Keep a few things in mind when you watch the Flaming Carrot Cologne commercial I and my friends Jacob, Brandy and Nikki made for a French class at a small, rural East Texas high school 25 years ago.
First, this was 25 years ago. We didn’t have access to your fancy editing software or video-producing smart phones. The camera we used sat on our friend Jon’s shoulder. “Editing” meant stopping the camera at the right moment and then hitting “record” for the next scene. This went straight to video tape.
You can almost smell the analog.
Second, the video is terrible. I’m the guy wearing the big ears under the Dallas Cowboys hat. And my acting is predictably awful. Jacob, however, was a state champion UIL One Act Play lead actor. His acting is purposely overdone, and great. His French, though, is as terrible as my acting. (JER SAY!)
And third, at the time, we thought this was the greatest video ever made. It was our sophomore year at Como-Pickton High School, a school of about 200 students at the time (it hasn’t grown much since) in the middle of Dairy Country. The majority of students’ parents ran a farm (including my former stepfather), and one of the larger events every year was the Tractor Cade — a parade of tractors, cleaned and buffed to impress. Driving to school on Tractor Cade day was a chore, with the school located just off a long stretch of two-lane Texas farm road.
I wasn’t into agriculture, and neither was Jacob. This made us, in our minds, outcasts. But in truth, we got along with most people. We just took pride in being different and wore any “outcast” badge we may have had with pride. This is why we took French (when 90 percent of the school took Spanish, a language actually very useful to know in this part of Texas). This is why we made silly videos. Or locked ourselves in the room with a rolling TV cart so we could watch Three Stooges videos during breaks. Or chose Tecmo Bowl video game tournaments on Friday nights instead of going to parties around a tailgate and a keg in the middle of a pasture.
I did attend a few of those. They were great.
So why am I sharing a video I helped create 25 years ago (and posted to YouTube eight years ago) on a website written for people 1,102 miles away in North Carolina?
It’s because the following video — published on Dec. 5, 2012 — was finally brought to my attention last week:
Same school. Same bland white brick walls (though somewhat updated). Same use of letter jackets. Same use of little-used female characters in what can now be looked at as a sexist premise for a commercial (but, really, aren’t they all)? Only, in the 2012 version the acting is worse. The sound, despite better technology, is worse. The humor was left on the editing floor.
And worst of all, it’s a total ripoff of our terrible, yet genius, work.
La Carotte Flambé
Texas wasn’t crawling with high school French or Japanese or German teachers in the early 1990s, and probably still isn’t today. Many rural schools like ours instead took our foreign language courses in front of a TV, thanks to the TI-IN (pronounced “tie-in”) network — distance learning long before online learning became a thing. The difference between TI-IN programming and traditional TV courses was that our class could interact over the phone with our teacher, who appeared in real-time as our class and about 30 or 40 other classes across the state watched along. Our tests were graded by a classroom facilitator or faxed (yes, faxed) to the TI-IN teacher.
And this is how I learned to ask for the bathroom in the library in another language.
Our teacher was Madame Rodgers, an American who, for her part, made class about as interesting as she could. Jacob disliked her immensely because his French accent was always just plain awful. We both disliked the fact that she didn’t care too much when we’d use our rare time on the phone to introduce an obscure comedic reference. For example, the Simpsons were still new, and when we’d mess up, we’d yell, “D’oh!” on the air. She didn’t get it. Or like it.
The highlights of the class, however, were the many French In Action videos she’d share with us. We loved French In Action videos. A big reason: They provided us with so much unintentional comedy. They were great. And it turns out, we weren’t alone in this assessment, as these videos had a huge cult following all over the world in the 80s and 90s.
But the biggest reason we loved them: Mirielle. A character portrayed by Valérie Allain, Mirielle and her opposition to wearing bras was enough to keep our 15- and 16-year-old adolescent brains on focus. Did I say we loved French in Action videos?
One cold February morning, Madame Rodgers shocked us all by introducing an assignment unlike any other. Our class of eight would be split into groups of two, and we were to make a commercial, spoken entirely in French. The top commercial in each class would be shown to dozens of French classes across the state. That’s more than 100 people, damnit.
Jacob and I couldn’t start this thing any sooner. Our friends Brandy and Nikki volunteered to help us, but this was never about them. Poor Brandy and Nikki never had any say in how this would go. This was personal — between me and Jacob and Madame Rodgers. She would have to not only accept our absurd ideas, but share them with the world. I’m sorry, Brandy and Nikki. I truly am.
I don’t know where the idea of a cologne that made women find us irresistible came from, but I can imagine that it was a pretty easy idea coming from two pubescent teens who didn’t have a lot of girlfriends. “La Carotte Flambé” was part of the obscure humor — one of our favorite comic book heroes at the time was The Flaming Carrot.” Possessing no real super powers, the Carrot wins the day through sheer grit, raw determination, blinding stupidity and bizarre luck.
The idea was simple enough — Jacob watches me as I proudly walk by with a woman on each arm. He frowns, then sees a poster for Flaming Carrot Cologne. An idea comes to life, he runs into the store, buys a bottle for 5F 07, runs out and sprays copious amounts of it on his body. He even guzzles some of it. (Side note: Our original bottle was fancy and expensive, borrowed from another teacher. We broke it during filming, and she hated us forever. The replacement was cheap perfume, and Jacob smelled like an old woman for the rest of the day, and the taste remained in his mouth for hours).
