Friday, June 23, 2006

A Clown on Compton

Why is Fred posting a Jack-in-the-Box commercial from 1980?

Back in the early `70s, for reasons too complicated to explain here, I spent several months as an unauthorized, undocumented and largely ineffective teacher's assistant in Watts, south Los Angeles, CA at a public school on Compton Avenue. It was a passingly strange time in my life; during the same period I was on the periphery of Melvin Van Peeble's entourage/posse, as Van Peebles finished editing and post-production on Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song. You can get a taste for what that was like by viewing Melvin's son, Mario's, biopic, BAADASSSSS!, also known as How to Get the Man's Foot Outta Your Ass, which is a pretty good document of the period and what it was like to hang out with Melvin, who was an extremely nice guy. One of those life forks in the road that I've mentioned before happened during that period. I was semi-commissioned ("semi-" meaning I was doing it for free) by Van Peebles to develop a script from one of the ideas he was always spinning off like sparks from a pinwheel, but it never went anywhere.

I suspect that the then 18-year-old Fred may be one of the minor characters portrayed in BAADASSSSS! but who knows? In any case, the history goes a long way to explaining my enduring love for the blaxploitation genre - I'm still prone to sing the theme from Foxy Brown. But that's all part of another story.

Anyway, one of my many memories of Watts is rolling up to a Jack-in-the-Box for lunch. At a Jack-in-the-Box, if you didn't get to visit one prior to the `80s, the drive-through speaker box was inside an oversized bobbing clown's head. In Watts, someone had spray-painted the white clown's face black, which I thought was a pretty good statement for the times. The Watts' clown, as I remember, also had its own unique way of taking your order, "Yo, blood! Wha's happe'ning?"

I used to go just for that.

If you're not from the West Coast, or at least the West, you may not be that familiar with JitBs, they never pushed much past the Mississippi, although I seem to remember there was one lonely outpost in Cambridge, MA for a short time.* JitB seemed to generate a "love it/hate it" response from most people. You either liked the burgers, tacos, et al; or you never ate at JitB if there was any alternative. I liked the burgers, loved the tacos, and was indifferent to the rest of the JitB menu.

Sometime during the `80s a rumor floated around for awhile that JitB burgers were largely composed of kangaroo meat, apparently because the company was reportedly getting its beef from Australia and New Zealand. The same rumor would be applied to McDonalds and Wendy's at different times, too.

In the `80s, in one of those campaigns that seemed created only to generate revenue for the ad agency, someone had the brillant idea of 1) disposing of the clown heads and 2) blowing them up to show JitB's absolute commitment to destroy clown heads, or something. And that's where the commercial came from. As could be expected, once dead the clown was fondly remembered and in 1995, staged a big comeback, although no longer as a speaker box, the company probably having done a cost-estimate proving that vandalized clown heads would force them to start using kiwis in their chicken sandwiches. From the JitB home page,

"In 1995, Foodmaker launched an advertising campaign that featured Jack as the company's fictional founder, CEO and ad pitchman. Longtime customers will remember Jack as a clown who formerly served atop the company's family-friendly drive-thru speaker box. Then in 1980, he was blown up in a television commercial that signaled a shift toward more adult fare. With his oversized, ping-pong ball-shaped head, biting wit and unfailing dedication to offering the finest fast-food experience to his guests, Jack and his commercials were an instant hit. Soon, his likeness appeared on premiums ranging from antenna toppers to Pez dispensers. More than 27 million premiums bearing Jack's likeness have been sold since 1995."
And that's today's story, kidlets.

*UPDATE: Peg advises me that there were indeed Jack-in-the-Boxes throughout New England during the `70s, and that she and her then-boyfriend cruised through one in Framingham, MA regularly, as it was the only fast-food joint open in the wee hours.

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