On our first date, when I asked the woman I’d eventually sucker into becoming my wife about her job in children’s publishing, her response struck me as curious: “Oh, it’s pretty much what you’d expect - just a bunch of women looking at artwork and saying, ‘Awww, look at that bunny! So cute and fuzzy!’” When an expression she would soon come to characterize as resting befuddlement face glazed over me, she laughed. “Yesterday we spent four hours yelling about placement of our Nickelodeon titles in endcaps at Wal-Mart. Fuzzy bunnies? Come on.” I was smitten. (Still am.)
So whenever I come across video designed to spur interest in a new book, I always run it past her first, to see whether it activates her finely attuned BS detector. Possibly related: In four years of writing this column, I haven’t written about a single publishing-related video campaign, despite a huge spike in the number of ‘em. Maybe these campaigns add an iota of viral cred to the usual marketing mix, but for the most part they play like an afterthought. “Oh, we undershot our budget by three grand? Ask the weird editorial assistant if she’s good at YouTube.”
This is why the first in a series of videos previewing “Stories For Ways and Means,” an anthology featuring stories written by musicians like Tom Waits and illustrated by painters who I presume are equally awesome but I know nothing about painting so I won’t attempt to throw around any names, strikes me as so extraordinary. The book sounds like a labor of love: Jeff Antebi, the owner of new-school record company and management firm Waxploitation, tapped his favorite artists (musical, art-ical and the like) to partner on the short stories, then grabbed Nick Offerman and others to perform the voice-overs on videos promoting them. Profits from the project will be distributed to literacy-minded children’s charities.
So yeah, there’s a lot to like even before clicking on the first of the videos, “Next Big Thing.” Written by Butthole Surfers frontman Gibby Haynes, illustrated by Daniel Anum Jasper, scored by Koral & The Goodbye Horses and narrated by Zach Galifianakis, the “Next Big Thing” clip focuses on the moments before a bullying encounter goes south. The images aren’t by themselves disturbing - take the waterside house, which could just as easily have been plucked from a James Taylor ditty as a Stephen King novella - but the music and narration breathe menace into them.
Much of the video’s air of malevolence comes courtesy of Galifianakis, whose tightly wound, pitter-patter reading of Haynes’ tale amplifies its ominousness. Take the clip’s final line: “Oscar knew that nothing happy was going to take place on the bridge today.” Galifianakis’ reading of it vests what’s essentially a cliffhanger - what happens to poor Oscar and his dog? - with violent finality.
In the YouTube blurb for “Next Big Thing,” the compilation is described as “‘grown up’ children’s story collaborations.” That undersells what Waxploitation and co. appear to have created in “Stories For Ways and Means”; the overall vibe it gives off is more Brothers Grimm than A.A. Milne.This is not for kids. There are no bunnies here, cute and fuzzy or otherwise. The videos and stories are a triumph of imagination nonetheless.