Monday, February 7, 2011

My Life as an Internet Celebrity: Part Four

Several videos have gone live. And I’ve been recognized—but only in the hallways of the Sears office building where I work.

In an elevator or a hallway: “Hey, it’s Corey!”

And I smile and nod. Because frankly, I’m not sure what I should say in the ensuing silence.

“Thanks! They’re a blast to do!”
“I hope you’re taking my advice! Just kidding!!”
“Ha ha, I’m not really Corey. It’s a character I’m playing!”

However, I don’t think anyone else in the world is watching these things. It’s a core group of Sears employees and a few of my friends. And my parents.

Each new video that goes up on Facebook gets a couple of responses underneath it, but a couple seconds of research reveals that the commenters all work at Sears.

The people who have watched them have had positive things to say, and it’s fun to be delivering some comic material. But I think it’s a lot of work being put into a secret. A viral campaign that has been successfully contained.

A friend of mine is the host of the new Chicago version of Cash Cab, and she posted on Facebook, with some amount of pride, that she had already been called a slut in the comments of her trailer on YouTube. No one cares enough about Corey to call him a slut.

But, we’re winding down. This is the final week before Valentine’s Day, and soon I will be able to shave off this scruffy beard I’ve grown for the project. I’ll be happy to be rid of it.

The finale has caused a little controversy.

What’s supposed to happen—and this was the plan from the beginning, even back when I auditioned—is that Corey loses his mind and takes a bunch of Craftsman® power tools and destroys a bunch of Sears Valentine’s merchandise.

Last week, we got word that the heads of the various Sears departments weren’t too keen on that ending. Which is understandable. A little late in the game, but understandable.

I’m not sure what will happen instead. It has to be figured out pretty darn soon. But there is talk, for some reason, of a bear costume.

Oh, and I’m finally a video game character.

Monday, January 24, 2011

My Life as an Internet Celebrity: Part Three

The twelfth floor of my work building is a merry-go-round of shitting guys.

I work on the eleventh, but one Wednesday I had to go upstairs to try on Corey’s outfits for the videos. The art directors/costumers had raided the Sears across the street and picked out a series of outfits that documented my character’s story arc. I had to try each outfit one to make sure they all fit (and get my pic taken in each one for reference/presentation purposes). So I had to go change in a men’s room stall something like six or eight times.

Literally, every single time, at least one of the stalls was occupied.

I wasn’t offended or anything. I was the one who was using the stalls for the wrong purpose. But I entered the restroom hoping for a little privacy and was thwarted every time by this eternal fugue of scatology.

I wonder how often one of my fellow occupants noticed with horror that I left the bathroom without washing my hands.

In any case, the two wardrobe women poked, prodded, and zhuzhed me, then I stood in a hallway and had my picture taken. People would appear around the corner, startled and confused, until I waved them past.

This was my second fashion show. A week earlier, I actually stood against the fake wood paneling of the Sears dressing room and tried on clothes that had just been lifted off the displays outside. Sometimes the women would break off an inconvenient tag. I wasn’t sure if that was kosher, but hardly anyone else came in during the escapade.

I’m glad I’m not a model. My day-to-day confusion about what to do with my arms and legs is intensified under the magnifying glass of the camera lens. Do I just stand there and present my clothing? Do I smile? Do I glower in character?

The first few videos are up already, so I’m not spoiling anything when I say this Valentine Expert gets dumped the night before his Valentine’s Day blog goes live. We follow him from devastation to bitterness to rage as he tries valiantly to keep putting forth tips for how to have a great romantic experience.

Meanwhile, I am going to be a video game character.

Shortly after I got the part, one of the people in charge of the project waved me over. Based on a couple of photos I provided, someone made a little flash caricature of me. I think the idea is that Corey is so bitter that he’s trying to avoid the romantic items that are falling from the sky. I don’t know. Should be fun.

I’m not writing any of the videos, but the trick in writing them is to make them entertaining and let the character be bitter and sardonic, but not to let it go so far as to be flippant about Sears and its products. It is a marketing site, after all. Similarly, the challenge in performing them is to be sincere about how useful these products are while still conveying depression of fury about the way things have gone down.

There were a couple snags. For example, the legal department at Sears declared that we couldn’t use the name “Corey Fowler,” because there’s a chance that someone out there is actually named Corey Fowler, and that person could conceivably sue us for using his name. That seem very odd—does every piece of fiction have to get all the characters’ names cleared? Legal provided some alternate, whimsical names that they deemed acceptable. (One of them—I am not making this up—was “Mr. VD.” I was not going to have my image plastered on the internet above the name “Mr. VD.”)

