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Arts & Entertainment

Character Case Study: "The Pitchman"

Malcolm Gladwell

Lesson time 15:51 min

Malcolm believes that when you reveal story is just as important as what that story is. He explains this idea with an in-depth look at one of his favorite characters, late-night television pitchman Ron Popeil.

Malcolm Gladwell
Teaches Writing
In 24 lessons, the author of Blink and The Tipping Point teaches you how to find, research, and write stories that capture big ideas.


So this is a book-- this is a profile I wrote of Ron Popeil, one of my favorite profiles. He is the creator and salesman of a variety of kitchen gadgets and Showtime rotisserie oven, which is the real subject of this particular profile. And I want to read-- start by reading the first line of the opening line of the profile. "The extraordinary story of the Ronco Showtime Rotisserie and Barbecue begins with Nathan Morris, the son of the shoemaker and cantor Kidders Morris, who came over from the Old Country in the 1880s and settled in Asbury Park, New Jersey. Nathan Morris was a pitchman. He worked the boardwalk and the five and dimes and country fairs up and down the Atlantic coast, selling kitchen gadgets made by Acme Metal out of Newark. In the early '40s Nathan set up NK Morris Manufacturing, turning out the KwiKi-Pi and the Morris Metric Slicer. And perhaps because it was the depression and job prospects were dim, or perhaps because Nathan Morris made such a compelling case for his new profession. One by one, the members of his family followed him into the business. His sons, Lester Morris and Arnold "The Knife" Morris became his pitchmen. He set up his brother-in-law, Irving Rosenblum, who was to make a fortune on Long Island in plastic goods, including a hand grater of such excellence that Nathan paid homage to it with his own Dutch Kitchen Shredder Grater. He partnered with his brother, Al, whose own sons worked the boardwalk alongside a gangly Irishman by the name of Ed McMahon. Then, one summer just before the war, Nathan took on as an apprentice, his nephew Samuel Jacob Popeil. SJ, as he was known, was so inspired by his uncle Nathan that he went on to found Popeil Brothers based in Chicago and brought the world the Dial-O-Matic, the Chop-O-Matic, and the Veg-O-Matic. SJ Popeil had two sons. The elder was Jerry, who died young. The younger is familiar to anyone who has ever watched an infomercial on late night television. His name's Ron Popeil." Now that lengthy beginning. There's a point to it, which is that this is a profile of Ron Popeil. But what is interesting about Ron Popeil is his family and where he comes from. He is a perfectly charming, intelligent person. He's not fascinating. I mean, I don't mean that in any way as a criticism of him. He's not the most kind of-- what is, if I had to locate the thing that would draw you into the story of Ron Popeil, it is the world in which he is immersed. And all of the significant conflicts in his life are with his own heritage. He did what he did in part out of an attempt to emulate his father, but also because his father, out of a reaction to his father, who was not a good father, who really abandoned him. And this is the underlying story of his career, is an attempt to kind of win his father's absent approval. So there's a psychological element there. And also, the colorful characters in his family were all the ones in the previous generations, the one...

Transform the ordinary

Ketchup. Crime. Quarterbacks. Thanks to Malcolm Gladwell’s books, these ordinary subjects have helped millions of readers grasp complex ideas like behavioral economics and performance prediction. Now, the renowned storyteller and best-selling author of Blink and The Tipping Point is teaching his first online writing class. Craft stories that captivate by learning how Malcolm researches topics, crafts characters, and distills big ideas into simple, powerful narratives.


Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

Malcolm Gladwell is one of my favorite writers. It was cool to learn about his writing process and see how I can apply it to my own writing.

Amazing! I'm eager to implement some of the insights that Malcolm explained about.

I've learned more about Malcolm Gladwell. His enthusiasm and curiosity are spectacular.

Your are just one of the best gift that visited this world: I am writing a book on Lampedusa. Can you help?


