Thursday, February 13, 2014


I have something different for you today. I've been working on some memoir-like things and thought I'd give you a preview. This is a first draft, so the final product may look a little different. Also, this is a rather long piece of prose by my standards, so if you don't have ten minutes to kill, you might just want to skip this, or else bookmark it for later.

I took Spanish for my foreign language requirement in high school. Students could take four years of the foreign language of their choosing, but we were only required to take three years and pass the state exam to fulfill the requirement. Naturally, once I'd aced the state Spanish exam after my third year, I celebrated my new-found fluency in a second language by never speaking it again and taking some photography course the following year instead. I had brief aspirations to pursue a career in photography, but that was a passing ambition at best. Looking back, I can't help but think at least part of my plan had been to become a licensed photographer as an excuse to stare at swimsuit models all day. If I'm completely honest, that still sounds like a great fallback plan now.
Although I do wish I had retained more than a little Spanish, I stand by the decision to take the photography course. It was fun and interesting, and it gave me the opportunity to work with Mike again. He and I had been in Spanish together our third year, along with Matt whom I'd been friends and classmates with for years. Matt and I worked together as fake 1930s radio hosts for a history class project in middle school. His jovial personality and larger-than-life radio voice were quite a complement to my meek and reserved self. He was believable as a radio persona. I probably would have fit better as the technician.
I didn't know Mike prior to that Spanish class, but Matt did, so the three of us teamed up for a group project for that class. It was a video project. The assignment was to demonstrate our mastery of the Spanish language by creating a commercial advertising a fictional project spoken entirely in Spanish.
I'm not sure how common video projects are in most schools, but I can think of at least one other I had done before. It was in middle school, and I was supposed to make a video for health class that would be a sort of PSA about the dangers of smoking. What I actually made was a poorly-edited hackjob in which I and my best friend at the time Dave improvised sketches parodying Superman and Star Wars with a few smoking statistics peppered in. The guidelines for the assignment were technically met, but I doubt anyone picked up any useful information amid my terrible acting and stumbling over my words, shots of my sister and cousin staring blankly into the distance because somebody forgot to call “Action”, everyone's ridiculous costumes, and me accidentally whacking Dave in the nose with a plastic light saber.
Spanish class, however, was much different. Four or five years of life experience had granted me enough common sense to actually write a complete script before we began shooting. Add to this Matt's natural on-screen charisma, and Mike's experience editing video, and we had a formula for success from the get-go. All we needed was a great product to advertise.
We only kicked around ideas for a few minutes before someone made the most obvious suggestion for a product that would warrant an infomercial: a robotic housekeeper. So cliche, I know, but once it had been brought up, we were too keen on the idea to settle for anything else. Besides, Mike already had a robot costume made of cardboard boxes, so clearly this had to happen.
The script was basically just a parody of every silly infomercial ever made at first, but as we started shooting, it quickly took on a life of its own. We were constantly adding little ideas along the whole way, so few of which made any sense whatsoever. It's difficult to encapsulate just what a tremendously exquisite thing we had given birth to, but I'll do my best to paint the picture for you.
The infomercial was set to open with Matt doing the usual infomercial voice-over routine, saying things in Spanish like “Aren't you tired of cooking and cleaning? It can be such a hassle!” As he spoke, I would play the stereotypical hapless maroon who couldn't handle the simplest of household tasks. However, when we recorded the voice-over, Matt decided to do his lines in a comically deep, ominous voice, as if he were doing voice-over for the trailer to a summer blockbuster action movie. It was utterly out of place and had no reason being in the commercial, and I loved him for it.
Other than that, my opening scenes went more or less as planned. We opened on a black-and-white shot of something on the stove burning while I ran up to it shouting “Ai-ai-ai!” That was my first line in the video: “Ai-ai-ai!” You know, like a horrible Mexican stereotype, or the robot from Power Rangers. I remind you, this was done for a grade, in Spanish class.
After my additional displays of inadequacy, I sat at the kitchen table, and the following exchange took place (translated from Spanish):
Me: “I sure wish somebody could do my chores for me.”
Matt, leaping into the frame in an exaggerated superhero pose: “Well, wish no more!”
Me: “Who are you?”
Matt: “Allow me to present-”
Me: “Who are you?! Get out of my house!”
Matt, placing a reassuring hand on my shoulder: “Please, don't interrupt.”
At this point, Matt would introduce the robot housekeeper, El Criado Bionico Dos Mil (The Bionic Servant 2000). As simple as that sounds, we had to do at least five takes of him saying that one line. The reason for this is that, being brilliant as he is, Matt decided to deliver the line as if he were a ring announcer introducing the heavyweight champion of the world to a capacity crowd at a pay-per-view event, chest puffed out, arm sweeping widely toward the doorway, shouting boldly.
Te presenta... al... Criado... Bionico... Dos Mil!”
