The Austin Chronicle

Pitch People

Not rated, 87 min. Directed by Stanley Jacobs.

REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., May 18, 2001

If you grew up watching TV in the Seventies, as I did, then you doubtless have a small portion of your heart reserved for those magical, shoddy “As Seen On TV” products such as Ron Popeil's miraculous Pocket Fisherman, the unstoppable Ginsu carving knife (“It actually cuts clean through this tin can!!”), and RonCo's Amazing Salad Shooter. How could you live without these miraculous aids to modern household convenience? You couldn't, of course, and so the products' creators and their late-night television “pitch people” became, oddly enough, a cultural sub-genre in their own right. Jacobs' zippy, engaging documentary examines the history of pitchmaking, from its turn-of-the-century origins among snake-oil salesman and carnival barkers in England to those heady days during the introduction of television to the American heartland, where this unique form of advertising was refined and redesigned for a whole new generation. Goggle-eyed viewers and struggling housewives, desperate for the labor-saving devices and doo-dads so colorfully promoted into their living rooms via the tube, flocked to dial the flashing 1-800 number on their screens -- as a result, Ron Popeil, Brit expatriate John Parkin (no-stick cookware was his specialty, along with the breathless delivery, live audience, and an incredulous female “partner” amazed at the way that poached egg slid unhindered around the pan), and many others became both fabulously wealthy and extremely well-known, virtually overnight. Jacobs' film examines not only the various players in the product-pitching universe, but also the cultural background that has allowed much of current late-night television programming to be overrun by endless infomercials featuring the likes of get-rich shill-meisters and miracle auto waxes resistant to everything from lighter fluid to, presumably, alien attack. The Reagan administration is responsible for deregulating the longstanding FCC laws that previously mandated that television commercials could be no more than 60 seconds in length. While this was clearly a tremendous boon to the pitch people and product-hawkers, fans of more esoteric TV fare have ever since been consigned to endless channel surfing; television's “vast wasteland” of the Sixties is nothing compared to the floodtide of dreck faced by modern viewers. Despite the inherently cloying nature of the pitching business, Jacobs' breezy documentary somehow manages to make it all seem downright homey. Interviews with Johnny Carson sidekick and former Atlantic City boardwalk huckster Ed McMahon and crony Arnold “Mr. Knife” Morris are downright nostalgic. You get the inescapable feeling that this sort of capitalistic byproduct is as American as Mom, baseball, and apple pie, despite the fact that the film traces the pitchmen's origins to the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. As quickly paced and breathlessly intoned as the commercials it profiles, Jacobs' amusingly wacky film highlights what is by all accounts a rapidly vanishing art form -- that of separating the consumer from his money while entertaining him at the same time.

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