L.A. Vintage Commercials: Cal Worthington
If you, like me, were a latchkey kid in the LA area in the 80s, you may well have passed more than a few, or perhaps a few hundred, post-school afternoons watching cartoons. I spent countless blissful hours of my tender youth vegetating in this manner, but if you asked me to recount the plot of a single Voltron or G.I. Joe episode, I’d draw a blank (except for the Scooby-Doo where Phyllis Diller guest-starred).
What do I remember? The commercials. Not all of them of course, but the really good ones, the ones with the themes and the jingles that bring back the smoggy-lunged, air conditioned, TV-brainmushed afternoons like they were yesterday. And to my surprise, I found that I’m not alone in this. I went to college on the east coast, and whenever I ran into anyone from southern California, all I had to do was sing a few bars of the Pete Ellis Dodge jingle and baby – we had a stew goin’. Instant cultural camaraderie – like the ethnicity I always wanted but never had.
I’ll begin with perhaps the most famous and beloved of all these commercials, the Cal Worthington genre. Cal is a car-selling cowboy; the closest visual equivalent I can think of is the Sam Elliott character in Lebowski. Cal was a throwback to the days when California still had a bit of a wild-west aesthetic, though why he bought ad space for his several Ford dealerships during children’s cartoons remains unclear to me.
The genius of the Worthington commercials was severalfold. First was their jingle – a simply and catchy tune that wormed its way into your head like a weevil, based on its uncanny similarity to the camp ditty “If You’re Happy and You Know It.” Even trickier was his lyrical sleight of hand. The song’s chorus “Go see Cal” was often replaced with the sound-alike nonsense phrase “Pussycow” so that impressionable young viewers such as myself were titillated. Did Cal just say “pussy”? Is there something adult-themed going on at Worthington Ford? I swore years ago to find out, but never got around to it.
The Cal Worthington commercials stuck in the adolescent brain also thanks to their thematic bait-and-switch. The introduction to these ads invariably promised “Cal Worthington and his dog Spot”yet the animal accompanying Cal was never a dog. It was an elephant, a tiger, a goat, or some other god-forsaken fauna, but the promised dog never materialized. Watching these ads as a nine-year-old, I first realized: grownups are filthy, filthy liars.
To be fair to Cal, though, making these commercials was hard work, because showbiz animals, like human actors, piss all over you. The difference is that with animals it’s not merely a euphemism. Cal braved both a mighty geyser of elephant urine and a close-up stream of baby-goat whiz to bring us these classic ads. Thanks pardner. And for what it’s worth, Cal’s business still appears to be going strong, and while I may have an unhealthy obsession with the guy, at least I’m not as stalker-y as the person who created this cyberhagiography.