Saturday, October 27, 2018

A new "New York Times" book about the history of superheroism

Congratulations to my friend and New York Times writer/reporter George Gene Gustines on Amazing Tales of Superheroes and Comic Books, a new hardcover compilation of stories culled from the paper about the history of the comic book industry and superheroes in particular. 

It's offered in a choice of two cover colors…perhaps as a nod to the Superman Red/Superman Blue storyline that began in 1998 (which may have been inspired by a 1963 story)?

George wrote the introduction and the book features more than 20 of his pieces, one of which is his coverage of the 2017 renaming of a Bronx street in honor of Bill Finger (which by extension addresses the campaign to get Bill Finger officially credited on Batman). Also included (to quote George): "obituaries which make me sad but allow me to shine a light on the writer or artist one last time."

Order here.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Oral history of the "Whassup!" Budweiser commercials, part 4 of 4

Part 1.

Part 2.

Part 3.

What are you doing these days?

Scott: Still grinding. Going on auditions for commercials, movies, and TV shows, trying to score the next gig. I've come up with a couple of TV show ideas. I'm currently working on a treatment for one of them with a well-known actor/writer/producer who's attached himself to my project. When it's done, we're gonna pitch it to HBO and a few other places. It's kind of exciting!

Fred: I've been producing and directing quite a few stage plays. One entitled 12' x 9' deals with the penitentiary system. I wrote, directed, and starred in this piece winning three NAACP Theatre Awards: Best Director, Best Producer and Best Playwright. I have a few TV movies I directed steaming on Amazon and Netflix. I stay rooted on the production side which has lead me to work on quite a few network shows. In addition, I just completed three feature films scripts for hire, and I'm requested as a panelist and/or guest speaker at colleges and universities.

Paul: I've been working on multiple stories hoping someone will take an interest when done. Also, my family owns rental property that needs to be maintained. So I guess I'm working in the family biz, but it's not that serious. We've been doing this my whole life so it's not like working.

Paul, "stories"—meaning what exactly? Screenplays? Movie treatments? Books? 

Paul: All of that. Being a part of a commercial campaign gave us an inside window [on] what makes a commercial popular. So I started writing commercials. Then I started to spread out. I'm now working on scripts about the campaign, what we experienced, and what created us. I liken my favorite script to something along the lines of Entourage

It's actually spooky how the storylines match. But this is real life. I really think I'm sitting on something that could be big. Can't tell you more than that at his point, though.

Where do you live?

Scott: I say New York for professional reasons. But my home is in Philly. (Shhh…don't tell anyone.)
Fred: California.
Paul: Philadelphia.

If you have children, how many and ages?

Scott: Nope. I successfully dodged that bullet. I have close friends who have kids, so I'm perfectly happy being the crazy "uncle."
Fred: We have a 25-year-old and a 12-year-old.
Paul: Max. He's a year-and-a-half-old puppy.

What do they think about the "Whassup!" commercials?

Scott: My non-existent kids? Probably not much.
Fred: They find it hysterical. 

How often do you find yourself saying "Whassup!" (aside from when a fan/stranger asks you to)?

Scott: Not much these days, unless I'm being ironic, or funny.
Fred: LOL. Everyday…unaccountable. 
Paul: Never. Never. LOL. LOL.

Paul, still have those overalls?

Paul: Yes, I do. LOL. That's a question I've been asked repeatedly. To talk about the overalls and not my woolly mane would be remiss. Because they are inextricably connected.

I had, for months, growing my hair long enough so that I could do…something. I didn't know what but I knew I wanted it to be something big. 

Around that time, the Sixers drafted a mercurial guard named Allen Iverson who would become the next rookie of the year. He would also go on to be a transformative person on and off the court. He introduced hip hop and tattoos to professional basketball in a way that perhaps the league predicted but could never have prepared for. It was a sea change.

I was caught up in this. Growing up in the hood, I never thought my baby face could support cornrows. Why? Because I wasn't hood enough. LOL. Bad boys rocked cornrows. I'm not a bad boy. 

But when Babyfaced Iverson did it…I took a chance.

For the first time, cornrows were associated with success and I hoped it would translate to police officers and the public in general. Of course, that didn't happen. See Colin Kaepernick.

The overalls…I love overalls. I have three or four pair. Here's where this connects to our commercial.

You can't wear cornrows all the time. They stress your hair. You have to take them out and let your hair rest for a few days before you tie it up again. I happened to be in a place where I was letting my hair rest when Charles called about the audition.

When I showed up, I had my hair out. And I happened to be wearing a pair of overalls. Around commercial 8 or 9, I asked if I could wear cornrows and not wear overalls. The advertising execs said, "You're the big hair and overalls guy. That's who you are."

How often do the four of you get together? When you do, what do you do?

Scott: The last time all four of us were together was in '08 when we shot the Obama promotional video "Whassup 2008: Change." We're spread out all over the country now, so we see each other every now and then whenever one of us is in the other's town. But we still keep in touch.

Fred: It's rough for everyone to link all together because of distance and schedules, but I usually catch up with everyone individually a few times a year. 
Paul: All of us are never together unless we're working on something together. We catch up with each other individually when we can, but responsibilities and distance prevents most group meetings. When we do it's filled with deep belly laughs, food, and the sharing of stories old and new. When you're childhood friends, you are never too far away from each other in heart and mind.

Do you drink beer? If so, do you drink Bud? If so, do you get a lifetime supply for free?

Scott: That's one of the great ironies. My friends used to tease me "How did you become a celebrity from a beer commercial when you don't even drink?!" I don't drink at all, never have. I'm just a great actor! LOL. There used to be discussion amongst the bud execs about having me walk around at conventions and appearances with a bottle of Bud, taking sips from it every now and then; I told them "Just put Coca-Cola in my bottle and I'll be sipping all day long!"
Fred: I drink beer from time to time. Bud is always on the list. Yeah, they left the free supply out of the contract. LOL. 
Paul: I love beer. I don't mind a cold Bud, but right now I'm big into German Hefeweizens. I have not been offered a lifetime supply but they still know how to get in contact with me!

