Cheesy Like Me
There are some things so embarrassing that you might never imagine yourself doing them. Dressing up in an inflatable suit as a cartoon character to pitch a product would have to be at the top of any such list. What the public may not realize, however, is that there are ample rewards to be found for selling your dignity and your artistic soul -- try up to $250 a day for a mere five hours of humiliation. And thanks to the fact that your face is covered by the oversized head of a bird, mouse, dog or dinosaur, no one in the outside world ever has to know it's you in there.I recently went undercover for four days to experience the agony and the ecstasy to be found while playing a Cheesasaurus -- the cheese-colored cartoon dinosaur currently used to foist Kraft Macaroni & Cheese off on America's children. Along the way, I learned the public-relations doublespeak used to dissuade people from seeking the true answers to Kraft's "tough questions" and developed a newfound respect for those brave Americans who don plastic or felt animal suits in the name of making us grin stupidly and spend our money."I've done Popeye, did the Ninja Turtles, and dressed as Elvis," said Chicago standup comic and former actor Tim Joyce. "Some people joke about wearing a gorilla suit, but I have done it. I came up with a phrase to describe the experience of dressing up as a Ninja Turtle: each experience was 65 bucks and all the dignity you can eat."Joyce, 36, moved to Chicago from Buffalo 12 years ago to pursue an acting career, and moved into performing comedy professionally in 1991 "'cause it pays the bills." Now a headliner on the road and one of the select group of regular performers at the four Zanies comedy clubs in Chicagoland, Joyce looks back at his costume-wearing days as a time of learning tough lessons."It was when I first started doing standup and I couldn't burden myself with a day job because I wanted to go out of town for gigs all the time," Joyce said. "The one good thing about doing the suit work is that it does build up your tolerance for humiliation and shit-eating, which is really the key to success in show business anyway."I didn't realize just how much humiliation I would have to endure when I gladly agreed to the equivalent of two weeks of my normal pay for a mere 20 hours of drawing attention and waving at people. But over the course of the four days, I was punched, elbowed, groped, pinched by passersby, and spat upon from a window at Tribune Tower. The following is a chronology of some of the lowlights.6:30 a.m., Wednesday, October 15. The orders I received in accepting my mission as the Cheesasaurus rival anything to be found in a spy caper. I was to arrive at a neutral location away from mass public view, climb into a rental van driven by a Kraft public-relations intern and an account rep, secretly don the dinosaur suit while riding to the morning commuter rush at Union Station, and then inflate the outfit and march out to confuse and separate the masses from their hard-earned cash. Standing in the chilly pre-dawn air, I look forward to the challenge as the van pulls up.6:45 a.m., Wednesday. Everything has already gone horribly wrong. The Cheesasaurus is a complex beast, rife with metal poles, battery packs and timed fans which both inflate the suit and keep the actor inside from sweating to death. It also comes complete with an instructional video for its assembly that the Kraft representatives have forgotten to watch. Fearing that improper wearing of the suit could lead to my bizarre and untimely death, we turn the van around and head for the Kraft account rep's apartment and home VCR.***7:05 a.m., Wednesday. Between quick glimpses of Charlie Gibson smiling on "Good Morning America," we follow the video's incredibly bad actors as they pretend that donning the dinosuit is easy. Strapped into a more complex outfit than the spacesuits of the cosmonauts on Mir, I am alternately laughing at a mirror's reflection and wincing from the crushing burden on my back. We finally have the dinosaur's head on and I'm zipped up. Now it's time for me to knock two wires together, wait for the fans to switch on and warn all women and children to flee the vicinity. When fully inflated, the Cheesasaurus tops out at 12 feet tall and three feet wide, with a tail the size of Toledo. The two Kraft workers can't stop laughing.7:15 a.m., Wednesday. Afraid to deflate the suit lest we encounter problems during a reassembly, we attempted to sneak down the back staircase of the Kraft rep's apartment in the hopes that no one would see me. The attempt was foiled the moment we rounded the corner to the van's parking spot on Chicago Avenue, where