Transcript

133:

Sales
Transcript

Originally aired 06.25.1999

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Prologue.

Ira Glass

Consider for a moment all the art forms that were created on this continent by Americans-- jazz, the blues, musical theater, rock and roll, phonograph recordings themselves, television, motion pictures, video games. I would argue that all of them are eclipsed by the art form at which we truly excel as a nation, the art form which more Americans practice than any other, the art form which actually dominates all the other art forms and our political life as well. And that is the art of selling. That's what we do the most reliably.

From Wall Street to the pollsters in market research firms and focus group operations all across the fruited plain, from the telemarketers who phone us during dinner to the junk mailing operations that fill our mailboxes in the morning, from James Carville selling candidates on our televisions to the gang kids on Chicago's West Side selling weed in Humboldt Park, from the corny ads on every other radio station to the pledge drives that I participate in myself on this very station. From sea to shining sea, sales is our great democratic art form. And I would argue, nothing wrong with that. And in any case, we don't have any choice about it, so we might as well decide to feel good about the whole thing.

To help you do that, today on our radio program, inspiring case studies and some horrifying ones too. The whole gamut. From WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass.

Today's program, Sales. America's greatest art form. Act One of our show today, How To Talk Your Way Into Half A Million Dollars In Just 45 Minutes. In that act, Sandra Tsing Loh accompanies a Hollywood screenwriter, as he tries to sell a movie idea.

Act Two, Jail Sell. That's S-E-L-L. A story from Danny Hoch in which a true American salesman gets thrown in the slammer for simply being an entrepreneur and has a few words to say about it, believe me.

Act Three, Who's The Man? We have this story of how becoming a salesman can change your life, make you more confident, make you able to charm anyone. And why you might decide that that's not such a good thing. Act Four, The Secret To Being Rich And Happy. The life of 76-year-old salesman Jimmy Roy in Braddock, Pennsylvania raises the possibility that being a rich salesman and being a happy salesmen might be mutually exclusive. Stay with us.

Act One. How To Talk Your Way Into A Half Million Dollars ... In 45 Minutes.

Ira Glass

Act One, How To Talk Your Way Into A Half Million Dollars In Just 45 Minutes. Friends, let us consider one of the many crossroads where art and commerce meet and ask the question, is commerce the greater art than art itself? In our first story today, writer Sandra Tsing Loh takes us into a setting that, as an occasional screenwriter, she knows well herself-- the Hollywood pitch meeting, where movie and TV deals are made.

And we thought we would start our show here because it is a sales situation where the stakes are enormously high, where things are decided very quickly, and where people who often like to think of themselves as artists-- I mean, writers, and producers, and people like that-- are basically forced to be salesmen. Here's Sandra.

Sandra Tsing Loh

I'm with writer Scott Fifer two days before a big movie pitch meeting. We're in his small office nested deep in an office building on Wilshire, where Scott works on the writing staff of Beverly Hills, 90210, a waning Spelling TV show about increasingly long-in-the-tooth teens. It's not where he wants to be forever. What Scott really wants to do is write movies, big, funny movies. And he's had some luck.

Four years ago, he sold a pitch to Columbia-- a kind of Lysistrata, but with football widows-- and was paid to write the script. Although it's now in turnaround, hiatus, limbo, no more money will be forthcoming, et cetera. Scott knows he's a good pitcher and writer and that he has a really funny, new movie idea, which he's pitched, so far, to seven producers.

Scott Fifer

In fact, every producer I've gone to has responded very positively and very excited. So that gets me excited. And I think, "Wow, this is going to sell. I'm going to sell this pitch. I'm going to be rich."

Sandra Tsing Loh

So what happened with those seven so far?

Scott Fifer

They didn't sell, and I'm not rich.

Sandra Tsing Loh

Friday is pitch number eight. In the movie industry, different salesmen have different styles. Scott approaches the pitch like a performance piece. He acts out the whole movie, goes into different character voices, loads on a lot of detail.

Scott Fifer

I am a little worried that I'm giving them too much information. My pitches tend to be a little long. They go about 20 minutes. And I know other people that pitch just the trailer to the movie.

I was talking to Andrew Marlowe, who did Air Force One. And when he goes into a pitch, he's just like, "Arnold Schwarzenegger coming back from the dead and meeting Satan. And he turns to the camera and says, 'I'll meet you in hell.'" And that's all he has to do when he sells a million dollar pitch.

Sandra Tsing Loh

What's the secret to a million dollar pitch? Before we head out to the big meeting, for a quick primer on pitching theory, I turn to veteran pitcher Bob Kosberg, reputed king of the one-line pitch, currently a producer at Merv Griffin Productions.

Bob Kosberg

I don't know that they're great or that they're legendary. But I can give you examples of pitches that we've sold that had those one-line, two-line hooks to them or premises that were very high concept that when an executive heard it, they right away got the idea. We sold a project called Man's Best Friend, which was really about a dog that had been genetically enhanced and then went out of control. But the key line that sold it was to then say, "In other words, Mr. Executive, it's basically Jaws on paws."

Sandra Tsing Loh

And then the Jaws with paws doesn't make it a better movie, but it makes the executive remember it better?

Bob Kosberg

It makes the executive remember it. It's a cute, little, glib sales tool that will allow them to take your pitch and go down the hall, remember as much of the pitch as they can. But then in the middle of while they're forgetting it, they can say, "But I remember the poster. It's sort of Jaws on paws." Then they can get the laugh. It's like telling a good joke. The joke travels well down the executive corridors.

We sold a story called Busby to Turner. That was a fun pitch because we actually brought a dog. Everyone knows the Taco Bell chihuahua. Well, a few years ago, there was a dog that was very hot from another movie. At this point, I'm trying to remember which dog it even was. I think it was the dog from As Good As It Gets.

But we took that dog around to the studios to pitch meetings. And the dog would sit at attention with a pencil in his mouth like he was ready to take notes. But ultimately, the pitch was the story-- Busby was the story of two guys who wanted to steal the world's smartest dog right off of a studio lot. "The dog was working at Paramount," we said, "making a movie called Bite Hard III."

