Prof Positive

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The next marketing innovation came about following Harrison's trip to a trade show in Las Vegas, where she saw a presentation from an infomercial company that had assembled a program "about how to learn to play the piano in one hour, I think," she says. "We looked at the medium and went, 'Wow. In thirty minutes, we could tell what our product does. And even if we didn't have a lot of people calling our number, we would be branding our name, so if someone went into a store and saw the product, they'd say, 'I've seen that on television!'"

Since infomercials always seem to star thespians on the wane, Video Professor execs found one: Jeff Conaway, who portrayed Kenickie in 1978's Grease and struggling actor Bobby Wheeler on the classic sitcom Taxi. Earlier this year, Conaway was back on the tube as a regular on VH1's Celebrity Fit Club, a reality-TV series in which overweight luminaries, or reasonable facsimiles thereof, attempt to trim their flab; he stood out from cast members such as Chastity Bono and (no-longer-so) Young MC by going on a drugs-and-alcohol bender and then entering rehab. During the early '90s, though, he was in even less demand than at present, which put him in the Video Professor's price range -- barely. Although Conaway agreed to appear in the infomercial for a percentage from tapes sold rather than an up-front sum, Harrison still had to scrape up enough dough to transport him to Denver for the filming. In an attempt to save a few bucks, she booked coach-section plane tickets. Conaway was having none of that. According to Harrison, "Jeff called and said, 'Are you going to have a limo pick me up and take me to the airport?' So I had to do that. And when he got to the airport, he called again and said, 'There must be some mistake. You have me in coach.' So I had to upgrade his tickets, too."

Other examples of cost-cutting went forward unimpeded: Seen now, the infomercial looks hilariously dated, partly because of its bargain-basement production values. The whole thing was shot in a single day using a conference room as its main set, and while there was a script, sort of, Conaway, clad in a hideous pink sweater, seems to be winging most of his lines. "When the folks from Video Professor asked me to host their show on computer learning made easy, I couldn't imagine why," an ultra-peppy Conaway proclaims at the infomercial's outset. "I'm a moron when it comes to computers. And they said, 'That's exactly why we want you.' I said, 'Look, I don't know software from silverware.' They said, 'That's even better. Because if we teach you how to run a computer in less than an hour, then we can teach anybody.' And I said, 'Thanks a lot. Is that a compliment?'"

The infomercial's triumphant conclusion? A dot matrix printer spits out a letter Conaway composed to (presumably) Louie De Palma, Danny DeVito's character on Taxi: "Dear Louie, I know you can't read, but maybe you can let your mother read it for youŠif you haven't sold her eyes yet!"

Strangely enough, this twisted pitch worked -- and how. The production appeared on TV stations from coast to coast for more than five years, making it one of the longest-running infomercials in the genre's nascent period -- and it brought in plenty of coin for Conaway and Video Professor, which transitioned into what's now almost entirely a direct-to-customer business. Moreover, its cheapness actually turned out to be an attribute. Video Professor made another infomercial with Conaway that utilized a professional script and a budget nearing six figures, but customers never really warmed to it. "It was our best-looking production by far, but it bombed," Scherer reports. "I think it looked too good."

From then on, Video Professor kept its productions in-house, and its maiden forays into the land of thirty- and sixty-second commercials look it; one consists mainly of a frustrated cubicle dweller angrily pounding on his keyboard before using it as a bat to swat his monitor to the floor. Before long, however, Scherer wisely stepped into the spotlight. He'd demonstrated an easy rapport with Conaway, and on his own, he dispensed promotional blather with a beguiling earnestness that belied an almost total lack of computer knowledge. His ignorance was practically put on parade in a segment on QVC, a popular home-shopping network.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts