Thursday, August 10, 2000

Millions hooked on Billy Bass

Even the British have been reeled in by this silly singing fish

By Darragh Johnson
Washington Post

        Barbara Pellettieri is the kind of creative cross-pollinator who can drive past a sporting goods store and muse: What the world needs now is a singing fish.

        And the world now has one, an anatomically correct mounted bass, called Big Mouth Billy Bass, that moves and sings “Take Me to the River” and “Don't Worry, Be Happy” — a goofy and deeply impractical gag gift that, at $19 to $24, is selling like mad.

        President Clinton gave a Billy Bass to Al Gore. Billy has appeared on The Rosie O'Donnell Show and Hollywood Squares. Kathie Lee Gifford got Billys on the air when she said goodbye to Regis Philbin.

        Even the British, normally disdainful of America's gauche tastes, like Billy. Prime Minister Tony Blair has one in his office.

        At small, privately held Gemmy Industries in Irving, Texas, where Ms. Pellettieri's idea became reality, officials won't say how many Billys they've sold. But they will say this: They've had to hire five more people to answer the phones, a 10 percent increase in their corporate work force. The fish is the biggest seller they've ever had.

        “Everybody knew this would be a good idea. But I don't think anybody, in their wildest dreams, had imagined this success,” said Jim Van Den Dyssel, vice president of sales and marketing.

        Why did retailers at the Atlanta gift convention, where Billy debuted in January, instantly order the item? How come the Cracker Barrel in Manassas, Va., for instance, sold 400 Billys in three days?

        Because Billy is the latest in a long line of products so dumb, so useless, so against-the-grain of today's high-efficiency economy, we just have to laugh. And when we laugh, we buy. Every year, in fact, we buy more than $1 billion worth of novelty items.

        “As a buyer, you're always thinking about what makes them happy,” said Debra Kidwell, Cracker Barrel's vice president of merchandising. “If you find an item that makes people smile, it'll sell.”

        Simple. But tough. “Just ask a stand-up comedian how hard it is to make people laugh,” she says.

        Or ask people to explain why Billy Bass is funny. It's like trying to dissect a joke. But those involved note Billy's surprise factor: He looks like an actual, big-mouth bass mounted like a trophy — but, thanks to a motion sensor, springs into song when someone walks by.

        Music starts, his tail taps, his mouth flaps. When he gets to the chorus, his head, which has been lying flat on the board, suddenly swivels to face his audience.

        Now that's funny.

        Billy is a safe, sure-fire gift, said David Stewart, a marketing professor at the University of Southern California.

        “There's a bit of a risk involved in giving a gift,” Mr. Stewart said. “The last thing you want is an indication of disappointment.”

        And when you buy such an item for yourself, he said, you make a statement about who you are. “This fish says, "I might not tell jokes very well, but I can a buy a singing fish, so I'm fun.'

        “Novelty items are a way of standing out, of being unique. We value individuality and individualism in the United States, so to be able to say 'I'm the first on my block with this' raises someone's self-esteem,” Mr. Stewart said.

        “Technology is as much about play and amusing yourself as it is about creating something practical,” said Stuart Leslie, a professor of the history of science at Johns Hopkins University. Yet Billy Bass almost wasn't. Ms. Pellettieri's husband, Joe, took her idea to Gemmy, where he works, but when a prototype ran into difficulty, Joe's boss said, “Kill it.”

        It was fall 1998. The company had started in 1993 with Pete the Repeat Parrot, who would repeat everything said to him. Now Gemmy was creating three other animated toys: a dancing cactus, a dancing palm tree and the Caddyshack Dancing Gopher, which wiggled its rump and sang the Kenny Loggins song “I'm Alright.”

        “We make stuff we could see ourselves buying,” Van Den Dyssel said. “And these toys make us laugh. We're just a bunch of average Joes here.”

        Given its problems, Billy Bass seemed the least likely to succeed, Mr. Van Den Dyssel said. But Ms. Pellettieri still believed. To her, Billy wasn't just a funny idea. He made good business sense for Gemmy.

        So Mr. Pellettieri, on the sly, kept working on the fish. “I didn't directly disobey the boss,” he says. “I just ignored him.” He consulted with a taxidermist to ensure the fish was anatomically correct, and when the first working version of 1999 showed up in Gemmy's Hong Kong showroom, Joe was there to greet it.

        Good thing, too, because the fish had turned out all wrong. “It didn't move,” Joe said. “The mouth was synchronized, but the fish just lay flat.” He went back to the engineers.

        When the final result was shown to Mr. Van Den Dyssel, sick in bed at the time, he laughed out loud.

        “And I figured, 'If I can laugh when I feel like this, this is funny,' ” Van Den Dyssel said. “My mood lifted considerably. I still get goose bumps thinking about it.”

        Gemmy plans to ride the wave as far as it will go, and already has introduced a Christmas Billy Bass, in a red Santa hat, who sings “Jingle Bells” and recites “The Night Before Christmas.”

        A Halloween fish will also be hitting store shelves soon. With that holiday raking in sales second only to Christmas, Gemmy has high hopes for its skeleton fish, Mr. Big Mouth Billy Bones.


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