Saturday, September 26, 2009

Star Power

As the fall season heats up, much of the talk has been about what the most well-known names in show business will be doing. Jay Leno is moving to the 10PM slot on television every night, while Ken Burns has a new multi-part series about to hit the PBS airwaves. Meryl Streep, Russell Crowe and Hillary Swank all have new films, while George Clooney has three all by himself. And Broadway is anxiously waiting for "A Steady Rain," featuring the high-wattage pairing of Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig.

As for me, I've got eye on my favorites, which includes those above as well as any number of other authors, actors and musicians. I want to see how they stretch the limits of their art and branch out into new situations. However I'm also very anxious to see what happens in a similar vein with some of my favorite characters of the 60 second variety, namely Guy, Verizon Test Man and Flo, the Progressive Insurance Gal.

These three characters have become perhaps the most ubiquitous on-camera presence between shows since Madge the Palmolive dishwashing liquid lady and the poor Maytag repairman. But while those figures invariably appeared in the same situations over and over again with minor variations, the three aforementioned icons have been stretching their chops with each new iteration of their commercials. guy and his posse are branching out into new musical styles, while I recently saw Test Guy in hip-high waders. And Flo never ceases to disappoint me with new ways to be perky and retro at the same time.

For the actors who portray these personalities it's likely a mixed blessing. Steady work is steady work, but when a part becomes so identified with you that it's hard to see you in any other role it can be a heavy burden to bear. Just ask Leonard Nimoy, who swore off Spock for years (at least until JJ Abrams asked him to reprise him for the latest incarnation of "Star Trek"). The trick is to figure out how to keep the residual check coming in for lip syncing to a three-chord song about financial woes while getting the audience to take you seriously as Hamlet.

For example, Test Guy is a lot more than a one-trick pony. In real life, he's better known as Paul Marcarelli. Before he struck wireless gold, he appeared in numerous commercials both as an actor and a voiceover artist. A founding member of New York's Mobius Group Productions, Marcarelli produced and performed in works by Eric Bogosian and others. In fact, the group's production of "The Adding Machine," in which he played the lead role, garnered the award for excellence in overall production from the New York International Fringe Festival in 2001. But if you heard him say anything other than "Can you hear me now?" you would likely be surprised.

Then there's Eric Violette. He's the young French Canadian with the curly hair whose credit is so bad he has to drive a used subcompact, be a host in a pirate-themed restaurant and don leggings at a Renaissance festival. In real life he's a graduate of the prestigious National Theatre School in Montreal and is a licensed mesotherapist specializing in Shiatsu. And while he is a musician with his own band, called God Against God, his credit is actually pretty good.

It's no different for Stephanie Courtney. Long before she was cast as Flo, she was a member of famed Los Angeles improv troupe the Groundlings. You can also see her in the movies such as "The Heartbreak Kid" and "Blades of Glory," as well as one of four leads in "Melvin Goes to Dinner." More recently you might have spotted her in a recurring role as a gossipy switchboard operator on the hit show "Mad Men." In none of those, however, was she required to undergo the two hours of hair and makeup it takes to get that brightly painted look that Progressive wants from the retail help in their store.

Still, none of the three are complaining. The constant repetition of their spots means that they are probably seen by far more people than would see them otherwise. Courtesy of their corporate backers, their characters have their own Facebook pages and MySpace profiles. And their popularity has engendered fan clubs and Tee-shirts, something their individual efforts have yet to generate.

That being said, not all commercial icons are stretching the limits of their character this season. Some are strictly background, giving us all ample reason to use the break as an excuse to go to the bathroom. Too many couples are just sitting in those bathtubs by the lake, and PC and Mac need a new routine. And while he may be cute and have a great accent, sometimes a gecko is just a gecko.


Marc Wollin of Bedford rarely watches TV, and then it's more for the commercials than the programs. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

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