the morning rush hour is underway. Having climbed into the back of the van and curled myself into the fetal position in the mere hopes of fitting onboard, I now find myself sliding across the van's floor each time it turns a corner, stops or starts. Occasionally, the suit's ample belly area even causes me to roll. This time the Kraft women are laughing so hard they're crying. If I could only get my arms free, I would unzip the suit already and flee while I still had some dignity.8:00 a.m., Wednesday. I have been on the streets of Chicago for a full half-hour, blocking traffic as the Cheesasaurus lumbers through in all its bizarre glory. My arms already feel like they're going to drop off from all the waving, while the Kraft intern partnered with me hands out flyers inviting people to bring their children to a Cheesasaurus 60th birthday party that Saturday at Navy Pier. Children scream with joy from the windows of their passing schoolbuses, while drivers honk with either a show of amusement or impatience. The highlight so far is the carload of young men sharing a bong, whose bloodshot eyes popped out of their skulls when they looked up to find us. Trip weed, indeed.8:55 a.m., Wednesday. Back at the van, the suit is unzipped to the disgusted squeals of the Kraft intern. The fans' batteries had run out 10 minutes before, and instantaneously the suit's insides had turned from air-cooled luxury into a sauna that even my maximum protection Right Guard couldn't endure. The result was a shriveled plastic mess of a suit, with feet that felt like sandbags and the internal temperature of a blast furnace. I was now heading into a two-hour break, with one lesson learned: keep an eye on the time. Each battery would last only 90 minutes, lending a whole new meaning to the game of beat the clock, and leaving me with only one disturbing thought: Only three and a half more days of this to go."I wanted to make a living as an actor, and I figured if I was performing and getting paid, I wasn't letting myself down and was pursuing my career goals," said Scott Vinci, a 25-year-old Chicago comic and actor who has also endured the torture of costume work. "I've done it at weddings, bar mitzvahs, for the Boy Scouts, at old folks' homes -- everywhere."Vinci is referring to his stint as a Tiny Twin, one of two oversized characters who perform as a singing and dancing couple at social events throughout the Chicagoland area. Timmy and Tammy, The Tiny Twins, have costumes which place the actors' eyeholes in the characters' hats, with fake arms that flap wildly at their sides while the actors' actual hands manipulate the mouths as the characters speak or sing to pre-recorded tapes. The overall effect is a physically distorted look that would fit right in with the characters on Comedy Central's animated "South Park."Starting in the summer of 1996, Vinci performed up to three 20-minute shows a night, earning $25 a show for his initial efforts and graduating to $35 a show by the time he finished in May. While he considers his Tiny Twin efforts part of paying the dues on the way to a clearer vision for his career, he could recall one particularly embarrassing incident."Sometimes the girls who played Tammy were busy but the shows had to go on," Vinci said. "The owner of the business couldn't fit into Tammy's costume and I could, so I had to be Tammy even though I could only dance like a guy."One of those nights, I was dancing near a table and people could see I was a guy and said so," he continued. "I then realized that I had become a crossdressing costume wearer."Such indignities are common among the legions of actors who have subjected themselves to costume work, but they are also the pains by which successful actors measure the obstacles they have overcome. Vinci reminded me that even Brad Pitt has spoken of his thespian efforts in a chicken suit prior to breaking hearts in "Thelma & Louise." Hearing this gave me the fortitude to soldier on the next day, when I had to cross town at an obscenely cold and early hour to strap on my personal cross again.Things seemed better that Thursday, as I resigned myself to the fact that there was no longer any use in fleeing my assignment. I had invested an entire day already, and realized that if I had survived that much, the money was simply too good to pass up. We had mastered the timing on the fans during the afternoon shift on Wednesday, and I had managed to get through Thursday morning in a state of air-cooled relative bliss. The week's greatest danger and most unendurable agony, however, came as I trudged back to the van for my break: we were spotted by a group of Chicago public high school students out on a field