The Hungover Gourmet

 

As Seen on TV!

How often have you dozed off during late-night tv, only to wake to some hideous site? No, I’m not talking about a Barbara Streisand/Ryan O’Neal flick on the “StuporStation.” It’s something far more hideous, insidious and deadly. I’m speaking, of course, about the nefarious world of infomercials, those half-hour commercials thinly disguised as talk shows, workout programs and, well, a half-hour of commercials.

I don’t know about you, but waking to the likes of Don LaPre (the “tiny” pitchman of Making Money Strategies), George Foreman (former heavyweight champ and colossal huckster of the George Foreman’s Lean Mean Fat-Reducing Grilling Machine) or Ron Popeil (vampiric king of Ronco, Inc.) makes me a little uneasy before I hit the sack. Inevitably, I end up tossing and turning, with thoughts of Miracle Car Wax, Pasta Machines, and Great American Steakhouse Onion Makers dancing in my head.

IT SLICES! IT DICES! IT EVEN JULIENNE’S!

You probably haven’t given much thought to the rich history of the infomercial. You probably don’t know how or why they started. In fact, you might even be living under the misconception that they’ve been on your tv since the very beginning — a belief so wrong it’s almost right!

While the infomercial as we know it — incredibly odd staple of late-nights and Saturday afternoons — wasn’t a common practice until the mid-1980s, the basic concept was put in place 20 years earlier, thanks to the groundbreaking work of Ron Popeil. When they make the Informercial Hall of Fame, Popeil will undoubtedly be among the first inductees. To put it lightly, he’s to infomercials what the Stooges and Dictators were to 70s punk — it might not’ve been the same, but he was doing it long before they were. And better.

In 1964, Popeil was part of a family business that hawked time-saving gadgets like their breakthrough item, The Veg-O-Matic Food Slicer. Like all good infomercial items, The Veg-O-Matic had an easily-memorized name, and purported to save the user from all manner of drudgery around the home, mainly the kitchen. What the VOM didn’t have was the marketing force behind it to buy 60- or even 30-second commercials. Instead, Popeil hit upon a formula still used by fly-by-night marketers to this day: a 15-second spot was created featuring such tried and true infomercial elements as: Stupid People (who would use a knife to do all this chopping?!), Lofty Promises (“It slices! It Dices!”), and the Promise of Even More (“It even Juliennes!!”). And, at a production cost of a mere $550, that legendary commercial moved 9 million VOMs (half of which ended up at thrift stores, garage sales and flea markets), turned Ronco into a household name and created the groundwork for the future.

HEY GOOD LOOKIN’!

In the years after Ronco’s runaway success with the Veg-O-Matic, the company’s sales approach was often imitated — such as Ginsu’s classic, “In Japan, the hand can be used like a knife” — even by Popeil and Co. Who can forget such indispensible Ronco products like the Miracle Broom, Seal-A-Meal (my Mom got one which sits, unopened, in a walk-in closet), Pocket Fisherman, countless disco/Top 40 collections and the beloved Mr. Microphone, an item which remains knocked-off, mocked and parodied to this day. [Ed. Note: I was recently at an FAO Schwartz in San Fran where they were selling a Christina Aguilera version!]

The explosion of cable in the mid-1980s triggered the birth of the infomercial in the form we’re familiar with. A 1984 ruling granted local tv stations carte blanche regarding how much commercial airtime they could sell. With dead air hogging the block from about 2 to 6 am, stations started offering ridiculously cheap ad rates to companys that would purchase in bulk.

With half an hour to sell their product, companys like Ronco and K-Tel had to come up with new ways to catch and keep the consumer’s attention. An attention span that was shortening in a geometric ration to the number of stations added to their cable system. Surely, though, Mr. and Mrs. Consumer wouldn’t sit on their fat asses and watch the same one- or two-minute commercial over and over again. Would they? (Unless it’s the Just Kidding infomercial, that is.)

For arguments sake, let’s suggest that the average consumer isn’t dopey enough to watch the same commercial played in an endless loop at 3 am. We’ll give ‘em the benefit of the doubt and hope they need to be courted and seduced, just like they would be with a network television show.

And the infomercial came of age...

THERE’S GOT TO BE A BETTER WAY!