We had to keep re-shooting the scene because every time he started doing that line, I would die laughing. Each time I promised to get it together, and each time I failed. On our final take, as he starts delivering his big line, if you look closely at the video, you can see me biting my lip, turning my head slowly away from the camera and inching out of frame. I could not keep a straight face no matter how hard I tried. It was too glorious.
From there, Mike was introduced wearing the silver-painted cardboard robot costume. He proceeded to pantomime cooking and sweeping up, and Matt demonstrated how to make the robot wash my clothes by feeding him a dirty shirt, at which point he'd shake around making washing machine noises and drop a clean shirt out on the floor. Very efficient.
Then, of course, Matt declares, “He's even a surgeon!” Mike the robot then holds up a knife menacingly and I scream bloody murder. It was a flimsy excuse to reference the famous scene from Psycho, complete with the dramatic music sting and jerky black-and-white camera shots. The knife never touched my flesh of course, because I immediately ran out the front door and down the street with a knife-wielding cardboard robot hot on my heels. In hindsight, we probably should have warned the family across the street whose little children were playing outside before doing that scene. They seemed very understanding about the whole thing, so no harm done I suppose.
From there, we transitioned into a montage of cardboard robot activities, expertly cut together by Mike, which of course was set to the song Spanish Bombs by The Clash, because hey, it has Spanish in it. Among other things, the robot washes my car, goes shopping with me at Goodwill, and hits a triumphant home run in baseball.
For the baseball scene, we went to a public park to shoot it, and a little league team was using the baseball diamond. When we asked them if we could borrow the diamond for a few seconds to shoot the scene, they did us one better and offered to be in the scene with the robot. Why the robot would be playing baseball against a random team of small children was a question I left up to the audience's imagination. It worked out even better than expected. As Mike rounded the bases, arms raised in victory, the kids all stood around looking seriously dejected by the fictional home run. One boy actually made an exasperated gesture and threw his glove on the ground in dismay. I'm lucky I didn't start cracking up again.
Just as the montage ended and the infomercial should have been wrapping up, we instead cut to Matt declaring, “Also, he dances really well.” We then showed about 20 seconds of Mike in the robot costume, doing the robot. This was set to the song Mr. Roboto by Styx. Yes, of course it was.
Matt proclaimed proudly that other robotic servants cost more than $1000, but you could have El Criado Bionico Dos Mil for only four easy payments of $499. By watching the reactions of our classmates, I could tell not everyone noticed something odd about that statement. Thus, it was easy to tell which students had been falling behind, either in Spanish or in Math. The viewer was then urged to pick up the phone and call 1-800-555-SCAM. That one was a bit more obvious.
Furthermore, Matt urged, if you called right this moment, you would receive El Criado Bionico Dos Mil security system for free. The video then cut to myself and my robot in the park. We were walking along minding our business, and wouldn't you know it? A ninja appeared to assassinate me. Yes, of course he did. Fortunately, my loyal robot assumed a kung-fu stance, held out his hand with palm facing up, and beckoned with his fingers: the universal gesture for “Bring it on, sucka.” The ninja charged, and quick as a flash, was soundly walloped by the mighty robot, who stood over his unconscious form in triumph.
As the infomercial drew to a close, Matt declared, “El Criado Bionico Dos Mil: te alegraras que tu obteniste uno!” (You'll be glad you got one) The camera cut back to the fallen ninja, who raised his head and gave an inexplicably cheery thumbs-up to the camera, just as the baseball from earlier finally came down from the sky and bonked him on the head, knocking him out once again.
From there, the credits rolled over brief clips of outtakes, including me fidgeting with the camera and making odd faces, and Mike as the robot unmasked. As you can likely imagine, the presentation was met with thunderous applause from the class. We received an A+ grade. People stood and cheered. A few wept with joy. A girl screamed that she wanted to have my babies. Some of the aforementioned things actually happened, among them the A+ grade from the teacher.
As much delight as we all derived from this project, it did not end there. Some two years later, I was informed by my younger cousin that she was taking Spanish as well, and received the same video assignment. To give the class ideas of the levels of excellence they should strive for, the teacher showed them old videos that had been exceptionally well done. Naturally, my cousin was delighted, but not altogether surprised, to see me being a complete ham on the television. Knowing that another generation of students got to enjoy that spectacular production made me proud of our fine work all over again.
That legendary infomercial premiered in 2004. At this time, I'm unsure if there are any surviving copies. The teacher would have had one VHS, and there were three others belonging to the group members involved. I'm not sure where my copy is, if it hasn't just been lost to the sands of time. If I'm lucky, I might find it in time for our high school reunion. It would be a great memory to relive. Other folks' fondest memories from high school might involve their first loves, or being valedictorian, or a great play they made on the football team. My moment of glory involved calling safe as a cardboard robot rounded home plate after passing an outfield full of distraught kids.
Dressing up as rapper Lil' Jon on the last day of senior year still makes a close second, though.

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