I have long had this theory that each and every metro area, no matter how big or small, has its own set of ridiculous local commercials that burn themselves into the brains of the citizenry.* For instance, I grew up in the Bay Area and I’m quite certain that every kid from Salinas to Ukiah who grew up in the 70s and 80s would know that the proper response to a shout of “Glue, I need glue!” is “YOU’RE GONNA NEED LOTSA GLUE!!!” Or they would go into a fetal position and break out in hives at the mere mention of Paul from the Diamond Center. Whether the spot featured a couple of goofy puppets or a creepy dude with bad production values, a Cheshire grin, and a porn-stache, everyone in the greater Bay Area was united in their desire to immediately change the channel whenever these ads appeared…except for the fact that tvs back then had knobs instead of a digital receiver and you had to walk, like, eight whole feet to change it and you were sure your little brother was going to steal your spot if you got up so screw it.
* I don’t know this for a fact, but I suspect this theory will only apply to those of us who grew up pre-DVR. [Read the rest in a crotchety old man voice:] These kids today with their fancy shmancy 1000-channel cable satellite internet phones don’t have the patience to sit down for a 30-second ad featuring a chimp trying to sell a used car, let alone the opportunity. Back in my day, we had to sit through all the commercials and that’s the way it was and we liked it! (No we didn’t…I love my DVR.)
As for other regions? Well, I couldn’t tell you about the weird ads that aired in Boston or Peoria or Kalamazoo, but that’s the point, right? These abominations of broadcasting existed purely within a local television bubble and, since youtube didn’t exist back in the day, no one outside the bubble had a clue what the people inside were suffering through…except for me. Back in 1993, one of those bubbles reached out and swallowed me. Why? Because I am related to one of the most infamous local advertisers in these United States: Dr. Jonathan Zizmor, aka New York’s famed Subway Doctor.
Back in ’93, I vaguely knew of Dr. Zizmor. While I may be a California native, the rest of my family is from New York so I had visited, seen his subway ads (above), and heard the story about how that guy under the rainbow was actually my first cousin once removed. Of course I had never met him, and even though my dad saw young Jonathan at Passover every year while growing up, he’s pretty sure he hasn’t seen his first cousin in person since the late 70s. So you can imagine my surprise when nearly every New Yorker I met during my freshman year at Cornell would ask if I was related to THE Dr. Zizmor, and then about 50% of them would begin excitedly reciting one of his strangely hypnotic ads. Needless to say, shouts of “Thank you Dr. Zizmor!” rang in my ears for much of my first semester.
And you know what? After I got past the weirdness of those crazed New Yorkers, it was actually kind of fun being connected to his notoriety. After all, I could honestly say I didn’t know the guy so the jokes never embarrassed me. It ended up being more of an icebreaker than anything else considering about 50% of my class seemed to be from the Tri-State area. Hell, had I been a bit more of a “playa”** during the summer I lived in Manhattan, I probably could have used our connection as the basis for a lame pickup line to score with the lovely ladies of the New York bar scene. Nevertheless, I enjoyed having that goofy relationship with Dr. Z – not only did he give me a good talking point, but his infamy assured that no New Yorker would ever commit one of my biggest pet peeves: mispronouncing my last name.
** Everyone I know, ESPECIALLY my wife, will tell you I am decidedly NOT a “playa”…seriously, the closest I ever got to being a playa was visiting a beach in Mexico.
Of course, as the internet blossomed, the most popular advertising doctor of dermatology in the NYC Subway system saw his fame spread beyond the five boroughs. When Hillary Clinton first ran for the Senate, a New York paper suggested the Chicagoan prove herself a true New Yorker by taking a quiz – one of the questions was “Who is Dr. Zizmor?”; in 2003 there was a piece on him in the New Yorker; to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the subway system in 2004, an A-Z list of subway-born terminology featured “Zizmor” for the letter Z; a 2006 New York Times article practically called him a city icon; Saturday Night Live spoofed him in a fake commercial; and some advertising genius over at Snickers came up with this brilliant piece of work:
All of this was instantaneously forwarded to me by friends from around the globe who recognized my unusual last name associated with someone they had never heard of. In all honesty, these blips of recognition became an amusing little joy of mine – I liked getting a sliver of reflected glory…until recently that is.
Just a few weeks ago, my good friend over at the I Am DB blog (if you love movies, then check out his blog – seriously, he knows his s**t) sent me a link about the good doctor. I initially thought it would be yet another silly story about Dr. Z, but what I read really pissed me off. According to many sources covering the series finale of the tv show 30 Rock, their writers asked my cousin to appear in an episode AND HE TURNED THEM DOWN! I repeat, Dr. Jonathan Zizmor had the opportunity to associate himself with Tina Fey on one of the funniest tv shows of the last twenty years where he could reach millions of viewers, and decided that wasn’t a good move. To quote Ms. Fey, “What the what?!!?” How could a relative of mine, smart enough to become one of the most well-known doctors in one of the best cities in the world through the pioneering use of ADVERTISING do something so stupid? And then it hit me: for all the success, for all the accolades, and for all the recognition, he was still no more than New York’s version of Paul from the Diamond Center…just another local guy whose ads made him a bit too big for his britches. In the end, Dr. Zizmor was simply the guy who inexplicably thought green-lighting THIS ad was a good idea. Thank you Dr. Zizmor: your boneheaded decision has freed me from following your exploits now and forevermore. But, hey, have fun removing those tramp stamps from suddenly saggy 42-year-olds with a belated sense of buyer’s remorse.
(Please share your experiences with Dr. Zizmor or your own local version of him in the comment section)