Sunday, June 25, 2006

Comedy out of tragedy...for a price.

June 25, 2006

Tragicommerce

By ROB WALKER

Da Mayor in Your Pocket

A few days into the Hurricane Katrina crisis, Steve Winn was in a hotel room in Memphis when he heard a now-famous radio interview with Mayor C. Ray Nagin of New Orleans. Begging for more federal help and using harsh language, Nagin sounded raw and desperate. A New Orleans native, Winn evacuated before the storm, assuming that he'd be home in a few days. Winn's company was also based in New Orleans: Emanation Inc., maker of amusing novelty items like Cajun in Your Pocket (a plastic device with six buttons that plays recordings of Cajun sayings) and the similar Mr. T in Your Pocket. But like many evacuees, Winn was thinking not so much about work as about the implications of this disaster for his life, and for a place that he loved, and he was frustrated about what seemed an impotent government response to the catastrophe. So he didn't know what to make of it when friends and acquaintances called him with the following suggestion: The interview was great fodder for a Nagin in Your Pocket.

Winn didn't take that advice — at first. There was nothing cute or campy about Nagin's remarks, and the hurricane was a deadly tragedy, not a pop-culture moment. Winn had friends who had lost everything. He understood Nagin's tone. "That's kind of how I felt," he says. Gradually, however, his thinking changed. Da Mayor in Your Pocket ("da" instead of "the" to reflect a local accent) became commercially available several months ago, emitting sound bites from that Nagin interview like "This is a national disaster," "You gotta be kiddin' me" and several that can't be printed here. Thousands have been sold. Nagin himself held one up in a speech during the New Orleans mayoral election (which he eventually won, last month).

Winn's gizmos, which started with the Cajun version in the late 1990's, are not technological marvels — when Winn got hold of a manufacturing-source directory, he found pages of companies in Asia capable of building talking toys designed around an integrated circuit chip. But he figured that the "in your pocket" hook, combined with picking the right phrases (like "You gotta suck da head on dem der crawfish") could catch on in French Quarter tourist shops. The Mr. T version involved working out a deal with the actor (or whatever Mr. T is), and Winn was able to get it wider distribution, including Urban Outfitters. He followed up with Triumph (the Insult Comic Dog), a couple of characters from "Family Guy" and, most recently, Scarface in Your Pocket. ("Say hello to my little friend," it says.)

Da Mayor in Your Pocket is obviously in a category apart. But spinning products off events, or even off what the historian Daniel Boorstin called pseudo-events, is not rare. A whole section of the Web site CafePress is devoted to news-driven products — from illegal-immigrant-bashing tote bags to coffee mugs commenting on the wiretapping controversy. Not long ago, a minor league hockey team gave away "Runaway Bride" bobble-head dolls, in a nod to a brief-lived cable news spectacle, as a ticket-selling promotion (some fans promptly sold them on eBay). A later Nagin speech — the one in which he used the phrase "chocolate city" — inspired plenty of T-shirts and the like. If shared references focus consumer attention, those references can evidently be drawn not just from a cultural property but from the headlines of the moment.

Winn is living in Atlanta, unsure when he might be able to return permanently to New Orleans. He did not make Da Mayor in Your Pocket to mock Nagin, he says. It's just that, as time went by, and people kept bringing it up, he began to wonder whether something about the idea didn't make sense in a perverse, New Orleans kind of way. "In New Orleans," Winn says, "people are cut from a different cloth." He had a batch made with no packaging and gave them to friends. They loved them — and the items soon came to the attention of store owners, who wanted to sell them. Winn also sells them online and in a few stores across the country, but most of the buyers are in New Orleans. Perhaps the mere existence of such a thing offers relief, as evidence that life goes on — or perhaps if there's one thing New Orleanians love, it's anything that non-New Orleanians simply cannot fathom. "I still don't know why people laugh at it," Winn says, pausing for a moment before adding in a tone that suggests he's as surprised as anybody, "But it is funny."

E-mail: consumed@nytimes.com.

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

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