Terry Tate’s Pain Train

Two years later, a digital-video short film became an overnight ad sensation.

Rawson Thurber has been so busy the past few days that by the time he finally returns a reporter’s phone call, he does so at 1:30 in the morning — and he doesn’t even realize the late, or early, hour till he hears the groggy croak on the other end. He’s sorry as hell — “Aw, dude, you were asleep, weren’t you?” — but all things considered, you understand a man with a packed schedule has only so many spare minutes to waste on the phone with a journalist. It wasn’t like this January 25. Back then, way back then, you could have gotten him on the phone any time, for any length of time. But all those days ago, before the Bucs went to San Diego and tossed the Raiders out to sea, the world had yet to meet Rawson Thurber’s baby boy: office linebacker Terry Tate, a man who will clothesline a colleague for making long-distance phone calls on the company dime or tackle a co-worker for failing to make a fresh pot of coffee. “You kill the joe, you make some mo’,” Terry hollers at one quivering worker stupid enough to catch a ride on the Pain Train.

Two weeks ago, Thurber’s filmography was just wishful thinking: a student short film even he will tell you is awful, another digital short that remains little more than a rumor, and a script in the hands of a movie star who says he can’t wait to star in it. He had more going for him than most 27-year-old wannabes, including a deal with Ben Stiller’s production company, but Thurber still existed in that frustrating state of Hollywood limbo, where success teases and taunts but seldom delivers. Today, he is the unknown sensation of Super Bowl Sunday, the man who conceived, wrote, and directed the four-minute film Terry Tate, Office Linebacker, the first of several shorts Reebok is rolling out to introduce its new Vector line — as though anyone really notices the product in between Terry’s bruising tackles of guys in ties who take pens off his desk or forget to put cover sheets on their TPS reports or thoughtlessly toss aluminum cans in regular trash bins sitting alongside recycling containers.

Since Reebok introduced the spot, a thirty-second “trailer” for the longer online film, during the second half of the Super Bowl, more than a million people have logged into terrytate.reebok.com. Lester Speight, who plays Terry, granted by his own estimation some forty radio, print, and television interviews in the days after the Super Bowl — including one on the Today show, where he treated Matt and Katie and Al to a few slices of “pain cake.” Last Friday, he even rang the closing bell at the New York Stock Exchange — not as Lester or the Mighty Rasta, the name under which Speight acts, but as Terry Tate.

“He’s a fictional character,” Thurber says, his voice still registering disbelief. “We aired the commercial once, and this is like past surreal. This is into the bizarre. But bizarre great. Never in my wildest imagination would I have thought any of this would have happened.”

In other words, Terry Tate, Office Linebacker is easily the most successful ad campaign Reebok has ever launched.

Nothing compares to this,” says Denise Kaigler, Reebok’s vice president of global communications. “Absolutely none of us comprehended how big this would be.”

That includes Thurber, who conceived of Terry Tate long before he started draping golden Reebok jewelry around his thick neck and over pecs that appear made of molded metal. For God’s sakes, Terry Tate, Office Linebacker began not as an ad campaign for a multimillion-dollar company, but as a joke, something that would flesh out a tiny demo reel, amuse Thurber and his pals, and maybe, if he was really lucky, get into a few film festivals and attract a little attention.

Precisely how this happened is a fairly improbable tale, as you will see. Precisely why it happened is far less inexplicable, because if you see the short film once, you will want to see it again and again. It’s a surreal and not a little violent bit of wish-fulfillment for any 9-to-5-er who’s ever been stuck holding the empty coffeepot or found their co-workers playing Solitaire on a busy day. Terry Tate lurks among the cubicles to wreak vengeance on behalf of all those hard workers dumped on by those hardly working. That’s why his co-workers (at the fictitious Felcher & Sons, like you didn’t know a company named for a Felcher was made-up) love him, and that why audiences adore him: Terry leads the league in tackles of the rude and thoughtless.

