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Missing Dick Orkin. He was everywhere, everywhere.

Edge Studio

Among the voices lost in 2017 – except as recordings – were June Foray and Dick Orkin. Foray was known to the entire animation and voice industry. And to the multitude of people who didn’t know her name, she was known as the voice of as Rocket J. Squirrel, Granny, and countless other characters.

Fewer knew the name Dick Orkin, but the listeners of 1,500 radio stations worldwide knew his voice as that of Chickenman. In addition to creating that and other hilarious radio spoofs, Orkin brought his brand of absurdly silly humor to all sorts of radio advertisers. The hall-of-famer’s client list notably included otherwise serious concerns like Time Magazine and “more banks than you can imagine” – companies that until then weren’t known to air funny spots. For all his listeners, he was as entertaining as Stan Freberg and Bob and Ray had been, and within our industry he was surely as influential.

Orkin died of a stroke on Christmas Eve at age 84. He had been powering down, but he was still writing and voicing occasional commercials at the tail end of his 69-year career.

Actually, the length of his career depends on when we start counting. Orkin began as a young announcer and News Director in Pennsylvania, but was trained as an actor early on, having attended Yale Drama School. The transitional moment was when he moved to KYW in Cleveland. (Cleveland was an especially funny town in those days, spawning also the likes of Tim Conway and Ernie Anderson) There, Orkin’s work included voicing a character named “Amazon Ace” (apparently now lost in history). But it was when his Cleveland boss, Ken Draper, transformed Chicago’s WCFL that we can really start counting.

Having brought Orkin to Chicago as Production Director, in 1966 Draper asked him to produce a spoof of the popular Batman TV series. The result instantly became history. (We mean to say, it was an instant hit and enjoys a wide cult following to this day.)

The result was “Chickenman,” a radio serial aired each morning, in which a shoe salesman named Benton Harbor dons a chicken costume to fight crime and/or evil on weekends. Orkin created, wrote, and produced it, voicing Chickenman and other male roles. (The two other principal actors in the series were theater and voice actress Jane Roberts and DJ Jim Runyon. Runyon was its narrator, and closed each episode with his own undisclosed ad-lib, surprising his fellow actors. Additional occasional roles were played by noted voice actors of the day.)

Many a schoolchild was late to the breakfast table, waiting instead to catch that day’s 3-minute adventure. The storylines involved all sorts of absurd notions from Orkin’s mind. (Each episode took about 1.5 hours to write, just as long to record, and spent the rest of the day in post.) For example, how many writers would conceive of a Chickenmissle receiver? Or that Benton’s “Maternal Marauder” mother would think “the big house” must be a very large place to keep clean?

The words that opened each episode — “He’s everywhere! He’s everywhere!” — proved to be prophetic. The series was syndicated to other cities, even translated globally, and donated to Armed Forces Radio and Armed Forces Vietnam Network, so it is remembered by countless fans. (At his induction to the National Radio Hall of Fame, Orkin said veterans told him that Chickenman had preserved their sanity.)

Oddly, it didn’t air in New York City (which had its own collection of innovators and radio style) until the 1980s. But by then, AM radio and comic silliness were pretty much a dated combination.

No matter. After creating more than 250 episodes of Chickenman in four years, Orkin cloned the concept and syndicated it, too – in 300 episodes of The Secret Adventures of the Tooth Fairy, this time a dentist with a similar alter ego.

And by then, Orkin was well along making another name for himself, by making commercials.

Orkin formed his Famous Radio Ranch in 1973, co-writing and performing commercials with Bert Berdis and Christine Coyle.

In all these, the hero pretty much had Dick Orkin’s normal voice – a pleasing mixture of mellow baritone and Midwestern everyman. (One early interviewer described him as, “a tiny little man with a big voice and bigger talent.”) With other characters, he varied it just enough to differentiate, but it was that naive, somewhat goofy, unpretentious voice that became his trademark. (We suppose it still would have been the case even if he had gone with his first thought in writing his Batman spoof – Gorillaman.)

Orkin’s commercials were often built around ordinary, everyday people, even if the characters themselves weren’t exactly unpretentious. From 1977 to 1980, Dick and Bert produced about 30 spots for Time Magazine, at that time thought by many in the ad industry as an unlikely subject for funny commercials. That was before Orkin’s everyman touch. For example:

In a restaurant, a husband keeps wondering to his wife where he’s seen the guy at the next table. It must have been in Time Magazine. Was he a movie star? An athlete? A diplomat? Who? Despite his wife’s embarrassment, he goes over and asks what the man does. The answer . . . “I’m a plumber. I snaked out your pipes last week.”

Aimed at advertisers and media-buyers, not necessarily readers, the campaign demonstrated that Time wasn’t just a stodgy, old news publication. It was current, and hip, and lots of ordinary people scanned it cover-to-cover.

