Can Henny Youngman and a slew of other borsch belt comedians mix with the arcane world of financial services?
Ray Dirks thinks so. He's betting his new start-up venture can rely on the aging celebrities' lingering appeal to sell annuities to the 55-and-over set with infomercials.
Mr. Dirks, 59, has followed the insurance business for 35 years, currently as research director for RAS Securities.
And he knows a few comedians, partly from his membership in the Friars' Club. Years ago, he said, Mr. Youngman brought corned beef sandwiches to his office after Mr. Dirks made some wise investments for him.
"Most people, when they think of buying insurance, they think of going to the dentist," said Mr. Dirks, who's a bit of a comedian himself. "Insurance agents are viewed with a lot of suspicion, almost as bad as used car salesmen.
"Suddenly it occurred to me: Why don't we get some of these famous comedians, use infomercials and the comedians would have time not only to entertain but to endorse the product and educate the public?"
Mr. Dirks has created Super Annuities, which will essentially act as a "superagency," selling seniors tax-deferred annuities from eight to 10 companies as retirement investments.
Eventually, he plans to offer auto and other insurance that older Americans sometimes have trouble securing, and he expects to spend "millions" marketing the products, in part by sidestepping costly agent commissions.
Mr. Dirks has already secured the (800) ANNUITY phone number. And he has enlisted the help of Waring & LaRosa, which in turn has hired Brockway Direct Response Television, Huntington, N.Y., to produce a 30-minute infomercial scheduled to be tested in Florida this spring or fall.
The show will be structured as a mock Friars' Club "roast" of Mr. Youngman by his comedic brethren. Red Buttons, Monty Hall, Freddy Roman and Donald O'Connor have been signed, and others are being wooed.
"They'll be telling jokes, about money, life and death, auto accidents, whatever," Mr. Dirks said. Then will come the hard sell, by the comedians themselves or a "straight man," he said.
"The challenge here is you've got a very complex product-annuities-and a very dry topic," said Dick Brockway, president of the infomercial agency. "If you listen to an insurance agent in your home, you fall asleep. The comedians are able to ad-lib and do financial humor, if there is such a thing, and then we'll integrate a sell about annuities but sort of weave it in and out of this roast of Henny Youngman."
Joe LaRosa, chairman and co-ceo at Waring & LaRosa, called the new account "an interesting proposition" but claimed "nothing's formulated" in terms of how the infomercial will be structured.
In addition to Brockway, he has hired Bill Persky, a veteran director of the likes of "The Dick Van Dyke Show" and "Kate & Allie," who in the late 1980s also directed a short-lived sitcom-style TV campaign for Ragu spaghetti sauce, then handled by Waring.