Apr 12

Steve Jobs’ crazy idea for “The Crazy Ones”

I had a lot of fun putting together my book, Insanely Simple (coming April 26th). In the course of writing, quite a few interesting memories came back — not all of which fit the theme of the book. So I’m sharing some of those here. (If you’d like to see them earlier, visit my Facebook page and click on “Insanely Secret.”)

Most of you are familiar with Apple’s The Crazy Ones commercial that launched the Think different campaign. And you’re probably aware that Richard Dreyfuss was chosen to read the script. But that decision wasn’t made until the last moment. A week or two earlier, during one of our regular agency meetings with Steve Jobs, the topic of choosing a voice came up.

After we tossed out some possibilities, Steve said, “I’ve got one for you, but it’s going to sound a little strange. Ready for this? It’s Phyllis Diller.”

No, I wasn’t ready for that. But there did turn out to be some logic to it. At that time, Pixar was developing its second movie, A Bug’s Life, and Phyllis Diller had been cast to play the role of the Queen Ant. Steve had heard some of her takes and thought she had a “unique” voice. He made it clear that he wasn’t pushing. He just thought the idea was odd enough that we might want to check it out.

So we added Phyllis to our list. Flash forward a few days to a recording studio in LA. We scheduled one full day to record all of our candidates, which included Richard Dreyfuss, Peter Gallagher, Sally Kellerman, Mark Fenske—and now, Phyllis Diller. (As you probably know, we also recorded a Steve Jobs version, but that was done on a different day, up in Cupertino.) In a weird way, I was looking forward to Phyllis, only because she and Apple would be such a strange matchup. I thought she was old about 20 years earlier, so I could only imagine what she’d be like now.

Right on time, Phyllis appeared at the door. She was old enough that she had an assistant to help keep her upright as she made it into the waiting room. Interestingly, the assistant didn’t seem any younger than the boss, so it took the duo some time to reach the couch.

My producer and I gave Phyllis a warm greeting, thanking her profusely for coming by. I told her that Steve Jobs himself had recommended her for the role, and that tickled her. I gave her a copy of the script and left her alone for a while. When I returned, she was gushing wildly over the words. “This is beautiful! This is poetry! I love this!” I couldn’t have asked for a more enthusiastic voiceover talent.

We invited her into the studio, where we shared the unfinished version of The Crazy Ones and let her hear the emotional soundtrack that had been written for it. Her reaction to the video and music was even more over-the-top than her reaction to the script. She thought it was inspiring and beautiful, and she was eager to get started.

Phyllis made her way into the sound booth to prepare for her first take. The opening strings of the soundtrack kicked in. She closed her eyes, absorbing it all as she prepared to speak. But she didn’t speak—she screeched. Loudly. In her zaniest voice she yelled: “HERE’S TO THE CRAZY ONES! THE MISFITS! THE REBELS!…” And so it went for the entirety of the script.

Those first syllables practically knocked us off our chairs. The volume was unexpected, as was the wildness of her read. What made it so shocking was that this outburst followed a moment when she was so appreciative of the “poetry” she would be reading. We politely let her finish, and then I went into the sound booth to offer a few suggestions.

I was respectful, as I would be with any voiceover talent. I honestly thought she might simply have misunderstood. I told her it was great, but “let’s try another one that’s a little quieter. Maybe just a little more from the heart.”

“Sure, I understand,” said Phyllis. “Let’s try it.”

I returned to my chair on the other side of the glass, where our producer and engineer were still recovering from Phyllis’s first take. “Take two,” said the engineer. The music swelled once again. We could see Phyllis concentrating as she inwardly rehearsed her new approach. And then the thunder was once again unleashed: “HERE’S TO THE CRAZY ONES! THE MISFITS! THE REBELS!…” It was a carbon-copy of the first take. It was as if she were trying to perform for a crowd at Dodger Stadium without a microphone.

So once again, I joined Phyllis in the sound booth, wondering how I might cajole her into a different read. “That was great, Phyllis,” I fibbed. “I think we have that angle covered. But we’re also thinking maybe we could try a quieter version, more like we’re talking now.” The flashbulb seemed to go off for her. “Ohhhh, I see,” she said. “Of course, just make it more conversational.”

“Exactly,” I said.

I returned to the control room, we all took our positions, and again the engineer cued the music. And once again the earth rocked: “HERE’S TO THE CRAZY ONES!…” Another identical performance. She must have thought she was being paid by the decibel.

Phyllis Diller did an amazing job in her Queen Ant role. She was unexpectedly perfect for it. But for our particular need — let’s just say she wasn’t exactly the poetic speaker we were hoping for. I did try one more time to get her to read more quietly. “Maybe we could try one that’s almost more of a whisper?” I suggested. But she had to draw a line somewhere. “That’s not what I do,” she said.

Phyllis was really sweet and funny, and super-friendly for the length of her visit, so we enthusiastically thanked her for coming in and promised to let her know when the decision was made. (Cool idea, Steve, but it didn’t quite pan out.)

One of the greatest regrets of my advertising life is that I never got a copy of Phyllis’s performance. Somewhere, in a nondescript storage box, on a dusty basement shelf, I’m sure it still exists. Since the version recorded with Steve Jobs was ultimately retrieved and made public, I’ll cross my fingers that one day the world gets to hear the Phyllis Diller version.

Just don’t expect it to have quite the same emotional effect.

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  • Fascinating. I’m imagining it as a loud, rallying cry, like a speech a leader would make at a protest rally. 

    I’d love to hear it.

  • Riz

    Ken, is it me or one of your tabs (apps) on your Facebook page is broken? Link below:


    While at it, maybe it is better if you increase the size of the text in the tabs?

  • ksegall

    I’ve dispatched my Emergency Response Unit to investigate. I’m told that everything is as it should be (looks good to me also), so maybe it’s a browser issue? Maybe you can try from a different computer sometime and see if it works better?

    Are you able to view the “secret stories”?

  • William Jeakle

    Did Fang chime in? (Is anyone old enough to get that reference?)

  • Riz

    For some reason the reply I entered yesterday failed to show up. I don’t know if you got it. It has said it needs approval.

    Anyhow, I can verify that the ‘Insanely Secret’ page is still showing a broken object on all major browsers and on Windows 7. Same on OS X as well. I can see all your other pages.

  • ksegall

    If Disqus detects anything fishy about a comment, it requires approval — but I don’t see your comment in the approval queue, so it appears to be lost forever. 

    Just to clarify, the Insanely Secret page requires a Like to enter. When you click the tab, you should see instructions to that effect. Once you Like it, it should become visible — but it’s never supposed to just show a broken object.

    I’ll pass your comment on to my expert. Meanwhile, if the above doesn’t work for you, send me a message via the Contact tab and I’ll send you the latest secret story. Sorry for the hassle.

  • ksegall

    New observation. If I log out of Facebook, I do see the broken link and there is no instruction to Like the page. So just to make sure … are you logged into Facebook when you are trying this? Again, if you can’t get in, just let me know and I’ll be happy to email the previous story to you.

  • Riz

    I liked the page and I can now see the story. But I don’t like you anyway :-)

    Joke aside, I suggest you change the app you are using for your sub-pages/tabs. It is obviously buggy. I use the below app, which is THE most used sub-page/tab app and it “simply works”


  • Pingback: The Inevitable Phyllis Diller-Apple Anecdote | Techland | TIME.com()

  • She was definitely one of the crazy ones. :-)