1988 Countdown: Commercial Break #5

“Time to visit the Duke,” former Sex Pistol Steve Jones often says on his (excellent) Los Angeles radio show when heading into a commercial break. I had been listening for months before any guest asked him what “the Duke” meant; I had assumed it was a euphemism for the bathroom, but it turns out Jones was slinging Cockney rhyming slang: “Duke of Kent” rhymes with “rent,” so “visit the Duke” means “pay the rent.”

MTV visits the Duke, starting off with a network promo that hypes their own contests by parodying the Time-Life Mysteries of the Unknown commercials, with similarly portentous music and voiceover narration: “In Lake Carmel, New York, a young woman places a postcard in a mailbox. Weeks later, she becomes the owner of a trailer park. A major rock band mysteriously appears.” Footage of the “INXS Texas Trailer Park Hoedown” is followed by the “Wild Island Cruise,” wherein some guy in Michigan won his own Caribbean island. MTV broadcasts from a viewer’s home in Massachusetts (we see Ken Ober taking a sledgehammer to the drywall). A California woman wins a “Scrooge for a Day” contest (pegged to the Bill Murray movie Scrooged), winning an oversized check from Adam Curry and “the chance to run MTV for a day,” which appears to mean interrupting Kurt Loder in a highly staged fashion.

The tagline for the ad was “People really win on MTV.” The best thing about it was that eleven months later, they were able to reprise it with footage of Bill Clinton.

Coca-Cola Classic spot: two white suburban parents going out for the evening, telling their teenage daughters, “no parties.” Of course, as soon as they leave, the daughters hit the phone and a huge crowd comes over, moving the furniture, putting on music, and in the case of one young man overcome by the festive spirit of carbonated goodness, delivering a case of Coca-Cola by sliding across the living-room floor on their knees. The parents drive home, annoyed that their friends weren’t home, and then dismayed to find a party in full swing. But when they open the door, there’s a twist: they are greeted with a cry of “Happy anniversary!” and a cake full of candles (not customary on an anniversary, the last time I checked). “Can’t beat the feeling,” the jingle concludes.


And then, once again, for the third time in seventy minutes, we are treated a sixty-second spot for The January Man. I think at last, I’m ready to recap this ad in full detail. This is something I need to do to cleanse myself; if it all gets to be too much for you, just scroll down to the Gillette commercial.

The MGM lion is followed by a patrol car on a New York City street. “A serial killer has New York City by the throat,” Voiceover Guy tells us, as the patrol car, siren wailing, pulls up to a crime scene where a SWAT team is gathering. “Eleven murders in eleven months. They need a tough cop.” Cut to Kevin Kline (41 years old in 1988), with a particularly foofy mustache and shag haircut. “Listen!” he says, standing in somebody’s apartment. Susan Sarandon, annoyed, turns and says, “What?” “The wine,” he tells her. “It’s breathing.” He presses his nostril up to a decanter of red wine.


“Does anybody know this guy?” says an actor in a brown coat with a goombah accent. Cut to Kline leaning over the shoulder of a Computer Guy character, who in this movie is a tough guy with a leather jacket and a goatee. “Find it, superimpose it on the map, find it,” Kline instructs him, and then flails his hands, pointing at the screen. Cut to Rod Steiger, sitting behind his desk: “How do we face the terrifying spectacle of Nick Starkey, what he may do, what he may not do?” Cut to Kline sliding his desk chair across the floor, saying “Whoop-de-doo and la-di-da!” (His lips aren’t actually moving, so there was some creative editing, either for the ad or the movie itself.)

We’ve been getting the names of the actors in white type on a black screen as the ad rolls them out: KEVIN KLINE and ROD STEIGER are now joined by DANNY AIELLO, who says, “I don’t work for you, you work for me.” Another clip, where somebody off-camera is shouting “No matter what the mayor says!” Kline strides forward and says, “Did you miss me?” Cut to HARVEY KEITEL, who is asked “Did he agree without a fuss? by a different off-camera voice. ” Keitel, looking very dapper in a blue suit, says, “No, I’m letting him cook dinner for my wife tonight.” Cut to that dinner, which appears to be something in the cephalopod family. “I hate it,” says Susan Sarandon, spitting it out into her napkin. New scene: “I understand you had dinner with Nick,” Steiger says to Sarandon. “I think he’s much more interested right now in your daughter,” SUSAN SARANDON responds, finally getting her name on the screen. “What are you talking about?” Steiger asks. “Just look at your cigar and think of your daughter,” she replies.

