythical bank that's as pretentious as any real one, but which could actually only exist in the world of NBC's Saturday Night Live. "Parody is in some ways the easiest kind of comedy to do," admits Matthew Meshekoff, a director with Image Point Productions in Los Angeles, who has directed about 30 spoof spots for SNL. And no one does it better than SNL.

Saturday Night Live has been honing its attack skills for 15 years. Where else, for instance, would you find the pointed (both literally and figuratively) parody of "CharPalace," whose grisly owner promises viewers, "your own cow. You stun it, you cut it, you charbroil it. You make it as thick as you want. Only at Mel's Char-Palace. " Or the seductively shot spot for "Hey You," the perfume "forthat special someone you never expect to see again. The perfume for onenight stands."

It's an art that begins, of course, with the original commercial and then gets twisted through the imagination of the creative team. At the start of each season, the writers will brainstorm with each other, the directors and the producers, batting around topics to spoof or commercial styles to lampoon. "We would do it at the beginning of the year, which was good because all the writers were fresh,' recalls Mary Salter, formerly the head of SNL's film unit and currently executive producer at the HA! comedy channel. "The head writer and I, or [executive producer jLorne [Michaels] or [producer] Jim 'Downey would pick out the ones with the most potential. "

Change Bank

The criteria for that choice is simple: how well-known a parodied commercial is, how much it would cost, would it get by NBC's standards and practices department and is it funny? Meshekoff recalls cost as one element that attracted him to the First Citiwide "Changeback" spot: "Jim Downey had the concept for the piece and I sat down with him. We were trying to do something about the pretentious, serious spots that were the vogue in advertising. I love to do real performance pieces and 'Changeback' is about great dialogue, great performances. It's a dead-on piece. And it was cheap to shoot. It's just talking heads against a black background. We shot it [in 16-millimeter] on Tuesday and it was ready by Saturday."

'Some spots are proposed but are unexecutable," admits Salter. "A boatsinks under water. Woe have no time for model-making or animation. " Producing one :60 piece could run anywhere from $17,.000 to $70,000. "Those high-end ones were frowned upon," notes Salter. "They were grotesquely expensive."

Not frowned upon, however, were risque topics, such as Leslie Nielsen hawking the "Geritech Line Of Products," including Blotch Off (liver spot remover), Bun-King (hemorrhoidal cream), Solidex (for diarrhea) and Drip Master (for loss of bladder control). "Now imagine doing a scene with some lovely young actress and soiling both your costume and hers," says the actor in the spot. "Now that can be embarrassing. That's why I wear Drip Master, the undergarment from Geritech that takes the worry out of walking around, In fact, I'm relieving myself right now.”

"We never really had problems with the censors because both Lome and [former executive producer] Dick [Ebersol] were very skillful with standards and practices issues. It's' all about information. They would communicate what was going on and it was so obviously a joke. I think it's the rule of fair parody." Agrees Meshekoff: "In the whole time I did commercials for the show, only one was rejected, regarding masturbation. Standards and Practices felt that the masturbation was gratuitous, which is funny coming from Standards and Practices."

Once the cost, time, and censorship ~rdles have been leaped, the execution takes place. In a season of 17 shows, roughly 13 spots will be produced, usually in-house by NBC director Jim Signorelli. In past years, however, some of the parodies were farmed out to commercial houses. Chuck Pfeifer, executive producer at pfeifer/lopes productions in New York, worked with Salter and director Mark Story, now of Mark Story Films, a satellite of Crossroads Films in New York, to create a spot about men hunting women in fur coats. "You would do it for the love of it, not the money," says Pfeifer. "You would just cover your production costs.' Of course we shot in 35, and we always got interesting stuff for our reel."


The actual production doesn't differ much from teal ad work. "It's exactly the same, " claims Victoria Jackson, one of the show's current cast members. "I did a lot of commercials before I did the show and it's the same except there are rats at my feet, rmean, it was this spot about a powder that would make rats fall asleep. So it was just the same as a real one: you had the set, the wardrobe, lunch hour, the script, and you had to look smiley and happy, except there were these rats at my feet."

Aping the Look

Yet Meshekoff notes that there are some differences, Since the commercials are for one- or possibly two-time use, they don't need to be as polished. "You never go over two or three takes. Real clients demand a level of production that we didn’t need on the show. If 1 did a real commercial,and said I was only doing three takes, they’d say, ‘No, do 73.'

Because the look of  parody is based on an existing spot, the SNL team can essentially skip the design stage, simply aping the look of the original. There’s also less concern with making the physical product look good on the screen: there’s no need to spend hours lighting a box  of corn flakes to get it just right. But there are still the kind of delays you would find in any real d. Jackson recalls appearing in a piece for “Handioff,” a hand cream that removes unwanted fingers.

First, the props department had to make casts of her hands with seven fingers each. Then when the cream came out of the tube, smoke was supposed to appear and take the extra fingers off.  "We spent 12 to Jackson's hand, but it took hours before the team got it right. "It was like a real commercial because you had to keep up the enthusiasm on camera over and over again," she observes. "You didn't know which take they were going to use."

Once completed, the commercials] . are stockpiled for the season. If the live show is running long, the first thing to get axed is the scheduled spot. If it needs an extra minute, it's.., there. And if the show is weak, there's a funny backup to perk things up. Rarely are pieces shot and not shown. Meshekoff says two of his were killed after completion because the performances were soft and the execution not what Michaels wanted. And although the topical items date quickly, some actually are re-usable, like "Beauty-Bath," a bubble bath commercial in which Philippines president Cory Aquino escapes a rebel attack in order to. take a bath. Shown once when II Aquino faced rebels at home, it resurfaced months later when another rebel attack occurred.


If imitation is the sincerest form' of flattery, most ad agencies are not' insulted by SNL's attentions, but actually take a leaf from the show's book: an Independent Life spot about a South American- dictator was indirectly influenced by "Beauty Bath," and, many agencies have hired directors, writers, and even cast members from the show to participate in real commercials. "In those, you have to sell the product but the comedy is there," remarks Meshekoff, who went on to direct pieces for Slice, Raisin Nut Bran and Isuzu. "There's no better training for comedy than Saturday Night Live. You have that constant, dayto-day exposure to the actors, the writers. You get a sense of comic timing and reading you couldn't get anywhere else. And once a week you see your stuff- play before a [studio] audience of 300 people. You can look on their races and ,see how it's working. That was my 'film school.' "

Then there's the best joke of all: the SNL spot that won a Gold Lion at Cannes. "It was nine years ago," chuckles Chuck Pfeifer. "We did that fur spot with beautiful women in fur coats being shot" clubbed, beaten, and taken away on mules. 'The' point being that that was what .was being.done to animals. Well, it got a.Iot . of· attention and a lot of controversy and this French, guy I know said, 'Chuck, you should show it at Cannes.' I said, 'But it's not a real commercial. It doesn't advertise anything.' And he said, 'So?' And the thing actually got through. The judges were askance, but it won the award. And there was absolutely no product involved.”