|WHO THINKS UP THIS STUFF?
BY JOHN CUMMINGS
Originally printed in the Twin Cities Business Monthly
I love my job , its the work I hate. Minneapolis businessman Gibson Carothers wrote that, but he doesnt say it about his own work. He also wrote: Im so broke I cant even pay attention. and If Im so busy, why arent I rich? But those dont apply to him, either.
Carothers is paid to come up with such funny phrases and has turned the fruits of his wry wit into a business, churning out text for a whole slew of products including t-shirts, greeting cards, pet dishes, wall clocks, watches, coffee mugs and caps.
Sales of his products have topped $200 million. And although Carothers work is well known among anyone in the United States who has stepped into a gift and stationers store, his name is hardly known outside the industry. He is a successful, prolific writer of wacky witticisms, but his medium, the one-liner, is never accompanied by a byline.
Carothers works in near anonymity in a studio in the Uptown section of Minneapolis, or at his beach retreat in Encinitas, California. At both spots, he surrounds himself with shelves and display cases filled with his own products. A coffee mug holding pens on his desk reads Drink your coffee. There are people in India sleeping. His wastebasket has the words Thanks for your suggestions. His wall clock has no numbers, only the hour hand, and reads approximately.
Although hes happy with his low profile, Carothers takes pleasure in knowing that a wide audience finds a certain allure and seduction in his knack for turning common manufactured items into unusual gifts. Like his alarm clock that says Wake Up, you can sleep at work. Or his dog food dish that says This tastes like dog food.
It rankles him a bit when people dont believe he actually wrote something that has made its way into the pop culture. Like Lifes a bitch. Then you die. A line he wrote in 1978 on the same day he wrote Lifes a beach! People are always saying to him You couldnt have possibly written that. Ive heard that for years.
Carothers jokes that he has written the great American novel one funny, satirical, offbeat, warm-and-fuzzy, or grim sentence at a time. Behind every successful woman is a man trying to stop her., Please pass the Prozac, Hell is now a smoke-free environment, Eat right. Exercise. Die anyway. Everyone is entitled to my opinion.
Before starting his own idea-brokerage business,Gibson & Carothers, he had a career in advertising, most notably as the Creative Director of BBDO Advertising in Minneapolis at age 30. He also showed his entrepreneurial bent with several successful retail store start-ups including a chain of card and gift shops called Caardvark, and a national chain of sock store franchises appropriately called Sox Appeal.
In the early 80s, Carothers began a relationship with a small, alternative card company, Recycled Paper Products. That company, now know as Recycled Paper Greetings, generates annual sales today over $100 million. Id like to say it was my creative work that was behind the success of Recycled, but the fact is, I played a tiny role, Carothers claims.It was all sales and marketing.
Recycled Paper Greetings is still one of Carothers best accounts. Like with many other companies, he works on a royalty basis. Except, of course, with this own company, which sells t-shirts, aprons and other usually silk-screened products to primarily mail order catalogs.
What ultimately sells, he explains, is what people understand--what they think is funny--what works for them--whats appropriate for them in some sense--what looks like it was written just for them.
Take one of his best selling t-shirts, Hand over the chocolate and no one will get hurt. Carothers reenacts what happens just before a saleOh, Doris loves chocolate, he says in a mock nasal voice. Ive got to get this for Doris! If not for Doris, then Carothers products sell to others with a passion for golf or gardening or shopping or fishing or dogs or whatever.
According to Carothers, attitudes toward humor continually change and all jokes eventually lose their punch. The demand for new material never lessens. Popular humor, he observes, is sometimes droll and burlesque, other times witty and downright funny, other times illuminating and profound. In the 1980s, the approach to humor was raunchy, he says. In the 90s, nice and sweet stuff sold well. Well see what the new millennium brings.
Sitting alone all day and interrupted only by phone calls and UPS deliveries, Carothers mind is prone to wander. But those are the moments during which he comes up with his best ideas, like a new t-shirt idea that may have had something to do with my long interview. It reads: Vini, Vidi, Velcro. I came. I saw. I stuck around.