Well, once we got to the point in the story where we could say, "These kidnappers break on to the studio lot, steal the dog, and bring it back, and wait for the phone to ring," we could stop the pitch and say, "Basically, it's Ruthless People with a dog." And it helped that the dog was in the room. So sometimes, I'm not above cheap stunts.

Sandra Tsing Loh

As Kosberg goes on to describe other legendary pitches he has sold-- Norma Rae with long legs, The Lust Boat, a Bette Midler fertility clinic mix-up caper called Scrambled Eggs-- I realize that, paradoxically, I'm much more entertained by the pitches than, well, I'd probably be by the actual movies they'd spawned. Think about it. While the phrase "Jaws with paws" is a laugh, the 90-minute hilarious summer movie version of Jaws with paws with a car chase, and a teen romance, and a wacky cameo by the comedian Sinbad sounds a little painful, which makes me wonder. Have we come to a point in Hollywood history when the pitches have become better than the movies? When the pitches themselves are somehow a purer form of movie? Bob Kosberg says, "Sure. And why not?"

Bob Kosberg

Well, that's one of the wonderful things about pitching. When you're pitching the story in the first meetings, everybody visualizes the movie they want to see. It can only be the best possible version at that moment. It can only get worse from that point on because then you have to write the darn thing and directors come in with their version.

And now, of course, to give credit to all the talented people of Hollywood, sometimes they take a pitch, and the writer, the director, the stars, the studio make it better. But you're right. A lot of times, when you're just pitching, what's great about that stage of the development process is it's all about potential.

Sandra Tsing Loh

Scott Fifer-- and remember that his brilliant Lysistrata football-widows pitch is now lost in turnaround limbo-- couldn't agree more.

Scott Fifer

That may very well be true. It's sad, but true that the pitch is as good as it's going to get. And it's just downhill from there. You keep getting notes on how to change it, and why it should be different, and all these other people start adding their opinions.

And it's frustrating that I still can think of that pitch and think, "My god, that's such a great idea. That's such a movie. I can see it. It stars Julia Roberts. I love it." And it may never happen. And that's so frustrating.

Sandra Tsing Loh

To avoid frustration, Scott knows that the producers he's pitching to Friday are looking specifically for a Liar Liar type comedy, which is the very type of movie he's pitching. Although, depending on his audience, he can also pitch it as a Dumb And Dumber comedy or a Nutty Professor comedy. How will he know his pitch is succeeding? When the executives laugh. Who is he pitching to? Two successful and in-demand producers, whose most recent movie is being released by Dreamworks, Dan Jinks and Bruce Cohen.

Scott Fifer

I am sure that I met these people once. But sometimes, they might not remember me because they meet more writers than I meet producers. It helps if you know the people because it is much less comfortable when you're pitching to a complete stranger. So it would be nice if they actually have some recognition when they look in my eyes.

Sandra Tsing Loh

They don't.

Scott Fifer

Hey. Scott.

Dan Jinks

Nice to meet you, Scott. Dan Jinks. How are you?

Sandra Tsing Loh

I'm Sandra. It's nice--

Dan Jinks

Sandra, how are you? We've met before.

Sandra Tsing Loh

Yes, we have. We have.

Dan Jinks

I don't think I've never met before. But I read you. You wrote Starstruck?

Scott Fifer

Yes. Though actually, we have met. But that's OK.

Dan Jinks

I couldn't remember.

Scott Fifer

There's a lot of mes, and not a lot of yous. I came to your house up in the Hollywood Hills.

Dan Jinks

That's right.

Sandra Tsing Loh

Now let me cue you in to what's physically happening. Dan Jinks and Bruce Cohen, the producers, are settling themselves into chairs on the right side of the room, which is fairly bare. These are relatively new offices, ones they've just moved into. Scott, looking subtly natty, and yet casual, in black, button-down DKNY shirt and black jeans, is settling himself into a chair on the left. What's extraordinary, given the clear division between seller and buyer-- I mean Scott is here to pitch an idea which Dan and Bruce will either buy or reject. It'll be over as soon as he leaves the room, possibly even before he leaves the room.

Anyway, what's extraordinary, given that there are literally hundreds of thousands of dollars at stake, is the intense sense of casualness, openness, even democracy, in the room. Everyone's 30-ish or so. No one's in a suit. It's as if the stakes are so frighteningly high that the only way anyone could get through this is if everyone does their best to pretend nothing's at stake. And so the producers are bantering with us. And, more importantly, they are practicing that peculiar playing-field-leveling gambit you might think of as "The ritual of the water."

Dan Jinks

How's everyone? Do you want waters?

Scott Fifer

I would like some, please.

Sandra Tsing Loh

Yeah.

Dan Jinks

Can I tell you the exciting thing is that we were renting furniture here. And now we've bought furniture, but we don't have a couch yet, so this is why-- oh, who didn't get a water? You didn't get a water. Anyway, so--

Sandra Tsing Loh

In a nutshell, here's what the plastic bottled water, traveling hand to hand, from producer-- buyer-- to writer-- seller-- tends to mean. And the water always travels buyer to seller. Do writers ever bring producers bottles of water when they pitch? No.

Anyway, in my personal experience, the water is a courtesy gesture that always implies a lack of something. At the beginning of a meeting, "We don't know you. Have a water." In the middle of a meeting, "Leslie Ann here, may be nothing more than a poorly-paid intern, but even she deserves a water." At the end of a meeting for an unsuccessful pitch, "In lieu of actual money, here, take an extra water." At this moment, rolling around on the floor of my car, are literally about a dozen half-filled plastic bottles of water.

What the water is, also, is a banter helper. The pre-pitch banter, of course, being another key democratizing ritual. "How was your drive over? Did you find our office OK?" "Yes, I did. But that left turn onto Santa Monica, I hate that turn."

