Posted on Tuesday, February 17th, 2009 by Hunter Stephenson
“What is comedy? Comedy is the art of making people laugh without making them puke.” – Steve Martin
“It is a sad fact of life, but the truth is we all have to eat a little shit from time to time.” – Bruce Willis, in the trailer for Fast Food Nation
Last Thursday night, in keeping with new tradition, viewers of NBC‘s 30 Rock took to Twitter to declare “St. Valentine’s Day” one of the best episodes ever. And it was. Judah Friedlander sported a Troma t-shirt. Tracey Morgan intentionally endangered a hot blind woman. Tiny Fey‘s mouth calculations sent 20something fan-gals off in secret to the nearest mirror. The superlative usual. It was the show’s embrace of cupid’s torturous holiday that added next levs hilarity and desperation to the ongoing romantic subplots between Fey’s Liz Lemon and her “cartoon-pilot” neighbor (Jon Hamm), and Alec Baldwin‘s Jack Donaghy and his Catholic caliente pursuit (Salma Hayek). At times, the marquee-value, the smart-date-friendly structure, and the plentiful LoLs warranted a bigger screen. It felt like you should be paying for what you were seeing.
Alas, the morning after was quite different. Online, some fans were now expressing remorse over the very same episode; some were angry as hell: Network pissed. Kurt Vonnegut once said that music criticism is like putting on a suit of armor to attack a hot fudge sundae; well, to me it seemed that an indeterminable number of 30 Rock fans were now sitting in cubicles or in pajama armor and going to war with 30 Rock‘s manipulative use of a dessert from McDonald’s called the McFlurry. Indeed, last Thursday’s episode began and ended on a love note with Baldwin and Hayek savoring this highly feted plebeian ice cream treat; moreover, the episode ended inside a McD’s, where the couple reunited arm-in-arm with McFlurrys. A window display of the Golden Arches was in full view.
New York‘s Vulture blog was quickly and admirably critical, coining the episode and controversy “McFlurrygate.” In their estimation, the show (and NBC) had crossed the ever-blurring schizo-ish line for integrated product placement and advertising-as-content. Somewhere in hell, the late comedian, soul warrior and great TV-naysayer, Bill Hicks, smoked three cigarettes and sighed eternally.
On Friday afternoon, Fey actually contacted Vulture to express that, “Seriously, though, [the McFlurry stuff was] not product placement”; and, in a bit of self-deprecation that didn’t make any damn sense/fun given 30 Rock‘s previous ad-spots for AmEx (which utilized cast members and aired right before typical commercials) and prior winking product placements, Fey sarcastically referred to her team as “revenue-generating masterminds.” In another mini-defense, she expressed worries over possible litigation for the product usage, even though McDonald’s ran an ad during the original airing. Is Tina Plainview in my Internet011010?
When it comes to advertising and products appearing in TV content, to the point where story-lines may come to be pwned by purchasable, highly visible MacGuffins, where do you draw the line as a viewer? And more importantly, is there a way and place to openly draw it, now that so much of the advertising buttressing content has been filtered out, forwarded past, or ignored by viewers who rarely if ever pay for it? It’s as if advertising is an aggressive creature gasping for a place to thrive and, as a last resort, it jumps into your favorite show’s mouth and down its throat. Remember when it first jumped into your video games? So, do you perform the “Internet Heimlich” on your show in hopes that it will cough up that nastiness (good luck there, Michael Scott), simply abandon it, or curiously watch to see how the body-snatching progresses? Before you leave for a contemplative walkabout, I recommend reading this New York article on the topic by Emily Nussbaum entitled, “What Would Tina Fey Do For a SoyJoy.” No walking is needed—yes!—the answer is already C.
According to Nussbaum’s piece, many in the TV industry feel that 30 Rock shimmies heply with this modern creature in its system above all other shows. But does this accolade make the “McFlurrygate” episode a weird placebo psych-out on the audience? One of the show’s stars, Jane Krakowski, doesn’t even know what to make of it.
As you may have realized, writing (and reading) about the simmering subject of ad-integration in TV shows is a bit maddening. For the sake of brevity and for readers who don’t watch 30 Rock, the blogger, journalist, et al has to make the decision to mention the brands, the products, link to them and so forth. And, of course, discuss the naughty shows in question. Any outrage on either end becomes complicit in spreading the word and promoting the brand, and if you dive too passionately into the subject, you have a rejected and soggy editorial submission for Ad Busters or the defunct Punk Planet magazine. If only David Foster Wallace had a lesser twin to pen “Ohhh, Consider the Viewer.”
