I am a fan of Joseph Grantham. He’s a writer (of two books of poetry and various short stories) and he co-runs the Hidden Palace reading series in Baltimore with his partner, Ashleigh Phillips. They’ve hosted the likes of Scott McClanahan, Chelsea Hodson, Bud Smith, and many other talented writers. Joey also makes commercials. That is, every so often, he posts a series of mock-commercials that combine real commercial footage with an original voiceover. These commercials are often laconic, droll, surprising, and more than anything, very funny. They remind me a bit of the artist Chris Burden’s commercials, made for Los Angeles public access television in the 1970s. But whereas Burden’s commercials at times invite a sense of menace, Joey’s are pure delight. You listen to them and want to have a beer or at least a glass of water with the person responsible. I thought I’d interview Joey about these commercials. We conducted this interview in September through email over the course of a week or so.
Sebastian Castillo: Hey Joey, how are you?
Joseph Grantham: I’m okay, Sebastian. Sitting on the couch in my living room, trying to read a big book that I don’t like, so I put it down and checked my email and here was this email from you. I lit some incense but then it was getting too smoky and I didn’t want to give myself, or my cats, cancer so I opened some windows and blew it out. How are you?
I’m doing fine. I just finished teaching a morning class. I’m sorry to hear about the long book and the smoke. Glad you avoided the potential cancer. I said I wanted to interview you about your commercials, and you said yes, so here we are. I’m a big fan of them, as are many others. Do you remember when you started doing this? Can you tell us a little about what first prompted them?
I’m typing this on my phone now, at work. In two weeks I’m going to put in my two weeks notice. Going to quit this job.
I just looked up my first commercial. It was back in September 2020, for a Nissan Altima. It was a pretty straightforward commercial. I think I started doing these commercials because I thought I had a good voice for it, like I could successfully impersonate the sound of a commercial voiceover, and there was a delusional part of me that thought if I kept making these commercials and tagging the companies, that one of them would eventually reach out and hire me to do voice work for them. I told this to Brad Listi at the time, and he said something like, “Do you think if it was that easy, I wouldn’t already be doing voice work for commercials?” Good point, Brad.
I also have to say that, right after college, when I was living in New York, I made unsolicited commercials for a Long Island brewing company called Blue Point Brewing. My friend, Nick DiLeonardi, came home with some beer from his job at a hotel (someone had left a six pack in their hotel room), and we thought it’d be funny to start filming commercials and tagging the brewing company. So we started doing that, and after five or six of those commercials over the course of a month or two, they reached out to us and asked if we’d like to meet them in Brooklyn for lunch. So we met them for lunch and they told us they imagined us as “the next Broad City” or something to that effect. Which is absurd, because we were just two guys in our apartment making thirty-second parody beer ads. They intimated that they were considering bringing a film crew into our apartment to film higher quality commercials with us. This all sounded great and of course it did not happen. But they did send us sixty bottles of beer around Christmas time. And then we never heard from them again.
But to actually answer your question about what initially prompted them, I would say it was just that mixture of boredom and delusion. Then when no one came calling to give me voiceover work, I started to think about how I wanted commercials to really be, like what would it be like if advertisements were more honest and depressing. And that thought made me laugh. I was watching baseball the other night and there was a Papa John’s commercial and the woman in the commercial joyfully screamed something about how “epic” the pizzas are. I would be more likely to buy a Papa John’s pizza if instead of joyfully screaming about epic pizza, she just said, “Look, we know. But it’s not that bad. It’ll get the job done. It’s fine. Sometimes we fuck up and it’s bad but often it’s absolutely fine. Sometimes it’s kinda good. You can eat it and it’s pizza. Ingredients, pizza, Papa John’s.” I say this as someone who has enjoyed, and will enjoy again, a Papa John’s pizza. And I just made and ate a bad dinner, a dinner that was definitely worse than a Papa John’s pizza. But I wish some of these companies trusted us enough to be honest with us. Don’t worry, Papa John, I’ll eat your pizza, relax, play hard to get. But as I write all of this I see that that’s actually their way of being honest. To scream at us that they are the best, their pizza is better than anything you could possibly imagine eating for dinner. It’d probably be more annoying and false if they said anything else.