The four basic modes of executive banter are, one, how was your drive over? Two, we know some of the same people. Three, I was just reviewing your work, which I followed for many years, and thinking how much I especially loved your piece on-- you'd be surprised how rarely that happens. And finally, of course, there's the dreaded four. "Sorry you had to wait for 40 minutes. It's just that my son's 10th birthday party is happening on Saturday, and the whole household is in an uproar."

In general, the actual content of the banter is less important than how long it lasts, which is always a delicate matter. As the pitcher, you don't necessarily want to be the first to cut the banter off, abruptly transitioning a warm, us-focused human room into a crude, me-focused "Have I got something to sell you" room. Also, if an executive encourages a long period of banter, it can be a good thing because it means "I'm loving this conversation. I'm loving you. Eddie Murphy enjoys working with down-to-earth people. Let's make a deal."

On the other hand, it can go on too long. I once went to a pitch meeting at a major television network, where the executive told hilarious stories about herself for 45 minutes out of a 1 hour meeting, with apparently huge enjoyment, eliciting regular, rhythmic howls of laughter from her sub-executives. She had literally talked so long, I'd forgotten why I was there or what I was supposed to be pitching. All I was aware of was of my body tossing forward and back with the others, slaves rowing together in a kind of merciless comedy galley of hilarity. Perhaps you've noticed the hilarious TV sitcom Suddenly Sandra wasn't on last fall's schedule.

Scott's transition from banter into the very act of selling is perfectly smooth. He unobtrusively takes out a stack of his three-by-five cards and says,

Scott Fifer

Anyway.

Dan Jinks

Anyway.

Scott Fifer

So I have this pitch for you.

Dan Jinks

Yes.

Bruce Cohen

Wonderful.

Scott Fifer

And I don't know if you know too much about it.

Bruce Cohen

I don't think I have any idea what it is. So I'm excited.

Scott Fifer

All right. Well, I'll tell you it's a comedy. And that it's in the vein of Liar Liar. I used that as my role model because I figured, that's a great way to go.

Dan Jinks

I like it a lot actually.

Scott Fifer

Exactly. So if you're ready.

Dan Jinks

We're ready.

Scott Fifer

Our hero is TC-- Jim Carrey, Eddie Murphy, Adam Sandler-- he runs a Mrs. Goody's. Think of Mrs. Field's store. And he hates it. He hates rolling the dough, hates baking the cookies. He hates being nice to his picky customers we see. And he hates the sappy logo, which is a saccharine photo of Mrs. Goody herself, TC's mother.

Sandra Tsing Loh

The premise Scott is moving toward, what's calculated to strike the listener at about minute six or seven of the pitch, is what if all the sayings your mother ever said to you came true? An apple a day keeps the doctor away. Frown in your face will stay that way. Swallow a watermelon seed, and a watermelon will grow in your stomach, et cetera.

It's commercial. It's funny. It's well worked out. And yet, as Scott pitches on, exuding confidence, calmly flipping his index cards, I remember a thing he'd said to me on Wednesday.

Scott Fifer

When they're not laughing, if there's a long gap, it probably makes me talk faster. Because then I think, "All right, I'm losing them. I've got to speed up here and get to the next funny point." So if I even speed up and talk faster than I was before, which is almost impossible, then you know I think I'm in trouble. And I'm just trying to get to something even funnier. And I'm flipping through the cards like, "When's the next funny thing?"

Sandra Tsing Loh

And now, midway through the pitch, I realize Scott is literally talking faster than I've ever heard him-- or really, any other living human being-- talk before.

Scott Fifer

TC's completely stuffed, but he has to eat it all because of the starving kids in Africa. So now he's comically gobbling down food. He doesn't want it. It's not the romantic evening he planned at all. Now the CEO is always--

Sandra Tsing Loh

Throughout all this, Bruce occasionally laughs. But Dan makes no sound at all. He just sits there, smiling. Is it a warm smile? A civil smile? I can't tell. Around minute 13 though, when Scott gets to the big masturbation joke, he clearly starts to win them over. And, to my surprise and relief, the ending of the pitch is warm.

Scott Fifer

But he gives him a long, passionate kiss to hold him over. And he thanks her and asks her if she has any carrots because he's going to need them in the morning. The end.

Bruce Cohen

Bravo.

Dan Jinks

There you go.

Scott Fifer

Can I have some water?

Dan Jinks

I will tell you my thoughts. Are you open to hearing thoughts and suggestions about it?

Scott Fifer

Of course.

Dan Jinks

I really like it a lot. I had a couple of thoughts. Right now, the way you describe this guy is he seems like he's almost too much of a schmuck. It's hard for us, as an audience, to care about what happens to him. And I think that to make this movie work better, I think that we need to have an investment in his story and in him.

Sandra Tsing Loh

Dan and Bruce critique the pitch for 10 minutes, an unusually long time. And it's hard to know how to read this. Does this mean they're interested? Or that they hate it?

And then, at the end, their final question is, "Have our notes made sense to you?" They don't promise they'll call or consult with others in their production company. This does not seem to bode well.

Scott Fifer

Well, thanks for listening.

Bruce Cohen

Thank you for--

Dan Jinks

Thanks for coming in and telling it to us.

Sandra Tsing Loh

Now the only thing that remains is the long walk to the elevator. Before we leave the building, I make Scott duck into the only private place I can think of, the ladies lounge, for a quick post-mortem.

Sandra Tsing Loh

So how do you feel the pitch went from your side? Obviously, it went great. But what was the experience like for you?

Scott Fifer

I felt it went well. I could tell that they were into it. They were paying attention. I didn't feel like it was the greatest pitch, but I could tell it was going well.

Sandra Tsing Loh

Into the ladies lounge suddenly appears a lady.

Sandra Tsing Loh

I'm sorry. We're just finishing an interview. Go through. Sorry. So any other thoughts about how it went?

Scott Fifer

No, they gave a lot of notes, which usually-- I'm surprised they gave so many notes. That was more than I expected and, sometimes, more than you want. Because you're just like, "All right. You know what? I just did it. I'm done here. You decide. Let me go home. I don't need to hear your philosophies on filmmaking."

