LAST WEEK NBC announced that there were still seven or eight commercial spots available for Super Bowl XLIII. I'm sure I wasn't the only one thinking, Just give them to Peyton Manning. At least they'll be funny.
Look, I know he's in every other ad during football season, but he is not overexposed nearly enough. For anyone who ever stumbled across the 40,000th cable airing of The Godfather, promised themselves they'd watch two minutes and stayed till half past Luca Brasi, it's the same thing, minus the piano wire. You know the scene, you're mouthing the line, you know the payoff. But it is always satisfying. And you'll stop to look the next time too.
We stop for a Peyton Manning commercial. We shush the room for a Peyton Manning commercial. And then the game returns, and we go back to hoping he gets sacked. Such is the power of comedy. Manning can win over his loudest haters with 30 seconds of bemused idiot-box philosophy. It's just another Manning checkoff: Everything changes at the line. And the line is usually something like, "Scoot over, will you? Anybody got any chips?"
"He transforms himself so easily and readily from quarterback superstar to likeable, condescending TV stooge," says my boss, Dave Letterman, before repeating one of Manning's MasterCard Priceless Pep Talk codas: "If I were you, I'd just buy some bigger shirts."
To call someone a "TV stooge" is the ultimate accolade from Dave. To be a stooge is to willingly participate with no ego, no concern for how it all looks.
It all looks funny. Manning is not the first athlete to deliver a laugh on cue on behalf of a brand. But why is his comic technique galaxies ahead of other jock pitchmen?
"He's a great communicator," says Rick Clancy, senior VP of corporate communications at Sony. "Been working with us for a few years now. He was a communications and business major in college. Perhaps he has some ambition later in life."
If you punch in "Peyton Manning + commercials" on YouTube, you get 207 results. Sure, many of them are efforts with titles like "Pricelass Peep Traks with Clayton Fanning," but that's not why you're here. So, why does it work? Why is he funny? Why do we like him and why is the template so refillable? Let's look at some film and break down the tendencies.
He's the anti-shill He fronts more sponsors than the hood of a NASCAR Sprint Cup car, but for the life of me, most times I cannot remember who Manning is doing the commercials for. Contrast that with Charles Barkley, who I know did spots for T-Mobile, just as I know he should have asked Dwyane Wade or someone else in his Fave 5 to drive him home earlier this month.
How can Manning's advice on dealing with a bad haircut ("Clean part, high and tight, no sideburns, no mistakes....") even subliminally scream Get MasterCard? And who can even get a MasterCard now? Great comedy is misdirection. Sometimes it appears as if Manning has wandered through the wrong door and wound up on set. Be honest. Does the dual press conference in the Oreo commercial with the Williams sisters make you think about cookies, or Donkey Kong?
He is a singular marketing tool who never seems to be hawking a product. He does not want to be the face of the brand, just the face of the bit.
He takes it seriously that he's playing a character who takes himself seriously Manning favors the confident clueless guy, a staple of the stooge, which is appealing and disarming. But there is subtle versatility to even that thumbnail. Alan Zweibel, an Emmy Award--winning comedy writer, gets closer. "Peyton Manning makes me laugh," Zweibel explains, "because he's just as good at playing someone who doesn't get it when people are being nasty toward him as he is playing someone who doesn't care when people are being nasty toward him." There is an uncompromising earnestness, forever propped up by questionable logic. I don't want to rewrite anybody's script, but Manning could have easily tagged a line like "So if sports are shot with a Sony, shouldn't you watch them on one?" with "I'm just saying ..." instead of the surreal "Chicken, no!"
He distances himself from himself It starts with the outfit, usually unlogoed blue shorts and a gray T-shirt. It continues with the pursed-lip pauses. It ends with the curtain-pulling snatches of wry candor. ("You know what? I'm bummed too." "Yeah, you're feeling me." "Weather here's sweet!" "Pffft, soccer...." "Chicken, no!") Each performance is relentlessly minimal, which wouldn't mean much until you contrast it with the other Peyton Manning we see on TV: the flapping, screeching, spinning, nodding, gesticulating, yammering presnap-count lunatic, $99.2 million-armed genius. It doesn't add up.
He distances himself from his roots I once heard a story about Tom Murphy, a journeyman relief pitcher acquired in the mid-1970s by the Red Sox. Murphy had an identical twin. Identical, except for that strand of DNA that enables one to effectively pitch a baseball. When the team would travel to Anaheim, Murphy would dress his twin in his uniform and put him in the bullpen. The pitching coach would call over manager Don Zimmer before the game and tell him, "Come quick. Something's wrong with Murph," and they'd run out in time to see this guy, who looked and sounded exactly like Tom Murphy, shot-putting 50-foot, 30-mph Chicago-style arcs to backup catcher Bob Montgomery.
This is my way of saying, "Nice try, Eli."
So, bring on Peyton. God knows, he's got the time right now. Scratch the kicking Clydesdales and blot out the talking stains and keep him coming. Manning will be the first to know when the joke's over. When it's not happening anymore. When it's time to buy some bigger shirts.
Bill Scheft is a writer for Late Show with David Letterman. His new novel, Everything Hurts, comes out in April.
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Says Letterman, "He transforms himself from quarterback superstar TO LIKABLE TV STOOGE."
ILLUSTRATION BY FRED HARPER