trip.Knowing instinctively that I would be subjected to a ruthless array of tweakings, beatings, elbows and pinches, as well as a chorus of derisive laughter from the punks set free from their educational prison, I begged my Kraft partner to travel another route back to the van. She assured me I would be fine. Having been raised as a good Catholic to offer up the little pains that life gives us and think of the suffering Christ endured carrying his cross, I headed forth towards my own modern-day Golgotha."Hey, it's Barney's retarded brother!" screamed one witty lad, prior to planting an elbow into my sternum."Let's see if we can find the guy's face!" yelled about twenty other hooligans, who proceeded to poke and prod every spot and apparent orifice of my outfit.The Kraft intern realized that things were getting out of hand, but that it was too late to escape. I was utterly defenseless, barred from even the symbolic victory of flipping the bird at them due to the fact the Cheesasaurus only had four fingers. Its creators must have known that a middle finger would surely be used and provoke lawsuits. When I tried to turn and waddle away, the kids' warden-like teacher called out and demanded a group photo. In the name of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, I had to stop. Somewhere out there is photographic evidence of a brutal group assault."The biggest perk from being a Ninja Turtle at kids' parties was every weekend I got punched in the nuts for free," Tim Joyce said, regarding the dark side of costume work. "The average three-year-old's head is at crotch level and when they throw a punch it's at that level too. I finally wore a cup."Joyce also endured a traumatic incident at the hands of an older child, one which has forever scarred his memories of beloved cartoon idol Popeye. The incident took place in his first year of the profession, 1991, and filled him with an even greater desire to leave his newfound career behind."The single worst experience easily was dressing up like Popeye in a mall, and I had this 50-pound, carcinogenic plastic Popeye head, and I had to hand out coupons with a woman who had a 50-pound, plastic Olive Oyl head," recalled Joyce. "And a 12-year-old boy grabbed her crotch, and then she ran away screaming and crying and never picked up her check." The drama escalated when Joyce, still in the role of Popeye, grabbed the youthful offender, asked why he grabbed Olive, and received a swift punch in the stomach in reply. Still held in the grip of Joyce's cannon-sized cartoon arms, the boy threatened to tell his mother he was being accosted. Joyce upped the ante further by threatening to tell the mother about the boy's bizarre sexual assault."Finally I asked him 'Do you know what I look like under this head?' and he said no," Joyce continued. "I replied 'That means I can kick your ass and you'd never know who did it.'"Then I went, handed in my head, and went home. I quit."Friday went by as a blur for me, as I endured another round of waving, shaking hands, hugs, taunts, sneers and countless photos with foreigners. We had had to endure the indignity of being ordered off the state property of the Thompson Building on Thursday afternoon, but that was still no preparation for the ultimate ironic shock of my life as a macaroni-mongering dinosaur. During Friday's lunch hour, my Kraft partner and I wound up standing smack dab in front of my normal day job's headquarters -- the Equitable Building on Michigan Avenue.Imagine the slow-boiling rage and embarrassment of doing something incredibly stupid and then having everyone you know and work with and respect pass by acknowledging the utter stupidity of your actions. For 90 minutes, I watched through my eyehole in one of the dinosaur's stomach spots as at least 100 recognizable faces from my corporation walked past and offered their telling comments."You couldn't pay me enough to do that," was the most common phrase uttered. And the more I heard it, the more I realized that statement's inherent truth.Other popular phrases included "I bet that doesn't even require high school," "Wouldn't you hate doing that?", and "I wonder if he feels stupid." The Kraft intern also noticed a profuse amount of spit globs landing around and on top of me, wafting from unknown windows or ledges along the Tribune Tower. I finally understood the destructive effects of prejudice firsthand, as I was judged not only by the color of its skin, but the size of my character. Saturday morning's party couldn't arrive and end fast enough for me.Arriving at the Navy Pier's garish Crystal Ballroom on Saturday, I finally could see what the fruits of my labor would involve. Three gigantic