But their notes were good. I think they're just tweaking notes. And they were just little things. They weren't about major-- I think it maybe a matter of them, how they perceive some things. Or maybe I spoke too fast. And just hitting different points and emphasizing. So their notes were fine. And I agreed with them.

Sandra Tsing Loh

Scott heads to the elevator, and I walk back into the producers' offices for a quick Siskel & Ebert on Scott's performance.

Sandra Tsing Loh

So what's your feedback on that pitch? How was that in the pitch? Do you think you're going to buy it or go with it or something?

Dan Jinks

Yeah, what we'll do now is talk to-- obviously, we'll talk to each other. But because we talked a lot, I think we're pretty much in agreement. We'll call Adam Shulman and Brant Rose, who are Scott's agents, and have a conversation with them about taking this into studios.

Sandra Tsing Loh

And so good news for Scott Fifer. He sold the pitch. A half a million dollars could be his. But first, Dan, Bruce, and Scott have to go out and pitch the project to a studio. The studio will go out and pitch the project to directors and stars.

If they make the movie and are successful in pitching it to theater owners, in order to get the widest possible distribution, then the actors will take it out into the public. It'll be Jim Carrey, Eddie Murphy, or Adam Sandler sitting on that chair next to Jay Leno, bottle of water in hand. And after some preliminary banter, when asked what the movie's about, if they're lucky, they'll be able to say, "Well, it's kind of a Jaws with paws." And the studio audience will erupt.

Ira Glass

Sandra Tsing Loh's off-Broadway show Aliens in America opens in Los Angeles this August at the Tiffany Theater for a limited run. She's writing an original screenplay for Dreamworks.

Act Two. Jail Sell.

Ira Glass

Act Two, Jail Sell. You could argue, and in fact I am arguing it for the purpose of today's program, that selling is what this country is all about. So imagine the outrage when people are thrown in jail for doing nothing more than being salesmen, for being so profoundly American. This comes up in Danny Hoch's show, Jails, Hospitals and Hip-Hop.

The guy who tells this particular story is a guy who has been locked up for selling. A warning to sensitive listeners. There are no nasty words in this story. But I have to say, there are a lot of beeps.

Danny Hoch

Yo, trust me, man. Just plead guilty, guilty, guilty. Me, I got totally different problems, man. I try to do the right thing. They lock me up.

You know, Giuliani's like, "People on welfare are lazy." I'm trying not to be on that [BLEEP], right? I'm working. I'm in Fordham Road. I'm selling Bart Simpson t-shirts and-- what you call it-- OJ Simpson t-shirts, right?

This cop come out and arrest me because I don't got a license. All right? I'm not selling drugs. I'm selling drugs. I'm selling Bart Simpson, OJ Simpson t-shirts.

That's work, man. You think that [BLEEP] is easy? That [BLEEP] is hard. I don't even want to go into it. No, but they said, it's illegal. That's not legal. Come on.

I try to do right in my life, man. I want to be an entrepreneur or whatever you call it. No, you know if I was that little girl that they show in that commercial selling lemonade in front of her house, you think the cop gonna arrest her? Nah-uh. Nah-uh.

But you see, what it is, if you think about it, the little girl, she's an entrepreneur just like me, man. She's a businesswoman. She got-- what you call it-- overhead, right? She got to get her sugar, her lemons, her cups. Then she make her little stand. And she stand outside all day, right?

Me, I got my shirts. I got my stand. I stand outside all day, right? But you know the cop gonna see her in front of her little white picket fence or whatever, he gonna be like, "Oh," all jolly and [BLEEP], right? "Let me get a lemonade, sweetheart. Mmm. Tasty." Whatever, whatever, right?

Then he leave. Then he go beat up some people, right? Then he go home. Then he [BLEEP] his wife. Then he think, "Oh, it's not really such a bad day today. God bless America." Right?

But then he see me on Fordham Road. Aha, different story. He step to me like this, "Hey you, where's your [BLEEP] license?" He gonna say, "Where's your [BLEEP] license?" to the little girl? Nah-uh. Nah-uh.

But you see, what is it? If you think about it, in the car, you don't give a [BLEEP] I don't got a license. He doesn't like the way I look, right?

I live in 163rd Street. I got a certain look, whatever. People in Park Avenue, they got a certain look, whatever, right? But you know the cop gonna see somebody from Park Avenue or Tribeca, right? Hauling two kilos of cocaine to their girlfriend's house in their designer [BLEEP] rollerblades or whatever, right? He's not gonna get disturbed about their look, right?

Probably say, you know, "How you doing? Have a donut. Okey-dokey, buddy." Or whatever the [BLEEP] he say, right?

But then you see somebody that looks-- I don't even know what you call it-- unprofessional, whatever, he automatically think criminal, right? So he gets out the car with all his cops [BLEEP] like this, right? Well, see, he has sunglasses in the car. So when he look at me first from the car, I look darker. When he get out, he get confused. Nah, 'cause you put me next to the car, I'm more white than the cop.

So he gets confused. He says, "Whoa, hold up. What are you?" I said, "That's not your business. You want to buy a shirt, right?" Next thing I know, he knock over all my [BLEEP]. The shirts in the street. Everything's dirty, right? I have dirty [BLEEP] products. Everybody pointing at me and laughing and [BLEEP].

Next thing I know, he throw me in the ground. He got his nightstick in my back with the spit and the gum from the sidewalk is in my face and [BLEEP]. He said, "What are you? What are you? Are you Puerto Rican? Are you [BLEEP] Puerto Rican?"

I said, "No, I'm not Puerto Rican. Yo, I'm selling Bart Simpson, OJ Simpson t-shirts. What's the problem, officer, right?" Well, see, he want to know what am I. My color is white like Bill Clinton, right? But that's not good enough for him, you know.

And the way that I'm speaking. I don't even know. He got a complex. He needs to see a therapist because he's confused. Then he look in the t-shirts, he gets more confused. Because he don't know who's Bart Simpson.