A fellow student

What a great lesson. Perhaps what I most takeaway and certainly most like about it is what Malcolm says at the end ... something to the effect of "I don't do hatchet jobs... I want the subject to read the profile and be glad he talked with me." What a relief to find out from the master that we don't have to hold ourselves to some 'tell all, don't forget the warts!" imperative. You can be a nice guy and still write great profiles. Now if only I could actually write a profile in itself I'd be set! (cause I like to be nice about it)


This was fascinating. Particularly as I have long lamented that somewhere along the way of many moves around this planet I let go of my Vegematic purchased in the late 1960's. It was actually an amazing and simple gadget that really did what it promised. It was $5.00. At that time quite affordable. Many years later, perhaps 20 years, when I was visiting the USA I saw it advertised, not as friendly as I remembered mine, an updated version with more parts perhaps but it was super expensive by comparison. His family story was not unfamiliar to me. Sadly such histories of Jewish families were all too common, particularly with the immigrant population 19th/20th century. Physically and or emotionally absent fathers. Tyrannical, often abusive, perhaps verbally more than physically and deeply troubled men themselves. I know Asbury Park and Deal Beach as a part of my family were there. Wish I could read this entire article on Ron. Ah, family. To paraphrase R.D. Lang "the family is the gas chamber of human emotion". How much I would like to have a long conversation with Malcolm, not only about writing.


Fascinating! I love hearing Malcolm explain the reasons why he does things in his books. I have always enjoyed the way he tells stories and what he chooses to write about, but this feels like a look behind the curtains into why he made certain decisions, the importance of sequencing, what gets him excited about what he learned about. I'm really appreciating his course. Some of what he talks about is also helping me to give literary critique to my brother's personal statement essay.

A fellow student

I do appreciate these classes so much, he is sharing his knowledge of life usually overlooked by most of us. It requires a decent amount of courage when you try to portray a character which demands you to dig through people around it,it is also difficult to jump out of the already stereotype to figure out a new path to get closer to the more true and more consistent of a figure.


Really interesting. Perhaps a good exercise would be to take a fictional character, and profile them. How they became significant and important. Who their people are/were and where they come/came from. Develop the back story for a cartoon character?

Ekin Ö.

I believe my attention was caught mostly towards how different setting the stage can be for different characters. You can't set the stage for Michael Jordan by providing information about his family, but you can do this for Ron Popeil because he's the third generation who's doing the job. I guess it's all about the relevancy.

Stirling A.

i have read all of MG's books so far... i wasn't heart broken about ron UNTIL i saw in this lesson how much MG cared


I dig that MG won't write about people he doesn't want to spend time with or people he knows he won't like.

Armond M.

What I'm learning from MG is that if you go deep enough on any topic or any person and turn it in every direction and keep examining it you will eventually hit gold. Who would have thought that an infomercial host's back story could be so fascinating.

Julie M.

This lesson was excellent. I would give it 10 stars if I could. I learned about the timing of revelations in a story, I learned about how to find the extraordinary in the ordinary and how to grab onto what others might miss and how to craft it in a way that makes it interesting and will resonate with my reader in the way it resonated with me. I also loved that Gladwell spoke so clearly about journalistic integrity and honoring your subject and/or source. I was once misled by a reporter. Not only did she mislead me, and another couple with whom she interviewed, she also convinced me to give her a piece I was writing. My foolishness in thinking she would get it printed in the paper, or if she used me as a source would give credit, was more than naive, it was tragic. Her full broad-sheet article appeared in the paper with the title I had given her in large font splashed across the page next to color photos. I felt sick. Except for some minor word changes, the story was my story, but since I had emailed her what I had, giving her permission to use it, I had no leg to stand on. I forgot to add that I was to be cited, or referenced. I set my pen down and didn't write for a while. Years passed and I finally went back to the craft that I love. Interestingly enough, I now am a journalist (of sorts) myself. As a freelance columnist, I am passionately committed to protecting my sources, and honoring the subjects I interview. I kept that article that knocked me down years ago. It will forever be a learning experience to me of what not to be. I will keep my notes from this class too. It will forever be a reminder of the kind of writer and journalist I want to be. Kinder, with more honesty and more respect. The kind of writer who sees the interesting in the every day and can patiently wait to be invited into someone's story to find the extradordinary that everyone around them may have missed. We need more Malcolm Gladwells in the world.