Other spots included two store customers arguing over who should be allowed to buy the last remaining copy of Time on the newsrack. The clerk explains that the manager will have to decide, but “he went out for a meatloaf sandwich.” Meatloaf. Then there was the guy who coveted the Fuchi Manuli sports car, because it would look great in his carport. A carport. (He had to settle for the copy of Time that was there on the seat.) Or the magazine-distracted operator of the drawbridge blocking a banana boat in (wait for it) … Herndon, Iowa.

We don’t know who wrote the tag campaign’s tag line, “Time makes everyone more interesting” (it might have been Young and Rubicam), but it was a perfect match for Orkin’s wit.

Much more recently, Orkin was still at it for otherwise staid clients such as First American Bank, a series wherein Orkin played the grandson of a woman full of get-rich-quick schemes and really should be banking her money, instead.

We could go on and on with such memories, but the links at bottom will provide a lot of them, as well as testimonials by friends, fans and family that Dick Orkin was a great collaborator, teacher, husband, father, and a very nice and helpful guy. In that vein, we suppose, he made a lot of his work available now, for anyone to enjoy, and the links include some of the paths to that repertoire.

From a voice-over standpoint, what can be learned from his legacy?

  • Don’t to take yourself too seriously, as a performer, nor as a character, nor as a client. Loosen up and let it flow. And it doesn’t have to be overplayed to play funny.
  • Underneath it all, be yourself. It will come across as genuine, because it is.
  • Hone your craft. Use timing, inflection, pacing, and all the other tools, for maximum effect. Orkin was a master at this, with perfectly timed dramatic pauses at just the right moments.
  • Set the scene. Orkin’s settings weren’t somewhere in limbo. They were stories, in scenes we could easily imagine from our own experience, albeit often with extraordinary details. That provides limitless possibilities to the writer and the actor, as opposed to (for example) a trite, unrelatable “psychiatrist’s couch” or a generic “breakfast table” with nothing to make it “real.”
  • Advertise to create brand awareness, but if the commercial can capture and hold attention while dramatizing a strong yet simple sales message drawn from the product in use, so much the better.
  • In commercials, it’s generally good advice not to make fun of the customer. But when a situation is absurd enough, maybe the customer who is listening no longer directly identifies with the character. The listener becomes an observer of another customer, whose foibles are nevertheless familiar. Or, as Orkin believed, most people have a sense of self-worth that overrides their temporary embarrassment when they themselves are in a silly situation; so, eventually, they are able to laugh at their situation. This sudden, unexpected recognition of our own nature – and the contradictions within it — underlies much of comedy.
  • In fact, it is a variation on a principle that Walt Disney called, “The Plausible Impossible” – which Disney said makes a portrayal convincing. Orkin’s absurd heroes are impossible, but his choice of realistic, relevant (if exaggerated) situations and relatable details makes them plausible. And, more actable.

Dick Orkin made it possible for all of us to believe in a lot of very funny people.

ADDITIONAL READING (Some of these include audio):

The Best of Chickenman The record album

The Adventures Of Chickenman (21 episodes, free. Some are slightly truncated.)…

The Adventures of Chickenman All 260 episodes (Stitcher 30-day free trial)

And Now a Few Laughs from Our Sponsor: The Best of Fifty Years of Radio Commercials (Excerpt, about Time Magazine campaign), By Larry Oakner…

The Return of Chickenman, Chicago’s Forgotten Superhero Chicago magazine…

Dick Orkin (Wikipedia)

(5-10-2016) Dick Orkin By Ed Ryan

R.I.P.: Radio Royalty Dick Orkin Has Died At 84 By Media Confidential…

Chickenman (radio series) (Wikipedia)

Radio Hall of Fame induction ceremony moving to L.A. By Robert Feder,…

Dick Orkin, creator of ‘The Adventures of Chickenman,’ has died Chicago Business Journal…

Dick Orkin, passed away yesterday Announcement on Facebook by Lisa Orkin,

The Secret Adventures of The Tooth Fairy – Episode 1 By name

This American Life Ira Glass

WLS – Dick Orkin’s ‘The Tooth Fairy’ Chicagoland Radio and Media…

The Advertising Age Encyclopedia of Advertising By John McDonough and Karen Egolf…

“Drug Store” Time Magazine commercial

“Banana Boat” Time Magazine commercial

NOTE: We regret that we weren’t able to find more links to some of the Time commercials, except for one site that wanted to download software and change our browser preferences (and we definitely don’t recommend that). If you have a link to an authorized Time campaign source, please post in in the comments, but do NOT send us actual recordings.

Do you have a comment or suggestion? Please send to [email protected].