wooden stands in the form of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese boxes were arrayed, with holes in the center for kids to stick their faces through. The purpose was for Kraft to take Polaroids of the tots and add them to a nationwide search for 12 perfect faces to adorn the box fronts for the anniversary year of the pseudo-pasta.There was also a gigantic wooden birthday card that looked like it could kill everyone in sight every time it creaked upon opening, an enormous and unhealthy birthday cake that couldfeed Africa for a month, and a small stage upon which I would be called upon to endure my greatest humiliation: leading children in a line dance called the Cheesasaurus Shuffle.Finally the party festivities began and another twentysomething performer from the talent agency led kids through their paces in a condescending childlike voice. I looked out at the sea of confused faces from my secret changing area (the freezer room of a Pier restaurant) and realized that we were planting the seeds of an even more uncomprehending, sheeplike generation than we have ever experienced.I was even more frightened as the host called for me to emerge through the crowd and take my rightful place on stage as these children's newfound god. The DJ had the smug hipness to play "Stuck In the Middle With You," the song from the infamous police-torture scene in "Reservoir Dogs," and I realized that right about then I would prefer being tied to a chair with my ear sliced off.Soon I couldn't even move. Like Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King and countless other figures who inspired mass adulation and devout believers, I found that these children wanted nothing more than to touch me, hug me and tell me how much they loved me. The odd part, however, was seeing the shadows of their hands all over what normally be my crotch and my butt areas. I felt unclean, but then that could also have been from the fact the inside of the suit had turned into a stench-filled sweat pit over my four days of service.Leading them through the Shuffle, hoping to God that I didn't sideswipe a kid into physical injury through the reckless movements of my dino-tail, I hoped someone would tell me the time and my agony could be over. Then I saw that some of these kids really had an emotional connection to seeing their cartoon hero in the flesh -- or rubber, as it were.Which reminded me of the one truly good experience that Tim Joyce had as a Ninja Turtle, helping a three-year-old boy named Josh celebrate his birthday."I was feeling really good about myself because Josh came and sat on my lap, put his arm around my neck, and said 'I love you, Donatello. This is my best birthday ever,'" Joyce recalled. "I turned my face away because I was starting to get weepy, and when I looked back down, Josh was eating a booger."I guess my assessment of Josh's birthday would be 'the perfect entertainment, and the perfect snack."Those would be fair words to describe the generally harmless nature of my Cheesasaurus experience, as I watched children clutch box after box from display tables on their way out from the party. But in looking at a Kraft memo called "Answers to the Tough Questions", which the host left behind from his information packet, I found that any commercial venture that targets children really does have a creepy underside.Offering cheesy answers (forgive the pun) to questions like "Isn't this contest merely another way of exploiting children for corporate profit?", or asking "How can you promote a product that has so much fat and so little nutrition?", Kraft's public affairs wizards crafted answers that redefine the sunny cynicism of advertising.The nutrition question is answered with the Kraft corporate drones' chirpy reply, "I am not a nutrition expert, but I would be happy to put you in touch with one. I can tell you that I grew up eating KRAFT Macaroni & Cheese, and I feel good knowing that my children will enjoy it as part of their balanced diet, too." Other negative questions are retorted with the claim that no one else has complained yet. And in a world where a million boxes of the soylent green of the '90s are sold daily, it helps if everyone just gets with the program and keeps their contrary views to themselves. My four days as a corporate whore are over, but still I weep for our future. I firmly believe that if Bob Dole had only had the foresight to wear a suit in the form a cartoon character, he would be President today. And if Napoleon had worn one to Waterloo, his empire would never have toppled. Most of all, I learned that people will say, buy or do anything for another as long as that person is wearing an inflatable costume.