“Les Femmes” smell Jacob’s new musk, escape my arms and start talking about how great and handsome Jacob suddenly is. Their French was terrible, too. This matters later on. I make a plea for them to wait and give me a chance, but they smack me and run to Jacob. I roll to a strategic part of the pavement and stop, lying face down. Jacob walks with his new girlfriends over my lifeless body. I then look at the camera and ask the audience what good Brand X is if it can’t attract women. I then declare I should buy a bottle of Flaming Carrot. Jacob, Brandy and Nikki agree.
The end? No.
We wanted more.
The original idea was having my lifeless body run over by a truck. We stuffed my letter jacket and a spare pair of jeans with balled up newspaper to make this happen. Actually, we originally wanted the truck to hit me as I stood there, but we couldn’t get balled-up-newspaper-Billy to stand straight, so running me over was the next option. However, the school wouldn’t let us film in the parking lot for safety reasons, so there we were. The next option was having my body run over by an unassuming guy on a bicycle, ripping me in half. Would a bicycle really rip a man in half? No. It would not. We found humor in this, though, so we ran with it.
Using special effects only dreamed of at the time, I stare at my detached legs and yell “Zut Alors!” at the end, a polite swear word in French, akin to “Aw darn,” or “Heck!” We then sing Aux Champs Elysees at the end, replacing the confusing words with “blah blah blah.” We toss in “Lucky the Cobra” — who’d appear in a marketing commercial we produced for another class later in the year — for the hell of it.
We couldn’t have been happier with the final product. We couldn’t get to the post office fast enough to ship the tape off to Madame Rodgers in a padded envelope. We couldn’t wait for three weeks later when she’d announce the winners and show our brilliance while simultaneously eating crow for ever doubting our humor and French-speaking ability before.
You can guess how this ends. Madame Rodgers didn’t pick our commercial. Misty and Victoria’s commercial — a lame car commercial about whatever — was chosen instead. Jacob and I got a “B.” A big reason was our accents. They were more “Texan” than “French” and most of the words were completely wrong.
But this mattered none to us. To us, we created Grade A material. The only thing missing on our grade was the note: “You’ll shoot your eye out.” We were crushed.
Because of this, Madame Rodgers ended up on our Bottom 100 list — a document we created during our junior year of high school that accompanied our Top 100 list of the Top 100 things we love most in the world. Madame Rodgers joined “cold toilet seats” and “running out of chips and salsa” on our bad list and would remain there forever.
The video became a sore subject for us and would be mostly forgotten over the next 17 years until the day I figured out I could digitize a bunch of old VHS tapes that had sat in a box in my attic. I added “La Carotte Flambe” to YouTube and Facebook, mostly as a laugh to my old high school classmates, on June 24, 2009.
Three years later, somebody remade it. Terribly.
Get in line
Last week, I received a rare Facebook message from Jacob that included a link to a YouTube video called “Como-Pickton Commercial.” In the preview image for the video, I could see someone leaning against the same white-bricked wall Jacob leaned against 25 years ago. Before clicking it, I immediately knew what this was going to be.
“That awesome!” I texted. “They revived Flaming Carrot Cologne.”
“No, kid,” he wrote back. “Did you watch it?”
“Como-Pickton Commercial” starts out with a guy spraying himself with cologne. Already, this is looking eerily similar to the video we shot. Here’s a side-by-side:
“Matthew” in this video then walks by a young woman leaning against wall. She asks Matthew if he’ll go to the prom with her.
“Get in line,” he replies. Then walks off like a punk. Matthew then sees a kid in a letter jacket, who’s visibly impressed by Matthew’s jerk maneuver.
“How’d you do that?” the guy asks.
“My Champion Spray,” Matthew responds.
“All I have is a rock,” the guy says. “Will you trade me?”
And so he does. And the guy sprays himself and two other women are immediately attracted to his scent. He then, for some reason, says “Champion Spray” to the forgotten woman from earlier in the video and walks off. (Seriously, she didn’t deserve that, did she?) Then the video ends with no torso ripped from its lower half. No whistling bike rider. No Lucky the Cobra. No bad French song. No French.
What they did film, however, is undeniably a copy of our work.
My initial enthusiasm that someone possibly paid homage to our fine work 20-plus years prior was crushed. Nowhere in this video did they credit us. Nowhere did they thank us for the inspiration. Nowhere.
Unfortunately, this video was posted in 2012. The students involved in it are no longer in high school — we hope — and whatever grade they received for their work is permanent record. In most classes, plagiarism is grounds for an automatic “F,” but there are enough differences in the videos to make the argument that the similarities might be coincidental.
So why a 2,000-word story?
Because I’ve enjoyed the hell out of revisiting high school in these past 2,000 words. Forget Matthew and Champion Spray — they were merely a gateway for me to share an important time in my life. The person I am today was molded in those impressionable years. My home life wasn’t “terrible,” but a divorce, a new school and not having the greatest of experiences with multiple “step-families” could have and probably should have made those years feel different for me.
Instead, I remember friendships. Vendettas against French teachers. Funny, dumb videos riddled with violence and sexism. Lucky the Cobra.
The End …?