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Shill Game

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By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Billy Mays is starting to get on his own nerves. Recuperating from hip replacement surgery, he has spent this August day at his home in Odessa, Fla., watching TV. Every few minutes, Mays pops up in yet another commercial, each time bellowing like a man who thinks that the whole world has gone a little deaf.

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There he is hawking Mighty Putty ("THE EASY WAY TO FIX, FILL AND SEAL VIRTUALLY ANYTHING FAST AND MAKE IT LAST!"), the Handy Switch ("BECAUSE IT'S WIRELESS, YOU CAN PUT A LIGHT SWITCH WHERE YOU NEVER HAD ONE BEFORE!"), Simoniz Fix It scratch remover ("THE SCRATCH HAS MET ITS MATCH!") and a mini-burger cooker called the Big City Slider Station ("THE UNIQUE DESIGN COOKS ALL SIDES AT ONCE, SO YOU NEVER HAVE TO FLIP 'EM!").

Frankly, that's a little more Billy Mays than even Billy Mays can handle.

"If I see myself one more time today," he groans, sounding genuinely weary, "I'm going to pull my hair out."

Start pulling, big fella, you might be tempted to say. The nation's preeminent pitchman for hire, the 50-year-old Mays is the emphatically gesticulating star of nine commercials for nine products, now in heavy rotation. And he's just getting started. A handful of new shoots will commence as soon he's back on his feet, and big-league advertisers like Pepsi have started calling, presumably to put his unironic style to some irony-intensive use. Plus, he recently moved into health insurance, as spokesman for a company called http://icanbenefit.com.

But wait. There's more.

In the fall, Mays will start taping a TV reality show, "Pitchmen," which will follow the creation of a two-minute commercial, from start to finish. But with many of his ads appearing 400 times a week, often at two minutes a pop, Mays could already be the single most ubiquitous figure on television today, measured purely in face time. His only competition comes from actors in perpetual syndication, like Seinfeld and Bart Simpson.

"You would think there would be a saturation point," says Scott Opfer, a director who has worked often with Mays. "But we never seem to reach it."

If you've watched any TV in the past 10 years, you know Mays's style -- chummy but urgent, with lots of imploring gestures, a hammy rhyme or two, some product demonstrations and the inevitable act-now kicker. Perhaps you have wondered: Why is he yelling? How does he yell and smile at the same time? And backing up a step, who is he? He always says his name -- "Billy Mays here!" -- in a way that implies he's famous. But he doesn't seem to do anything but shill at the top of his lungs in commercials.

Is that, like, a job?

Quite a lucrative job if you're Billy Mays. A college dropout who grew up in Pittsburgh, Mays lives with his wife and two kids in a five-bedroom house with a three-car garage for his Bentley, Mercedes SUV and Range Rover. His home office is the headquarters of Billy Mays Promotions, a one-man operation. Mays does overdubs in a mini-studio on the second floor and many of his tapings at a nearby production house owned by a friend.

If this sounds like the sweet, sedentary life, you've got the wrong impression. By all accounts, Mays is a tireless worker, ready to fly to any city for any shoot and then fly back for reshoots if necessary. Each of his "shows," as he calls them, requires dozens and dozens of takes, mostly because Mays is prone to stumbles and miscues, many of which are memorialized on blooper reels posted to YouTube. The three-alarm volume is never turned down. "People used to tell him, 'Billy, you've got to come off the gas a little, there's no need to shout,' " says Anthony Sullivan, a friend, fellow pitchman and owner of a production company where Mays has shot commercials. "He'd say 'No problem,' but he couldn't stop. He has one speed, 100 miles an hour -- take it or leave it."


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