New York Times Commercials That Are Just Insaaaaaane
By COREY KILGANNON
Published: August 18, 2011
Remember the frothing pitchman for the now-defunct Crazy Eddie chain of electronics stores who screamed in television commercials that were inescapable in the 1970s and 1980s about prices that were insaaaaaane?
Nakia Rattray does. In fact, those memorably manic rants on the low-budget television spots helped inspire and launch Mr. Rattray's career as Uncle Majic, the Hip-Hop Magician.
Mr. Rattray, who grew up in Brooklyn and now lives in the Bronx, started out getting hired for local parties by word of mouth. But business really took off about six years ago after he made an unforgettable low-budget commercial of his own that ran - and ran, and ran - on local channels.
It looked as if it were shot on a cellphone at a block party, with Mr. Rattray screaming into the camera, ''Who's your favorite uncle?''
He paid a friend $500 to shoot and produce his zany commercial. Instead of writing a script, Mr. Rattray simply ad-libbed, explaining that he was trying to emulate the most effective commercial he knew.
''I took it all from Crazy Eddie - he was a marketing genius,'' he said one recent weeknight at an East Side restaurant. ''He sold it really well, so I just took it from him.''
This brought giddy smiles to Rhett McLaughlin and Link Neal, two young directors with whom Mr. Rattray was dining. Mr. McLaughlin and Mr. Neal star in a new cable series on IFC called ''Rhett & Link: Commercial Kings,'' in which they visit small businesses, mostly on the West Coast, and produce low-budget ads for them.
The show has revived interest in wacky, late night television commercials - the type that are so bad, they're good. Mr. McLaughlin and Mr. Neal studied the canon of New York-area low-budget commercials: spots like Crazy Eddie's, or Tom Carvel's for ice cream cakes that featured Cookie Puss or Fudgie the Whale.
To help promote the series, IFC created the LoCos Awards - for local commercials, though it could have another connotation - for the most memorable of these ads across the country.
Several New York businesses were honored when the awards were announced in July, including Mr. Rattray, who won the Hammie award, for ''best overly dramatic performance in a local commercial.''
The Lifetime Achievement Award, for the most unforgettable ''stuck in your brain'' local ad, went to the owners of the Grand Prospect Hall in Brooklyn: Alice and Michael Halkias, who were named ''local advert pitch person legends.''
The award for best graphics went to the legendary ads for Dr. Jonathan Zizmor, a Manhattan dermatologist, that use fake-looking, blue-sky backgrounds and feature acne-free women singing ''Thank you, Dr. Zizmor.''
The ads are also unforgettable because, at one time, they seemed to be plastered on every subway car in the city.
Mr. McLaughlin and Mr. Neal had invited Mr. Rattray to dinner, as well as the Halkiases, to talk shop. They fawned over the Halkiases for their commercial, in which they stand in formal dress, clinking empty Champagne glasses with Mrs. Halkias and extolling the catering hall's ''glamour and romance.''
A shaky camera zooms in and out, showing the couple and then sweeping around the hall's ornate rooms to show views of the Manhattan skyline. The hall's phone number blinks onscreen throughout, and then comes Mrs. Halkias's genius line: ''We make your dreams come true.''
The Halkiases, who grew up in Greece, said the ad had made them famous. Mrs. Halkias said she was regularly asked to recite her famous line, while Mr. Halkias finds himself replicating the gestures he makes in the ad.
''I gestured like any Greek would do,'' he explained. ''Everyone picked on it, but it was effective. People called it mimicry and craziness - I was just acting naturally.''
Mr. McLaughlin interjected: ''It's not crazy - it's memorable.''
The Halkiases told Mr. McLaughlin and Mr. Neal that in 1986 they hired a cameraman and producer to make the commercial for $1,500. Several subsequent commercials produced by skilled professionals never got the response of that first ad, they said.
Mr. Rattray nodded and said, ''I spent a lot more money to make a second commercial, but people don't remember it - they like the raw one better.''
Deliberately rendering the word magic as ''majic'' also proved to be a plus, Mr. Rattray said.
''People are like, 'Check this out, the dude can't spell,' '' he said.
Mr. Rattray said he often performed for the children of star athletes and rap stars. But even before that, he added, he began promoting himself as popular among the celebrity set.
''I figured, if I say I perform for celebrities, then celebrities will start calling me,'' he said. The marketing bluff also pleased Mr. McLaughlin and Mr. Neal.
Mr. Rattray asked Mr. McLaughlin and Mr. Neal how he might land his own reality show. The outline: poor kid from the projects in East New York becomes a party performer to the stars but can never really break free from his roots.
Mr. Rattray said he was a troubled kid living in squalor in an apartment with no door.
''I had to lock my bike up in my own apartment,'' he said.
His own career finds him in starkly contrasting settings. He may go from performing at a New Jersey mansion to a party in the projects in Brooklyn where he said he needed bodyguards to hold the money customers pay him.
Mr. McLaughlin and Mr. Neal were enthralled by Mr. Rattray's stories.
''Have you ever thought of making an infomercial?'' Mr. Neal said.
This is a more complete version of the story than the one that appeared in print.
PHOTO: From left, Nakia Rattray, Michael and Alice Halkias, Rhett McLaughlin and Link Neal, all of them involved in low-budget ads. (PHOTOGRAPH BY HIROKO MASUIKE/THE NEW YORK TIMES)