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"WHEN CREATIVE PEOPLE forget what they are about, when they begin entertaining for entertaining's sake, when they start spending client media dollars to indulge some unfulfilled 'Saturday Night Live' fantasy, that's a problem." Thus spake Ad Age's Bob Garfield back in May of 1990 in his one-and-a-half-star review of a spot in which a family of Snapple chug-a-luggers suffers through a lengthy car ride having to take a collective nuclear pee.

Fast forward to Garfield's four-star October 1995 review of the ESPN "SportsCenter" campaign from Wieden & Kennedy. The campaign, he cooed, neatly achieves its goal of "hilariously conveying the network's personality, perspective, whimsy, intelligence and, above all, attitude."

"It was kind of weird to see the 'SportsCenter' thing go full circle," says Bryan Buckley, half the directing team that shot the ESPN campaign and half the creative team that came up with Snapple. Garfield's review of the latter, he says, "was a personal attack on us. But it's OK, because 'SportsCenter' is 'Saturday Night Live,' except it's done for sports."

If the tongue-in-cheek absurdity of the "SportsCenter" spots reflects what used to be good about "SNL," then Bryan Buckley and Frank Todaro are surely the ready for prime time players. This co-directing team, known for their affable manner, run-and-gun approach and Jack Bennyesque sense of comic timing, is currently amassing a comedy reel that's funnier than reruns of "The Honeymooners." Sure, most of the work is for one client-ESPN, for which these guys have shot literally hundreds of quickie spots over the past two years-but that's not stopping the Buckley & Todaro juggernaut. Over the past year they've also shot for Burger King, Rollerblade and Nike, and their commercials schedule is getting so crowded you've got to wonder just when these 32 year olds are going to find time to indulge their other passion, movies.

Ah, yes, Hollywood. That's sort of where Buckley and Todaro probably thought they'd be spending most of their time these days, not the downtown New York offices of Radical Media, their commercials production company. But then they got that call from Wieden & Kennedy copywriter Hank Perlman back in the fall of '93, and things just sort of took on a life of their own.

But first, let's go back to the beginnings of the B&T Story. Back in his Snapple days, Buckley was partners in the short-lived Buckley DeCerchio, an agency whose flame burned bright but brief, if you believe their hefty pack of press clippings. Founded in 1988 by Buckley and Tom DeCerchio, two Chiat/Day/New York creative guys, the agency opened with the Godfather's Pizza account. Renowned in the trade press as the twentysomething agency, it eventually grew to close to $30 million in billings, largely on comic, low-budget offbeat ads for clients like Yugo (remember those death traps?), Giant Carpet and the New York Restaurant Group. All the while, though, the partners had been busy exploring the world of entertainment. They'd taken acting classes together (Buckley had considered pursing a career on the boards before getting into advertising), they were talking to agents and they'd even co-written spec episodes of the sitcom "Family Ties." When their first screenplay sold (it never got produced), they both found themselves lured by the siren call of Tinseltown.

"The problem was that we had a lot of success in a couple of places very early on," says the now somewhat older and wiser Buckley. "And if affects different people different ways. Tom, he really got the bug-he wanted to get out, he wanted to go to L.A. and he wanted it to happen overnight. And the reality was, I couldn't do that."

So DeCerchio checked out and Todaro checked in. A Syracuse U. classmate of Buckley's, he had started at Dancer Fitzgerald Sample in '85 as an art director, segued into copywriting and moved to Scali before joining Buckley DeCerchio as a partner in 1990. Soon he, too, had the movie bug, and while DeCerchio was pursuing his directing career in Hollywood, Todaro and Buckley started writing a screenplay on their own.

By 1991 the attraction was too strong, and Buckley and Todaro folded what was left of the then named Buckley DeCerchio Cavalier into Frankfurt Gips Balkind. The idea was for Buckley and Todaro to wean themselves from the agency and start devoting their full energies to their budding writing careers. But the whole thing came apart-partner Jane Cavalier left, and they found themselves stuck at FGB, albeit on a part-time basis, longer than they thought they'd be.

And that's sort of where things were when Wieden & Kennedy copywriter (and former Buckley DeCerchio Cavalier staffer) Hank Perlman called to ask if the guys would consider shooting a bunch of low-budget ESPN NHL promos for the agency. Even though the pair had never directed anything, Perlman knew their low-key comic sensibilities were well-suited to this campaign, in which hockey stars were asked to take part in goofy skits and sight gags. Shot in 16mm b&w, the spots have an unpolished, flubs-and-all innocence that makes them fun to watch even if you don't give a shit about hockey.

Says Perlman, "It just needed someone who got it, and they got it." What's that mean? "You know, they got what you got about it. You never know with directors whether they get it or not, and they got it."

More to the point, Perlman needed people who could contribute conceptually; there were so many spots, so many locations. He wasn't sure how organized this shoot would be, and he knew things would change a lot. "You'd have to be able to think on your feet, so we needed a director who could roll with it, and these guys have more flexibility than anyone I've ever worked with. I mean, they were almost casual about it."

He says this was particularly true of the "SportsCenter" campaign they did last fall. With its pseudo-documentary feel and totally absurd situations (in one spot, Indy driver Michael Andretti offers to whisk a producer to the airport in his race car, only to rush out in front of the ESPN building to see it being towed away), the campaign positions "SportsCenter" as a highlight show with attitude and irreverence that's nonetheless the one most in tune with its jock subjects.

Of course, Perlman first had to get CD Larry Frey to agree to let Buckley and Todaro shoot the hockey spots, and that posed a bit of a problem. When Frey first saw their reel-which included work they had done as creatives, since they'd essentially directed nothing-he wasn't too impressed. "It was kind of scrappy, with a few funny things on it," he says. Overall, he thought their work was pretty weak. "But Hank was such a good salesman, he convinced me to take a leap of faith and work with the guys."

The leap has paid off, for both the agency and the directors. Buckley and Todaro have since shot a mix of campaigns, some patterned after the studied spontaneity of their ESPN work, others more structured, like the spots they did for Bertucci's, a New England pizza chain. All of their work contains several key Buckley and Todaro traits: a sharp eye for comic performance, a willingness on the part of their agency clients to give them more creative leeway than the average director might get and an unfettered set of production values that makes the spot live or die on the strength of the idea or the script, should there be one.

Says Steve Bautista, CD at Pagano, Schenck & Kay in Boston, for whom they shot a Blue Cross/Blue Shield campaign last March, "Few directors are good at translating the idea of a commercial; most are good at making pretty pictures." With Buckley and Todaro, however, "they make the idea work, they're not just concerned with how it looks."

The directors maintain that, while they've mastered the footloose, improvisational genre with their ESPN work, it's not the only thing they can do. Furthermore, they point out that when they've used this approach, it's usually been because the idea demanded it-how else to pull off a faux behind the scenes look at a TV show like "SportsCenter"? Still, the format has a great appeal for them. "With this style there are bigger possibilities there," says Todaro. "If you plan things out so completely with every single word and every single script worked out, nothing really magical can happen, unless you're open to letting things unfold."

For now, the pair is content to keep toiling away at their separate movie projects, confident that their growing director's reel will only be an asset should they ever get a project green-lighted. Naturally, they'll be attached as directors.

And, given the no frills, idea-driven style of much of their work, their commercials oeuvre holds promise for their respective cinematic futures. "Most comedy in commercials is too slick, and that usually makes it not very funny," says Frey. "Bryan and Frank have gone all the way from having this crude beginner's reel to one of the best comedy reels in the business."

Hey, Lorne Michaels, are you listening?

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