Wednesday, August 30, 2000

'Spokesphone' voice sounds funny and familiar

        We've all talked on a phone. But I had never talked TO a phone — until I ran into comedian Thom Sharp in Los Angeles.

        Mr. Sharp, who played Tim Allen's older brother on Home Improvement, is the crazy, smarmy voice of the Cincinnati Bell Any Distance “Spokesphone.”

Thom Sharp
Thom Sharp
        “That campaign for Cincinnati Bell is just terrific. I laughed out loud when I saw the TV spots,” said Mr. Sharp, who provides the voice for Northlich advertising at a Los Angeles recording studio.

        “The Cincinnati Bell spots are some of the best-written spots I've ever done. It's rare to find writing that good.”

        Northlich hired Mr. Sharp, one of the most distinctive voice talents in the business, to do the clever anti-celebrity long-distance campaign.

        Cincinnati Bell wanted to position itself as the company that poured all of its money into service and great deals, instead of an expensive celebrity such as Sela Ward, Michael Jordan, Arsenio Hall or Dennis Miller.

        The simple TV commercials — a portable phone on a stool, sometimes with a glittery disco ball — are a marked contrast to the sexy Sela Ward spots, or the ubiquitous Arsenio spots.

        When Cincinnati Bell offered a free month of long distance, the Spokesphone said: “I don't think any of those ex-stars of canceled sitcoms at the other companies are offering that!”

        Mr. Sharp delivered it with his goofy, self-deprecating, yet endearing attitude that makes the spot entertaining after repeated broadcasts.

        “Our TV spots were just going to be a (telephone) handset for 30 seconds, so we knew we had to go for the best voice available,” said Eric Weltner, Northlich creative director.

        “Thom Sharp is the best at self-deprecating humor, that kind of attitude. We just wrote to his personality.”

        In one commercial, he urges listeners to order now, promising: “There's absolutely no payments until — well, you know — your first bill.”

        Mr. Sharp, a former Detroit advertising copywriter, added to the Northlich scripts in recording sessions. “His suggestions and ad-libs really created the character of the Spokesphone. He's deadly with that stuff (ad-libs),” Mr. Weltner said.

        Like the Spokesphone, Mr. Sharp is missing a few digits. He doesn't have e-mail. He can't use the Internet. He doesn't even have a color publicity photo of himself.

        “I'm very low-tech,” he said. “I tell people that I'm almost Amish.”

        Before hooking up with Cincinnati Bell, Mr. Sharp had been heard (but rarely seen) pitching various products.

        He's “that guy from O'Charley's” restaurant on radio, and the pitchman for GE refrigerators.

        For nearly 10 years he did CompUSA radio commercials, interviewing “computer genius P.C. Modem” (Jack Riley, who played Mr. Carlin from Newhart). A ref erence in one CompUSA spot to Lake Erie as a big brown blob on a map so infuriated Ohio officials that the commercial was changed.

        Earlier this year, he appeared in Buick TV commercials as the annoying salesman who insinuated himself into customers' lives. He judiciously picks on-camera TV roles, prefering anonymous radio work. Too much TV can kill a commercial career.

        “It's a delicate balance. You have to be really, really careful,” said Mr. Sharp, who co-hosted a 1983 ABC summer show, The 1/2-Hour Comedy Hour, with a young Arsenio Hall.

        “You want to be on (TV commercials), but you don't want to be on so much that you're overexposed. If you're on too many things, then nobody wants you.”

        In Detroit, Mr. Sharp worked at D.W. Doner advertising agency in the 1970s with Cathy Guisewite, before she created the “Cathy” cartoon strip.

        He headed to Los Angeles in 1977 to become a stand-up comic. He appeared several times on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show, doing monologues or original songs like “I Don't Know Whether to Kill Myself or Go Bowling.”

        “OK, so they weren't that original,” he said.

        From stand-up he drifted into commercials, while doing bit parts on Spy Hard, Taking Care of Business, Home Improvement, Matlock, Family Matters and Dinosaurs. He just finished an independent film, The Call of the Glen, with Harry Shearer.

        “Mostly what I do are commercials. I'd rather do commercials. They're so much fun,” he said.

        Great commercials, like great comedy routines, come from great writing delivered with a distinctive, specific attitude. In that way, Mr. Sharp has not strayed far from stand-up.

        “I think I'm still in comedy.

        John Kiesewetter is Enquirer TV/radio critic. Write him at 312 Elm St., Cincinnati, 45202.