Scott, did Anheuser-Busch send you to walk the floor at trade shows with Coke in Bud bottles? If so, did they ask you to keep that a secret?

Scott: Okay, here's the weird thing…when I made that suggestion, the Bud exec got this dead serious look on his face and said to me "Oh, no, we could never do that…they would know." I scoffed. "What? Are you serious? How the hell would they know?" Again, deathly serious, he responds "You don't understand. When a baby is born into the Busch family, the first thing they do is dab a little Budweiser on the baby's lips. They grow up knowing all about Budweiser. It's the family heritage. If any of the Busch family members were ever to see it, they would be able to look at that bottle and tell, just from the color and the way it moves, that it wasn't Budweiser." I was speechless. He fervently believed every word of what he just said (or he was pulling the most convincing rib of all time). In the end, they never bothered having us walk around with Bud bottles.

Are you still in touch with Budweiser? Any talk of more "Whassup!" commercials? (Everything else is being rebooted!)

Scott: No contact with Bud on my end. They were acquired a few years ago by a Belgian beer conglomerate [InBev], and all the guys I used to know [there] are gone. I still keep in touch via Facebook with a few of the former execs, mostly Bill Etling, AKA Billy Boy, AKA Boom Boom. He was the PR exec assigned to accompany us on all our national appearances. He was an awesome dude, we loved Bill. 

There was something of a revival recently, when Burger King and Budweiser teamed up to promote the new [American Brewhouse King Sandwich] and they used clips from the old commercial in the new TV ads. But as far as reviving the "Whassup!" campaign with Anheuser-Busch, there's been no talk. We've wanted to approach them with the idea. We'd all love to do a revival. (If you have any contacts there, let me know.)

I do, however, still keep in touch with Vinny Warren, the ad exec whose idea it was to create the commercials. He's now got his own ad agency in Chicago. He's doing well.
Fred: I have not been, but from time to time I do correspond with former Bud reps who were really great people who worked on our campaign. 
Paul: I haven't but it would be fun. I have an idea for a great line a spots for them. 

I don't believe I know anyone at Anheuser-Busch, and while I'm happy to doublecheck, you don't need my help! Between Vinny and your former Anheuser-Busch contacts who may still know people there, wouldn't you simply be able to reach out to whoever is there now? You're company royalty! Don't you think they would take your call?

Scott: No one knows anyone there anymore. Since InBev bought the joint, all of the old execs are gone. (Remember, the spots ended 16 years ago.) I've tried over the years to contact them hoping to pitch them a few ideas on a revival of the campaign—I even had a big-time Hollywood PR person working on it—but no one was able to reach out to them.

What did you think when you first heard from me?

Scott: When I realized who you were, I was very excited! I am a big fan of the Bill Finger documentary, and I loved your interview with the former child actors from Splash, which I randomly stumbled upon one day; I didn't realize both were done by the same person until I got your email! I was flattered you'd want to interview me/us!
Fred: "Wow! This guy wants to do a thorough in-depth interview on our experiences during the run and our lives after." I'm grateful for the consideration. 
Paul: Nothing really. Honestly, I'm still not sure who you are. LOL! The guys asked me to do this so I did it. Are you famous? Wanna be friends?!

Scott, thanks for the kind word about Batman & Bill. Did you discover it because you're a Batman fan, or was it some other way?

Scott: I'm a lifelong comic book nerd/collector. [When] I saw it on the Hulu menu, I watched it immediately.

How do you look back on your "Whassup!" experience?

Scott: With huge amounts of fondness and gratitude. It made me rich and famous, and all I was doing was traveling the country with my real-life buddies, shooting commercials and TV shows, making personal appearances, meeting all kinds of folks, and having a blast! It was a great experience.
Fred: It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I was part of an iconic pop cultural phenomenon. The fact that the commercial reminded people of how they cherish their own friendships was special to me. I never thought something like this could be so globally influential. 
Paul: Flat-out, the time of my life. I was being paid to hang with my friends with really famous people in really kool places and all we had to do was drink beer and make commercials. [I came] to realize that I dig limos and first class flights. I feel like I toured with a rock band for a few years. Got in places I wasn't supposed to get in, did things I never woulda had a chance to do, traveled to countries I'd never been…

If the experience changed your life in any way, how?

Scott: Like I said earlier; a career that I never would've had was virtually thrown in my lap. Practically overnight, I went from being a nightclub bouncer to being a world-famous celebrity, with all the perks that come along with that. I was able to travel in circles I never would've been allowed in before, I got to meet all kinds of folks I never would've met, I got to go places I never would've gone, [and I got to] do and see things I never would've done or seen. It changed my life completely, in every way imaginable.
Fred: I live by knowing the little good deeds you do and may take for granted and the joys you share can change someone's life for the better. 
Paul: Traveling to other countries, hands down. I found something in myself I didn't know existed. And it drives me to this day. I want to swim in every ocean in the world. I want to make it to as many places as possible and experience a piece of their lives. I want to eat their food, drink their wine, listen to their music, and soak up as much of their culture as I can. Then I want to go to the next place and do it again.

Do you feel the commercials have a legacy?

Scott: Actually, yeah. I think, in a small way, we opened the door to more diversity in mainstream advertising of mainstream products. I see TV commercials now that have an energy, style, and/or characters that are very reminiscent of the "Whassup!" commercials.   Interestingly, I have been told by five or six people over the years that various college and university courses talk about our commercials! Plus we're a Trivial Pursuit question! How cool is that! 

