Character Case Study: "The Pitchman"

Malcolm Gladwell

Lesson time 15:52 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.
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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.

This is my first Masterclass and I'm very impressed with the quality of the instructor Malcolm Gladwell as well as the content. I've learned to construct my articles somewhat differently for more emphasis on the characters or narrative. Great job!

I loved how clear, direct and honest the class was. It was a great experience with Mr. Gladwell.

Malcolm Gladwell's MasterClass was not only endearing, refreshing and fun but also wonderfully insightful!

Wow! I cannot say enough about how much I have learned from Malcom. I am so thankful for this opportunity, and very happy I chose Master Class! I learned a number of things, although the most important is the ability to introduce my characters in meaningful ways. I like how he described ways to have stories unfold, and I really enjoyed hearing about his personal experiences. 10/10!



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

Brett G.

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.

Larry S.

One of Ron Popeil's products I recall the most was for thinning hair. It was a spray can of paint that for those who needed it could add color to their hair by spraying on the one dark color, and the scalp was then not visible, only the color. One needed to have some hair for it to be effective. I could use that now, but need a lighter color.

Ryan P.

So right now I'm the weirdo in a coffee shop in Redlands, California with a tear rolling down my face. Who knew a story about the rotisserie chicken guy could elicit such a strong reaction.... Nice.

Tina K.

It resonated with me about Malcolm's writing "representing someone else to the world for them.." I did my previous world-building on my parent's bedroom. It didn't show them in the best light or how they represent themselves. So, I might redo to see if I can tweak to reflect more of their view plus include some third person insights.

Paul H.

Well, Malcolm just sold me another book. His story telling examples from What the Dog Saw were really interesting to me. I hope to enjoy the book and learn from the examples for my own writing.