Friday, May 11, 2012
How I Nearly Ruined a Showbiz Pizza Commercial as a Kid
What you are about to read is a true story. It is recounted as I remember it.
I got my first job at the age of four.
While walking through the airport with my dad, my older sister Lori was scouted by an agent at a top Dallas modeling agency. They really liked my older sister’s look, and since I kind of looked like her, they kind of liked me and signed us both. She was six and I was four.
I thought modeling would be a good way to start a college fund and get ahead on my 401k, while maybe indulging in a few wants such as a new Cabbage Patch Doll and some Fisher Price roller skates.
Okay, for real. I had no clue I was even working.
There are four things I remember about being a child model:
1. The clothes were itchy.
2. The grown ups didn’t smile much.
3. If I didn’t strip off the itchy clothes during the shoot I got a McDonald’s Happy Meal.
4. I usually threw up the Happy Meal a few hours later because my parents were health fiends and rarely let us have anything processed, so my body revolted when fed contraband foods.
The highlight of my career came at five years old, when I got to be an extra in a Showbiz Pizza commercial. For those of you who don’t remember, Showbiz Pizza was the predecessor to Chuck E. Cheese. We never went there because my parents didn’t want to spend money on tokens or pizza made with white flour.
The talent in the commercial was comprised of a principal little boy, thirty child extras, and one actor inside a gigantic mouse suit that later morphed into Chuck E. Cheese. Back then it was just a creepy, pedophilia-looking mouse (see above picture).
The parents waited in a separate area while their children filmed. I would not want to be in a room with thirty stage mothers each trying to one-up the other mothers with their child’s accomplishments.
One of the production assistants divided up the kids to be filmed doing different things around the restaurant. Some kids went to the ball pit, some went to the gophers that try and thwart your hammer with their random head popping, and some went to a table to work with a pizza.
(Due to union laws the pizza couldn’t be on set for any more than 30 minutes before it had to get switched out with a fresher pizza. And we thought actors had a hard time staying fresh. Every time an actor tells me they’re having trouble keeping their image new and interesting, I remind them to be thankful they’re not a pizza. Incidentally I’m not friends with many actors.)
Lori, who was also an extra, was assigned to the gopher heads. I was put with the pizza group and led away with 5 other kids by Production Assistant #1, who was no doubt a recent film studies graduate. PA #1 took her job more seriously than most cardiac surgeons take open-heart surgery. If everyone were as dedicated to his or her job as PA #1, world peace would be only a matter of time.
I don’t want to make light of her dedication. This commercial was the stepping-stone by which she would move to episodic television, transition into film, and then receive her Oscar by thirty for best cinematography. A lot was riding on the shoulders of this twenty-second commercial spot. She could not fail. Which meant the six children she was responsible for could not fail.
PA #1 took me and five other kids to a dining table. On that table sat a huge, scrumptious sausage pizza. I stared at that pizza. I wanted it. It was hypnotizing me with its gooey cheese, greasy sausage, and over refined crust. I’d do anything for a slice.
My parents made pizza from scratch using wheat that my dad bought from a wheat dealer. (Yes, there is such a thing. Wheat deals go down very similar to drug deals.) They ground these wheat kernels into flour in their grinder. They had an all-organic tomato paste and something dairy free for cheese. It tasted nothing like this pizza looked.
I was so deep into my analysis of the pizza that I didn’t pay attention to what PA #1 instructed. Before I knew what was happening she said, “as soon as you hear ‘action’ grab your piece of pizza.”
This was working exactly as I’d hoped.
I got into attack position, eyed the piece of pizza I wanted, and waited for ‘action.’
That was my cue. I grabbed my piece of pizza and began eating it as fast as I could.
PA #1 approached me. She didn’t look happy.
“What are you doing?” she asked me. “You were supposed to grab a slice of pizza and hold it up!”
I somehow missed that part of the instructions. Before I could respond, she’d already walked away.
PA #1 was furiously talking to the props man, telling them that I’d ruined the take by eating the pizza. The props guy nodded and went somewhere.
PA #1 talked to someone else quickly, and then told me they were moving me. A tall man in a headset came over and escorted me to another little group of kids setting up for another shot. These kids were going to skip in a circle around the Pedophilic Mouse mascot.
All I had to do was follow the kid in front of me and look happy. The director yelled “ACTION” and we all started skipping.
Everything was going smoothly. I was on my second lap around the mouse when, for reasons I still can’t explain, I decided to grab his tail. And for equally inexplicable reasons, I decided not to let go.
Here’s a fun fact: the tails of mouse mascots aren’t sewn on very well. I was only half way around the mouse, tail still in hand, when I heard a “riiiiip,” and suddenly I wasn’t pulling the tail anymore. I was carrying it in my hand.
Pedophilic Mouse turned to look at the hole in his* suit. A pair of white Hanes underwear was visible through the tear I’d made. The kids started pointing and laughing as the actor inside the mouse tried to cover the hole clumsily with his fur clad hands. I hung my head in shame. I’d never meant to hurt the mouse. I’d just grabbed his tail for no reason. I felt a tickle in my eyes and blinked back tears. I also felt something rumble in my tummy. The kind of rumble that makes you have to run to a bathroom.
The costume person retrieved the tail from my hand and walked with the mouse to another room. Production was temporarily halted.
Another assistant walked over to me and said I could come sit with her while things got reset. I think they didn’t want to leave me unsupervised. I told this girl I wasn’t feeling good, and that I might be sick. She promptly took me back to where the parents were being kept.
Here’s how you know I’m not lying about this story. If I were making up the story I would have had me throwing up on PA #1 or in the ball pit or on the lead little boy, who received noticeably better treatment than the other kids.
But I did not get sick. I merely went to sit with my mother, another stage mother gave me two Spearmint tic tacs, and I laid my head in my mom’s lap until they finished shooting and Lori was released. Lori came out with hundreds of tickets they’d let her keep when she played the gopher game. Fortunately she hadn’t seen my mess ups, and the shame I’d brought on myself remained my secret. Until now.
In the final cut of the commercial, there is a ¼ second blurb where you can see the seat of the pale blue overalls my mom dressed me in for the day. For years my mom freeze-framed the commercial to that ¼ second every time someone entered our house.
I'd share the footage with you, but sadly that VHS accidentally got dropped off our balcony and then smashed with a hammer when I was a teenager.
My modeling career didn’t last much longer. When I was almost six several of my teeth fell out, and my adult teeth came in at such odd angles that no one wanted me representing their product, so the agency dropped me.
This instilled in me a deep sense of self-hatred, which was vitally important when I started doing stand up comedy.
The moral of this story is simple: If you are going to be health nuts don’t put your child in show business or some delicious looking prop food might distract them from listening to important instructions and wreak havoc on the entire commercial and instill a feeling of guilt and shame in your child that forces them into the world of comedy later in life.
When I was sixteen all my suffering paid off when I had a few thousand dollars in the bank to put toward a car. Sadly, that is my only fond memory of my first job.
If you made it to the end of this blog you deserve a piece of delicious pizza.
*Or her. I never did see its face. I consider that a good thing, because if a mascot lets you see their human face, it means they’re going to kill you.