July 22, 2013

 

Lary Lewman (John McDonnell/Washington Post)
Lary Lewman in his home studio. (John McDonnell/Washington Post)

Lary Lewman died on July 11 and some of us are just getting the news. Lary was the voice narrating the commercials of countless Democratic candidates for political office. My former partner, Bob Squier, “discovered” Lary, an aspiring actor and narrator, and had him do voice-over work for President Jimmy Carter in 1980. For the next two decades, Lary spent the autumns of even-numbered political years reading thousands and thousands of scripts.

Lary might have been a great actor, but he went into voice-over work full-time; it was steady and extremely lucrative. Lary could walk into our studio, spend an hour and walk out with as much as $20,000 — and repeat that 7 or 8 hours a day, 6 days a week for months at a time. They say a great actor can read the phone book and make it sound interesting. Well, Lary could read it and make it sound credible, and that became a very precious commodity in political advertising.

Lary could also teach a young political consultant a lot, if he listened. Lary was so good, he could make up for some really bad writing: scripts that were too long, or too harsh, or too sentimental. Lary was a professional, meaning he’d read it the way it was written, but if asked his opinion would give it, imparting a lot to learn from.

Scripts are not “stone tablets,” he would say, meaning that if you read them and they sounded off, they should be changed. The listener or viewer of the script doesn’t care as much about the candidate or topic as the consultant; so if you make them work too hard by cramming 38 seconds of words into a 30-second ad, they tune out. And if you ask an announcer to read the same script over and over and over again looking for the perfect inflection on every word, not only will the commercial not get better, the announcer will (at first unconsciously) start to dislike you and your product.

These simple truths made a difference to those learning the trade of writing and producing political commercials. The form is closest to haiku; a proscribed length, a familiar topic, a desire to leave the voter with a simple but compelling thought or feeling. Lary was its master voice.