When I told Bob Garfield I would be interviewing him, his response was "I will take short, shallow breaths." So I can assure you that despite his current gig as host of WNYC's "On the Media" and his upcoming one-man traveling show, "Ruggedly Jewish," Bob is still the same smartass I worked with for more than 20 years at Ad Age. He was our resident ad critic, author of "The Chaos Scenario" series that later became a book and the instigator of a revolt against Comcast customer service with a diatribe entitled "Comcast Must Die." But don't take my word for it; you can read our edited transcript below.
The Jewish part I get. But rugged?
You sort of have to be there, but it will turn out that during the course of the program that not am I not all that rugged, I am not especially Jewish. The show taps into my personal search and Americans' search for self improvement and building a personal identity at the core of our current political moment. There are like three different strands all woven in together. It's funny, it's shocking, it's poignant, its weird.
Is the show really based on your time at Ad Age, or did you just say that to get me to interview you?
When I first came to Ad Age, it was not to do ad reviews. I did this roving American thing where I went around the country looking for oddballs. And for years I did this both in print and on the radio and I thought I was just looking for 'man bites dog' stories, but over the years of collecting them I found that there was something loftier going on. And as I looked back at my whole body of that work it wasn't just a freak show, there was a common strand connecting all these people. That strand was pursuit of happiness; pursuing the American dream. We are told by Thomas Jefferson and our parents and our teachers and especially our commencement speakers that we can be anything we desire and furthermore if you don't, you are betraying your forefathers and posterity and yourself. I've been thinking hard on that subject, on my personal journey to figure out who I am, but also the journey that the nation is going on right now with its political divisions and Trumpism and Nazism and everything that comes with it.
So what specifically ran in Ad Age?
There is a sequence with Rose Lokey who was the owner of Katrina the talking cat but she couldn't understand why Meow Mix and Nine Lives weren't beating a path to her door because she had a talking cat. Likewise a guy named Garry Waite who was a country-music-singing endodontist and a guy named Jeffrey Weber who ran a freeze drying business in Florida – freeze drying dead pets. These were all in Ad Age and will now be onstage.
Is this a one-off or a tour?
It will start in Philadelphia and this year we will do Chicago, Detroit, Minneapolis, Boston, Washington, San Francisco. Then we'll see what happens in the spring.
It's terrifying. The last time I did a theater performance I was 13. I played the part of the auctioneer in the play of the Shirley Jackson short story 'The Lottery.' Because I was at the podium I had the script in front of me the whole time so I didn't have to memorize shit. I didn't even have to do any stoning because I was the master of ceremonies. This is 9,500 words that I memorized.
What do you think of the state of ad creative
I am barely aware it exists. Because like most other humans I use all the technological tools available to me to avoid ads. I don't even see them. My preoccupation is trying to find a way for advertising to be healthy so it can sustain media. It was really healthy for 350 years and then came the digital revolution and it blew everything apart. I wish every day that advertising was a reasonable business model. But it isn't. It's carved away by middlemen and fraud. The creative is the least of my worries.
So is there a need for ad criticism anymore like you and
Barbara Lippert were famous for?
There is plenty of ad criticism out there, but I don't know that anyone is doing it with any kind of rigor. I Everyone has always been an ad critic. But saying 'that sucks' is not a criticism. What Barbara and I had in common was that we made it about something, we mounted an argument or created context. ... I don't know that that exists anymore. It's O.K. Everything in its time.
What media do you consume?
I read a lot of newspaper stuff online, a lot fed to me from my aggregators and producers at 'On the Media.' I read a lot of the New York Times in print. The Washington Post, The Atlantic, the New Yorker and a lof of ad hoc stuff pushed from various sources. I read a lot about media revenue largely from the trade. It is the most underserved commercial subject I can think of.