Also, I believe Paul's hairstyle opened the door for a lot of actors/characters to have that hair! LOL. (No, seriously!) But mostly, if people do remember us, I just think we'll be remembered as those funny beer commercials from around 2000 that everybody loved. And I'm perfectly fine with that.
Fred: Most definitely. When I'm sitting at a coffee shop and hear people greet each other with a loud and boisterous "Whassup!" the proof is right there. Budweiser did a lot of charity work so we were able to be involved in the humanitarian aspect of it as well, which lead me to personally supporting various charitable organizations. So I would like to think that those contributions are still paying forward. 
Paul: People say they do. I guess so. I know the spots were special. I mean, look what happened. I think we can all agree that shit wasn't normal for a TV commercial. LOL. I feel proud to be a part of the long legacy of great Anheuser commercials and great American beer commercials in general.

Anything you'd like to add?

Scott: "Remember…wherever you go, there you are."
Fred: I am grateful for Charles and his genius and everyone who participated in the campaign on every level and affiliation. It's a dream come true to say I was part of this with lifelong friends and with people who became lifelong friends. I would do it all again.
Paul: When I really got into [answering these questions], it was fun. I got a lot more to share but it's too much for me to type, so I invite you to call me and record our convo. There's simply too much shit to talk about with all the things that happened to us. Dealing with the paparazzi in London gave me new insight into how crazy they really are. That crazy culture in Bud management. Talking to Wayne Greztsky and Dan Marino at a convention. Did Scott tell you about him and Dale Earnhardt? Too much to talk about…

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Oral history of the "Whassup!" Budweiser commercials, part 3 of 4

Part 1.

Part 2.

How did you feel that Chuck did not do the promotional appearances with you? Even though promoting wasn't his thing, didn't he have FOMO just because the rest of you were on an adventure together?

Scott: Nope, the grind of getting up at 5 am to be at a TV studio by 7 am or visiting bars and nightclubs till 1 am simply was not his thing. Chuck's main focus was on directing (hence why he had to be coerced into starring in the commercials), and after the commercials blew up, he was getting offers to direct movies and TV shows, so being on the road doing promotional stuff was not gonna happen. We all totally understood and rooted for him. He was living his dream of being director. His place was not running around with us.
Fred: I felt he knew that wherever this thing can take us as a group or as individuals, we should capitalize from it. He wanted to focus on directing his projects—the True short was initially to showcase his talent, and he stuck to his game plan. 
Paul: Not sure what FOMO means, but if it means I have a negative feeling towards him not being in the limo for the crazy tour we did, no. Charles is a filmmaker. Him being on this tour with us would be waste of time. He should be focused on the next film, the next project, the next vision.

Did you hear from fans, and if so, how (given that the commercials aired when the Internet was still fairly new)?

Scott: Several ways, mostly through email. At the time, I had a yahoo account I used to give out. Sometimes I would get messages via my (ex) girlfriend's website. She was something of a minor celeb herself, so people would reach out to me via her. I also made the mistake of giving out my beeper number on The Howard Stern Show. I got inundated with messages (that following month, my pager bill was over $700!). One was from a young lady somewhere in the Midwest who wanted to let me know she was "receiving the messages" I was sending her via the TV.
Fred: Fans would show us love all the time. It would mostly be at events like Budweiser conventions, sporting events, and concerts. We would get flooded by people to take pictures. They would share stories about their friends, talk sports…an array of conversations. 
Paul: Yeah, and it was fun for a while, but then I started to avoid it. LOL. Imagine strangers screaming in your face all day. It was crazy. You know, I always thought it would be kool to be famous. This showed me that I valued my anonymity more than I realized. I wanted to be recognized when a cute girl was lookin' or I wanted to get in a club or something. Other than that I was happy to just be Paul. Besides, these people didn't really like you, they were interested in your fame. When that goes, so do they.

Did you feel there was any cultural (or personal) significance to the fact that the entire cast consisted of people of color?

Scott: There absolutely was. It was a topic of great discussion amongst many folks from black activists (who chastised us for representing the "bubba beer") to Anheuser-Busch and their distributors (who initially intended for us to spearhead a new campaign aimed at getting African-Americans to drink Budweiser, but then became afraid our popularity would turn them into "the new Colt 45"). But within the advertising world, mainstream media, and general public, we were seen as kind of groundbreaking in a few ways.
Fred: Yes, I think that, at the time, "Whassup," "Sup'," "What up" were terms known as how people of color greeted each other. Some people of color have been known to use slang, coded phrases and colloquialisms amongst themselves, as a way to culturally connect and at times those terms find their way into pop culture. 
Paul: Of course. It was America's beer! This pissed off rednecks to no end. It was awesome! They used to get around 100 complaints a week on this hotline they had. When we started working, they got thousands. So awesome.

What I was most proud of was how we were portrayed and the near universal love for the spot among men. Doing something fun and stupid with your friends doesn't have a color. Deep down, we're all pretty similar.

Were there any downsides to being in the commercials?

Scott: For me, not really. I genuinely enjoyed most aspects of it. In a TV interview, Paul once said "If you're a private person, this will rob you of all privacy," but that never bothered me too much. There was the rare asshole who was too overbearing, obnoxious, and acted like I owed them something because I was famous, but I was pretty good at handling them. There were the occasional fans who were a little too drunk and kind of annoying, but I kept in mind they were just showing love. All in all, there was nothing too horrible.

I guess if there were one real downside, it kinda revealed some of America's more racist aspects. I encountered a few folks (of the Caucasian ilk) who expressed resentment and displeasure (to put it mildly) about the fact that four black guys were representing Budweiser. One of them was a Budweiser executive (long story).
Fred: No downsides for me. I met some incredible people and went on many amazing adventures. I really enjoyed and learned a lot from the experience.
Paul: Doing those bar calls every night really started to wear on me. Other than that, I really kinda miss it. It was a blast. I'm waiting for the reunion tour.

