"All you had to do," says Bert, "was pull the switch and raise the bridge."
"I know that, commissioner," says Dick.
Bert: "You were trained to raise bridges.
Dick: "I said, I'm sorry."
Bert: "Well, as commissioner of bridges and sidewalks, it is my duty to inform you . . ."
As the plot slowly develops (but no too slowly, because the whole little drama takes exactly one minute), it turns out that Dick was so busy reading his magazine that he didn't notice a 40-ton banana boat "sitting and tooting . . . for an hour and a half," waiting for him to raise the drawbridge. The boat had to turn around and go all the way back to Guatemala.
You may not know Dick, but you're likely to know what magazine he was reading.
According to Alan Martin of Time Inc, the 20-odd radio spots Dick Orkin and Bert Berdis have done in the last few years have produced approximately a sixfold increase in public awareness of Time magazine.
Magazines are only one corner of the joint activities of Dick & bert. They have done radio commercials for Lawn Boy and Gainesburgers, for milk and wine and kosher hot dogs, for warehouse sales in Cleveland and even for Caterpillar fork-lift trucks. Their syndicated radio shows include Chickenman ("the wonderful, white winged warrior, battle of good and/ or evil") the tooth fairy and the Ace Trucking Company news Cavalacade of the Airwaves.
The only thing these varied enterprises have in common is that they're usually funny.
Sponsors and ad agencies can spend years trying to figure out what's funny. Yesterday afternoon, during a quick visit to Washington to address a luncheon of the Ad Club, Dick and Bert came up with a simple formula.
"I try to make him laugh," said Bert, "and he tries to make me laugh. If we don't both think it's funny, we throw it out and do something else. We do our own production and send the tape to the ad agency. About 90 percent are accepted without any changes at all. On some, we have to do a few small changes, and occasionally there is one that they just won't accept."
A sample of the final category was played for members of the ad club - an episode where a man tries to buy a copy of Time in a porno shop ("It says magazines on the door"). Everybody laughed, but you won't hear it on your adio this week.
Although the names of Dick & Bert are hardly household words, many of their commercials are. "People call their radio stations," Alan Martin of Time reports, "and they ask: "When are you putting on the next Time commercial; my bridge club wants to hear it." There was some grumbling among old subscribes who worried about their favorite magazine's image, but "with the general public, these ads took off like a rocket. The corporate reaction began with guarded enthusiasm and changed to wild enthusiasm."
That attitude has become so widespread among advertisers that Dick & Bert have become possibly the most successful playwrights in the United States, turning out their minute-long dramas at a rate of three or four per week and having them aired more or less constantly by radio stations around the country.
The enterprise that began in 1972 with the two men and one assistant "spending a lot of time sitting around looking at one another" has grown into a company with a staff of about 14 people, its own studio in Chicago and plans to set up another studio Los Angeles.
Bert (the one in the light mustache) and Dick (the one in the dark mustache) have mastered one of the tightest forms in dramatic art - the one-minute drama complete with fully developed characters. Their training (Dick at the Yale Drama School, Bert at Penn State and Syracuse University's Newhouse School of Communications) could hardly have prepared "them for this work, but they have developed rules of thumb.
"We write out the scripts by hand on a line, legal-sized sheet of paper, which is just the right length," says Dick. "You have to grab the audience in the first 15 seconds, and if you're three-quarters of the way down the sheet and haven't mentioned the product yet, you know you have troubles. You throw it out and start again."
They are reticent about how much their commercials are earning. "More than $100," says one. "Enough to feed our families," says the other. They both look prosperous.
"Now that we have so many employes," says Bert, "it's a little harder than when it was just the two of us. Now, it really has to be funny."
They are currently booked through July with assignments and don't know what will come after that. "We can probably go on like this for five or six years before we peak out and want to do something else."
No credit lines are broadcast with radio commercials, but the lack of public attention doesn't bother the authors, who are also their own leading actors.
"The people in the industry know who we are," says Bert. "The public doesn't, and that's the way it should be. Some people have tried to get us to put our names on our work, but if we did that we'd be overexposed."
When they began their association, Dick was with a radio station and Bert with an ad agenyc. "We used to get assigned to a lot of projects we didn't like," says Bert. "Now, when the phone rings, we know it will be something we enjory - or we won't have to do it."
There is no clearly profiled radio audience, the way there is, for example, for prime-time television. A Top 40 station will differ from an easy-listening, a good-music or an all-news station in the interests and income level of their audience and also in the kind of discretionary spending they do. What they have in common at the point of impact is this: that the sponsor would do well to assume that the listener is doing something else - driving the car, washing the dishes, lying on a beach - and probably half-listening.
Dick and Bert have a simple formula, too, for cutting through these complexities and barriers. "We give them a conversation," says Dick. "Everybody likes to eavesdrop on a conversation. Usually it's two voice - never more than three or four; use too many voices and people get confused.
"And in that conversation," adds Bert, "there is always someone who is terribly screwed up. People like to see other people who are screwed up; they identify with them, because we all make mistakes, and at the same time they are saying, "Thank God, it isn't me."
Crewed-up people who made the Ad Club members laugh included a man who wanted to buy a gold fish and had to get into a tank for goldfish obedience school, a man who gave an old, alienated friend a Lancer's Wine gift box for Christmas - not the wine, just the box ("It's the thought that counts." "No, it's the Lancer's that counts."), an employe who flunked a lie-detector test when he told his boss he wouldn't take a day off to go to a warehouse sale.
You have to like in Minneapolis to hear the one about the warehouse sale (for a store called Dayton's) and quite a few other Dick & Bert productions are used only in a limited area.
But they are giving national advertising an increased presence on radio - particularly in the prime-time hours, which are the morning and evening hours when people are most likely to be driving their cars.
They are just beginning to explore the possiblilities of transposing their zany product to television and have mixed reactions. "A lot of television people are scared of being different," says Dick. "They say they like an idea," says Bert, "then they add: 'You'll need some young girls in it,' and our reaction is 'Hey, wait a minute.'"
"We've had people approach us to work for television - do pilots, etc.," Bert adds. "But they all want us to work for television - do pilots, etc.," for anybody any more."
They also like the freedom radio gives them to "paint big scenes - like the banana boat - without getting into screnery." So far, Bert says, "Our television work has just involved me sitting in one chair and Bert and sitting in another. No fancy sets, and we try to do it all in one take. But maybe someone will offer us $100,000 to do full production on a television spot."
One of their first TV spots, a commercial for Big Boy restaurants serve food just the way your mother does.It ends with Bert (the manager) cutting the meat for Dick (the customer), then raising a loaded fork to Dick's closed mouth and saying, "Open the hangar and Mr. Potato will fly right in."
So who needs scenery?