Arts & Entertainment, Writing

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.

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Topics include: Set the Stage for Your Subject • Write on Your Subject’s Behalf


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...

About the Instructor

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.

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Malcolm Gladwell

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

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