Paul, what do you mean by "bar calls"? They paid you to go to certain bars to create buzz?

Paul: Exactly. We were required to do 3-5 of them per night. 

Scott, did you ever respond to any of the criticism (whether from black or white), and if so, how did that go?

Scott: If you mean confront folks about the bullshit they were saying, yeah, I did, every time it happened, particularly the racist assholes. That was a big part of Bill the PR guy's job when he was on the road with us—reign in my (and sometimes Paul's) "unpredictable" nature and temper. 

Fred, did you experience any criticism?

Fred: The only time I personally received criticism was when I was approached at an annual Budweiser convention by the owner of a Budweiser distributor. He was a white male in his late '50s from the Midwest and he "nicely" said "I saw the commercial and said to myself, 'What the hell is Budweiser doing? I don't get it. Who are these fellas and what are they doing? I don't get it.'" And walked away. 

A year later we were special guests at that annual convention and I was standing outside waiting for the Bud reps to pick me up and that same gentleman found me and walked over and said "'Hey, you remember talking to me last year?" Of course I did. "Well, let me say, I'm sorry for what I said. I guess I'm just an old white guy. My kids and grandkids see that commercial and they love it. They run around saying 'Whassup,' my wife says it with the kids. And what you guys have done for the company…business has been great. Saw you standing out here and I said I need to go and apologize to that young man for what I said, so I'm sorry. Pleasure seeing you again and let's all keep up the good work." And he went back inside.  

Scott, you alluded to a long story about a racist exec. We've got time. Willing to elaborate?

Scott: Here's my blog entry about that whole thing (scroll down to the chapter "Racist Cracka #2").

How often were/are you recognized on the street? Any funny stories about that?

Scott: All the time. Apparently, I was the most recognizable of the group (I was also the only one who had a name, "Dookie"). Paul used to say "I like going places without you—people rarely realize it's me unless you're standing next to me." I used to get calls of "Whassup!" and "Yo Dookie!" all the time, from people walking down the street, cars passing, etc.—everywhere I went. (A couple of times I heard someone yell "Whassup!" and I turned around to respond, only to realize they were doing it to a friend and didn't even know I was there…talk about embarrassing.) 

One of my favorite instances: [in] the Cherry Hill (New Jersey) mall, a young mother carrying her baby, her hair pulled back, in sweats and sunglasses, [walked] by me, craned her head up, whispered in my ear "Whassssuuuup," gave me a sly smile, and kept walking. I thought that was so cool and funny.   

One time in LAX, a guy came running up to me asking for my autograph, telling me what huge fan he was of the commercials and how proud he was of us as young black men. I was stunned to realize it was DeWayne Jessie, [best] known as Otis Day from Animal House and a well-known character actor from many famous movies and TV shows from the '70s & '80s. I said "You want my autograph? Do you know who you are? I need to be getting your autograph!"    

At a hotel in St. Louis, we got recognized by Dennis Edwards, lead singer of the Temptations…and as a kid who grew up in the '70s in a household filled with soul and R&B music, that was mind-blowing. One night around 2 am, at a diner in Philly, I saw Don Gibb (Ogre from Revenge of the Nerds) eating with some friends. I asked if I could get a picture. He said "Aren't you the guy from those commercials? I should be getting my picture with you!" 

[Another time,] Chuck, Paul, Fred, and I were leaving NBC in New York after doing some live interviews for local affiliates. We were walking across the lobby when from behind us we heard a loud "WHASSUUUUPPP!!!" We turned around and to our utter surprise, it was none other than Florence Henderson, AKA Carol Brady [from The Brady Bunch]! America's mom! She was on her way into the studio to do her daytime talk show when she spotted us. We all roared with disbelief and laughter and went running back to go talk to her. She was so gracious, cool, and funny. She told us what a huge fan she was of ours, which was greeted with a chorus of "What? We grew up with you! We're big fans of yours!"

Fred: More so recognized when we were all together. Every now and then by myself, which was great. LOL. [I was once in a] bathroom at [a] club standing at the urinal and a drunk guy comes in, goes to the urinal next to me, recognizes me, screams, "Duuuude! Whassup! Say it man! You got to say it with me!" The entire time he's swaying back and forth peeing. LOL.

Also, we were in Oxford, England, and Paul and I were going to an event. We get out the car and a huge banner of me is stretching from one side of the street to the other. People are in a mass of hysteria screaming our names. Paul looks up and sees I'm the only one on the banner and he goes "That's some bullshit!" And gets back in the car! We laughed at that so hard—[and] still [to] this day.
Paul: Before I cut my hair it would happen a lot. Not so much after, but I still get it once in a blue moon.

When was the last time you were recognized?

Scott: This past weekend. A guy simply said to me "By the way, I know who you are."
Fred: Three months ago I was at a restaurant with a friend and saw Katie Couric. She [had] interviewed us and was so happy to see us and joked and laughed with us on The Today Show. I headed to her table to say hi and she said "Oh my goodness—I remember you! Whassssssup!" and gave me a hug! The entire restaurant turned with surprised looks on their faces. Classic. 
Paul: My last gig. I was working at an online college and one of the people who worked with me was taking an advertising class. I came up in her research for something. I had already been working there for a year or two and I made her promise not to tell anyone. So after she told everyone, I had to have multiple conversation with people about why I didn't wanna talk about it. Sigh.

Why did the campaign end?

Scott: The short answer: after 9/11, Anheuser-Busch decreed "People don't want to laugh anymore," so they ended our comedic campaign ([but] did one more ad in the summer of '02 with completely different writers and director, aired the spot only a handful of times, then ended it for good).

