I don’t know if you saw the news, but actor Jay Thomas passed away yesterday in Santa Barbara.
You may remember Jay for his regular role as Reno DaVinci on Mork & Mindy. Or for his regular role as Eddie LeBec, Carla’s ice hockey playing husband, on Cheers. Or for his ongoing role as Jerry Gold on Murphy Brown. Or as his starring role as Jack Stein in Love & War. He was also a long-time very successful morning DJ in Los Angeles and New York and more recently on Sirius XM.
But I remember Jay as the star of two series of commercials I wrote — one for El Pollo Loco (a California-based chain of Mexican chicken restaurants) and the other for Santa Anita Thoroughbred Racing.
A couple stories worth telling about my experiences with Jay:
When we conceived the El Pollo Loco television and radio ad campaign, we asked the casting director to bring us voices with personality. We wanted an announcer who brought a little something extra to the campaign. Probably a hundred different voiceover actors “read” for the campaign — meaning they tried out by recording a script we had written. The casting director then put all those recordings together on a cassette and my partner and I sat down and listened to all of them.
There may be more tedious chores in advertising than listening to 100 voiceover guys read the same script over and over and over again, but I cannot at this moment imagine what they may be.
After a while all the voices began to sound the same. One hundred different, but similar voices reading the same words, but trying hard to add their interpretation of “personality” to the script. We were beginning to give up hope of finding the actor we wanted when the casting director said, “OK, now this next one is a little different. It’s not what you’re expecting. Do you know who Jay Thomas is?”
Of course we knew who Jay Thomas was. He was a very successful, very funny, very caustic, very quick-witted morning DJ in Los Angeles. My business partner and I had serious doubts that this guy could possibly give us the “read” that we wanted.
But we listened. And we were blown away. We both laughed out loud because Jay’s audition, the personality he brought to the campaigns, was pure Jay. It wasn’t what we thought we were looking for, but it was different and it was great. Really great.
So Jay Thomas became the voice of El Pollo Loco.
Which brings us to the next two stories.
Having this unique personality as the voice of El Pollo Loco meant I had to write scripts that were far different than anything I’d ever written for McDonald’s or Burger King or Pizza Hut. They had to be written with Jay’s unique personality in mind.
Jamie claims the funniest line I’ve ever written was in an El Pollo Loco commercial. The company’s roasted chicken was far healthier than the greasy, fatty fare offered by KFC, its main competitor. So I wrote a commercial called “Secret Blend” that started with Jay saying:
“I just ate lunch at that place that says its chicken is cooked in a secret blend of eighteen different herbs and spices. But I have one question: Is grease an herb or a spice?”
Yeah, that’s a pretty funny line, if I do say so myself.
Recording sessions are often long, tedious affairs in which the voiceover talent reads the same script over and over again while the ad agency writer/director tries to direct him/her into giving it exactly the performance that was in the writer’s head when the script was written. It’s not unusual to do dozens of takes and re-takes and to require lots of editing to make it come out the way you hear it on the radio.
But when Jay did an El Pollo Loco recording session, he usually nailed it in two or three takes. He’d be in and out of the studio in ten minutes. He could read a script exactly like I heard it in my head when I wrote it and he always brought a 60-second script in at exactly 60-seconds. Not fifty nine and a half, not sixty and a half. Sixty seconds exactly.
After our first recording session, I complimented Jay on how he had managed to get it so right so quickly.
“It was easy,” he said. “Whoever wrote these scripts really understands me and has nailed my personality perfectly.”
That’s one of the nicest compliments I ever received in my advertising career.
Another Jay Thomas/El Pollo Loco story:
The company wanted a commercial advertising a 12-piece chicken offer that they had named “The Really Big Deal.” I wrote the commercial, and although I don’t recall the exact copy, it said something about someone who was “hungrier than a lumberjack who’s been Dancing to the Oldies with Richard Simmons.”
The client said, “We can’t mention Dancing to the Oldies or Richard Simmons. He’ll sue us.” So I was forced to change the copy to read “hungrier than a lumberjack who’s been dancing to that old music with that crazy exercise guy.” Clearly a much weaker line, but the lawsuit shy client refused to budge.
We got to the recording session and Jay read the copy and stopped when he got to that line.
“Wouldn’t this line be funnier if we changed it to, “…Dancing to the Oldies with Richard Simmons?”
“That’s the way it was originally written,” I said. “By the client is afraid they’ll get sued by Richard Simmons.”
That’s when Jay said one of the most surprising things I’d ever heard.
“Well, then you hired the right voiceover guy. Richard Simmons and I were best friends growing up in New Orleans. He’ll never sue because he’ll think it’s funny that I’m the one saying it.”
What are the odds?
We recorded it the original way. Neither Richard Simmons nor his lawyers ever called to complain, and El Pollo Loco sold a whole lot of chicken.
Now let’s move forward a few years.
I was working on a television campaign for Santa Anita Thoroughbred Racing and wrote a series of funny TV scripts that featured a knowledgable male horse race fan explaining the sport to a ditzy woman. I wrote them with Jay Thomas in mind.
Unbeknownst to any of us, he was a horse racing fanatic. He loved to bet on the ponies. So he was thrilled to find out we were going to shoot the commercials at Santa Anita on an actual race day so we could capture the roar of the crowd and images of the horses breaking out of the starting gate.
I said earlier that recording a radio commercial often takes dozens of takes, but TV commercials can be even worse because there are so many more variables when you add a video component. So each shooting day requires a much larger crew, many different takes and many different set-ups for each different shot that is required.
Every time we had a short break, Jay would disappear. It got to the point that it was delaying the production, so the producer finally took him aside and asked where he was going between shots.
“Every time we take a break, I run over and place a bet on the next race,” he said. “And I’m having a pretty good day because I just won $1200.”
When we broke for lunch, Jay announced that he would join us as soon as he cashed in his $1200 winning ticket.
We had lunch. Jay didn’t return. We waited. Jay didn’t return. We sent people out to find him and they came back without him. We were beyond the time allotted time for lunch in the production schedule and the star of our commercials was missing.
All of a sudden Jay burst through the door with a huge smile on his face.
“Sorry for the delay,” he said, “but my math was a little off. I didn’t win $1200, I won $12,000 and when you win that much they make you go to a special office and fill out a bunch of paperwork for the IRS before they’ll give you the money.”
We all laughed and congratulated him on his good luck, but told him he couldn’t make any more bets or we’d never get the commercials completed before the sun went down.
“OK,” he said, “but don’t tell my agent I won this much money while I was working or he’ll want his 10%.”
That was classic Jay Thomas.
He was one of a kind and the world will miss him. But I know that wherever he is right now, everyone around him is laughing.