Nah, he knows Bart Simpson is Bart Simpson. But he don't know Bart Simpson is Dominican, Jewish, Greek, Puerto Rican. What is he, right? But he knows that Bart Simpson, OJ Simpson make more money than him, right? And then he looks at me, and he sees somebody that's an entrepreneur, that's trying to better his situation in life, right? That I have the opportunity to increase my status in the world or whatever you want to call it, right?

And then he looks at himself. And he sees that he's just a servant, and that's it. And that's all you gonna be. Even if he become captain, police chief, lieutenant, whatever, he just a servant. So he feel threatened. So because he feel threatened, that day, he decided to make capitalism illegal, right?

And me, because I got a prior felony on my record, they put me in here. So you got a cigarette? Good lookin' out, man. Nah, if you think about it, if you analyze it with the little girl on the TV, right? If that's not America, that you can stand outside your house and sell whatever, don't advertise it then. You know? Don't put it in the [BLEEP] TV.

To be honest with you, I seen that commercial. I got inspired by that [BLEEP]. Nah, since [BLEEP] ain't really that bad. I got chances or whatever, you know. And I'm in [BLEEP] jail, bro.

I feel like suing the lemonade mother [BLEEP], man. For false advertising. I know I wasn't selling lemonade. Yo, shut up, man. I didn't really ask you to respond and [BLEEP] Nah. Yo, you got a light?

Ira Glass

Danny Hoch, writer and performer from his great one-man show Jails, Hospitals and Hip-Hop. The show is available on CD and in book form. His website, dannyhoch.com.

[MUSIC - "TEN COMMANDMENTS OF BART" BY BART SIMPSON]

Yeah, don't touch that dial. Coming up, if you become a salesman and your personality changes from what it was to something else, where you're suddenly able to charm most anybody, where you're not scared of people saying no to you, is that necessarily a good thing? A cautionary tale in a minute from Public Radio International when our program continues.

Act Three. Who's The Man?

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, invite a variety of writers and performers and reporters to tackle that theme. Today's program, Sales. America's greatest art form. We've arrived at Act Three of our program. Act Three, Who's The Man?

There are many jobs that change you. We've all met grade school teachers who continue to talk like grade school teachers even when they are among adults at dinner parties. Or psychiatrists who never stop talking like psychiatrists, nothing duller really. Here's a story about how becoming a salesman, a salesman of radio ad time, changed one person.

Radio Ad Salesman

I didn't want this job at all. I was working as a reporter. And they needed to fill this slot. And so they brought me in and said, "We're moving your salary to sales. And if you'd like to continue to receive that salary, we suggest you join it there." I think those were literally their words.

Ira Glass

How very graceful.

Radio Ad Salesman

So I decided I did want to keep that salary. I had a great first three weeks when I was first selling. I made every sale. And I remember talking to this friend of mine who was a real long-time veteran.

And he said, "You're doing it all wrong. You're doing it all wrong. If you make every sale, that means you're only going for the surest things. And there's just not that many sure things. So you're not going after enough money." He said, "The sign that you're succeeding is that you're making 8% of your sales, 10% of your sales. So it's really important to embrace them saying no. It means you're going far enough and deep enough."

I had this boss who had been in sales his whole life. And he taught me that when I started feeling nervous, it probably meant they were feeling nervous. And that was good. And the more good I felt about it, the more control I had over both of our nervousnesses. And, therefore, if they were just blinded by it and afraid of it and I was encouraged by it and energized by it, then I just stood a better chance of coming out the winner.

Suddenly, I'm going to these sales calls. And I can't wait. I'm running to these sales calls. I'm clicking the elevator button to make it come faster because I can't wait. Because-- it's all sorts of things.

It's a feeling of power. It's really fun to go into a meeting with three people who are much older than you, who make a lot more money than you, who have a lot more power in the world than you, and you know that you're going to be the guy in the room who's totally calm, and they're going to be really nervous. And I love that. I love just being the cool guy, being the calm guy.

And I loved creating these relationships, a type of relationship I've never had before, which is just this glib, friendly relationship based on complete empty chatter about the weather or TV. I developed this theory that those really popular TV shows, one major function is to provide conversation to Americans. And not conversation about the show, but the actual conversation of the show.

You would just say, "Hey, do you remember last night when Kramer said that? Boy, that was funny. And remember when Elaine said this to Jerry? Oh, that was funny." I didn't know that people did that. People would do that to me. And then the next sales call, I'd do that to the next person. And they seemed to like it.

I started realizing it doesn't matter what you say, it doesn't matter how vapid it is. All that mattered was that I felt comfortable and that I gave them the illusion of some kind of false intimacy. At first, I found it really great, really exciting and freeing.

It kind of amazed me. First of all, how quickly I just became this different person and how much I enjoyed it. I found I would do things that I hadn't done before. I would hold doors open for women. And I would wait on an elevator until all the women had gotten off.

Or I would compliment people on their-- if a friend made a joke, I'd say, "That's very funny. That's a very amusing joke. It reminds me of a joke I once heard." And I'd use my hands in these ways that I had learned made people feel at ease, never folded over my chest, but open and inviting.

And my whole voice would change. My whole affect would change to the point where, when I would hang out with my friends, they'd make fun of me. "Why are you so formal? Why are you so fake?"

Ira Glass

When your friends would say these things about how you were changing, were you in any way alarmed?

Radio Ad Salesman

No, I loved it. I felt like I had superpowers. I could go anywhere and talk to whoever I wanted and not give a [BLEEP]. I had always had trouble with women. I'd always had a hard time asking them out. And suddenly, I was asking out anyone. It didn't matter to me. But I just felt like I could put on this persona, and, at least in my mind, it was smooth. And people liked that person. And I liked it.

There's something essentially optimistic about being a salesman. It seems very American, very forward thinking. A no is an opportunity. It's an opportunity to learn why you got that no, what went wrong there, how you can do better.

Ira Glass

So there's this notion of self-improvement?

Radio Ad Salesman

Yeah. There were a few times where this whole process really felt like the violation of something. It felt like I went too far. There was this guy who was president of a major company. And he wanted to buy what turned out to be a lot of money in ads. And it would mean a lot of money to me personally and a lot to the station.