If you’re sitting there thinking that infomercials are just a slapdash hodgepodge of C-list, sometimes D-list, celebrities and tiny pitchmen hawking highly-suspect cooking devices, money-making schemes and workout programs, you wouldn’t be that unlike me — a few years ago, that is. That’s the misconception I labored under as I found myself getting sucked into the Infomercial Zone, that previously-unwatchable chunk of airtime when most people are snoozing comfortably in their beds. Unfortunately, with a serious addiction to caffeinated beverages and bars that closed just as this timeslot was kicking into high gear, I was a prime candidate for these devious marketers.

It wasn’t long before I found myself unable to escape the grasp of Ricardo Montalban as he got teary-eyed while discussing the unlimited potential of the Grillerie. Or, how about the mammarian marathon that was The Landers Sisters and The Great American Beer Machine? It wasn’t long before an afternoon with Mrs. Ernest Borgnine was lookin’ like a pretty good way to spend a Saturday, and I don’t even buy toning cream!

What I’ve come to learn from years and years of viewing — plus the input of other addicts like myself — is that there’s a sweet, sick science to the tried and true infomercial. Like a good pulp novel or kung-fu flick, the best of the lot follow a strict set of guidelines that allow very little room for improvisation or spontaneity. In order to better appreciate what you view through a sleep-deprived haze this Saturday, here’s a quick guide of the Infomercial Universe...

DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME!

Infomercial Categories: When you scan your remote through your favorite channels at 2 am on a Saturday night, chances are you’re going to stumble upon an infomercial (IM) that falls into one of three main categories: Cooking, Exercise and Self-Improvement.

However, please remember that, like any good rule of mathematics or cooking time, there are IMs that don’t play by the rules. For example, the legendary Just Kidding! IM is nothing but a solid half-hour of commercials for a series of seemingly unfunny videotapes capturing the “world’s greatest practical jokes” from around the world. If you’ve never outgrown the hilarity that comes from dangling a rubber spider over someone’s head or the endless laughs that ensue from a grown man snoozing in a meat freezer, then you’re just the brain-dead consumer these sick (presumably French) bastards are hunting.

Other infomercials that seem to fall outside the net thrown by our knee-jerk categorizations include: the Aero Bed (a portable, self-inflating mattress whose space-age properties are illustrated by having two Sumo wrestlers do their thing in a suburban living room!); that thing you use to suck all the air from your storage bags; and the Equalizer Pro — a contraption that shouldn’t be confused with handheld vibrators or massagers! Personally, I was just impressed at the number of times they could get away with saying “vibrator” in a half-hour — I haven’t seen that kind of overt sexuality in an IM since one of the Landers sisters talked about how “careful” she was about what she put in her body. Then she trotted out her husband and I wasn’t so sure!

Your Cooking IMs include everything from Ron Popeil’s seemingly endless parade of household contraptions up through the more unique devices like The Great American Beer Machine (though it seems to have been supplanted by Mr. Beer). The items usually do the job of accessories or gadgets you already have (can anyone convince me the Culinare Rocket Chef isn’t just a hand-operated food processor with a spout?), or sometimes entire rooms — like the ubiquitous Red Devil, a current fave.

Exercise IMs often cross over into the Self-Improvement category, since the machines and programs being hawked are all about improving your own self-image. Great, I’m all about droppin’ a couple pounds (lord knows I could stand to), but I’m thoroughly insulted by the suggestion that Billy Blanks’ Tae-Bo (“tae” from the Korean word for “foot” and “bo” for “boxing”!?) made Carmen Electra what she is today...a sleazy gold-digger that got Dennis Rodman so drunk he was willing to marry someone that’d fucked both Prince and that scary guy from Cypress Hill. No, I’m guessing that Carmen Electra showed up at her first Tae-Bo class with a great rack, killer abs, and a booty that’d make a gazillionaire go insane!

Now, I love to cook, so Cooking IMs are always a delight. On the other hand, nothing is more delightful after an evening of pigs in a blanket and Guinness pints than the wacky pseudo-science shoveled out by these charlatans. But, when push comes to shove and I have to decide between The Red Devil and Don LaPre’s Money Making Strategies, it’s just no contest. I’ll take the sleazy, unctuous charm of a Self-Improvement IM over an insulting, though no less brilliant, Cooking IM any day!