Eventually, they came up with a plan that we’d find a Sears employee named Corey, pay that person some nominal fee to use his name, and we’d be set, legally; a specific Corey had allowed us the use of his name. (As for the last name, Corey no longer has one.)

The other snag was that they initially set up a fake Facebook account for Corey Fowler. As people “friended” him, they could follow his relationship through status updates, and a change from “in a relationship” to “single.” I happened to know this, and so did the creatives at Sears, but that’s an inappropriate use of a Facebook account—you can’t create a profile of a fake person.

Initially, there was a renegade “What are they gonna do, arrest us?” attitude, but Sears has a healthy working relationship with Facebook, so that attitude was short-lived. We had to set up a business account, which took away a little of the verisimilitude, but without any real setbacks, in my opinion. (Unfortunately, they made this decision after we’d already set up the Corey Fowler personal account, so the handful of friends we gathered had to be sent over to the new link.)

Soon the first couple of scripts came in, and I was memorizing lines like I used to.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Last night, the trains were swollen with people.

I waited on the platform at Madison and Wabash, and the first Brown Line that arrived had no seats open and barely any standing room. I was in no hurry, so I let it pass and waited for the next one. I was a little bewildered, because it seemed late enough that the rush would have died down, but whatever.

A long time passed before the next Brown Line. It too was packed. I looked in the window to see which conductor was driving it. It was a guy I recognized: big doughy sphere of a head, thin film of stubble on his scalp. He wasn’t one of the conductors who annoy me with their driving or announcing habits, so I figured, screw it—I’m getting on.

I was in the front car, as usual. (I get off all the way up at Kimball, so it pays to be in the front car at the end of my evening commute.) I stood with my back to the door that leads to the conductor’s cockpit.

I thought I’d try to read, but the crowd filled in to the point where there was no room to hold my book in front of me without bothering everyone. So I switched to playing Bejeweled on my phone, but I kept losing. Frustrated, I put away all my self-distractions and settled in for a dull, annoying trip.

I found out why the trains were so few and far between, because the conductor kept announcing the story, over and over again. “Once again passengers sorry for the delay we had a train go off the tracks at Kedzie and had to return to Kimball against traffic I apologize for any delay or inconvenience we’re running on schedule now.”

Another one of those catastrophes (for others) that leads to an inconvenience (for me).

So we lurched our way, shoulder to shoulder, up from the Loop. At Belmont, there was a knock behind me on the door against which I was leaning. The conductor opened it.

“Seriously?” I thought. “He’s going to make his rounds through the train when it’s this crowded?”

But no: He said, “Maybe we can get a little breathing room here.”

Belmont was the last stop for a while where he needed to look out the left-hand window. So he opened up the little front area and shut himself into the smaller portion on the right-hand side. It was actually quite thoughtful of him.

At first, all I did was back up, so that instead of having my back to the door, I had my back to the window at the front of the train.

But then I realized: I’m at a window at the front of the train!

I turned around and watched the commute from an angle I’d never seen before. This is a trip I’d observed through the side window countless times. Through the back window, the scenery receding, several times too. But I don’t think I’d ever had a head-on view before, houses and streets and stations approaching constantly.

The curves were the best. Between Belmont and Southport, between Paulina and Addison, and especially between Montrose and Damen, where a swirl of snow blew off an overhanging tree, and we passed through it as through a glittery fog.

Oncoming trains’ headlights. Never-seen CTA traffic lights I didn’t know how to decipher. Arcs of footprints in the snow at each platform outlining ghosts of the trains that had come before.

I switched my iPod to “The Gentle Side of John Coltrane” and watched the snowy city approach me from two stories up.

I took out my camera phone and snapped a few pictures. I felt a little self-conscious about it until I noticed another guy next to me doing the same thing.I knew that Rockwell would be the next stop for which the conductor would need the left window, so I moved back into the (now much roomier) body of the train one stop earlier, at Western. Sure enough, the conductor lurched out and shooed away my fellow photographer soon afterwards. The front pocket of the train was once again sealed off from the passengers.

You never know what the meaningless little decisions you make during the course of the day will bring you. Take a train, or let it pass. The infinity of it all can give you vertigo. It’s rare that it occurs to me to notice the results of these decisions, even rarer that I am able to enjoy one of them.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

My Life as an Internet Celebrity: Part Two

The callback took place the Thursday before Christmas. I was given another script, this one from later in the character’s breakdown, that would run closer to Valentine’s Day.

While the first guy auditioned, I waited outside the conference room with the other guy who was up for the part. Turns out he was one of the copywriters on the Valentine’s project (CONFLICT OF INTEREST), and we shot the breeze and discussed the nature of copywriting.

