LAST WEEK NBC announced that there were still seven or eight commercial spots available for Super Bowl XLIII. I'm sure I wasn't the only one thinking, Just give them to Peyton Manning. At least they'll be funny.
Look, I know he's in every other ad during football season, but he is not overexposed nearly enough. For anyone who ever stumbled across the 40,000th cable airing of The Godfather, promised themselves they'd watch two minutes and stayed till half past Luca Brasi, it's the same thing, minus the piano wire. You know the scene, you're mouthing the line, you know the payoff. But it is always satisfying. And you'll stop to look the next time too.
We stop for a Peyton Manning commercial. We shush the room for a Peyton Manning commercial. And then the game returns, and we go back to hoping he gets sacked. Such is the power of comedy. Manning can win over his loudest haters with 30 seconds of bemused idiot-box philosophy. It's just another Manning checkoff: Everything changes at the line. And the line is usually something like, "Scoot over, will you? Anybody got any chips?"
"He transforms himself so easily and readily from quarterback superstar to likeable, condescending TV stooge," says my boss, Dave Letterman, before repeating one of Manning's MasterCard Priceless Pep Talk codas: "If I were you, I'd just buy some bigger shirts."
To call someone a "TV stooge" is the ultimate accolade from Dave. To be a stooge is to willingly participate with no ego, no concern for how it all looks.
It all looks funny. Manning is not the first athlete to deliver a laugh on cue on behalf of a brand. But why is his comic technique galaxies ahead of other jock pitchmen?
"He's a great communicator," says Rick Clancy, senior VP of corporate communications at Sony. "Been working with us for a few years now. He was a communications and business major in college. Perhaps he has some ambition later in life."
If you punch in " Peyton Manning + commercials" on YouTube, you get 207 results. Sure, many of them are efforts with titles like "Pricelass Peep Traks with Clayton Fanning," but that's not why you're here. So, why does it work? Why is he funny? Why do we like him and why is the template so refillable? Let's look at some film and break down the tendencies.
He's the anti-shill He fronts more sponsors than the hood of a NASCAR Sprint Cup car, but for the life of me, most times I cannot remember who Manning is doing the commercials for. Contrast that with Charles Barkley, who I know did spots for T-Mobile, just as I know he should have asked Dwyane Wade or someone else in his Fave 5 to drive him home earlier this month.
How can Manning's advice on dealing with a bad haircut ("Clean part, high and tight, no sideburns, no mistakes....") even subliminally scream Get MasterCard? And who can even get a MasterCard now? Great comedy is misdirection. Sometimes it appears as if Manning has wandered through the wrong door and wound up on set. Be honest. Does the dual press conference in the Oreo commercial with the Williams sisters make you think about cookies, or Donkey Kong?