Open Mic

Funny Story About One of TV's All-time Great Pitchmen

Chuck Ross Posted July 9, 2009 at 10:15 AM

Tags: alpo, Billy Mays, Ed McMahon, johnny carson, pitchman, the tonight show

Discovery is airing a tribute to the late pitchman Billy Mays tonight (Thursday, July 9th, 9 pm ET/PT), and I’m eager to see it. Mays was indeed a pitchman extraordinaire. Like many of us raised on TV, we’ve come to realize the difference between your run-of-the-mill pitch person and those who almost raise it to the level of art. Or at least who are a hell of a lot more fun to watch than others.

Another of my all-time favorite pitchmen also died recently: Ed McMahon. In various remembrances McMahon has received lots of well-deserved praise for his skill in understanding what made a second-banana top dog.

But it was McMahon’s skill as a pitchman, particularly for Alpo dog food, that I’ll most fondly remember about him.

What made the Alpo commercials that he did on the ”Tonight Show with Johnny Carson" special is that they were done live…and later, live-on-tape.

Here’s my favorite one. I don’t’ recall if I saw it live or in highlight reel. But I do remember seeing it. My memory is enhanced by Ed’s recounting of this particular live commercial in his 1998 memoir “For Laughing Out Loud.”

One day, for a reason no one recalls, the dog that usually appeared in the commercial with McMahon had the night off. A substitute dog, a beagle named Hernandez, was filling in.

As was his wont, when the commercial began McMahon was sitting on a chair on a raised platform, holding a can of Alpo and said: “Alpo is the only one of the leading dog foods that has real beef…..” That was the cue for Hernandez to walk out on stage.

But, as McMahon quickly surmised, Hernandez had stage fright. He’d take a few steps toward Ed and turn away. No amount of coxing by McMahon could convince the dog to make it out to where Ed was sitting and the bowl of Alpo next to him

I’ll let Ed tell it from here:
“And then I saw Johnny come into my little commercial area. He got down on his hands and knees and came over to me. “Come right up, nice Hernandez,” I said as I started to pet Johnny.
Nice boss, I was thinking as I pet him on the head, nice boss. By this point the audience was hysterical. Carson wagged his rump to show how much he loved Alpo. I just kept going. I was going to get my commercial done.

“The next time you’re looking at canned dog food …” –he rubbed his cheek against my leg --- “…… nice Hernandez ….reach for the can that contains real beef….” Johnny got up on his knees and started begging for more. I started petting him again … and then he licked my hand. Good boss, good.

"And I still managed to conclude, gratefully, “And doesn’t your dog deserve Alpo?”#