The long answer; Anheuser-Busch's rank and file was never comfortable with having four young black dudes representing their flagship beer. Our commercials were only meant to kick-start a campaign aimed at the African-American market, to help change Budweiser's image as the "bubba beer." Our success across the board with mainstream (i.e. white) customers took them completely by surprise. All of this was told to me on a couple of occasions by a couple different execs. That's why, originally, they wanted to cast a "multi-cultural" group of actors. And that's the main reason why they started trying to spin off our concept into the "What are you doing!" yuppie guys and the "How you doin'?" Jersey guys. They were (quietly) looking for a way to phase us out and phase in a new, less "ethnic" cast. And 9/11 gave them that excuse. That's the real story. But you didn't hear that from me…shhh.
Fred: I was told [that] when 9/11 happened, Bud wanted to take a more serious, compassionate, and patriotic tone [in response] to what was going on in the country. 
Paul: 9/11. Period. That was it. As I stated before, my brother, my friend, and I were tanning on a beach in Castelldefels, Spain. Before we bounced, I had just shot the next four spots (that would never be seen). 

Part 4.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Oral history of the "Whassup!" Budweiser commercials, part 2 of 4

Part 1.

Where was the commercial shot?

Scott: The spot was shot in NYC, in an apartment in Alphabet City. The nice family who lived there got a hotel room for a few days while we used their apartment.
Fred: In Harlem at [Paul's brother] Terry's home. 
Paul: All the commercials were shot in NYC. Different places but all in the city. One of my proudest moments was when I got to film in the world-famous Silvercup Studios in the Bronx. [Even] after all the awards and accolades, that was the first time that I felt I was actually doing sumfin big…sumfin real. I was working in a space where real actors worked.

While working on it, did it seem like just another commercial to you, or did it feel like something special?

Scott: We had no idea. It felt special only in the respect that all of us would be making a TV commercial together and how cool and fun that would be. After we left the callback, when we knew we'd gotten the gig, I remember Paul telling us about an actress he knew who made 40 grand off one shoe commercial! We were hyped at the mere prospect of making even half that! At the end of the day, we thought we'd just do a commercial, get some residual checks, and move on. I even kept my job for the first three months after it started airing.
Fred: It felt special because I was working with my friends, but knowing it would take off the way it did? I had no idea. 
Paul: [Even] in the beginning, it never seemed like another commercial. How could it? A childhood friend was directing it, my high school and college friends were in [it]. How could life get better than this? But when we came back to do the second set of spots, we kinda knew what we were doing. This was when I started saying to the guys "Hey, hopefully we will go on and have successful careers in this crazy business, but let's take a moment and understand what's going on right now. We will never do something that transcends everything like this spot does. Let's take a moment and breathe this in."

Do you remember what you earned for the shoot, including residuals [payments for every time the commercial airs]?

Scott: If I remember, for the initial shoot, I made about $3,000 (this includes the shoot days, wardrobe fitting days, holding fee, etc.). I can't tell you how much I made in residuals—those checks rolled in every week and I never really kept track—but it was quite substantial (way more than the $40,000 Paul's friend made).
Fred: Are you working for the IRS? LOL. It was low six figures. 
Paul: Wow. So we filmed four spots the first time. Honestly, I don't remember.

Are you still receiving residuals? 

Scott: Residuals end when the commercials stop airing; the campaign ran from 2000-2002. But whenever a TV show or feature film wants to use the commercial, we get paid (for instance, whenever some network does one of those "Super Bowl's Greatest Commercials" TV specials). Most recently, the movies Uncle Drew and Central Intelligence used clips from the commercial, so I got paid for their usage.
Fred: Every now and then I'll get called to ask if someone can use my image [from] the commercial. 
Paul: No, not residuals. That ship sailed a while ago. But what's kool is that sometimes I get a check outta nowhere. For example, for years I've been getting a check around the Super Bowl because one of our spots gets included in some annual Top 10 Super Bowl [spots] show or something.

Hey, wanna do some real reporting? Track down my dough for the multiple times one of our spots [has] been used in a movie or TV show. From Central Intelligence to Jack and Jill (Adam Sandler movie).

Did you have any say in how the commercial would be put together?

Scott: No, that was all the purview of Chuck, the ad agency, and Anheuser-Busch, but we were very much encouraged to ad-lib and be creative with our performance. Some of those ad-libs did make it into the commercial.
Fred: I knew the commercial was going to be a version of the original short True, but with Budweiser in our hands. 
Paul: Understand, the first spot the world saw was a recreation of Charles's 2:37-minute, award-winning short film True, shortened to 60 seconds. This is what Vinny Warren from DDB Chicago identified as a hot short. So there was no need for give and take. LOL. This short was what got us to the show!

In your mind, were you watching a game of a specific team? Did any professional teams ever approach you or Anheuser-Busch about becoming the Official Team of the Whassup! Guys?

Scott: No and no. (Paul and Chuck were watchin' the game, I was on my computer…if we're going for accuracy here. LOL.)
Fred: I was watching the Eagles playing, but can't remember the opposing team. Official team? Not that I know of. 
Paul: To your first question: no, I never thought about that. Being a lifetime Eagles fan, it was easy to channel my football fever into that scene. Now I would be lying if I didn't say that I wanted to put a little extra sauce on my performance, because it was ours. It was about US. And the dude that was directing it was Our Dude, telling Our Story. I wanted to be as good as I could be for him and us. And if anyone saw me and liked me, hopefully they would want to hire me. That's it.

To your second question: look, there were a number of amazing things that happened to us along this wonderful ride, but one of them wasn't an offer of sponsorship with a major [football team]. Any sport, actually. LOL. It's weird because Budweiser and sports go hand in hand in a way I hadn't realized before this campaign. They have their hands in everything. Every sport, all nightlife, every happy hour. But the idea of a league wanting [to be the official] sponsor never occurred to me. 

Do you know how many "Whassup!" commercials you made?

