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.

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