(from the Excellent Excerpts page)
Like so many advertising guys, he sat with a piece of paper face down, hiding the payoff. Then he began telling me how hard he’d worked, how he’d tried and discarded hundreds of taglines, and how this one finally came to him like a gift from God and he couldn’t stop thinking about how perfect it was for the channel. I interrupted him. “Can I just see it now?” That was my role, to keep asking that he cut the preamble and show me the damn thing. Danny’s role was to ignore me. We hadn’t invented these roles. Creative ad guys always explained first and revealed last, and the client just wanted to see what was behind the curtain and make a snap judgement: I love it! Or, I hate it!
Danny, ignoring me, continued the preamble. “It’s important for you to understand the creative underpinning, armature, and superstructure of the line, and to understand my process. Over the last two weeks I spent hundreds of hours pacing, thinking, trying out taglines on my wife, my son, my cat, listening to their feedback. If you don’t appreciate this, you’ll never be able to appreciate the final product. So listen up, boychik.”
I sat back in my chair, knowing from past experience that this would take a while.
“There are few certainties in the world,” Danny began, “but as I’m sure you are aware, death comes to us all. The younger you are, the more likely you are to feel immortal, and thoughts of death only intrude once in a blue moon, like when your parrot dies, or when your high school has an assembly to memorialize a classmate who just overdosed on Quaaludes. But the older you get—and I speak from experience because I’m older than you, Arturo—”
“No, you’re not.” I said this quickly, to ensure that I got all three words in.
“No? Well, I’m wiser than you, and that’s what’s critical. The older you get, the wiser you get, the more death is on your mind, until at middle age it’s a constant drumbeat, like an unshakable pounding migraine. And then, desperate for relief, you start the quest for meaning, which is really just a way to massage your temples during that migraine so that the thought of death doesn’t completely consume you. And don’t forget religion.”
“Religion also supplies some relief by convincing us that when we die, that’s only stage one of a multi-stage existence…”
As Danny waxed philosophical, my mind drifted to my first encounter with death at the age of five, courtesy of Fern Levin’s grandmother.
* * *
“Arrrrthur. Arrrthur!” Fern Levin’s full-throated yell echoed through the neighborhood. I was two houses away, sitting on the floor of my room with a toy truck, but really just waiting for Fern to summon me. At six, she was only a year older than me but that extra year carried with it a world of sophistication. I jumped up and bolted out the front door.
“Don’t get too dirty; we’re eating soon,” my mother said as I left.
I ran to Fern’s backyard and climbed onto the swing next to hers. “Guess what?” she said, her long black hair flying as she swung by me.
“My nana died today. She’s going to heaven.”
“That’s where you go when you’re dead,” she said happily, her face skyward as her swing reached the top of its arc and paused. “Heaven’s way up there, past the clouds.”
I looked when I reached the top of my arc but saw nothing but sky. “When’s she coming back?”
“Never.” Fern was smart. She spoke with the confidence of a ten-year-old. I believed everything she said. “You don’t come back when you’re dead,” Fern explained. “You stay there forever.”
“Forever?” So far, I didn’t like this dead thing at all.
I launched myself off the swing, rolled like a paratrooper, stood up, and started running home.
“Where’re you going?” Fern called from her swing.
“Home. See you tomorrow.”
As soon as I got to my house, I found my mom and said, “Fern’s nana got dead and went to heaven.” Then I asked, “Are you going to heaven?”
“Arthur, you don’t die until you’re old. Fern’s nana was old.”
“How old are you when you die?”
“No, like eighty.”
I was five. I could count to five in a few seconds. Counting to eighty would take me forever. “Oh, okay, good.”
A few minutes later my dad’s car pulled into the driveway where I was waiting for him. When he got out of the car I asked, “Dad, how old are you?”
“How old am I? I’m old.”
“I know you’re old, but how old are you?”
“Very old.” My father laughed. “I’m eighty.”
Without saying anything, I walked into the house, went to my room, and fell onto my bed. I stared at the ceiling and felt sad that my dad was going to be dead soon because he was eighty. I’d never felt so sad before. That night I said I had a stomachache and skipped dinner. The next day I sat on the curb and threw stones into the road. I didn’t talk much. I didn’t run when Fern called.
The day after that was another sad day.
My parents became concerned.
After meticulously reviewing the events of the previous several days, they figured out what had happened. They came into my bedroom as I was putting on my pajamas and explained that my father was only joking. He wasn’t eighty, he had just said that to be funny. He was thirty-one years old, and my mother was thirty. My dad was just making a joke about being old and dead. There was no need for me to worry.
* * *
It had been over a half hour since Danny first sat down, and he was still preamble-ing. As much as I enjoyed Danny and his philosophizing, I was getting more and more anxious to see the tag line he’d come up with. Nevertheless, Danny was on a roll. Who was I to stop him?
“Death is a subject that people will go to great lengths to avoid,” Danny said.
“Because it’s unsettling?” I offered.
“Exactly. So…for many of us the only thing that keeps us from thinking about death
is…what?” Danny paused. “Arturo, I’m asking you what keeps you from thinking about death?”
“Really? No, not what I had in mind, but interesting. No, what keeps you from thinking about death is…comedy. We tell each other funny stories, we hang out with funny people, we watch stand-up comedy. Why? Because it distracts us from the fact that we are going to die. Right?”
“Okay. Right. So what’s the tagline?”
“I thought you’d never ask.” Danny starts to turn over the piece of paper then stops. “Are you ready for this, Arturo? Here it is.”
“We’re all gonna die. Watch Comedy Central.”
After Danny read the line aloud to me, he said, “Arturo, is it not perfect?”
No, I thought, it’s not perfect, but something about it excited me. Was it because, as Danny said, it illuminated an essential truth about comedy? Was it because it finally allowed me to understand Eddie Gorodetsky’s boast to me that he had cracked jokes at his mother’s funeral? Maybe it was this: ever since my first experience with the concept of death, my father’s joke that he was eighty years old, I had had a special appreciation for the nexus between death and comedy.
“It’s good,” I said. “It’s really good.”
Then Danny showed me some storyboards that outlined the television campaign. Each spot featured a famous person who, according to Danny, “knew a little something about dying.” The celebrity would look into the camera, talk frankly and authoritatively about death, then say, “We’re all gonna die.” And then the lettering on the screen would say, “We’re all gonna die. Watch Comedy Central.” Danny had approached a bunch of people about appearing in the spot, including the novelist Stephen King. King had already agreed to do it.
# # #
Art Bell is a former media executive best known for creating, building, and managing successful cable television channels. He developed the concept of The Comedy Channel (which became Comedy Central in 1991) while at HBO and served as both Senior Vice President of Programming and Senior Vice President of Marketing and Promotion. After eight years at Comedy Central, Art became the President of Court TV, where he was the guiding force behind one of the most successful brand evolutions in cable television.
Text copyright © 2020 Art Bell. Design copyright © 2020 Ulysses Press and its licensors. All rights reserved.