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 the following:

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.


Sources:

"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 1999
Die grosse deutsche Flat Eric Fanpage, www.flateric.de

"Women want to have sex with him, men want to be him."

—Adam Higginbotham, editor of The Face3

Flat Eric is so cool, he even has a cult following: http://www.geocities.com/Hollywood/Heights/5617/. He was created by Janet Knechtel, from Jim Henson's Muppets team.1 The three Levi's ads that Flat Eric starred in were directed by Mr. Oizo, French electronica artiste extraordinaire, and the background music is his song "Flat Beat." Mr. Oizo was asked to do the initial ad after a copy of the video he made for his second EP turned up at Bartle Bogle Hegarty, Levi's advertising agency.1 Flat Eric also stars in the music video of "Flat Beat," wherein he dances muppetly, pushes some buttons, and signs a form.

Flat Eric is a down-to-Earth kinda guy. Born on March 20, and standing only 2' tall, he smokes sausages instead of cigars (he's flammable) and drinks Wizz exclusively. In an interview with Johnny Davis of The Face (March 30, 1999):2

JD: What is happiness?
FE: An empty milkshake carton.

[...]

JD: Hmmm. What about the picture of the female cop attached to your car's sun visor?
FE: If you look carefully you'll notice she's wearing only one glove. Black. Left hand. It's a sexual thing.

[...]

JD: Now that you're a household name, have the work offers been flooding in?
FE: In my favourite film, Paint Your Wagon, Lee Marvin sings, "I Was Born Under a Wandering Star." The song became a huge hit and some years afterwards he was asked why he had never recorded another song. He replied, "There's an old saying in the West. 'If you flick a dime up into the air, pull out your six shooter, fire and you hit it. Don't try it again.' "

In the Levi's ads, the puppet is worked by three puppeteers who are in the back seat of the car. He is modeled after a creation of Mr. Oizo's, a puppet named Stephan. Flat Eric is so named because his head is flat: one of the original concepts for the first ad was to have his head get ran over by a car, flattening it. The idea didn't stay, but the name did.4

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References:
1: No strings attached: http://www.guardian.co.uk/eric/Story/0,2763,209720,00.html
2: 60 seconds in the head of Flat Eric: http://www.guardian.co.uk/Print/0,3858,3846505,00.html
3: Is Flat Eric an earner?: http://www.guardian.co.uk/eric/Story/0,2763,209713,00.html
4: Sir Beavis: http://www.sirbeavis.com/eric.php

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