The Not-So-Ancient Wisdom of Phistophicles


Marionettes: From Funeral Marches to Team America

Marionettes have been scaring the bejeezus out of people for a long time.

A marionette is a puppet controlled by strings or wires by a hidden person, called a manipulator.

Some historians believe that this kind of puppetry goes back to 2000BC and that this type of theatre actually pre-dates using live actors on stage.

Wire-controlled clay and iron puppets have even been found in ancient Egyptian tombs.

And throughout time, marionettes have been as scary as hell.

Boy, Howdy
A marionette, in the form of Howdy Doody, was the very first image that some Baby Boomers saw on tiny snow-static TV screens in the early 1950's.

Now there's a show that was some kind of strange brew. Howdy Doody was one of the most popular children's show of all time though it had two of the most frightening visages of all -- marionettes and clowns.

Oh, you still don't believe that marionettes are scary?

Then you don't really know why the intro of the old Alfred Hitchcock Presents program was so very disturbing.

It was the theme song, composed by Charles Guonod and titled The Funeral March of a Marionette.

And isn't that exactly what this piece sounds like???

Note: Gounod also had a hand in composing the melody of Ave Maria, which is the musical background of the most haunting and downright frightening scene in Disney's Fantasia.

But we digress.

We're talking marionettes here.

If there was a golden age for this kind of puppetry it was the late 1950's and early 1960's when Gerry Anderson created something called Supermarionation.

This innovation added some electronics to the mix that smoothed out some of the puppet motion, especially in mouthing dialogue.

Anderson's improvements helped to diminish some of the creepiness of the art form and launched several iconic children's TV adventures.

Like Thunderbirds...

And Fireball XL-5...

And our personal favorite, Supercar!

These kid's shows were spoofed, quite expertly, in the very adult 2004 film Team America, World Police.

This movie by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, creators of TV's South Park, got great critical reviews but only made a shade more than $30 million at the US box office.

The film didn't take sides in the liberal-conservative tango and took no prisoners, bashing those on the right and the left of the Iraq-WMD controversy close on the heels of the US invasion.

Even Gerry Anderson distanced himself from Team America, refusing to take a meeting with the film's producers because he objected to the number and nature of expletives in the script.

Offers we can't refuse.
Perhaps what scares us most about marionettes is not the way they look or the way they move, but the very essence of what they are.

As we said, a marionette is a puppet controlled by a hidden person, called a manipulator.

Maybe in a world of handlers, spin doctors and image consultants, we've seen the real damage that manipulators can do in politics and business when operating behind the scenes.


Who's Nationwide's World's Greatest Spokesperson in the World?

Perhaps the more important question is -- who cares?

Or maybe the question is -- why is something like car insurance so often pitched by comic ads?

Now that industry competitors have staked out their commercial territory with wacky characters and funny bits, Nationwide has come late to the party with their own bizarro pitchman.

We're pretty familiar now with Progressive's Flo with her bouffant hair and fire-engine red lipstick And we've seen the whole menagerie of characters from Geico including talking geckos and metrosexual cavemen.

Enter the World's Greatest Spokesperson in the World.

This over-the-top character pushes his way into people's homes with a blue tie and a matching blue Western Electric telephone strapped to his midsection. He proceeds to make promises to prospective customers if they'll switch over to Nationwide.

We suppose this approach showcases Nationwide's customer-service advantage, if they indeed have one.

Insurance agents do have a reputation for being obnoxious so this character is somewhat believable on that score.


The World's Greatest Spokesperson in the World ad campaign, a product of the McKinney agency (they also came up with Travelocity's Roaming Gnome), seems a bit derivative, actually.

If you threw nine parts Progressive's Flo and one part the Dos Equis Most Interesting Man in the World in a blender, the Nationwide guy is what we suspect you'd get.

But maybe goofy is the operative word for car insurance ads.

Even Allstate, who since 2003 has employed the no-nonsense Dennis Haysbert as their pitchman, have recently added a new character.

Enter Mayhem from Allstate

And by the way, who is the World's Greatest Spokesperson in the World?

He's Bob Wiltfong and this is a big break for Bob.

