ASCII by Jason Scott

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The Art of Presentation: Bass O Matic and the Crystal Skull —

An interesting opportunity came by – the chance to see a presentation style given by a person in both parody and “serious” modes, 30 years apart. I figured I’d share my thoughts on it.

The presenter is actor Dan Aykroyd, who had worldwide fame on the TV show Saturday Night Live, a live comedy and somewhat variety show that has persisted to the present day. There for the show’s beginning, he was one of the young comedians presenting sketches of all stripes, from social commentary to parody, on issues or pop culture of the day. The weekly format and live presentation gave everything a sense of immediacy and relevancy that few could match (and few can even today).

In a 1976 show, he did a short sketch called “BASS-O-MATIC 76”, a parody of Ronco commercials (he even calls it “Rob-Co” in the skit itself). There’s a number of ways to view this original online, and it’s worth not using a fuzzy memory or second-hand information to know what I’m talking about here. Here’s a couple:
AOL Video

This embedded version will only work in a limited fashion. Sorry about that:

In the excellent book about the history of SNL that I consider the gold standard of pop cultural history, authors Hill and Weingrad talk about this skit briefly, mostly to mention Aykroyd’s style of writing – nobody was jealous of his skit ideas because everyone knew there was no way they’d have come up with them.

It’s important to realize this presentation is live, rehearsed earlier (likely a number of times) and contains almost no blocking (actor placement) – it’s just Aykroyd and his blender, a closeup of the blender, and a cutaway to Lorraine Newman, who is standing right next to him (you can see her shadow for a moment around the ninteenth second of the skit). His presentation, however, is perfect – clipped, quick speech guiding you through a scattershot list of advantages to the product you would never have thought about when considering blending a bass. The live aspect means the blender gives him some trouble at the end, and he experiences some issues around getting it started in the first place, but the audience reaction is real – an open-mouthed horror. His patter stops in a few places, but is generally an excellent stream-of-consciousness of the advantages of a fish blender.

Aykroyd is 25 years old in this clip. Note how he uses his breathing to keep the patter coming, with sharp intakes of breath. He stares straight ahead, smiling and winking at the camera. His face switches to seriousness as he begins to speak about the subject in earnest. Like I said, he has gaps in there – multiple times, he has to do two things at once and he breaks the patter. But when he picks it up again, he doesn’t stumble. He’s full of energy and full of life.

As people probably know, he has had a varied film and television career in the intervening years, been a concert promoter (via the House of Blues franchise) and has gained a reputation for his interest in Parapsychology, which has leaked into his film work, including films like Spies Like Us and Ghostbusters (and even Nothing But Trouble, a hated film he directed that nonetheless is amazingly deep in terms of discussion of law and jurisdiction).

So, he recently started pitching a new product, one he has a financial stake in: vodka shipped in crystal skulls. To promote this, he has made some commercials. Now watch this:

Now, several things.

Aykroyd is now about 55 or 56 years old in this commercial. There are obviously numerous takes, done at various times in the day, with a choice to use the “best one” in any given phrase set. Additionally, cutaways to stills can remove any mistakes or odd phrasings by Aykroyd as he goes. But regardless, the script seems to be his own and the pitch approach appears to be his own. So let’s go with that.

His clothing, previously garish, is now an informal but nice-looking suit, open necked. The location is an empty but well-lit bar, with lots of interesting glass and a sense of propriety, something you might see at the top of a hotel or near the heart of downtown. The camera is on a dolly and moves during portions of his speech. All of this gives a distinct sense of quality.

The script is impeccable, just short of completely whacky but delivered with the straight-shooting language of someone who has something to offer. Boiled down, this is what it says: I have always enjoyed paranormal subjects and so I’ve made a new vodka that comes in an occult object to commemorate that.

The words are broad and soothing. The people who drink vodka versus anything else are a specific group; not the type that drinks beer and not the type that drinks wine, but a specific group. His pitch speaks to that, never wavering from the I, the me. I am into paranormal subjects and here is why. There is a sense of immortality to paranormal subjects, and I appreciate that. These crystal skulls found out in the world are a hint of life beyond and more than life. These drinks I have made, of some of the finest qualities both inside and outside the packaging, are a timeless nod to this greater knowledge.

A cohort in the enterprise speaks, but let’s ignore him for the purpose of this discussion – he knows his stuff but he’s recorded poorly and I am glad that Aykroyd bookends his non-stellar presentation. His is what I would expect from products of this nature. Dull, nervous. Knowledgeable, but not compelling.

Aykroyd has, as I said, 30 years to consider how to present this material. If you laugh at him or ignore him, you probably weren’t the vodka market anyway. If you smile and suddenly think about vodka, then he’s done his job. It’s an interesting thing to see in action.

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  1. Rick Dakan says:

    So i’m not a vodka drinker really at all – but I made sure a friend of mine has a bottle waiting for me when I get home from Berlin next week so we can drink it while playing D&D.

    The genius here is that it is this weird mix of kitsch and presumed quality. I wouldn’t buy and plan to drink vodka from a crystal skull if just any old interweb schmo was selling it, but all the signs of quality make me think it will be kitsch that I can enjoy as a good quality beverage too – the best of both worlds.

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