The Spring and Summer of 1999 was a good time to live in London: the
brouhaha over the Millennium Dome, the devolution of power to parliaments
in Scotland and Wales, Man U's last minute victory
in Barcelona in the European Cup Final. Even the weather was good by London standards. But the single best reason to be there was Flat Eric.
Flat Eric is a yellow muppet, designed by the Jim Henson folks
for a series of Levis Sta-Prest clothing ads (or 'adverts' if you're
in the UK). From a muppet standpoint he's not very sophisticated: he has
skinny arms like Kermit the Frog, a bit of a gut, a flat head (thus,
presumably, the name) and a solid-object-sliced-and-hinged-at-the-midpoint
kind of mouth. He likes techno music and Wizz water. He also doesn't
talk, which lends to his mystique, much like Nick Park's famous claymation
dog Gromit. But he is incredibly appealing, probably because he's so cool.
He originally appeared in a series of 30-second spots which follow him
on a road trip with his friend Angel. Nothing much happens in these:
they drive, they listen to techno (to which Flat Eric does a sort of
muppet slam dancing thing), Angel tells a story about his parents, and
Flat Eric drinks constantly from his Wizz water and swats a fly. Here
is a transcript (as best I can reconstruct it) of one of the ads, entitled "Stewed Prunes":
Scene opens in a parking lot with ANGEL sitting outside the car,
in his underwear and a nightshirt, shaving with an electric razor.
Slow, blues-y techno-riff plays in the background.
ANGEL: So my dad looks across the room and sees a girl. She looks at
him and nods something, something really sexy. But he doesn't know
what it is. And you know what? She does it again.
Cut to FLAT ERIC, who takes a drink of Wizz water, then presses
a button which activates the windshield squirter. ANGEL catches some
and smoothes his hair, then goes back and opens the trunk, which is full
of Sta-prest pants. He takes out a pair and puts it on.
ANGEL: So he goes over and asks what she said. And you know what it
was? 'Stewed Prunes'.
Cut to FLAT ERIC again, who leans out the window and makes some sort
of squeaky vocalization which appears to convey surprise.
ANGEL: 'Stewed prunes'. And that's how they met. Do you believe that?
If it wasn't for stewed prunes, I wouldn't be here.
FLAT ERIC nods, avails himself of some sort of aerosol deodorant,
and then sprays some in his mouth for good measure. ANGEL gets back in
the car, and they drive away, as the Levis Sta-prest logo is superimposed.
The whole ad sequence was supposed to last a few weeks, and Levis had
been maintaining a "one ad and you're out" policy, but as soon
as it started airing the public went mad for it. Bartle Bogle Hegarty,
the ad agency that Levis had hired to produced the spots, was flooded with
calls requesting merchandizing: Flat Eric dolls, t-shirts, Wizz water,
the works. It became a national phenomenon. More than that: the ads were
aired all over Europe, the Middle East and Africa, and sales of Sta-prest
clothing spiked everywhere.
Sadly, they never made it to America (except, I hear, for a very brief run), although the current Dominos
Pizza 'Bad Andy' ads feature a brown muppet that looks quite a bit like
Flat Eric. This is terribly sad, because Bad Andy is not an inch as cool
as Flat Eric. It's also ironic, since the Flat Eric ads are set in Los Angeles.
Wherever you reside, however, you can find videos of all of the spots archived
in grainy postage-stamp-size formats at a multitude of Internet Flat Eric
fan sites. Additionally, The Guardian has a whole section (listed in sources
below) with links to all of their Flat Eric coverage. It includes a brilliant
essay by Jonathan Selzer analyzing the Flat Eric phenomenon, which includes
By anthropomorphising Flat Eric, and by inventing a background narrative
for the first advert, Dancing, Charlotte Raven (Double Take, 9/3/99)
demonstrated a fundamental misunderstanding of its power. Flat Eric
and his partner, Angel, weren't going from A to B, they were simply in
transit, a state in its own right, and with its own pertinent set of
conditions. To misunderstand that is also to misunderstand the music he
was so gripped by. Its repetition annihilated any trajectory, any point
of origin. It annotated the moment instead, its functionalism leaving
the present to its efficiently persuasive devices.
Pretty deep for a little yellow muppet.
"The Flat Eric Phenomenon", The Guardian website, www.guardianunlimited.co.uk/eric/0,2759,191089,00.html
"How a furry yellow muppet restored my faith in culture", Charlotte
Raven, The Guardian, 9 March 1999
"Flat Eric", Jonathan Selzer, The Guardian, 21 May
Die grosse deutsche Flat Eric Fanpage, www.flateric.de