The Pain Train

Two years later, a digital-video short film became an overnight ad sensation

"The biggest thing in the corporate world and even life is consideration," says Speight, a former college footballer who has appeared in episodes of Homicideand Walker, Texas Ranger. "When somebody is not considerate enough to fill the coffee pot up or even clean it out, you want somebody to come in and rectify that. Youcan't do it, so Terry kinda speaks for a lot of people and jumps in there and gives them what you'd like to do. That's what he's paid to do."

But Terry Tatealso doesn't look like other ads: There are no beery twins bouncing their breasts beneath wet T-shirts, no models wrestling in gallons of mud, no pop stars singing to themselves in overpriced sports cars, no monkey business. It peddles incredibly smart dumb comedy and is loaded with so many jokes you have to see it several times to catch every one--be it the giggly thumbs-up Terry gives a co-worker, the fact no one in the office reacts to Terry's tackles (he's just doing his job) or the quick reference to Mike Judge's beloved Office Space, a film Thurber loves so much he "wore a hole into the DVD." As much as anything, Terry Tatefollows in the tire tracks of BMW's The Hirecampaign, which paired movie stars (Clive Owen, Don Cheadle, Madonna, Gary Oldman) and top-drawer directors (John Woo, Ang Lee, Tony Scott) in a series of ads that played like short films. They didn't actually sell anything, but that wasn't the point; BMW wanted people talking about how cool BMW was for doing ads that didn't look like ads.

"I am a comedy snob," Thurber says. "That's not to say I only like jokes about the quadratic equation. I like a good football in the groin just like everybody else; it just has to be done right... What's been great about this is that it's antithetical to the way commercials are usually made. These are handmade commercials, auteur-driven commercials, and that's why it works. Terry Tatedidn't look like everything else. It had its own breath, its own blood, and it looked and smelled and tasted different than every Bud Light commercial you've seen 5,000 times. It succeeded on its own terms, and that's what people are responding to."

A Terry Tate that Larry Tate would be proud of: Lester Speight, left, and Rawson Thurber tackle the ad world.
A Terry Tate that Larry Tate would be proud of: Lester Speight, left, and Rawson Thurber tackle the ad world.

So, back to that bit about how this brilliant advertisement was never meant to be an advertisement at all.

Thurber says it's necessary to go back to fall 2000, back when online start-ups were dropping big money on small films they could air on their nifty Web sites. At the time, 14-year-old Propaganda Films was among the leading content providers for sites like AtomFilms.com, and someone there had seen Thurber's script for something called Terry Tate, Office Linebackerand decided to toss the kid some scratch. If Propaganda liked it, maybe Atom Films would air the movie and even give him money for a whole series of Terry Tate films.

Thurber put an ad in an actor's trade mag and wound up with "sad amounts of headshots," but among them was Speight's--and he looked just as Thurber had imagined Terry when he was writing and storyboarding the short. He just hoped the dude could act, since Thurber wasn't familiar with Speight's appearance as "Kid Spandex" on the Comedy Central series That's My Bush! or his work as a security guard in Oliver Stone's film Any Given Sunday. What he found was someone "charismatic and fearless," a former theater major (surprise) who was willing to play silly and scary at the same time--a grinning wrecking machine.

"That's what comes through with Terry Tate," Thurber says. "Terry Tate is not a bully. He's the most popular guy in the office. Guys wanna be him, girls wanna date him. He's like Mr. Popularity, nice to everybody, and it's only when you break a rule you get hit. Terry Tate's not malicious; it's just his job, and he does it really, really well."

Problem was, shortly after the film was completed, Propaganda went bust. But Hypnotic, an L.A.-based production company fronted by writer-director Doug Liman (Swingers, The Bourne Identity) and former NBC and HBO programming exec Doug Bartis, was interested in seeing what it could do with it. After all, Hypnotic hadbeen interested in Thurber's script early on, and it had more contacts than a defunct company, so it made sense. Hypnotic took the short to the New York-based Arnell Group ad agency, with whom it had a long-standing relationship working on, among other things, the annual Chrysler Million Dollar Film Festival. Peter Arnell and his execs, who handle the Reebok account, liked what they saw and figured they could take Thurber's baby and use him to sell the hell out of Reebok. All they had to do was redo the short, which was long on bad lighting and bad camera work and bad language, and make Terry Tate presentable to the home-viewing and shoe-buying audience.

"The Arnell Group and Reebok flipped," Thurber says. "They weren't exactly sure what it was, but they go, 'This is really fuckin' funny, we wanna get in, so here's some money, go this summer and shoot four more short films and from that you're gonna cut 30-second spots, and we'll see where we are.' I mean, when you're at that level in corporate America, you're not necessarily rewarded for courage, and I think that's a feather in the Arnell Group and Reebok's cap--not to mention they were willing to cough up over $4 million for a 60-second Super Bowl commercial with no product in it whatsoever. That's like crazy. Literally crazy. That's the kind of gamble where you're either gonna go home a winner or go home a loser, and I think they won nicely."

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