And it was a big decision for him because, even though he was the president, he was trying to establish his own base within the company. And they didn't want him to be on this particular station. They didn't think he should be.

And I felt like I had always known his company shouldn't be on our air. I knew we weren't going to sell that product. But I prepared the charts that made it seem like we would. And I gave him the ammunition and the encouragement to fight the good fight. And he was really fighting for it.

There's this one moment where he and I went out for drinks at this private men's club, which was another part of this whole ridiculous life that I had for that period of time, was belonging to a private-- not men's club-- private club. And he was really opening up. He was really talking about his wife, and their relationship, and his fears of being in this job, and whether or not he wanted to have kids, and what that would mean to him, and how he ended up being a businessman, and what other kinds of lifes he could have led, and sometimes wished he had led. And it was so awful because he really bought my false intimacy. He really saw us as friends.

To be honest, I had had these moments before. I'd even gone to clients' homes for dinner to meet their family. I started finding that when I hit these moments of false intimacy-- there were a few stories from my childhood or a few set pieces that seemed like they were emotional sharing, but really were just set pieces that I felt very comfortable uttering. I probably said them almost word-for-word, verbatim each time. But they gave the illusion of opening up.

And so I threw a couple of those at him. But I just knew he would never be a friend. I would never open up to him in that way, in an authentic way. And I couldn't tell him, "You know what? You shouldn't be on our air." Because he'd probably sue us. Or who knows what?

Ira Glass

Because he was already on your air?

Radio Ad Salesman

He was already on my air. And I wanted his money. I did. It meant a lot of money to me. And I couldn't tell him that I didn't want to be his friend. What would be the point of that?

And I just remember feeling just stuck, like I didn't know-- There didn't seem to be any way to deal with him honorably.

Ira Glass

So what did you do?

Radio Ad Salesman

I kept selling to him. And eventually, he left that company. And I never knew if he got fired or if he quit on his own. I never knew if it had anything to do with us.

Ira Glass

He might have lost his job over that money.

Radio Ad Salesman

Yeah, it's possible. I don't know. Yeah.

Ira Glass

And he trusted you?

Radio Ad Salesman

Yeah. At the end of the day, you have to decide, look, it's their money. They're spending the money. And if they're spending the money based on the information I've given them, and only the information I've given them, then it's their fault. Shame on them for not doing the research and not seeking advisors.

Ira Glass

Of course, that's like saying, shame on them for believing me.

Radio Ad Salesman

Right. Yeah, it is. But you say that a lot.

Act Four. The Secret To Being Rich And Happy.

Ira Glass

Act Four, The Secret To Being Rich And Happy. There are usually only two stories we Americans tell ourselves about our salesmen, about our own lives as salesmen. There's the super salesman story. Picture, please, the early days of Donald Trump. And there's the tragic, down-on-his-luck salesman. Picture the man in anything by, say, David Mamet.

For a more accurate look at the life of an American salesman, consider, please, Jimmy Roy. "Diamond" Jimmy Roy. 76 years old. Lives and works in a town not far from Pittsburgh. He has sold everything from used cars to antiques to jewelry, all with a philosophy of sales that he has created himself, as many salesmen have to create a philosophy for themselves, to get themselves through it. Reporter Dan Collison hung around him for a few days.

Dan Collison

As Jimmy Roy tells it, there was a time in the 1950s and '60s when he owned the town, the town of Braddock, Pennsylvania, located just downriver from Pittsburgh. But not everyone in Braddock remembers those days.

Clifton Nelson

How you doing?

Jimmy Roy

You know me?

Clifton Nelson

Huh?

Jimmy Roy

You know me?

Clifton Nelson

No, I do not.

Jimmy Roy

J. Roy.

Clifton Nelson

My name is Clifton Nelson.

Jimmy Roy

OK. You're not from around here, are you?

Clifton Nelson

Yes, I am. Clifton Lamont Nelson, Junior.

Jimmy Roy

And you don't know J. Roy that used to own all the property here?

Clifton Nelson

No, sir.

Jimmy Roy

Automobile business and everything?

Clifton Nelson

No, sir.

Jimmy Roy

OK. Used to own a car lot over here. Owned this building here. Owned that house over here. Owned the Dillinger building, the furniture stores down here, the two furniture stores. I owned The Chicken Shack. You know The Chicken Shack on Fifth Street?

Clifton Nelson

I think I know of it. I think I know it.

Jimmy Roy

And I forget what else I owned.

Dan Collison

Back then, Braddock was known as the "valley's greatest shopping center." On Saturdays, people would come from all over, and the sidewalks were jammed with shoppers. Then the steel mills started shutting down. People moved away. Suburban malls sprang up. And no one came to Braddock anymore.

Recording Of Jimmy Roy

[SINGING] Every time it rains, it rains pennies from heaven. Don't you know each cloud contains pennies from heaven?

Dan Collison

By the mid-'70s, Braddock was becoming a ghost town. It was about this time that filmmaker Tony Buba featured Jimmy Roy in one of his short documentaries on Braddock. That's Jimmy there singing. The occasion was the grand opening of J. Roy's Flea Market and New and Used Furniture Store. His other businesses had died. It was Jimmy's last stand.

Recording Of Jimmy Roy

What's so good about this building is we have a drive-in ramp, where we can hold about 50 used cars up there. And the future plan, we're going to put a drive-in used car lot, plus a drive-in used and new furniture store upstairs. The nice thing about it is people will able to drive right in, get out of their car, look at some used cars, look at antiques, look at new furniture, and look at used furniture. And I really believe that this time I've struck on something that people really need.

But I think we'll have no problem here in making it go. And I believe after that, that it's going to be Easy Street. I really believe that Saturday is going to mark a big day in my life. The grand opening of the J. Roy Flea Market and New and Used Furniture.

Dan Collison

Today, the street sign at the corner of Verona and Braddock Avenue, where the store was located, is so rusted out, it can't be read. J. Roy's Flea Market and New and Used Furniture didn't quite live up to Jimmy's expectations.

