People remember entrepreneur P. T. Barnum for his brilliant circus; a combination of bizarre hoaxes and “freaks,” the dredges of humanity, a twisted troupe of deformed and undesirable characters. Today, this type of freakish individual isn’t paraded around a three-ring circus, but is rather shipped away to the most barren and lonely corner of the universe – late night TV infomercials. Any insomniac/pothead will tell you these ads constitute some of the most bizarre television segments ever aired, a hodgepodge of horrid acting and utterly useless items.
The most fascinating facet of these late-night spots are the characters: a group of players ranging from grating “experts” trying to carve out some notoriety to forgotten celebrities desperate to get back into the spotlight. Some infomercial individuals come off more interesting than others, truly fascinating figures worthy of investigation. Infomercials are the grindhouse films of the small screen, unprofessional looking programs capable of creating feelings of fear and disgust, so we will celebrate the best of the no-name personalities of the infomercial.
10. Matthew Lesko
In this new era, where the government excruciatingly monitors citizens and hunts down terrorists at all costs, a hero had to be born. Any Americans wondering who this crusader is, just turn to the late night commercials and you will see this country’s last great hope, Matthew Lesko.
Clad in a suit adorned with question marks, Lesko tackles the government head-on using his Howard-Dean-excited-level voice and dopey looking glasses. Like Batman, Lesko lacks supernatural abilities and thus turns to tools. Instead of a utility belt, however, the punctuation-plastered hero helps the American public battle the U.S. using a book containing a nearly endless supply of programs citizens can use to get money from the government. Lesko shouts out how great this time is in bringing in the bucks like he had just witnessed a crime: hysterically and without breath. Lesko isn’t just a spokesman…. he’s a true revolutionary. A revolutionary who acts like an eight-year-old with ADD.
9. Tom Vu
Before Jay-Z ripped him off in “Big Pimpin,” Tom Vu was the one and only player, the only man capable of cruising the seas in his tricked-out yacht surrounded by beautiful babes. Originally an immigrant from Vietnam, Vu became a self-made millionaire capable of buying mansions and Corvettes. But Vu wasn’t greedy, no sir. Instead of hiding his secret to success from the world, he decided to share it with as many people as humanly possible. By attending a seminar hosted by Vu, you (YOU!) could earn millions just like him.
The most ridiculous character in the history of the infomercial, Vu’s spiel about attending his seminar stands as one of the funniest moments in the history of advertisements. None of it makes sense – simply by attending a two hour seminar, I can be a multi-millionaire? Anybody who fell for this one probably thought the moon was made of cheese, or Rosie was a good host for “The View.”
8. Chef Tony
Chef Tony seems like a nice enough guy. He looks like a jolly chef, not unlike the animatronic cook who plays keyboards in the Chuck E. Cheese band. During his spots, the portly-salesman seemed loveable, an oafish character who just wanted you to be his friend and buy his brand of Miracle Blade knives.
But something seemed off about the rotund host. No man should be that fascinated by cutlery. What sick, inhumane desires lurked in the skull of Chef Tony? Nobody knew for sure.
The truth leaked eventually. Chef Tony was peddling unsafe wares. Besides selling sharp, pointy objects to the American populace, his Ultimate Chopper machine (a super blender, if you can imagine) wasn’t constructed greatly. A problem with the lid meant that it was completely possible for one’s finger to be sliced-and-diced off. With his Whirly-Death-Blender revealed to be a device of ultimate suffering, Chef Tony became the biggest trickster pitchperson ever, a jovial fellow at first glance, a man of lax standards and creepy facial hair the next. This is a spot of infamy for Chef Tony, for being one of the biggest tricksters in infomercial history.
7. Billy Blanks
One of the most badass infomercial hosts ever. Blanks could kick anybody’s ass using Tae-Bo. Of course, he wasn’t the coolest exercise guru to ever grace an infomercial. That honor belongs to……
6. Richard Simmons
Not only did Richard Simmons peddle exercise tapes like “Sweating to the Oldies,” he also developed one of the most impressive cult followings since “Showgirls.” For a man dripping with as much masculinity as a Strawberry Shortcake doll, he had a ton of women chasing after him (which was good, because they certainly needed all the running they could get). Richard Simmons makes this list by being one of the biggest paradoxes in recorded human history – a man who truly defines the word “girly,” yet still somehow has the ability to make middle-aged women worldwide go crazy. Plus, he maintained some uber ridiculous locks.
Ask any of my friends and they’ll tell you I’m an easily distracted person. If I have 200 pages of reading to do, I’ll glance over the first few pages for a couple minutes before randomly Googling people I know or South American insects. After about five minutes, I’ll move away from the computer and wander my dorm’s halls randomly, looking for another object or person to distract me. This probably explains why my GPA is lower than a professional Limbo dancer.
