The Pain Train

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

Rawson Thurber has been so busy the past few days that by the time he finally returns a reporter's phone call, he does so at 1:30 in the morning--and he doesn't even realize the late, or early, hour till he hears the groggy croak on the other end. He's sorry as hell--"Aw, dude, you were asleep, weren't you?"--but all things considered, you understand a man with a packed schedule has only so many spare minutes to waste on the phone with a journalist. It wasn't like this January 25. Back then, way back then, you could have gotten him on the phone any time, for any length of time. But all those days ago, before the Bucs went to San Diego and tossed the Raiders out to sea, the world had yet to meet Rawson Thurber's baby boy: office linebacker Terry Tate, a man who will clothesline a colleague for making long-distance phone calls on the company dime or tackle a co-worker for failing to make a fresh pot of coffee. "You kill the joe, you make some mo'," Terry hollers at one quivering sucker stupid enough to catch a ride on the Pain Train.

Two weeks ago, Thurber's filmography was just wishful thinking: a student short film even he will tell you is awful, another digital short that remains little more than a rumor and a script in the hands of a movie star who says he can't wait to star in it. He had more going for him than most 27-year-old wannabes, including a deal with Ben Stiller's production company, but Thurber still existed in that frustrating state of Hollywood limbo, where success teases and taunts but seldom delivers. Today, he is the unknown sensation of Super Bowl Sunday, the man who conceived, wrote and directed the four-minute film Terry Tate, Office Linebacker, the first of several shorts Reebok is rolling out to introduce its new Vector line--as though anyone really notices the product in between Terry's bruising tackles of guys in ties who take pens off his desk or forget to put cover sheets on their TPS reports or thoughtlessly toss aluminum cans in regular trash bins sitting alongside recycling containers.

Since Reebok introduced the spot, a 30-second "trailer" for the longer online film, during the second half of the Super Bowl, more than a million people have logged onto terrytate.reebok.com. Lester Speight, who plays Terry, granted by his own estimation some 40 radio, print and television interviews in the days after the Super Bowl--including one on the Today show, where he treated Matt and Katie and Al to a few slices of "pain cake." Last Friday, he even rang the closing bell at the New York Stock Exchange--not as Lester or The Mighty Rasta, the name under which Speight acts, but as Terry Tate.

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.

"He's a fictional character," Thurber says, his voice still registering disbelief. "We aired the commercial once, and this is like past surreal. This is into the bizarre. But bizarre great. Never in my wildest imagination would I have thought any of this would have happened."

In other words, Terry Tate, Office Linebacker is easily the most successful ad campaign the athletic-wear company has ever launched--even if, for now, most of those who have seen the short have no idea what it's selling.

"Nothing compares to this," says Denise Kaigler, Reebok's vice president of global communications. "Absolutely none of us comprehended how big this would be."

That includes Thurber, who conceived of Terry Tate long before Speight started draping golden Reebok jewelry around his thick neck and over pecs that appear made of molded metal. For God's sake, Terry Tate, Office Linebacker began not as an ad campaign for a multimillion-dollar company, but as a joke, something that would fill out a tiny demo reel, amuse Thurber and his pals and maybe, if he was really lucky, get into a few film festivals and attract a little attention. This wasn't supposed to happen: the overnight success that comes only with years' worth of waiting.

"It's a little bit like South Park," says producer Stuart Cornfeld, who runs Stiller's Red Hour Productions, for whom Thurber will direct his first feature, the dodge-ball comedy Underdogs, later this year. "Those guys were just doing something to amuse themselves, and suddenly America catches on...Rawson gets a tremendous amount of credibility out of this."

Precisely how this happened is a fairly improbable tale, as you will see. Precisely why it happened is far less inexplicable, because if you see the short film once, you will want to see it again and again. It's a surreal and not a little violent bit of wish-fulfillment for any 9-to-5'er who's ever been stuck holding the empty coffee pot or found their co-workers playing solitaire on a busy day. Terry Tate lurks among the cubicles to wreak vengeance on behalf of all those hard workers dumped on by those hardly working. That's why his co-workers at the fictitious Felcher & Sons (like you didn't know a company named for a Felcher was made-up) love him, and that's why audiences adore him: Terry leads the league in tackles of the rude and thoughtless.

"The biggest thing in the corporate world and even life is consideration," says Speight, a former college footballer who has appeared in episodes of Homicide and 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. You can'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 Tate also 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 Tate follows in the tire tracks of BMW's The Hire campaign, 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 Tate didn'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."

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 Linebacker and 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 had been 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."

In the meantime, Thurber thought, what the hell, he'd enter the Sundance Film Festival--for the second time. In 1999, when he was still studying film production at the University of Southern California, he entered a short called The Band, which garnered him only a letter of rejection from organizer Geoffrey Gilmore. Thurber framed the letter and put it in his bathroom, and figured maybe he'd enter every year and wallpaper the john with film-fest no-thank-you notes. But this time, Terry Tate, Office Linebacker was accepted to the 2002 Sundance fest--only he had to pull it four days before it was scheduled to screen. "Reebok," explains Thurber, "didn't want to let the cat out of the bag" just yet.

Last summer, Thurber and Speight were reunited for seven days of shooting, during which they filmed 109 scenes for the four shorts that will make up Reebok's initial run of Internet spots. The first one wound up costing some $4 million--though the amount of press Reebok's gotten from it has to be priceless. After all, dozens of papers and TV shows and radio stations across the country have written stories about an ad, which draws people back to the Web site, which gets people to thinking, "Damn, maybe I gotta get me some Reebok Vector shit." Or, at the very least, a Terry Tate jersey, which will be available soon enough.

Reebok and Arnell Group execs were so taken aback by journalists' rush to write about the film they even rushed Thurber and Speight into production on another ad, which was scheduled to air last weekend--two days after it was shot, and a mere four days after it was conceived.

For now, Speight is handling his newfound fame well--as long as he doesn't have to give too many interviews as Terry Tate. He's an actor, serious about his comedy; he will be seen in a few weeks on Malcolm in the Middle, then The Jamie Kennedy Experiment and Alexandre Rockwell's indie film 13 Moons alongside Steve Buscemi and Sam Rockwell. Thurber is not quite sure how far Terry Tate will carry him on those broad shoulders; he's also not sure how far he should go. After all, he will soon direct Underdogs, with producer Ben Stiller as one of his stars. And it appears, sooner than later, the creator will lose control over his creation, and Terry Tate will no longer belong to Rawson Thurber.

"I'm coming to terms with that every hour at this point," he says, with a slight laugh. "And here's the thing for me: I'm thrilled with the reception Terry Tate has gotten. I love it. I love Terry Tate, I can't wait to do more Terry Tate, I'm glad America gets it. You never know when you do these things if what you think is funny is what millions of people will think is funny. For me, though, there are other things I wanna do. Other stories I want to tell. This is a great experience for me, and I hope to do more of it, but my love and focus and passion is feature films and writing and directing those. I mean, there's been talk of Terry Tate feature films and television." He sounds like even he can't believe what he is saying. "We'll see. I am open to it all."

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