Scott: I believe there were 12 altogether. I was in all of them except two. I also had a couple of solo commercials, one of which ("Wasabi!") won a CLIO award!

Fred: I think it was around 14-16. 
Paul: Imma say somewhere between 16 and 20.

Any funny anecdotes about making any of the commercials?

Scott: During one take, Chuck had me do "Whassup!" repeatedly, over and over and over, one after another after another, continuously egging me on to "Do it harder! Do it louder! Do it bigger!" This went on for what felt like five minutes, and when he finally said "Cut," I was hoarse, sweating, and out of breath. I looked at him like "Dude, WTF?" He was holding his hand over his mouth trying not to laugh and ruin the take, but then he and the whole crew erupted in laughter and applause. That was pretty funny.

There was the time that me and Walter (the Anheuser-Busch executive in charge of overseeing the ads) got into a push-up contest on set. He kept teasing me about the fact that I was into weightlifting and bodybuilding, and he laid down the challenge. Of course I won, easily.
Fred: We would always just have a good time—making up songs, cracking jokes.
Paul: Wow. A lot but not many I think would translate to the general public. Like, there are words and actions we did with each other from our childhood that mean something to us, but if you weren't there, I don't know if you get it.

Do you have a favorite "Whassup!" commercial?

Scott: Pizza Guy. Fred kills me in that one.

Fred: I have to say Pizza Guy because I'm featured in that one. LOL.
Paul: I feel like this question was put in because of Brooksie [Scott]. LOL. Of all of us, he was the only one that had a spot where he was the focus. So I'm sure he thought those were the best. As much as I would like to deny him that honor, the wasabi spot definitely got much acclaim. The best part of the story is how it came about. It was sooo natural and genuine. Charles was out having sushi after a day of editing our previous spots when the waiter dragged out the word "Wasaaaaabi!" He looked at his friend and a light came on. And much to my disdain, a star was born. LOL. 

Were any shot but never aired?

Scott: Yes! One! It had Chuck sitting on the couch watching TV, then Fred joins him on the couch. When Chuck moves over and squirms a little to get comfortable, we hear a noise. It could've been the leather couch squealing or it could've been a fart. Then Fred and Chuck sit silently and just cut their eyes at each other, and it ends. Anheuser-Busch decided that was a little too "vulgar" for their taste. LOL.
Fred: Unfortunately…yes. We did a funny one in the "What are you doing" series called "Nightmare."
Paul: Yes. We shot four new spots and after that, my brother Terry, [my friend] Mike, and I broke out to Europe for two weeks. Unfortunately, 9/11 happened while we were there and they never got aired. Understandably, Budweiser and every other advertiser started showing patriotic spots. Bud rolled with this: 

Do you have a least favorite?

Scott: The last one we did (I can't remember the name of it anymore). My performance was horrible. I find it difficult to watch.
Fred: Just any I wasn't in. LOL.
Paul: No. LOL. That's like asking a Super Bowl-winning QB "Which play would you want back?" Whatever we did was a piece of the puzzle that made this thing happen! I wouldn't want any of it back because all of it played a part.

What did the commercials do for your career?

Scott: [They] gave me a career. I was not an actor before this and had never done anything professionally.
Fred: I was able to finance and produce film and theatre projects. I invested in a bunch of small theatre productions. Financed a few short film projects for other artists whom I believed in. It put me in position to hire talented and diverse crews and cast on various projects. I was able to invest in myself and people. I got to meet and network with a lot of people in the film industry, which lead to opportunities [to star] on TV shows, [make] development deals, [make] appearances, and [make] endorsement deals. 
Paul: Everything and nuffin. It made me a household face but not a household name. Lemme try to explain this.

Just 'cause your face shows up on a TV screen does not mean you are caked out. I've had cat after cat see me someplace that apparently they thought I shouldn't be, like a market or a clothing store. Their response was, "Yooooo, I seen you on TV. I know your ballin' out. What are you doing here?"


Did you appear on any talk shows or cameo in any shows because of the commercials?

Scott: So many local and national talks shows, entertainment shows, and news shows—too many to count. A few of the highlights: The Tonight Show, The Oprah Winfrey Show, Entertainment Tonight, The Today Show, Live with Regis and Kathie Lee, The Howard Stern Show, WWF Raw, Inside Edition, Fame for 15 (TNN), The Source Awards, America's Favorite TV Commercials (A&E documentary), Best Ads Ever (BBC television special), the annual CBS special Super Bowl's Greatest Commercials (twice), The Parkers (UPN), The Cindy Margolis Show (Fox)… We also hosted a series on ABC called The Greatest Commercials You've Never Seen (I went on to become the solo host of the show).

Paul, Fred, and I were more the "faces" of the campaign, the ones who did almost all of the media all over the country, appearing in all their promotional materials such as posters, billboards, etc. Chuck never did any of that stuff. That wasn't his thing. He was directing feature films, so he only made major national media appearances.
Fred: We did hundreds of shows—The Today Show, Oprah, twice on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Hollywood Squares, Entertainment Tonight…the list goes on and on and on. LOL.
Paul: Our commercial got so hot that actual stars were excited to meet us. One of my favorite stories is when we did The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.

We had done the green room thing for a while. Enough that we knew a good green room when we saw it. So when I got to the green room of The Tonight Show, I knew I was gunna get sumfin special.

I didn't.

It had wood paneling like from the '70s and I felt like I was in my mom's basement…but check the story.

Apparently Jay doesn't usually come thru the green room because he wants the interviews on camera to be fresh. So imagine my surprise when he shows up outside my door…with my guys in tow. All of them.

They pour into my room. So it's Leno and four black cats. Why is that important? Here's the convo that ensued and the reason I have love for Leno to this day.

He comes in and says "Hey, just wanted to say hello to you guys…you're doing big things! Is everyone ok?"