Cut to Kline ineffectually trying to bust into an apartment, using first a sledgehammer and then his right shoulder. “So you’re going to go to bed,” MARY ELIZABETH MASTRANTONIO tells him. “And tomorrow, you’re going to catch the killer and save the girl.” Kline gets slammed against the wall in a hallway. “The January Man,” Voiceover Guy tells us. A bloodied Kline leans against the wall and says, “I hate this job.”

“Rated R,” continues Voiceover Guy. “Starts Friday, January thirteenth. Check newspapers.” The text block informs us that the movie was written by John Patrick Shanley (most famous for Moonstruck), with music by Marvin Hamlisch (who has been jazzily propping up this ad for the last sixty seconds). The director was Pat O’Connor, whose other third-tier credits include Inventing the Abbotts and Dancing at Lughnasa. His IMDB page informs me that he married Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio in 1990, so at least one good thing came out of this movie. I’ve never seen it.


We move on to a Gillette Atra ad, mostly set around a wedding, but also featuring cleanshaven bicyclists and lots of father-son scenes (dad teaches his son to kick a soccer ball; adult father and son hug; dad cradles naked infant with, presumably, a smooth ass). The sports chosen are a little unusual for the States, making me wonder if they’re repurposed from a European ad. And yes, closer inspection reveals a car sporting a non-American license plate! “Gillette, the best a man can get,” is the tagline.


Another network spot: a “Ten-Second Film” called “Last Night.” A cliched detective-story saxophone plays as the camera zooms in on a man with eyeglasses and a mustache, sitting at a manual typewriter, with a telephone cradled to his shoulder. “I had a dream about you last night,” says a sultry female voice. He stops typing and leans back in his chair, about to reply–and then the film ends.

posted 15 July 2008 in 1988 and tagged , , , , , , , , , . 6 comments

6 Comments on 1988 Countdown: Commercial Break #5

  1. Chris M. Says:


    At the end of ’88, Kevin Kline’s coming off the biggest hit of his career, A Fish Called Wanda–which, while a triumph for its ex-Python writer/costars, was a big, big career boost for Kline. At this point, in fact, he’s about 3–4 months away from winning his Supporting Actor Oscar for that movie.

    Now, Wanda‘s success is only six months old at this point, and even the crappiest Hollywood movie (this one obviously included) takes longer than that to shoot, edit, release, etc. So I can’t imagine The January Man was conceived to try to turn Kline into an action/comedy star; but I would definitely guess that its promotional budget was ramped up massively to take advantage of his newfound hotness. Not that it worked.

    About a year after this, I went to see Kline in I Love You to Death, a not-as-good-as-it-should’ve-been comedy that seemed conceived to turn Kline into a kind of ’90s Robin Williams–wacky persona, silly accents, etc. But that didn’t work either. So I’m guessing that after the back-to-back failure of those two movies, Kline accepted his fate and settled into the New York–centric, theater-heavy, PBS-friendly career he’s rocking now.

  2. Gavin Says:

    I will endeavor to find out the facts, but it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that The January Man was filmed before Wanda.

  3. Ted Friedman Says:

    Ah, The January Man. That really takes me back. The funny thing is, as we watched all those commercials, we were sure it was going to be a big hit. Hey – Danny Aeillo AND Rod Steiger – how could you go wrong? I learned two things from the experience: January releases are a dumping ground, and movie ads can’t find a better pitch than to hype a grab bag of character actors are grasping at straws.

  4. Gavin Says:

    Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome my host when I originally watched this countdown back in 1988, Mr. Ted Friedman!

    Ted, I believe you and Wendy and Dave went to see the movie a few weeks later, but for some reason (I was out of town?), I didn’t join you.

  5. mara owens Says:

    hi there. as the woman who won that mtv contest, let me tell you that the kurt loder interruption was the ONLY part that wasn’t staged. the rest of it was so scripted that i had no room to breathe. that moment, however, was all me.

  6. Gavin Says:

    Go Mara! And thanks for clearing up the historical record!

    Any other memories from that day?

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