It’s funny you mention how you thought about the possibility of voiceover work, because one of my questions was going to be about whether or not you think of these commercials you do as diversions—merely having fun on the internet—or a part of, however small, your work as an artist/writer. I ask because I often feel like the things I post online are more or less meaningless and unimportant, but the irony of course is that people are likely to be more familiar with my social media account than any of my actual “real” writing. Does that make sense?
That does make sense. I try my best not to think too hard about categorizing what is part of my work as an “artist” or “writer” and what’s a diversion. But if I had to say, and I do, right now, have to say, I’d say it’s a diversion for me. The commercials are fun for me to make. I usually make them late at night, when I’ve had too much coffee and don’t feel like reading or writing or when I’m annoyed about something at work or irritated by the righteous tone of someone’s social media account. But just because they’re a diversion to me doesn’t mean they have to be a diversion for everyone else. People do write to me or talk to me about how they enjoy them, and that’s always nice. Besides, I think diversions are a good necessary thing. Also, in some way, making these commercials, whether I know it or not, probably helps me with my writing, especially the poetry. The voiceovers are always improvised, whenever I’ve tried to “script” one out or come to one with a strong idea of what I want to say, they always fall flat. So something about bringing that rawness (which feels, and is, silly to say in this context, but oh well) to something speech-related is useful for me to practice. Thinking on my feet. Speaking off-the-cuff. (I googled synonyms for “improvised.”) Because a lot of my poems and stories begin with a voice or a sound I want to capture.
The commercials would feel less like a diversion if I wasn’t using TikTok to make them. If I was better with technology, I wouldn’t use TikTok, but I’m not great with technology. I can barely understand how to use TikTok.
I’m surprised the voiceovers are improvised—so often it feels like it aligns with what’s on the screen, so I always assumed they were scripted/rehearsed. Have you received any notable or interesting responses to these commercials?
Yeah, they’re improvised. I usually just pick the commercials I’m “stealing” from based on their length and whether or not it’s something that can be “voiced over.” Like, I need the people in the commercial to not be talking at the camera, etc, or else my voiceover doesn’t quite make sense. And then, when I’m starting to record my part, I usually just say the first thing that comes to mind while watching the commercial with no sound. When I first started doing them I used to pick songs that sounded like they’d be in commercials or like they were made for commercials—something like Band of Horses—but lately I’ve enjoyed picking songs that sound like they’d never have a chance of being in a commercial.
Hmm. Notable or interesting responses. Nothing too notable is coming to mind. Although, this interview is pretty notable. I do find it interesting that it’s usually my musician friends who get the biggest kick out of the commercials. I don’t know why that is.
Do you have any longer-term plans for these commercials? Have you ever thought of compiling them into a movie of sorts? Or do you prefer them having the life they have strewn across the internet?
I forgot one notable response. The writer Tex Gresham saw my commercials while nearing the end of production on his film Mustard. We’d never interacted before but after he saw those he asked me to read some voiceover stuff for that film project. Which I did. I just recorded them with my phone and emailed the voice memos to him. I think the sound quality was kind of bad (sorry, Tex!) but he still used them and that was nice.
I don’t have any long-term plans for the commercials. Though I did consider sending some of them to a film festival. I could see them playing as advertisements between the other, “real” films. I think that’d be nice. But whatever happens, they’re easy to make and I’ll probably keep making them for a while.
Finally, if God exists, and you were to meet him at the gates of heaven, whereupon you’d show him these commercials you’ve made, what do you think he would say?
I think He’d be unhappy with how much I complain about the wonderful gift of life, but because God is God, God would know that as much as I complain about how hard it can be to be alive, I do secretly enjoy life for the most part. So I hope He’d forgive me and chuckle and pat me on the back with a God-hand, and say “C’mere kid. You’re all right. You done good.”
Sebastian Castillo is the author of SALMON and other books. He lives in Philadelphia, PA.
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