Jimmy Roy

I bet everything I had. And I bet my last penny, what I could borrow, and everything else. I bet it on this town. I bought everything. I stretched myself out to the last penny. I bet on it. I had no fear. But when I saw I had to face reality, everyone started to be scared to come to the town. You can't sell people who don't come to the town. So I figured I better get out while I can get out alive. So I did.

I go along with Shakespeare, "Nothing is good or bad, except thinking makes it so." Or the so-called words of Jesus. He says, "As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he." They musta knew something.

Dan Collison

These days, if you're looking for Jimmy Roy, chances are you'll find him at the Plaza Restaurant, just over the hill from Braddock. The Plaza is sort of like Jimmy's office. It's located in a 1960s strip mall next to a Shop and Save. It's the kind of family place with racks of pies in a glass case by the front door and where waitresses and their daughters work side by side.

Jimmy Roy sits in a booth in the back of the smoking section. He's dressed in a white fedora, a white linen jacket with a maroon, silk handkerchief, a colorful tie with a diamond stick pin, and black and white alligator-skin shoes. He's wearing five diamond studded gold necklaces, two gold bracelets on each wrist, and he has diamond rings on every finger.

Jimmy Roy

These are just some of the things I pick up when I sell, right off my hand. This is a little cluster, a men's pinkie ring. This is another cluster, index ring. They're not the most expensive, but they're diamonds. This is another cluster. And this is a emerald.

Yeah, that's my store now. That's the store. I operate my stores. No overhead there. I don't have to pay rent.

Dan Collison

This kind of change of fortune, going from owning virtually half of Braddock to hustling jewelry from a restaurant booth, is the sort of thing that might crush other men. Not Jimmy Roy. He's steeled himself against hardship with a philosophy of salesmanship that's more like a philosophy of life that he's been refining for decades.

Jimmy Roy

I think it's the mind. I'm so convinced that for 42 years of some studying of the mind, the mind is the most important thing we have. The mind is the directing force of thinking, is responsible for where you're going, whether you're going to be successful, whether you're going to be a failure.

Dan Collison

To Jimmy, it's all very simple. You tell yourself who you want to be, what you want to be. And if you do these positive visualizations long enough, great things will happen to you. It goes like this.

Jimmy Roy

Early in the morning when you rise, you feed yourself great thoughts, such as concentration, peace, poise, non-resistance, achievement, vitality, strength, life, youth. You feed yourself these thoughts before you leave the house. And don't concern yourself about how these thoughts are gonna manifest the beauty that you'll receive from planting the great thoughts in your mind, no more than you would be concerned about planting a tomato seed. Once you plant it, you're unconcerned. You know you planted in nice dirt and nice ground. You know that you will receive your tomatoes. To control your thinking is to control your life, control your success.

I'm wanted on the phone. I'm wanted on the phone. Excuse me.

Dan Collison

His regular customers reach him on the Plaza's pay phone to set up appointments.

Jimmy Roy

Hello? Yeah, That's be fine. What time? Between 10:00 and 11:00. That'll be fine. Right.

I'm glad you called. I'm glad you're all right. Yeah, we were worried sick about you.

Dan Collison

Jimmy got his start in sales at the age of 22 in the used car business. Just home from World War II, he was determined to stay out of the steel mills, where he worked as a teenager and where most of his friends were headed. He quit his first sales job after just a week because his dealership was ripping off customers. He's tried to be more honest. He's been a salesman for 54 years.

Jimmy Roy

Hi, sweetheart. How you doing? How you doing? How you doing?

Dan Collison

On the way out of the Plaza, Jimmy stops to admire a baby.

Jimmy Roy

Besides being beautiful, how do you feel? You look great.

Mother

Say, "Thank you."

Jimmy Roy

You look great. You look good. You look like a good girl.

Dan Collison

It's an old salesman trick. Win over the parents by flattering their kids.

Jimmy Roy

May I give her a lucky dollar?

Mother

Put it in her piggy bank when we get home.

Jimmy Roy

Put it in your piggy bank?

Mother

Or your horsey bank?

Jimmy Roy

Does she chew bubble gum? I got bubble gum for her.

That makes me feel so bad and good. It's unexplainable. I make a baby smile. It makes me feel so great. Honest to god.

Dan Collison

Jimmy drives a gray 1990 Lincoln town car, loaded up with boxes full of bubble gum and fruit exactly for moments like this. He calls them his "giveaways." His dashboard is plastered with scraps of paper printed with motivational aphorisms.

Jimmy Roy

You are very fortunate if you have learned that the most certain way to get is to first give. Choosing to develop an intelligent level of yourself and all of mankind will motivate you to accomplishments above and beyond your expectations. Maintain a positive mental attitude to achieve mental and physical health and to live a longer life. Every day, in every way, I'm getting better and better. And see, all we gotta do is accent the positive.

Dan Collison

For years, Jimmy Roy has given motivational seminars, where he preaches his philosophy of life. Recently, about 70 people packed the back room at the Plaza Restaurant to hear him give the latest version, entitled "The Secret of Being Rich and Happy." He also gave the seminar to salesmen at Parkway Ford, an auto dealership just up the road from the Plaza. Today, he's back to hand out some cufflinks.

Jimmy Roy

That's it. Merry Christmas.

Car Salesman 1

Thank you, sir. I appreciate it.

Jimmy Roy

You're welcome.

Dan Collison

And to see how his motivational talk went over.

Car Salesman 2

It was a very, very inspirational speech, very, very motivating. And the guys been rocking ever since. Sales went up.

Jimmy Roy

I'm glad to hear that.

Dan Collison

It's a little hard to tell whether these salesmen are sincere or whether they're just humoring Jimmy. But they seem to truly like him. And why wouldn't they? The proof is in the numbers. Sales at Parkway Ford did, in fact, increase by 10% after Jimmy's seminar.

Car Salesman 3

What are some of the things that he told us?

Car Salesman 4

Peace.

Car Salesman 3

I am peace. I am harmony. I am goodwill. I am--

Car Salesman 4

Poise.