And then there was “Pepsuber.” What hasn’t been touched upon by many articles addressing ad-integration is how not funny it is. It’s one thing to watch Don Draper (Jon Hamm) pitch a new ad strategy to Heineken suits on Mad Men, it’s another to grimace while a comedian you like is trapped in a sketch-y ad that’s shilling soda with a post-ironic twinkle-’plosion. On January 31st, NBC’s Saturday Night Live said hello to “the future” by airing three quasi-”MacGruber” sketches—an exhausted two-year-old parody of a 25-year-old TV show—that were actually, obviously, logo-heavy ads for Pepsi. Like 30 Rock‘s ads for AmEx, the “Pepsuber” ads ran right before regular commercials, baiting the TV audience into watching, questioning and then inquiring, if applicable, what they had just seen. Repeat. Repeat.
SNL cast member Will Forte appeared in the ads as MacGruber, as did SNL’s Kristen Wiig, and in one instance, MacGyver himself, Richard Dean Anderson. One of the ads would later air during the Superbowl, leading NBC co-chairman, Ben Silverman, to declare that “Pepsuber” also worked as an ad for SNL. Bow down to The Kid.
But there are side-effects to “Pepsuber” that I wish I could shake. Unlike 30 Rock, SNL is a famous American comedy institution born out of a subversive era, where chaotic minds like head writer Michael O’Donoghue roamed hazy halls and wore integrity like a stolen merit badge. I’m not going to perform the upteenth SNL golden days seance using a copy of Live From New York, but there is something supremely fucked to me about outsourcing an SNL skit (taped or not), current performers, and whatever iota of subversion and irreverence is expressed by “MacGruber” to sell us stuff. Not only that, we are simultaneously being sold by Lorne Michaels and NBC on the idea that this is okay. Watching “Pepsuber” a few weeks ago, this was my thought process…
This is not an ad, but guess what, it is an ad and I should have known it’s an ad and this is where TV is headed and be glad that Forte is getting paid because he’s pretty funny right, and see the ad is actually parodying the accelerated abrasiveness of other ads so if you laugh, that’s good, and who doesn’t drink Pepsi besides diabetics and what’s the big deal anyhow, it’s not like SNL is sacred ground and free from the compromises raised by a dwindling economy, and as the cliche goes, the show hasn’t been consistently amazing in who knows how long. And it’s easy to talk smack just like the horrendous (-ly accurate?) celebrity blogger on “Weekend Update.” Besides, Bob Dylan did an ad with that twerp from the Black Eyed Peas and William Burroughs shilled for Nike. Re: We should learn to play the game or Tina Fey might just have us killed.
But when I see Forte on TV now—most recently on [adult swim] in a faux-informerical that was soliciting human bones but “no squirrel bones”—there are a few seconds where I have to voluntarily cease scanning memories and reactions to his “Pepsuber” pitchman persona. A variation of the above paragraph registers in my brain and I quickly attempt to drop it into the recycling bin so that I can laugh or smirk if need be. In this instance, Forte was appearing in a mock-ad, which makes this process even more difficult, but thankfully the overall weirdness, funniness and creepiness of Forte uttering “no squirrel bones” with his eyes fluttering eclipsed my dissonance.
I probably need to mention that [adult swim]—which I believe is a revolutionary network block, a separate article—has dabbled in ads that are similar to “Pepsuber.” Last year, while watching the [adult swim] show Assy McGee, the titular (assular?) main character appeared in a used car lot wearing a cowboy hat to hawk Scion automobiles. Assy is an illustrated “walking tough-talking exposed lower torso” and within the insane, stoney biodome of [adult swim] this mutant ad admittedly didn’t feel as taboo. Which leads me to wonder what my reception would have been if SNL‘s old Ambiguously Gay Duo had appeared after a sketch instead of Forte to obnoxiously/questionably sell a soft drink.
What is alarming is that I haven’t seen the “Pepsuber” ads—which were fellated by marketing types—since the Superbowl and yet the Forte/Pepsuber conflict is ongoing. The jarring transfer from the live format of SNL—where TV advertising has been skewered for years—to a pre-taped mutant ad was similar to seeing a UFO and realizing that A) it was planned by those “around” you and B) it was the first in what may be many consumerist experiments. I may be in the minority here, sure, but I also view the casts of SNL as a generational mirror. What does it say about our culture when the 20somethings and 30somethings who are appointed to continue the legacy of pummeling our culture from the inside out for the love of comedy begin to boldly partake in what is wrong with it? And, no, I do not mean going on to produce Paul Blart: Mall Cop and its inevitable sequels. In this case, I wish I did.
Hunter Stephenson can be reached at gmail: h.attila and on Twitter.