This is another bi-weekly feature. It combines my love of weird old commercials with my love of weird old beer. It is the closest we at The Beer Hole will ever come to being informative.

Nichols and May for Narragansett Lager


Nichols and May were the first comedy duo to make it big out of Second City. Nichols is Mike Nichols, who has gone to become every east coast drama teacher’s favorite film director. May is Elaine May, who went on to direct a handful bizarre, heartbreakingly nihilistic films that were all unfairly received (including Ishtar, which totally isn’t bad).

The pair were something of a precursor to mumblecore, only unlike mumblecore they were often funny. They worked an old-school comedy duo setup, with one bringing something absurd or insane to the attention of the other, “straight” character. Only they differed in that the straight character was usually the funnier one. Here they are making fun of the Charles Van Doren scandal:

Notice how initially you assume that Nichols, who is speaking in a timid frogvoice, will be the weird one. May’s reactions are “straight,” in that they were indicative of the actual conversations going on at the time. Only she exaggerates slightly from real life, makes the gaps in real-life logic more comically obvious. Here, the absurd character’s job is to point out the greater absurdity and hypocrisy of the normal character. It’s a really beautiful bit, and indicative of the genius of their work.

Naturally, the pair began doing voiceovers for beer commercials. This was back when over 30% of TV commercials were animated, and the low budgets given to commercials allowed animators to be much more adventurous than the tight confines of the studio system allowed. Nichols and May did ads for Narragansett, which is a beer named after a town which is named after a slaughtered indigenous people.

A quick google will send you to Narragansett’s website. They’re a legit retro brand, like Potosi. They stopped brewing during the time when all the existing old brands got sold to Pabst/Miller, and so they were able to come back as an independent in 2005. Their “History” section details the ins and outs of the brewery in amusingly earnest detail. From reading it, I get the feeling that it was written by an old owner who is still angry that the brewery didn’t get enough tax reliefe in the 80s (he even lists the exact figures of tax expenditures paid. It’s quite charmingly bizarre.)

Unlike the rehearsed improv of their comedy bits, the beer commercials appear to be direct, mumbly improv. This, unfortunately, is where my mumblecore comparison comes in. The ads are mostly buildup, with the pair feeling out one another’s characters and then trying to find some room for a joke. But then instead of getting rolling with the joke, all you get is the initial recognition of the joke. Like, hey, this could be funny if we kept going with it, but we won’t, we’ll just stop.

It’s the same sort of thing that happens at the end of a short bit on the old Bullwinkle show. Only with Bullwinkle, the funniness comes from the self-awareness of the bit, the big horn burst that signals that you’re supposed to cringe at the pun. The ads just end before the horn comes in:

Here’s another, better one, where the pair are given time to get on a roll:

These commercials are most notable for their striking but minimalistic style. This was a style that was quite popular in the mid fifties through the early sixties. I think of it as Fifties Modernism. It was a style of American animation built upon European and Soviet styles. It was different from the predominant, Disney-esque style in that it made no pretensions towards realism. Most innovations in the Disney paradigm had to do with minor tweaks upon what was accepted (like the self-consciousness rubberiness of Bob Clampett’s characters). This low-budget fifties style represented a radical break from the Dinsey paradigm, and the result is often quite pretty.

Here’s a “50’s Modern” cartoon called “Flebus.” It’s made by Terrytoons, who were primarily known for churning out Warner-Derivative crap like Baby Huey. The Modern style is a huge improvement:

The Narragansett commercials are so indicative of this style that I can’t figure out who made them, and the internet yields no definitive answers. My guess is that they are from John Hubley (then again, I initially thought the host in the first video was Jack Paar, so I’m capable of being badly wrong). The ads certainly matched Hubley’s style, but they lack the rhythmic fluidity of his better-known works, like this commercial for EZ Pop:

Hubley also did UPA’s “Rooty Toot Toot,” which is one of the best animated shorts you’ll ever see:

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