But Terry Tate also doesn’t look like other ads. It peddles incredibly smart dumb comedy and is loaded with so many jokes you have to see it several times to catch every one.

“I am a comedy snob,” Thurber says. “That’s not to say I only like jokes about the quadratic equation. I like a good football in the groin just like everybody else, it just has to be done right. … What’s been great about this is that it’s antithetical to the way commercials are usually made.”

Back when start-ups were dropping big money on small films they could air on their nifty Web sites, fourteen-year-old Propaganda Films was among the leading content providers for sites like AtomFilms.com. Someone there had seen Thurber’s script for something called Terry Tate, Office Linebacker and decided to toss the kid some scratch.

Thurber put an ad in an actor’s trade mag and wound up with “sad amounts of headshots,” but among them was Speight’s — and he looked just as Thurber had imagined Terry when he was writing and storyboarding the short. He just hoped the dude could act, since Thurber wasn’t familiar with Speight’s appearance as “Kid Spandex” on the Comedy Central series That’s My Bush! or his work as a security guard in Oliver Stone’s film Any Given Sunday. What he found was someone “charismatic and fearless,” a former theater major who was willing to play silly and scary at the same time.

Problem was, shortly after the film was completed, Propaganda went bust. But Hypnotic, an LA-based production company fronted by writer and director Doug Liman (Swingers, The Bourne Identity) and former NBC and HBO programming exec Doug Bartis, was interested in seeing what it could do with it. After all, Hypnotic had been interested in Thurber’s script early on, and it had more contacts than a defunct company, so it made sense. Hypnotic then took the short to the New York-based Arnell Group ad agency, with whom they had a long-standing relationship working on, among other things, the annual Chrysler Million Dollar Film Festival. Peter Arnell and his execs, who handle the Reebok account, liked what they saw and figured they could take Thurber’s baby and use him to sell the hell out of Reebok. All they had to do was redo the short, which was long on bad lighting and bad camera work and bad language, and make Terry Tate presentable to the home-viewing and shoe-buying audience.

In the meantime, Thurber thought, what the hell, he’d enter the Sundance Film Festival — for the second time. In 1999, when he was still studying film production at the University of Southern California, he entered a short called The Band, which garnered him only a letter of rejection from organizer Geoffrey Gilmore. Thurber framed the letter and put it in his bathroom, and figured maybe he’d enter every year and wallpaper the john with film-fest no-thank-you notes. But this time, Terry Tate was accepted to the 2002 Sundance fest — only he had to pull it four days before it was scheduled to screen. “Reebok,” Thurber explains, “didn’t want to let the cat out of the bag” just yet.

Last summer, Thurber and Speight were reunited for seven days of shooting, during which they filmed 109 scenes for the four shorts that will make up Reebok’s initial run of Internet spots. The first one wound up costing some $4 million, though the amount of press Reebok’s gotten from it has to be priceless.

Reebok and Arnell Group execs were so taken aback by journalists’ rush to write about the film they even rushed into production on another ad, which aired last weekend — two days after it was shot, and a mere four days after it was conceived.

Thurber is not quite sure how far Terry Tate will carry him on those broad shoulders; he’s also not sure how far he should go. After all, he will soon direct Underdogs, with producer Ben Stiller as one of his stars. And it appears, sooner than later, the creator will lose control over his creation, and Terry Tate will no longer belong to Rawson Thurber.

“I’m thrilled with the reception Terry Tate has gotten,” he says. “I love it. I love Terry Tate, I can’t wait to do more Terry Tate, I’m glad America gets it. You never know when you do these things if what you think is funny is what millions of people will think is funny. For me, though, there are other things I wanna do. Other stories I want to tell. This is a great experience for me and I hope to do more of it, but my love and focus and passion is feature films and writing and directing those. I mean, there’s been talk of Terry Tate feature films and television.” He sounds like even he can’t believe what he is saying.


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