Before he died, quite suddenly, a few years back, my uncle and I had a Cal Worthington moment. If you were lucky enough to see one of Cal’s commercials, you know what I’m talking about. If not, here:
We were rapping about something, I don’t remember what, but somehow we got on to TV, which led to commercials, which led to Cal. My uncle swore Cal had been run out of Bakersfield on a rail, which is how he ended up in Long Beach. Near as I can tell from reading Sam Sweet’s great little Paris Review blast, that probably didn’t happen. But it also totally could have! Mid-century papertrails were made of actual paper, so tracing Cal’s movements up and down the spine of California would require work most of us just don’t want to put in anymore. But it’s almost better not knowing. Cal’s commercials were charming in their complete lack of cultural content. Compare Cal’s wingwalking and ape talking with this creepy garbage:
This paean to middle-American, conservative, rural, masculinity is the kind of fantasy Klaus Theweleit would tell us is an indication that we’re about two clicks away from fascism. It imagines a world where working class men are driving around in $40K trucks smiling about the prospect of going home and holding hands with high school sweethearts. In reality, the men who can afford to drive these trucks and the men who “get to work on time” aren’t the same dudes. In fact, there probably aren’t even jobs for the working class guys to go to anymore. And if this fantasy man ever did marry his best girl from high school, they probably got divorced a few years back when money got real tight. But Chevy thinks it’s best to lie to people about the country they live in. And they’re probably right.
Cal wasn’t interested in selling us an ideal. He just wanted to sell us cars. There’s a level of honesty in his ads that we’ll probably never see again. We’re so desperate to be cool, authentic, and, above all, validated by ads that we can only appreciate Cal’s spots ironically. “They’re so bad, they’re good!” To hell with that. They’re good because they’re memorable without being emotionally manipulative. Unlike Apple, or American Apparel, or Chevy, Cal Worthington respected us enough to make himself the fool in our place. That’s something worth buying.