Rob Walker’s Consumed column in Sunday’s New York Times magazine served as something of a remembrance of Arthur Schiff, a TV commercial writer credited with creating the four most repeated words in television advertising – “but wait, there’s more.” Schiff’s ubiquitous pitch cut its teeth, so to speak, on the genre-defining Ginsu knife spot, which famously depicted the cutlery cleaving an aluminum can, a tree branch and a nail before effortlessly swishing through a tomato and reinventing the notion of sliced bread.
First aired in 1978, the Ginsu commercial was a mainstay of my early television experience and one that I would later reference in my own work for the small (and smaller) screen in a flick titled “Hold Me With Your Robot Hand.” The moment comes during a montage in which an android prosthetic is shown crushing a tennis ball (lifted directly from the title sequence of the “Bionic Woman”), karate-chopping a cinder block (a trick replicated thousands of times by the “Ripley’s Believe It, Or Not” crowd) and finally slicing a tomato a la the Ginsu. Compared to Schiff’s masterpiece, my parody reads a little hollow. For all its carnival barker bluster, the original Ginsu spot was an apt metaphor for its time: the blade brawny enough to chop down a tree yet refined enough to halve a tomato with ease and finesse, could be construed as the symbolic synthesis of the masculine and feminine, a notion then reverberating throughout the culture, most notably in the form of the “sensitive man” archetype padding through the media in Earth Shoes and a turtleneck. Think Alan Alda, but not as dull.
Though made in Ohio, Schiff gave the Ginsu its faux-Japanese name thus making a simultaneous stab at the perceived exotica of the East and the consumer sensibility of the West. That said, the Ginsu made for an ironic metaphor since the purpose of a knife is to largely separate bits of things from each other rather than unite them. Of course, it wasn’t intended to be emblematic of a cultural shift, it was intended to sell for $19.95 direct to the consumer, themselves eager to cut cans and tomatoes.
In terms of cutlery, the Ginsu’s sole rival, in my opinion, was also released a year prior in 1977 – at least in film form: the lightsaber. Not as clumsy or random as a blaster, it was an elegant weapon for a more civilized time, which the post-Vietnam ‘70s were comparatively speaking (albeit, I was a kindergartner at a progressive school in northern California – halcyon days indeed). Using a lightsaber to slice your tofu would be like using a revolver as a remote control – it was, after all, modeled after a sword, not a mere knife. However, that didn’t prevent endless debate between my neighborhood friends and I over which would be more effective in a schoolyard skirmish.
The fact that lightsabers did not exist outside the fantastical world of “Star Wars” was the least of their proponents’ issues. It was accepted that they should exist, so, you know, end of story. What hobbled the pro-lightsaber camp was what could be termed the “battery conundrum.” They were, as we surmised from a billion toy commercials, not included. If one were to drain the lightsaber’s power while unsuccessfully swinging at some sixth grade Ginsu-wielding ninja, one could expect to be sliced and diced in a manner that would make Benihana proud (the culinary acrobatics depicted in the chain restaurant’s commercials made them nearly as popular as Ginsu’s). Claiming to have an “infinity battery” was looked on as a chump move so the would-be Jedis dissuaded from making any mention. Conversely, the Ginsu gang mistakenly believed that their weapon of choice also included the cleaver shown chopping the pineapple in the commercial. Wrong. Though the complete Ginsu eight-piece arsenal could be had for under $20, it was inconceivable that any kid on our block would have that kind of cash. In the end, however, most schoolyard battles resolved with little more acrimony than a few expletives tossed around the bike racks. After all, we were all sensitive guys.