December 1, 2017
I cannot stop watching these eighties video game commercials starring George Plimpton; please help
by Ian Dreiblatt
George Plimpton could sell anything.
Wait, sorry, that’s not quite right. Let’s rephrase it: George Plimpton would sell anything.
Plimpton, of course, was the inaugural editor of the Paris Review and a legendary early proponent of “participatory journalism” — a pre-internet movement in which normies, schlubs, and dunderhooves of all stripes engaged in specialized activities—pro football, say, or stand-up comedy—for which they were totally unprepared, and wrote about it in ways that alloyed literary sensibilities with a journalistic commitment to accurate reportage.
But there’s nothing normal, schlubbisch, or dunderhoofular about the series of commercials Plimpton shot in the late seventies and early eighties for Intellivision, Mattel’s now-long-forgotten home video game console. They are exquisite human artifacts. And while Intellivision looks just horrid, it is impossible not to love the resplendantly pixelated high awkwardness with which Plimpton shills for it.
Among the many joys here:
- It is a gas to hear Plimpton intone the name of Intellivision’s prime competitor, Atari, which he pronounces in the style of a Friesian thoroughbred regurgitating a carrot it has traced to the wrong region of Belgium.
- Civilization will never top the outrageous scene of Plimpton, consummately patrician in a study decked out with rich burgundy leather and mahogany shelving, standing up to reveal two massive TVs and two little micro-Plimptons playing video games on them.
- All must swoon before the virtuosity with which Plimpton keens ace dialogue like “Sure, they’ve got great space games — like Intellivision Space Battle!” and “Now there’s Space Armada and the Incredible Astro-smash!”
- The perceptual gulf between the impossible cheer Plimpton marshalls to declare that Star Strike “features our most exciting visual effect: the total destruction of a planet” and the seven or eight briefly orange pixels that constitute said excitement amounts to a devastating simulacrum of twenty-first century psychic displacement avant la lettre.
In short, George Plimpton, inaugural editor of the Paris Review, author of many well-received books, and groovy host of the Disney Channel’s Mouseterpiece Theater, was also a dude who made some righteously excellent video game commercials. Dim the lights, pour yourself a stiff gin, and enjoy the shit out of them, because content like this comes along once every ten thousand years.
Here’s a short animation that programmers Keith Robinson and Mark Urbaniec made for a Mattel party in 1983, poking what we shall hope was some affectionate fun at the TV spots:
Author’s Note: It has been brought to my attention that there are people out there who really love Intellivision. That’s great! As a dude who has personally spent hours of his life playing games, variously, on Apple IIGS, Colecovision, and, most especially, Commodore 64 (and who, for that matter, reveres the Paris Review, first learned about George Plimpton from his guest appearance on Married… With Children, and counts himself the richer for it), I mean all the preceding in the spirit of fun. Long live the deliciously intertwined memories of Intellivision and George Plimpton! —ID
Ian Dreiblatt is the director of digital media at Melville House.