In the proverbial So-Bad-It's-Good Hall of Fame, a wing must be devoted to the local commercial. Amateurishly shot, oddly cast and often hawking things you never knew you needed (and, even after the commercial has aired, probably still aren't convinced), these things camp up local TV in a distinctly scrappy way (my all-time favorite: Select Dental). A few years ago, YouTube hitmakers Rhett McLaughlin and Link Neal hooked up with MicroBilt and began producing commercials for small businesses that would go on to garner millions of views on their YouTube channel. These commercials have all the stiltedness and eccentricity of regular local commercials with an added layer of cleverness (see their SOBERING Tattoo Commercial, in which tattoo artists from Austin, Texas' True Blue Tattoo gravely list the repercussions that come from being inked, like, "Elderly women will be afraid of you"). McLaughlin and Neal achieve an impressive balance, teasing out the weirdness of the businesses they rep without ever coming off as mean.
They're bringing their local-commercial shooting from the computer screen to the flatscreen with IFC's Rhett & Link Commercial Kings, which premieres Friday at 10/9c. The show breaks them and the business owners they work with out of the constraints of online media's brevity, expanding the stories behind the commercials and coloring in the already colorful characters. The result is rarely less than hilarious: Rhett & Link Commercial Kings deserves the broadcast equivalent of the duo's considerable online success. It is such a good show!
We spoke with McLaughlin and Neal by phone about their Commercial Kings, the characters they work alongside and Butt Drugs.
Here's my hypothesis for why you have translated your online work into this TV show: While you were doing the videos for YouTube, you encountered a goldmine of colorful characters and knew their stories would make great television.
McLaughlin: Yeah, that's absolutely true. We found things out that were true about these businesses and the individuals behind them, and that's what goes into our commercials. When we did our commercial for TDM Auto Sales, we learned that Rudy, the head salesman there, was a gynecologist in Cuba. So the commercial became Rudy, the Cuban gynecologist and auto salesman.
Neal: Also, we wanted people to know that we didn't fabricate this stuff. The truth is stranger than fiction, and also a lot more marketable. We wanted to be able to tell our audience and the TDM commercial audience, "This is the real Rudy you're getting here."
It strikes me that making a successful Internet video and a successful local commercial are similar in some ways, since if a local commercial is any good, it's going to wind up on the Internet anyway.
Neal: There's definitely a lot of overlap between a viral video and a successful local commercial. I think the criterion for us is: Can you sum it up in one sentence?
McLaughlin: The best thing we can do for these businesses is start a conversation that they're part of. "You gotta see this commercial..."
It seems like the difficulty of your task is making something that's compulsively watchable and eccentric without insulting your subjects.
Link: Our ultimate goal is to help these businesses. We know the best way to do that is to do something that incorporates them as the talent doing things they never anticipated doing. On the first episode, we set out to make a commercial for Holiday Hotel for Cats, where cats are boarded for long periods of time. We meet Margaret, the proprietor, who tells us, "You know, I can speak cat. Roowwwr!" She's just being herself, totally sincere, and we determined that she had to do that in her commercial. I don't think she fully understood the humor of it till she saw it. She loved her commercial because as eccentric as it was, it embraced who she was as a person. It is a delicate dance. We're saying, "Trust us, we're going to take you where you need to go, even if you don't understand exactly what we're going for."
How do you think your approach differs from your average local commercial? It seems like the appeal of those is laughing at them for their cluelessness, while your work is clearly self-aware. But maybe I'm not giving all local commercials enough credit.
McLaughlin: I think there are definitely a lot of local commercials out there that are hilarious, but they're 100 percent unintentional. Maybe now more people are picking up on it. It's a difficult thing to achieve: [making something] that people will stumble upon and think, "I can't believe they thought this was a good idea," but then being able to make that in a way that isn't an obvious parody. A lot of sketch comedy groups online are making parodies of local commercials and they're funny, but there's just something about it when there's an actor who's posing as a business owner that makes it lose its appeal.
It seems like the best thing you can get from clients is the most stilted delivery possible within your clever frameworks.
McLaughlin: We don't like going to businesses that have already made a commercial, or using owners who are seasoned. We like going into a place that, first of all, has a legitimate need for a commercial, and second of all, probably isn't in the place to make one. Maybe it's the kind of business you've never seen a local commercial for: a taxidermist, a hot yoga studio, a place that does colonics.
How much time do you spend while you're filming one of these trying not to laugh in the faces of these eccentrics?
McLaughlin: We're definitely encountering some characters here, but I think what you'll find on the show is authentic laughter with the business owners. There's often initial awkward moments as we're getting to know them and they're telling us about themselves, but by the end, everyone is on the same page and we're laughing with one another.
Have you ever cut a commercial that your client has hated?
Neal: No. All humans are self-conscious to a degree, so when we show people their commercial and it features them as the star, I think a lot of people tend to be critical of themselves. Often, the jury is out until they see a response from the audience. If you go way back to Red House Furniture ("Where black and white people buy furniture"), we took a big risk with that one. The response was so overwhelmingly positive, they had people buying couches from the West Coast just to say they got them at Red House. They're selling mugs and taking pictures with tourists.
Do these commercials typically run on local TV?
McLaughlin: Every business owner has the option to run it on local television, but most of them, once they see it go on the Internet and get a response, make the decision not to run it on TV. It just generates so much press for them anyway.
Neal: They don't need it. They determine, "Why spend money buying time on local TV when I'm getting value from the distribution [on the Internet]?"
McLaughlin: We do have a service on this season, Designated Drivers, which is based in Las Vegas and will come and pick you up if you are drunk and drive you home in your own car. Billy, the owner, does have plans to put this thing on local TV.
Have you heard back about whether your commercials have actually increased business?
McLaughlin: Besides the Red House Furniture example, after releasing the Holiday for Cats commercial [online], we got an email from Margaret, who already picked up two clients just because of the commercial. It does translate into buzz which leads to business.
You did a YouTube commercial for a store called Butt Drugs. Why is that store called Butt Drugs?
Neal: We fabricated that whole business. It was our lifelong dream to make a commercial for a pharmacy called Butt Drugs. No, the true answer is that it is a family name. We met with Katie Butt, whose grandfather opened the pharmacy...
McLaughlin: Her grandfather's name is Blackie Butt. He founded Butt Drugs, which created a great opportunity for a local commercial. And that's a great example of them knowing the humor in what they were doing. Before we even showed up, they were selling T-shirts that said, "I Love Butt Drugs." We just took what they were doing and put it into a local commercial.