Before this you'd only seen him as characters like Executive #1 on 30 Rock or Reporter #5 on Dirty, Sexy Money.

The Nationwide campaign may be a little weird but Bob does his best with what he's given to work with and we hope this assignment leads to big things in the future.

Personally, we just don't go for this goofy jazz when the subject is something serious like car insurance.

Give us something solid and trustworthy like Eagleman any day...


Sidekicks: The Case for Choosing Wisely

The hero can't do all the work.

Sometimes it's just good politics to have someone else along for the ride to help out with the details.

But don't kid yourself.

Picking who you want to ride shotgun may, in all likelihood, be the most important decision you make.

It doesn't matter how many bad hombres you bring to justice or how many damsels in distress that you rescue. Ultimately, you'll be judged by the company you keep.

The Lone Ranger and Tonto: Good Choice
Ex-Texas lawman, John Reid, better known as the Lone Ranger, knew the value of a good sidekick.

Tonto was about as faithful an Indian companion as you could ever find. No one could ever say that Tonto and Kemo-Sabe didn't have each other's backs.

Ike and Nixon: Bad Choice
Dwight Eisenhower was a genuine war hero back in the day that to be one really meant something.

He wasn't afraid to use force as needed, such as during the D-Day invasion. But he was one of the first -- and one of the few -- to speak out against the brutal execeses of a Military-Industrial Complex which gradually assumed the role of governor of Foreign Policy and silent partner as Chief of State.

But when he first emerged as a politician and it came time to pick a running mate for his bid for the Presidency, he chose Richard Nixon.

Back in 1950, Nixon ran against, Helen Douglas for a California seat in the US Senate. Few people today are aware that Nixon claimed Douglas was "pink right down to her underwear" because of her alleged ties to the Communist Party, at least in Nixon's mind.

But many people are aware of the snap Douglas put on Nixon in response. She was the first to call him "Tricky Dick."

Ike got a glimpse of Nixon tricky-dickedness himself when a scandal erupted concerning campaign finances right before the 1952 election.

That should have been a clue but Ike picked Nixon anyway.

That choice was probably good for Ike for the short term -- he won election and re-election with Nixon on the ticket. But the price to be paid came further down the road when Tricky Dick, himself, made it to the Big Chair.

Batman and Robin: Good Choice
Batman started as a solo act -- a lonely, dark and solitary figure guarding Gotham's ramparts under the cloak of night.

When Robin came along the dynamic changed. Now there was someone to bounce ideas off of, someone one to chat with on those long patrols in the Batmobile. Robin was younger, hipper and always the wiseacre with a quip for the bad guys.

If Batman had picked Spider-Man as his sidekick, things wouldn't have gone well.

All that bickering for top-billing. All that wrangling over whether to use to Bat-Signal or to trust Spidey-Sense.

Robin was happy just to go along with the established program. Robin was a good choice.

Reagan and Bush: Bad Choice
Calling Reagan's trickle-down economics approach Voodoo Economics made for a rough start for eventual running mate George HW Bush.

But like Ike's choice of Nixon, the worst problem with picking Bush didn't show itself until 20 years later when name recognition of George HW helped George W win the controversial 2000 Presidential squeaker.

And we all know how well that turned out for us.

Sonny Crockett and Ricardo Tubbs: Good Choice
It's hard to even look at Tubbs as Sonny's sidekick. These guys were truly a team, more like brothers.

Kennedy and Johnson: Bad Choice
The word "team" probably wasn't ever used to describe the relationship between John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson and we doubt that JFK ever considered LBJ a brother.

By all accounts, they were bitter rivals for the Presidency in 1960 and the fact that they both landed on the same ticket, with JFK as alpha-dog, never sat well with LBJ.

In the aftermath of the controversy and confusion concerning JFK's assassination in LBJ's home state of Texas, President Johnson reversed the Kennedy Administration's direction on Viet Nam.

The new strategy helped give rise to the quagmire of war that was the overwhelming obstacle that prevented LBJ's presidential run for re-election despite his landslide win in 1964.

And as if that bad wasn’t enough, there was always that haze of doubt about what really happened in Dealey Plaza.