Me: "Well, Jay, not for nuffin but I've been in a lot of green rooms lately. And I think I can say without a doubt that this is the worst we have ever been in. What the hell is going on?"

And without missing a beat, he says—in a room full of black guys—"This is the room we have for black people. You should see it downstairs! It's sweet! Cats are slicing lamb off the rotisserie. It's a whole big thing!"

The entire room burst out in laughter.

It takes a confident white dude to pull that off in a room full of black dudes, and we appreciated it. Leno is kool with the Wassup guys!

But I knew Hollywood. Unlike Fred and Scott, I had done things in LA and I knew the fickle chick she could be. I'm not going to say I didn't bask in the glow that was shining on us, but I took it with a grain of salt. 

[As for cameos on shows], we did an intro for The Parkers. Other than that, nah.

Part 3.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Oral history of the "Whassup!" Budweiser commercials, part 1 of 4

"Doing something fun and stupid with your friends doesn't have a color. Deep down, we're all pretty similar."

Next year marks the 20th anniversary of the debut of one of the most endearing, humorous, and memorable ad campaigns in TV history, perhaps the last to catch on before the Internet and other technology ended the era when TV commercials could become water cooler talk.

The "Whassup!" commercial campaign for Budweiser beer debuted during Monday Night Football on 12/20/99, became a worldwide pop culture phenomenon, and ran till 2002. 

The commercials were based on a short film called True, written and directed by Charles Stone III; he also appears in the commercials (the man who answers the phone at the start of the first ad). In 2006, the "Whassup!" campaign was inducted into the CLIO Hall of Fame. 

Three of the cast of five kindly agreed to be interviewed: Scott Martin Brooks, Fred Thomas, Jr., and Paul Williams. 




I interviewed them separately and combined their answers into an oral history of one of the most feel-good ad campaigns of all time. Aside from technical/stylistic tweaks, I'm running their words as is (including the occasional minor contradiction—as I often say, memory is unreliable!).

First, importantly, should it be "Whassup?" or "Whassup!" Is it a question, a statement, or both at once?

Scott: It can be either, but 87% of the time, it's an exclamation. The proper (trademarked by Anheuser-Busch) [punctuation] is "Whassup!"
Fred: For me it's "Whassup!?" The same as hello and how are you…happy to see you.
Paul: All of that and none of that. It's so situational. LOL. Example: if me and Brooksie [Scott] met for a movie, when I saw him I would give a pound and a low volume growl—"Wahsahhh." In his mind he would hear "Greetings, O Great Hairy One. What news do you bring of the other world?" And we would get popcorn. Normal stuff.

But, if he surprised me at a bar someplace, I would give a full throated "Whazzup!" the way a family of wolves would acknowledge old soldiers returning to the pack with a (insert feral wolf call here, i.e. "Woooooo"). I would smell his ass, and if the smell rang true, I would greet him and accept him [back] into the [pack]. That would be a greeting and a celebration of a returning warrior.

(NOTE: Punctuation aside, going forward, you will see various spellings depending on emphasis.)

What were you doing professionally prior to the first commercial?

Scott: I was head of security at a nightclub in downtown Philly. I had been working in the Philly nightclub scene for 10 years up to that point.
Fred: I was a student at Temple University studying for my Masters in Film and Media Arts. I was also working at [both] a production company called Big Picture Alliance where we taught teenagers to write, direct, and act in projects [they] created and at Houlihan's as a waiter. 
Paul: I've been involved with numerous spots both visual and ear visual. Most famously with Reese's Pieces and other flammable products. I've been rejected from multiple reality shows for being too REALity. Which I take as a compliment. I'm hoping Dancing with the Stars will take a chance on me regardless, 'cause I'm rhythmic as shit with personality outta the…

Paul, does "visual" and "ear visual" mean TV and radio?

Paul: Totally means TV and radio. LOL. I apologize. You haven't met me and apparently a lot of my comedy doesn't translate…

"Flammable"…an insider term, Paul, or do you mean it literally?

Paul: Not an insider term. Sorry. It was a reference to one of many radio commercials I've done. My favorite actually. I'm not sure what we were selling, but it killed.

How old were you when you shot the first "Whassup!" commercial?

Scott: Over 21. Next question.
Fred: I was thirty-two years young.
Paul: Child labor laws prevent me from commenting on this. The rule clearly states "Children below acceptable ages shall resist proclamation of their ages unless [proclaimed]." See Catholicism. All I can say is I fell asleep one day, and when I woke up, there was a Bud can in front of me…and life began again…

How did you get the role?

Scott: Chuck [Charles] Stone, the creator and director of the commercials, was my best friend since we were teens. He called me and told me about the auditions, and that he had put my name on the list, so I went up to NYC on the day of the auditions, half asleep from working the night before and having no clue what I was walking into—it was my first audition ever. I ended up getting a callback and went to NYC again a week later. After the callbacks were over, as we were about to get on the elevator, Chuck pulled me, Paul, and Fred to the side and told us, secretly, that we had gotten the roles! (We waited till we got down to the street before we jumped for joy!)
Fred: I knew Charles and he called me to do the original short film True based off of how we interact as friends. 
Paul: Let's be real about this. I got a call from Charles sometime around Thanksgiving 1999. He said "Hey, remember the short we shot called True? Bud wants to make it into a commercial so can you make it to an audition tamarra?"
I said "Did they see our short?"
Charles: "Yeah."
Me: "Well, tell them that's my audition!"
Charles: "LOL. Look skillet, ya gotta come down and audition."
Me: "So I have to come down there and audition to play me?"
Charles: "Yeah, man."

I showed up.

I saw my Boys and a bunch of white guys. Immediately, I realized Bud was trying to white out the commercial in an effort (in my eyes) to make the spot more palatable to their base. They called them Bud Bubbas. 

