May 3, 2012 by JoBe Cerny
One of the most inspirational people I ever met thru advertising was John Hughes. I met him while he was working at Leo Burnett. I worked on many commercial story board presentations with him. John would bring me in to do a variety of different character voices for him. One of the first voices he asked me to do was a Dustin Hoffman impersonation, and he laughed when I did it. Everything he presented was creative and different and funny. He was a very complete artist who could write, produce, and direct. He was gifted when it came to working with actors.
At that time, Leo Burnett would have three creative teams present three different commercial concepts to a client. John’s was always the most creative. A second group would present a very safe concept, and a third group would be a middle of the road approach. In comedy, sometimes people are funny before their time; the technical term for that is “too hip for the room”. In John’s case, clients usually didn’t get it on the day of the presentation, but years later, they would see the light and then laugh out loud.
Once we got to know each other, we realized we only lived about six blocks from each other. So as we got to know each other, John started to use me on more projects. I didn’t know it at the time, but he also was writing for The National Lampoon. He also was writing film and television projects. He seemed to be writing constantly. He would write on the train to work and from work. Then he would write commercial scripts for Leo Burnett from 9-12 and 2-5. But, he had an agreement with the agency that he could work on his “personal projects” from 12-2.
One of the “personal projects” I worked on was a daily radio soap opera about the trials and tribulations of a teen-aged girl growing up in Beaver Falls, Wisconsin. The name of the project was “Sixteen Candles”. Joan Lazzarini played the girl, and I played her boy friend. Dick Orkin’s “Chicken Man” and “Tooth Fairy” were on the air around that time. WLS Radio showed interest in the project as did a big sponsor. So, during John’s lunch breaks at Leo Burnett, we would record episodes of “Sixteen Candles”.
We did a number of episodes of the series, but the network and the sponsor backed out of the deal in the end. But, John retained the rights to the concept, and that proved to be a blessing in disguise for him. He continued to spend his evenings and weekends writing for The National Lampoon and film scripts, but once his film scripts started to sell he wrote and directed hit after hit. I was especially happy for him when he sold the script for “Sixteen Candles”. And it is great to see how many of his films are now regarded as American classics. John’s work ethic was absolutely amazing, and he had more drive than anyone I have ever met.
One day, I came home from downtown, and our new answering machine was flashing to let us know we had a message. It was one of the first messages our machine recorded so I was anxious to see who left the message. So I played it back and what I heard was: “. . uhhhhh . . . ahhh . . mmmh, but ahhh . . . Nnnnn . . . . well . . . ah . . . . I . . . no . . . mmmay . . . . uh . . . cou . . .” Then it cut off abruptly. Caller I.D. didn’t exist back then. So I played the message back time after time trying to figure out who might have called. Once I thought about it, I decided it had to be John. I dialed his number and before he could talk, I asked: “What did you want, John?”
He seemed disappointed, but then he said: “How did you know it was me?”
I said: “You were the only person I knew who would do something like that!”
But our paths continued to cross for a couple of years after that. He was one of the first people to use me to voice the Pillsbury Doughboy demo commercials. Back then the animation was done as clay-mation, and it took long periods of time to complete a commercial, and it eventually led to a lot of work for me. But, John left Leo Burnett shortly after we did the radio version of “Sixteen Candles” and of course the rest is movie history. He moved to a different house in another suburb so we didn’t see as much of each other. But, while he still lived in the area, I would bump into him from time to time at Burger King, and we would talk. I will always remember how hard John worked and how much he accomplished. He left a great legacy behind him. By the way, my favorite John Hughes movie is “Uncle Buck”.