Toby Barlow . . . Unleashed

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The Plimpton Project

Toby Barlow
Toby Barlow
I spend a lot of my time trying to get a statue of George Plimpton (1927-2003), a native New Yorker, erected somewhere in Manhattan. I worry at times that my quest has become something of an obsession; less the, "Wow, what's that wacky creative up to now?" kind of crazy, and more, "The urine-stained man in the bus station is mumbling to himself" variety. It's a fine line.

George Plimpton
George Plimpton Credit: Courtesy of the Paris Review
The odd thing is, I actually wasn't a huge Plimpton-phile when it began. I just happened upon a Hunter S. Thompson article urging that a statue for George be built, and it made sense to me. Since nobody else was doing anything about it, I started. And being an ad guy, that meant writing an ad. Marc Klein did a fantastic job with the art direction, making it an homage to Margaret Larson and Howard Gossage. Once Marc was done, we started showing it to people.

A prospective statue design
A prospective statue design
The ad turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. People saw it and, because it was an ad for a cause, they assumed the cause was real and they started supporting it. So it became a real cause and things started happening. It was fun to watch people's eyes light up when they heard about the statue, as they each hit that universal "Oh yes, of course!" moment.

George Plimpton
George Plimpton Credit: Courtesy of the Paris Review
JWT CCO Ty Montague was an early supporter; it was his idea that, along with a physical statue, there could be a virtual memorial as well. So I showed the ad to the fellows at Honest Design and they helped build the site, PlimptonProject.org. They did such an elaborate and lovely job, we wound up getting nominated for a Webby. We were up against websites for Prince, the Grateful Dead and Harry Potter. Obviously, we didn't stand a chance against Deadheads and wizards, but we did get a lot of traffic, and all sorts of people contacted us. Committees were formed. At one meeting, I found myself sitting across from the poet Billy Collins, which then led to BCActionPoet.org and an animated series we did with Keira Alexandra and the Sundance Channel, which wound up winning JWT a Silver at Cannes. Then Jonathan Coulton, one of my favorite performers, heard about our Plimpton Song Contest and suddenly we had the most marvelous little song in the world (see link below). So one modest ad blossomed into a much bigger, more elaborate creative enterprise. You can almost hear Plimpton laughing.

But for all the frivolity, it's a serious endeavor. In a city with umpteen statues to military generals, Hunter S. Thompson was right—a statue of Plimpton would symbolize the best of what the civilized world can be. But, having gotten to know Plimpton intimately through this journey, I'd like a statue without any symbolism, something that simply remembers him. I want people to keep poking through old issues of The Paris Review and leafing through the marvelous books, like Shadow Box, for years to come. I want people to keep talking about his Syd Finch practical joke and telling endless stories of his other exploits. I like the idea of a young kid who's nuts about football curling up with Paper Lion on a rainy autumn day and finding in those pages a man who was absolutely crazy about life. I think that's worth celebrating. 'Cause that's a good kind of crazy. JonathanCoulton.com/music/ ThingaWeek/atalkwithgeorge.mp3

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