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Family - A Seattle Advertising Agency

Why Drinking Vodka with Stevie Ray Vaughan is a Terrible Idea

Comedy Writing

The New Face of Smirnoff's Advertising Campaign...

Backstage before a Stevie Ray Vaughan concert, I was waiting in the green room across from the legendary blues man’s dressing room. It was the Couldn't Stand the Weather tour. Waiting to pitch a music video concept, I was a cocky, 25-year-old video producer who had more rap than resume. Okay, let’s just say it: I was an idiot. And the secret I had just learned terrified me.

Earlier that day, I had been invited down to the sound check. Stevie never missed a note during that blistering rehearsal – even though he was staggering all over the stage. And let me tell you, he wasn’t shy about taking another pull off a bottle hidden inside a brown paper bag. That is, when he wasn’t heaving off the back of the stage. He looked hammered. I didn’t think he could stand for an entire concert, let alone perform one.

As he stumbled off stage, his tour manager introduced me. The guitar slinger shook my hand. His paws were enormous and eyes blazing red. He mumbled that we should talk later, and I was escorted to a waiting room where I sat patiently, sandwiched between a high-strung film director (who I was pitching to helm the video) and one of Stevie’s pals, Bonnie Raitt. During our brief encounter, I hadn’t smelled anything on Stevie’s breath. He must have been drinking vodka, I thought. Pounding gallons of it, in my estimation. But again, I caution you: I was an idiot.

The tour manager beckoned me to the door; the director and Bonnie followed. I feared the director was going to chew my head off for wasting his time, or that Stevie would hurl on someone’s shoes. Or both. I thought everyone would be cool if Bonnie joined us; she would be my magic shield. So I introduced her to the tour manager. Of course, they were old friends. I was literally becoming stupider by the minute.

He apologized that Stevie was very sick and couldn’t meet with us. I said, “Sick? Then why was he drinking vodka out of a brown paper bag?”

He walked me to the dressing room doorway. There was Stevie, surrounded by a pile of empty pink bottles. He explained, “He’s as sick as a dog, mate. That was Pepto-Bismol.” He invited me to stay for the show, but I couldn’t leave fast enough.

In the new spots for Smirnoff, done by 72andSunny New York, vodka isn’t the choice of a notorious guitar hero. It’s the choice of regular guy/network prime-time star Ted Danson.

Model Chrissy Teigen had been fronting the campaign. They tried to separate the brand from other more pretentious vodkas by putting her (a celebrity) in down-to-earth scenarios. The commercials were okay.

But Danson as the new celebrity spokesperson works infinitely better. Here’s why.

After working in the genre for decades, Ted Danson knows comedy. He does self-deprecating like a champ, and has a wonderful sense of timing. Plus, the writing for these commercials is much better. He’s not playing himself. The agency wrote a juicy character unshackled by self-awareness. He’s playing a celebrity who’s trying to act like an average guy… and failing. He’s oblivious, and that’s what makes it funny.

He pays in diamonds. That’s a nice punch line.

Sometimes the funniest lines aren’t dialogue, they’re moments. The line is simply the signal for the audience to laugh. Have you ever repeated a line of dialogue from a movie that someone hasn’t seen? They don’t laugh unless you frame the moment when the line was being used. The moment gets the laugh, not the line.

The line, “…I’d be in the south of France riding jets skis with the guys” is funny enough. But within a handful of words, the topper drops us into what sounds like the neurotic inner ravings of a narcissistic Hollywood elite. “…If they’d have me. They probably would.” Delicious copy.

The day after the Stevie Ray Vaughan concert, I got a call. Stevie loved the idea for my music video, and his team set up another call with some record executives in Los Angeles for the following day. It was a brief conversation. They hated the idea, and I never got to make a Stevie Ray Vaughan music video. But I did get the flu.

Mike Johnston is a production executive and advertising creative in Seattle. He is available for freelance consulting, writing and directing. Contact Mike


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