I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve currently become fascinated with the snake-oil-salesmanesque “charm” of Russ Whitney, the sleaziest-looking pitchman this side of those two brothers that are on the cough drops package. Don’t they look like they’ve got some nubile co-ed chained up in their backwoods home? And while I’m certainly not suggesting Whitney is a serial killer or guilty of any crimes against his fellow man, would you attend a seminar given by a guy who dresses like he’s on his way to a junior college kegger?

Sure, Don LaPre may be short, sleazy and wear those hemmed denim “shorts” from the Juniors dept. at Sears, but at least he has — so far — resisted growing horribly bad facial hair to compliment his ever-growing assortment of double-speak, shifty movements, and utter ability to speak about a product for a solid half-hour without ever actually telling you ANYTHING!

Infomercial Settings: One would think that with such an endless array of products, IM producers would liven up the surroundings a tad, but that’s certainly not the case. And — like celebrity deaths, IM categories and female porn stars — their settings come in threes.

A longtime favorite of the Cooking IM is the “at home” or “in the kitchen” setting. Put to good use in The George Foreman Fat Grilling Machine, it lets the audience feel like a gigantic former heavyweight boxer is right in their home! But remember, this is the kinder, gentler George, not the angry Black Panther George who wouldn’t think twice about punching Russ Whitney’s lights out.

With talk/news shows dominating the morning, afternoon, primetime and late-night lineups, IMs haven’t neglected taking notice! Tons follow this format, some exclusively and some by employing a tried & true piece of the format — the cooking demonstration. While Ron Popeil prefers the latter for both the Popeil Automatic Pasta Maker and Showtime Rotisserie & BBQ, Dalton McCrary’s Straight Shootin’ Golf — hosted by Kevin Trudeau — is like one of Tom Snyder’s early-morning chats, complete with tedious stories and self-congratulatory chuckles.

As someone who knows, be aware of any talk-show IM —especially those selling Self-Improvement products — that takes place in a sunny, tropical climate complete with a sundress-clad co-hostess (I’m talkin’ to YOU Cindy Margolis!) and sets that were left over from a Jimmy Buffet tour! Sure, it looks exciting. Sure, it looks better than where you are. Then again, I’m betting — as are the producers — that you’re watching Don LaPre and Cindy have their tiny chat from the comfort of a beer-soaked couch stained with the memories of too many Heines, Domino’s pizzas, and those trashy twins that share the apartment down the hall. OF COURSE IT LOOKS BETTER!

Finally, who can forget the “on the scene” IM, usually done in a desperate attempt to lend credibility to an otherwise outrageous product or claim. You’ll see lots and lots of Exercise IMs given the “on the scene” treatment — how could they lie about the benefits of a four-minute workout when they’re surrounded by these incredibly toned, in-shape and seemingly non-pathetic people. It’s not like just anyone would watch a pregnant Christie Brinkley work out in a smelly boxing ring with the Total Gym. That would be, like, weird.

Infomercial Hosts: Our last stop on the road to a more informed infomercial viewer is a look at the types of hosts you can expect to encounter. Unfortunately, Infomercial “Parasites” would probably be a better term, since “host” suggests a benign presence like Pat Sajak or Monty Hall, not a wallet-scanning scam-artist like the aforementioned Messrs. Whitney and LaPre!

Celebrities — though I doubt I’ll ever see John Cusack hawk a hand-cranked food processor — have always been an infomercial standard, and who can blame them? Would I remember The Great American Beer Machine if it’d been hosted by big-breasted twins that hadn’t starred in a tv show with Greg Evigan and a monkey? Doubtful.

Next up, The Expert, which often crosses-over with The Celebrity. Granted, it does suggest the philosophical debate, “What came first? The Celebrity or The Expert?” One need look no further than the sad cases of Susan Powter or Richard (Move, Groove and Lose) Simmons to answer that question!

Last, and certainly not least, is the combination almost as old as time: The Skeptic and The Pitchman. Done to perfection on the much-missed Amazing Discoveries, this combo can sell snake oil — or flame-resistant car wax — if it’s done right. And when it’s done right, you won’t even notice! The Skeptic is Everyman, the beer-swilling schlub (no offense folks, that’s my demographic, too) scratching his head at 2 am wondering if a car really can be waxed in less than two minutes. Eating frozen pizza at 3 am and asking just how the revolutionary elliptical tracking of the biomechanically engineered somethingorother on the Cyclone Cross Trainer works. And drifting in and out of a sleepy haze at 5 am thinking, “Man, that EpilStop Plus really looks like it FUCKING HURTS!” '



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