Famed bodybuilder Jack La Lanne, the only 92-year-old who could destroy any WWE wrestler without breaking a sweat, pulls off the miracle of making me stay focused on something for more than a nanosecond. Every time I stumble across the infomercial for the Jack La Lanne’s Power Juicer, I become hypnotized, unable to switch the channel while he talks about all the juice you can make using his machine. I can’t explain why I’m so entranced by an hour-long ad explaining how pulp can be used to make muffins, but I can’t break away from it. I don’t know how La Lanne does it, but for grabbing the attention of a kid usually distracted for hours by the presence of a fly, I applaud him.
4. Tony Little
Infomercial hosts have to act overexcited. Just look at what they do – they sell items usually reserved for a landfill, and have to sound genuinely interested in them. Still, nobody sounds as over-the-top into poorly designed merchandise than Tony Little, in all his muscular, ponytailed and freakish glory.
Little sounds like he had a megaphone installed into his throat; his speech booming and obnoxious all the time. He doesn’t seem human, but more machine, generating grating sounds and repeating the same damn word nine times in a row. “Buy buy buy buy buy buy this awesome machine!” Shut up shut up shut up shut up shut up shut up. Little is one of the more prolific infomercial hosts – he’s advertised a warehouse’s worth of exercise equipment, and even landed a Geico spot where he kinda poked fun at himself. But what truly defines Little is how devoted he is to maintaining his annoying image. If you go on his website, the first box to shoot out at you is an ad for a Tony Little bobblehead. Just as irritating as the man himself.
3. Ron Popeil
The Dr. Frankenstein of infomercials. Popeil is the face and brain behind the most sinister tools on sale for three easy payments of $19.99. His insidious inventions include the merciless Veg-O-Matic vegetable cutter, the soul-crushing GLH-9 Hair in a Can Spray and the unnatural Inside-the-Shell Egg Scrambler. Popeil’s most perverse work is the Saw-like Flavor Injector, a syringe capable of depositing solid materials into meat. The stuff of nightmares.
What truly sets Mr. Popeil off as one of the most diabolical infomercial characters is how he hatched nearly every famous phrase associated with the low-quality format. “It slices, it dices!” Popeil birthed that. “Now how much would you pay?” A product of Popeil’s twisted labyrinth of a mind. The Sledge-O-Matic? Well, actually that was Gallagher, but you get my point. None of the charlatans and vagrants on this list would exist without Popeil, and he rightly deserves high placement. Plus, the Veg-O-Matic can make Julien fries! So tasty.
If you haven’t noticed, infomercial hosts comprise the majority of this list. Exception time! The spot for the Magic Bullet, a food processor, tells a sad tale of the morning after a wild barbeque. Hosts Mick and Mimi welcome a cavalcade of lost souls into their kitchen, where they try to add meaning to the guests’ lives via a demonstration of the Magic Bullet. None of the drunkards and delinquents stand out more than Hazel, the middle-aged chain smoker.
Hazel, always sucking away on a cigarette, adds a bizarre charm to the Magic Bullet ad. She seems ripped from a sketchy dive bar, or maybe a roadside diner in the South. Hazel constantly complains about the situation at hand, a cantankerous soul never pleased with the state things are in, even when the Magic Bullet mashes up garlic. If you gave Hazel the Magic Bullet, she’d probably cut off one of her eyes she’s so boozed up. No infomercial character make me laugh as much as Hazel, and no character reminds me how not to live my life as well as she does.
1. Billy Mays
Every individual on this list embodies some of the elements necessary to be a great infomercial character. Over-excited, determined, weird but curiously addictive, and most likely failing at other aspects of life. Only one man – check that, one god – captures all these characteristics in one earthen body and brings them out when peddling cheap wares. Mankind, bow before Billy Mays.
Mays represents a variety of cleaning supplies on the small screen. Over his illustrious career, he’s touted the perks of OxiClean, OrangeGlo and Kaboom! (whatever that last one is). Equipped with a can-do attitude and a manly beard, Mays sells these cleaning supplies like he’s coaching a football game. Super perky and excited, Mays wants YOU to experience the POWER of OxiClean, the cleaner capable of erasing ANY stain imaginable. Mays’s voice resembles that of a stern but loving father, one who knows you can do your best if you just are the slightest bit motivated, possibly by the threat of cleaning the entire house with OrangeGlo. If he used his powers for evil, Mays could rule the world.
Instead, he utilizes his enthusiasm and facial hair to sell cleaning concoctions. But he does it better than anyone else. Mays used to be confined to the wee hours of the night, lodged between call-in knife store shows and reruns of Three’s Company. Now, his ads sometimes get play during the day, a rare feat in the infomercial world. Mays has a bizarre vigor for substances capable of removing even the nastiest spills matched by none, and no host is more hypnotizing then he is.
Plus, he hits the “But wait, if you call in the next five minutes” part like a soprano nailing the perfect note. A thing of beauty.