Then it was my turn. We were told to interpret freely, improvise a little if we wanted to. There was a portion where I was supposed to sing a line from some depressing Emo song I’d never heard of, but I replaced it with a phrase or two from “All By Myself.” The auditor sitting next to me looked away with a jerk and laughed into her hand, which was nice—it meant my instincts were hitting. (For my first audition, I didn’t manage to get a single laugh.)

They asked if I wanted to do it again, but I figured my first take was about as good as I could offer. If they didn’t like that one, they weren’t going to want me. So I thanked them and left it at that.

The great part about all this was that I had very little stake in it. I wouldn’t be heartbroken if I didn’t get it; it was just a lark. So I was able to enjoy the Christmas weekend without a lot of obsessing.

The following Tuesday morning, I got word that I’d been selected.

I had a very nicely calibrated positive response to it. Is that underwhelming? I was definitely happy (an opportunity to do some comic acting!), but I was able to temper it (I had just beaten out a bunch of non-actors for an opportunity to shill products in a backwater corner of the internet).

Or maybe it was my stomach that kept my joy in check.

Gradually, starting about mid-morning, I began to feel worse and worse with some sort of food poisoning or stomach bug. It all came to a horrifying climax about 4:30 pm, and I spent the next three days thinking about my brush not with viral celebrity, but with viral calamity.

I recovered in time for the new year—to begin the next phase toward becoming an internet celebrity: the grooming.

NEXT: a whirlwind fashion shopping montage!

Thursday, January 6, 2011

My Life as an Internet Celebrity: Part One

I have been writing copy for Sears Holdings Corporation for about two months. I moved here from a dining loyalty program company called Rewards Network.

One of the first things I wrote at Rewards Network that got a lot of attention was a Halloween email written from the point of view of a zombie. It was kind of my Mona Lisa over there.

I was offered the Sears job in mid-October and gave my two weeks. Shortly thereafter, Sears started running a zombie-themed “viral” campaign. Two different Rewards Network co-workers sent me the link and asked if I had already been contributing to the Sears site.

Anyway. I’m here at Sears now, and a few weeks ago I heard through the grapevine that UX team (“User Experience”) was planning on following up the zombie thing with a Valentine’s Day thing. The plot: a Sears Valentine’s Day Expert is going to post web videos on how to plan the perfect Valentine’s Day. But as the project develops, real life starts to intrude. Comedy, as they say, ensues.

The audition notice (which was surreptitiously forwarded to me) specified that they were looking for a “male between the ages of 20 - 35 (sorry, ladies and elder gentlemen).” Don’t tell Sears: I am 37. But I pride myself on being able to look 35 when I need to.

They gave me a script, four or five other guys and I filed into a conference room. While one of us performed in front of a video camera, the rest of us waited out in the hall. It was a surreal place to experience the déjà vu from my acting days, milling around and muttering lines to myself, anxiously waiting to be judged.

I was the only one milling around and muttering, by the way. Everyone else just shot the breeze. Amateurs.

By the end of the day, I found that I was one of three people called back for a second audition. Internet Celebrity was so close, I could almost feel its warm glow on my face.

Monday, January 3, 2011


I’ve taken to reading books to Jen at night. Chapter by chapter, we make our way through books I happen to have. We did The Billionaire’s Vinegar, a gift to Jen from my brother. Then, we read Contested Will, a book I bought after hearing the author speak at the Newberry Library. (He adheres to the controversial theory that Shakespeare wrote the plays attributed to him.)

I just finished reading her our first fiction work, A History of the World in 10-1/2 Chapters by Julian Barnes.

I’d read it several years ago and loved it, but I was amazed at how much I didn’t remember. It’s a lovely book. Essentially, it’s a novel disguised as a collection of short stories. And I suppose each chapter could each be read on its own, as a separate story. But taken all together, it’s a theme and variations, a musing on love, fate, free will, religion, art, death, rebirth, passion, and the cycles history takes us through. Starting with Noah’s flood, images gather and recur and spin into each other like a snowball rolling and growing. And burrowing through the book like a woodworm is—well, a woodworm.

It’s very inspiring to see the way he pieces the symbolism together. Sometimes I wondered if it was too ham-fisted, like you could see the strings. But I enjoyed watching him do it so much. It made me want to find an image or two and screw around with it from multiple angles.

Next up: A History of the World in Six Glasses, a Christmas present from my brother. That ought to cover our historical studies nicely.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Sure, Why Not?

A better re-signing than Steve Trachsel, anyway.