Car Salesman 3

I am law. I am order.

Car Salesman 5

I am spiritual.

Car Salesman 3

I am spiritual. I'm vitality. I'm understanding. I am successful.

Jimmy Roy

And is it working for you?

Car Salesman 3

It's working great. He comes by, and man, we pumped up.

Jimmy Roy

You're all pumped up when you leave the house.

Car Salesman 3

Without a doubt.

Jimmy Roy

See, you feed the mind. The mind is the dynamo that supplies the power. Your thinking is a directing force of that power. And when you have all these things being directed, it's impossible to fail. You cannot fail.

Car Salesman 4

You cannot fail.

Jimmy Roy

That's right.

Dan Collison

Naturally, as he leaves Parkway Ford, there's business to do. One of the car salesmen wants to look at an engagement ring.

Jimmy Roy

That's a marquis in the center.

Man Interested In Ring

It's a wide band.

Jimmy Roy

With the wide band. We have that.

Dan Collison

Jimmy does deals like this because after 54 years as a salesman, it's who he is. He has to sell. When he tried to quit a few years back, he says, he nearly lost his mind.

Jimmy Roy

Well, that seems to be a sure sale there because he inquired about it before. And he seems to be very sincere. I can generally tell when it's a sell. I just look at them, and I study-- being that there's only one mind in the universe, his mind and my mind are identical. And if I concentrate hard enough, I can walk right into his mind and feel what he's thinking. It's a great advantage, not to be abused, but to be used.

Dan Collison

So you're saying, you can actually read his mind.

Jimmy Roy

Many times. If you concentrate hard enough, you can reach right in there and feel whether he's telling you the truth or he's lying. I believe that all of us have that, but very few use it.

Dan Collison

Jimmy says, he'd like to take his seminar-- "The Secret of Being Rich and Happy"-- on the road. He's writing a book by the same name, though he has no publisher. Of course, Jimmy's philosophy hasn't actually made him rich. And as I hung around him, I kept trying to figure out a polite way to ask him about this.

Dan Collison

Jimmy, there's a question I've been wanting to ask you for a while that's been bothering me a little bit. The name of your seminar and the name of the book you're working on is "The Secret of Being Rich and Happy." But, with all due respect, you're not rich.

Jimmy Roy

Well, I think I'm one of the richest men in the world. I'm so abundantly blessed in more respects than money. I have money. I have some money. And I have health and happiness with me. I have things that money can't buy.

Dan Collison

Why don't you call it "The Secret of Being Happy?"

Jimmy Roy

Well, because you're rich when you are happy. We could use that title. But that seemed to come from within me, "The Secret of Becoming Rich and Happy." Well, I'll tell you the truth.

Another reason why I used the word "rich," I'm going to be very honest, most people desire to be rich. So I figured it would sell more books, to be very honest with you, by them seeing how the secret of becoming rich and happy. I believe it'll sell more books.

Dan Collison

But somehow, I can't believe that you wouldn't want to be more wealthy, that you wouldn't want to be rich.

Jimmy Roy

Oh, excuse me. I never said I didn't want personal wealth. I think you misunderstood me. I like to have enough, like I have now, to live comfortable, and to eat good, and to have a nice place to stay. And I like money in my pocket.

I like to give. And I have that. And I don't think there's a richer man in the world than I am as far as the state of mind is concerned. I believe I have the best state of mind in the universe, in my honest to god opinion.

Dan Collison

By and large, Jimmy does seem genuinely happy. Ask anyone in Braddock. Filmmaker Tony Buba, who's known him just about all his life, says he's never seen Jimmy down. But consider this. The philosophy that's made Jimmy happy may be one of the things that's kept him from being rich. Tony says the reason Jimmy isn't wealthy is because he's too honest.

Tony Buba

What I think is he doesn't have that thievery in him. Because I think if he had that thievery, if he had that edge of not really caring about other people, then he probably could have been a millionaire.

Jimmy Roy

I could have probably been a multimillionaire if I wanted to go the wrong way. Because I had the opportunity to cheat people in the automobile business and different businesses I had. But I never would be comfortable. I think I would've been what they call a poor rich man.

Tony Buba

People might think, "Oh, Jimmy, Jimmy." Nobody'll walk away from the man. He has a lot of friends. And everybody likes him. Because he's never cheated anybody.

Jimmy Roy

"The Very Thought of You." [SINGING] The very thought of and I forget to do the little ordinary things that everyone ought to do.

Dan Collison

Our final stop is Moray's Lounge, an upscale piano bar near downtown Pittsburgh. Jimmy comes here to have a few drinks, to listen to Shirley, who's been playing the lounge for almost 20 years, and, every once in a while, to sing a song.

It's tempting to see salesmen like Jimmy Roy as kind of tragic Willy Loman characters. But here at Moray's Lounge, people recognize Jimmy. They call him "Diamond" Jim. He chats with Shirley. He chats with the bartender. His philosophy seems to be working. He looks as happy as a man can be.

Ira Glass

That story by Dan Collison.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, our program produced today by Julie Snyder and myself, with Alex Blumberg, Susan Burton, and Nancy Updike. Contributing editors Paul Tough, Jack Hitt, Margy Rochlin, Alix Speigel, and Consigliere Sarah Vowell. Production help Jorge Just, Todd Bachmann, and Sylvia Lemus. Marketing by [UNINTELLIGIBLE].

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

If you'd like to buy a cassette of this program, call us at WBEZ here in Chicago. We are selling right now. 312-832-3380. Buy, buy, buy. But you know you can listen to most of our programs for free on the internet at our website, www.thislife.org. Picture of Jimmy Roy there this week. Thanks to Elizabeth Meister who runs the site. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight by Torey Malatia, who actually has his own philosophy for selling This American Life to new stations.

Radio Ad Salesman

It doesn't matter what you say, it doesn't matter how vapid it is.

Bob Kosberg

But the key line that sold it was to then say, "In other words, Mr. Executive, it's basically Jaws on paws."

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

Announcer

PRI, Public Radio International.