What they didn't count on was that the Wazzup thing we had been doing couldn't be copied. In the next room, I heard white dude after white dude try to replicate what we had done growing up, and they couldn't. Honestly, they were set up to fail. If you didn't grow up with us, you didn't understand what we were doing. All they saw was the word "What's up" strung out in 13 letters.

When I walked into the green room, I gave a pound to my people and told everyone else in the room "You cats are wasting your time! This is our commercial."

Eventually, Bud realized that the magic they saw on tape was contained in the original guys and their director. Us!

What happened next is history, but I want to make something clear.

No one—not Bud, not [ad agency] DDB Chicago—thought our spot would do what it did. They thought it would be a good Black Spot they could play on BET or other specialized African-American outlets. They never thought it would cross all lines of race and class. They never thought it would be a unifying, guttural rally call to the base instincts of all men. I dare to say we were the beginning of the Man Cave.

Where can people see True?

ScottTrue is quite elusive. I have a VHS copy, but it's impossible to find online.

Aside from Chuck, who knew who before the commercial? 

Scott: Chuck and I met on a double date (my girl and his girl were best friends). He and I hit off almost immediately. Chuck and Paul were high school buddies, so I met Paul through Chuck. Paul and Fred went to college together. I met Fred later.
Fred: Yes. I met Charles and Scott through Paul and his brother Terry; both are my fraternity brothers in Kappa Alpha Psi. 
Paul: I met everyone in the commercial in Philly except for Puerto Rock [the guy at the outside intercom]. I met everyone else in high school except for Fred. Fred and I pledged the same fraternity but we became friends because he spent a year at Temple during a student sharing agreement between Lincoln and Temple. When it was his time to go back to Lincoln, I asked him for his name and number and he said "Fred Thomas." I was like "Who is that?" I had been calling him Mutt the whole time. He laffed and said his name was Fred. He did not look like a Fred. He said "When I was a baby, my mom said I looked like a baby lamb, so they called me Mutton [which is what led to "Mutt"]. I can honestly tell you, I have never called him Fred my entire life. And that's really kool to me.

Why did Chuck sign you up for auditions if you weren't actors? Did he do that with all three of you?

Scott: Chuck had used me in a couple of his college projects (short films and such) and cast me in a couple of the music videos and short films he directed before the "Whassup!" fame. I was always kind of a natural performer, plus I used to do little local stage plays throughout my teens, so I'd had a little bit of experience.
Fred: I happen to be an actor, but I think it was more about the camaraderie we all share—a group of friends who all have witty and cleverly funny personalities. Didn't need to be an actor to show we genuinely greet and hang out with each other.   
Paul: I'm an actor. Always have been. It was one of the things that bonded me and Cheesey [Charles]. I graduated from Performing Arts High School. Same school Boyz II Men came from. Same school Black Thought and Questlove from Jimmy Fallon's The Tonight Show are from. I graduated with a degree in theatre. I had already done music videos for Charles [for] groups like Living Colour, A Tribe Called Quest, Black Sheep, and the Roots. At that point, using me in his next group of videos was just natural for us.

Scott, since you were not an actor, did you resist at first, or did you immediately accept the challenge?

Scott: No hesitation whatsoever. I was scared and nervous as hell, but I definitely wanted to do it. Growing up, I always used to "joke" with Chuck "I'm not gonna bother getting a career. I'm just gonna wait till you become a famous director and you'll put me in all your movies."

Was it an all-or-nothing proposition? What if only one of you got the job—or worse, all but one of you?

Scott: I don't know if it was ever going to go down like that. We were told by all the execs that out of 250 actors that auditioned, we were the only ones who "got it right," so for them, it was pretty much a no-brainer to go with the original guys. 

But I'm quite sure we'd all be rooting for whichever of us got the gig! We actually had something like that going on. When I auditioned, the execs liked me so much, they decided to give me the Dookie role, and that character had a few solo commercials planned around him, particularly with his girlfriend. They were casting the role of girlfriend at the same time, so they kept me in the room and had me audition with about 25 girls, one after the other. At about the 10th girl, the casting director said "Paul and Fred are in the other room steaming because we have this parade of beautiful women coming in and out of the room for you!" The guys couldn't have been happier or more supportive of my solo success.
Fred: I still would have been happy for the other guys. I did it to work with my friends because that's what artists do and how we support each other, so whatever would have blossomed out of that for anybody would have been a blessing. 
Paul: To me, it was great that someone I was growing up with was in the same art as me. I was so happy that one of my friends was in a position to hire me for an acting job. It was magic that we all got jobs together. Think about it. You get to crisscross the country and part of Europe with your friends! Who gets to do that? I'm not sure how I would react if I wasn't included, but luckily I didn't have to [find out]. In my mind, when we were in high school, I thought one of us was gunna make it. Probably me. And when I did, when I got enough power, I was gunna make sure Charles had a job. Then I was gunna try to give small parts to any of my friends I thought needed a hand up. When I could.

What about Puerto Rock [the guy at the outside intercom]? 

Scott: The only name I ever heard him go by was Puerto Rock. He was from Brooklyn. He got picked up at the auditions—he wasn't one of the original four friends from Philly. Originally, Chuck didn't want to be in the commercials—he only wanted to direct—so he was going to cast someone for his spot. [Even though] Anheuser-Busch convinced Chuck to be in the commercials, Chuck liked Puerto so much, he kept him in the ads. He also made a few appearances and did some promotional stuff with us, as a kind of replacement for Chuck. I'm not sure where Puerto is these days or how to get in touch with him.
Paul: You can't talk about this thing without talking about him. Charles found him in some video he was shooting. When I asked him who was filling the last role he said "I got a guy. His voice is amazing. Something you can't usually find." He was right. Puerto has a singular voice and is a singular personality. He's a hip hop artist from Harlem. He produced the remix to "Wifey." A singular hustler to his bones.

Part 2.