By Tom Shales
Monday, February 8, 2010; C01
CBS may have stolen its own show last night with the telecast of Super Bowl XLIV, thanks to a network promo that stole thunder from all the costly commercials sprinkled liberally through the game.
It tended to upstage ads that boasted the usual snazzy pyrotechnics, lavish production, and even controversy -- as in the case of a spot for the group Focus on the Family that rather vaguely endorsed alternatives to abortion.
Even the ads that tried to titillate viewers with sexual imagery and near-naked performers probably stirred less buzz than the 15-second promo for David Letterman's "Late Show."
The spot, which aired in the second quarter, opened with Letterman sitting on a couch, eating chips and watching TV. The camera pulled back to reveal two companions watching with Dave: Oprah Winfrey, who appeared in a similar spot in 2007, and the totally unexpected Jay Leno, Letterman's rival since Leno snatched NBC's "Tonight Show" out from under him in 1992.
"This is the worst Super Bowl party ever," Letterman says. "You're just saying that because I'm here," Leno counters. Viewers had to be wondering if their eyes deceived them -- why would Leno and Letterman be appearing together? -- and if the whole thing was some diabolical computer-generated trick.
Letterman himself dreamed up the spot and wrote it, according to Rob Burnett, president of Letterman's Worldwide Pants production company. "Dave is ruled by one law," Burnett said from the Super Bowl. "Is it funny? And if it's funny, let's do it." The notion of having an NBC star on CBS air was cleared by CBS Chairman Leslie Moonves, executives at NBC, and Leno, who when contacted by Dave's people, agreed immediately, reportedly telling a Letterman staffer, "This is what show business should be."
The spot was taped Tuesday night in the Ed Sullivan Theater on Broadway, where Letterman's show is performed. Winfrey was smuggled in unnoticed and Leno arrived in a disguise that included dark glasses and a fake mustache. "We were desperate to keep this a secret," Burnett said. "All three of them were professional, friendly and cordial for the 28 minutes or so that it took to do the spot."
"Everybody wins in this," Burnett said -- partly because all three performers, especially Leno and Letterman, who've been sniping at each other in recent monologues on their shows -- come off looking like good sports.
Elsewhere during the Super Bowl, the splashy and extravagant commercials spilled out in punishing profusion, though some proved highly entertaining and clever. The anti-abortion spot, which CBS aired despite criticism for letting a controversial issue intrude on the fun and frolic of the game, got upstaged by -- of all things -- the Snickers commercial that immediately preceded it.
That ad had Betty White, the veteran TV comedienne, supposedly being tackled during a backyard football game. Then in the Focus on the Family spot, the mother of University of Florida quarterback Tim Tebow was also tackled on-camera, and knocked clear out of the frame.
Many sponsors attempted humor, of course. Bud Light showed scientists breaking into a wild orgy when it appeared an asteroid was about to smash into, and destroy, the earth; it turned out to be a mere fizzle that hit their telescope. Another ad for Bud Light, in which people's speaking voices were altered by the hip-hop staple Auto-Tune, was mostly annoying.
Coca-Cola's biggest spot featured many of the characters from television's longtime classic cartoon comedy "The Simpsons." The spot starred evil Springfield billionaire Montgomery Burns, who went broke as the spot began. Beyoncé was seen in another spot late in the game, but only for a second; she was scooped up by a mechanical hand as part of an overly busy ad for Vizio.
An oddly recurring theme had to do with men asserting their masculinity, or attempting to assert it, as well as the perpetual male fear of emasculation. In an ad for a very portable television called FloTV, a man was seen being dragged through a torturous shopping trip by his girlfriend while sportscaster Jim Nantz ridiculed him. (A later, more serious ad for FloTV, recapped the entire history of television in a minute or so, images both sublime and ridiculous flying by on the screen.)
Men in their underwear kept popping up -- in a Coke ad, a man sleepwalks in the wilderness, clad in boxer shorts and a T-shirt. His odyssey ends only after he finds a cold bottle of Coke.
An ad for Dockers was keyed to the mantra "I wear no pants!" and featured men in their underwear romping around aimlessly. A funny ad for Career Builder.com, depicting the notion of Casual Friday run amok, showed men and women, most of them anything but physically fit, spending a day at the office in their undies.
Men and their traditional roles were also mocked, but somehow also celebrated, in ads introducing Dove for Men, a line of toiletries. A man raced through a recitation of the chores and good deeds he had obediently done to the tune of Rossini's "William Tell Overture," once the theme of "The Lone Ranger" on radio and TV.
An ad for Dodge Charger called the muscle car "Man's Last Stand" after depicting a supposedly put-upon male who listed all the nice things he did for his female mate. Were these ads for a post-feminist age? They seemed to have a retro appeal -- for better and worse. Probably worse.
Stars appearing included the aging rock group Kiss for Dr Pepper with "a kiss of cherry" (oh, goody), and Brett Favre as he might appear ten years from now -- still vacillating about retirement -- for Hyundai. For the record, Toyota ran a couple of simple ads, black type on a white background, implicitly apologizing for the company's current problems with defective cars and promising "to make things right" -- a hopeful theme, perhaps, for the whole mad parade.