On a Roll

Mississippi had Tennessee Williams, and Manhattan has Fran Liebowitz, but Phoenix is home to David Pittman. The 50-ish "frustrated joke writer" has just received national acclaim as the grand-prize winner of Parkay margarine's Best Butter-Ups contest, which asked oleo fans across the country to submit witty slogans about non-butter spreads. Pittman is $10,000 richer thanks to this quippy catch phrase: "Parkay -- spreading good taste from toast to toast," which beat out more than 140,000 other entries. But being a grand-prize winner in a margarine contest hasn't swelled Pittman's head, so he agreed to meet with me to discuss his technique and his future slogan- writing plans.

New Times: You won 10 grand for writing one line of copy! Where do I sign up?

David Pittman: That's what I'd like to know. My mom has been a big contester for years, and back then it was about coming up with names for products and things like that, but contests have really gone to the luck of the draw in recent years. But I like to write humor stuff, that's my thing. I've sent some jokes in to (KDKB's) Tim and Mark Show, and they've read them on the air. I've sent stuff to Letterman, but because it's a union show I can't get my stuff on. Usually I think my stuff is funnier than the people at Letterman do.

NT: So you don't have to be a union writer to get on the Tim and Mark Show.

Pittman: No. One of the ones I got on their show was about baseball. You know how they always have the organist play little themes when the player comes up to bat? This was when Barry Bonds was having all that stuff about steroids, and I wrote that when he goes up to bat they should play "Steroids to Heaven."

NT: That is funny. So tell me about this butter contest thing.

Pittman: Well, I live with my parents, and my mother keeps up on all the contests, trying to win a car and all that. She knows I like to write humor stuff, and she found a notice about the Parkay contest in one of her contesting bulletins. I sent a bunch of entries in, and then on the last day I thought of one more: "Parkay, spreading good taste from toast to toast." I sent it in, and that's the one that won. Ah, man, when I got the check for $10,000, I kept counting the zeroes. It was kind of a scary feeling, because I'd never seen a check that big before. I keep going to the Parkay Web page, just to make sure that it's real, that I really won and didn't dream this.

NT: Was this a goal of yours? To write a slogan for a margarine product?

Pittman: No, but when I go to bed at night I've always kept a pad and pencil right by the bed, because if something humorous comes to my mind when I'm lying there, I want to capture it. I'm probably a frustrated joke writer. If I could figure out how to get into the comedy writers' union, I could really do something with this.

NT: Did you also win a lifetime supply of canola oil spread?

Pittman: No, but when Parkay called to tell me I would be receiving a FedEx package from them, that's what I figured I'd won. When it turned out to be a check for $10,000, I sent them a photograph of myself holding up the check, next to a tub of Parkay. It was my way of saying "thanks." That's just the kind of guy I am.

NT: Tell me the truth: Were you a Parkay user before you won the contest?

Pittman: Yes! I really was! I had a physical right after I turned 50, and the doctor said my cholesterol was okay, but he recommended some Parkay because it has zero cholesterol. And how about that -- I was already using it!

NT: I feel like I'm in a TV commercial. I looked at some of the runner-up slogans on Parkay's Web site. Some of them were pretty crummy.

Pittman: Yeah, that one about "love at first bite," that's been so overused. Not a lot of originality, and the others were too long.

NT: This one gave me a headache: "It's in my griddle/It's in my pan/It's what gives my grilled cheese/Its golden tan."

Pittman: See, the writer is trying to be Tolstoy there. The person who wrote that probably thought, "Wow, I came up with a great one! I made it rhyme and it's kind of intellectual! It's kind of deep!" But the Parkay people don't want that. People remember slogans from TV commercials, not poems.

NT: What are you going to do with all that money?

Pittman: $10,000 is a lot of money, but interest rates are so low I might as well put it under my pillow. I wanted to do one memorable thing, so I took my family out to dinner. And I made my dentist happy. I just got $4,000 worth of dental work. Now I have to pay the IRS, but I'll wait for another day to think about that. Right now, I'm just concentrating on my writing. I'm going to voraciously read every contesting bulletin, and really just go after any contest that calls for some real original thinking.

NT: Okay, you wrote your award-winning line very quickly. Let's imagine some more. I'll go first. How's this: "It'll be a dark day/When there's no more Parkay."

Pittman: Hey, you got one there! You never know what's going to catch a judge's eye. But you might want to write a slogan that's directed at kids, unless it's for a Depends product.

NT: Okay, then. How about, "You can steal my dog/And arrest my mother/Just don't touch/My pretend butter"?

Pittman: Yes, that one's okay. Only maybe you should have something with references to tattoos and piercings. Young people today, boy! Here, I just wrote this one while you were talking: "Parkay: Perking with tasty pleasure."

NT: Sounds like you're on your way to another win. What are some other uses for Parkay? Can it be a lubricant?

Pittman: Maybe it could stop wrinkles. You'd have to put it right on your face, though. Preparation H is good for that, you know. I mean for wrinkles. I hope people aren't eating it. But in today's society, you never know. People don't think as deeply today. The age of slogans is over, and now all the commercials just flash you some skin in order to be memorable. So you get women ripping each other's clothes off, instead of a slogan or jingle that sticks in your head.

NT: One final question -- something I've longed to know: Does it hurt the Parkay when you stick a knife in it?

Pittman: Yeah. I would think that it does. And there's probably some group out there lobbying against cruelty to butter products. No, I'm serious. I imagine they're looking for a lawyer right now who will launch a campaign to picket Parkay. It's a strange world anymore. You just never know what people are up to.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela