“Don't smile,” a guy in a straw hat barks through a megaphone. “You're not supposed to be having fun.”
Mr. Straw Hat is directing 16 people decked out in orange and red El Pollo Loco shirts. A diverse group, they're tugging on a rope connected to a 25-foot bow drill. Their putative goal is to break the record for world's largest hand-made fire.
World's largest fire? If you're thinking that'd be a great way to promote El Pollo Loco's flame-grilled chicken, 1) you're right and 2) wow, you're pretty much the perfect El Pollo Loco customer.
We are indeed on a commercial set, complete with makeup, craft services and maybe a half-dozen video cameras. We came expecting a giant fire in the middle of a parking lot on Sunset Boulevard on a Thursday afternoon, but watching a commercial get made is interesting too. Not exactly “giant fire in the middle of the freaking parking lot!” interesting, but let's keep moving.
Extras stand behind the rope-tuggers, pointing and yelling, “Heave! Ho! Heave! Ho!” Some of them are El Pollo Loco employees who didn't make the cut. They check their cell phones between shots, gearing up for the next round of excitement.
Is that giant stick going to catch fire or what?
After breaking to realign the cameras, we're ready for the big finale. Thirty-one tuggers in orange and red shirts line up on opposite sides of the giant stick. The rope is actually wrapped around the wood this time, so it's going to spin. Fake firemen watch over the scene.
“Heave! Ho! Heave! Ho!”
The stick starts wobbling like crazy. The crane isn't doing a very good job keeping it steady. No smoke. No fire.
What happens next breaks our heart. A guy comes out with what looks like a brick of charcoal. He places it in a hole under the giant stick. They're faking the smoke. We've stood out in the sun for over two hours and they're faking the smoke?
Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein had the break-in at the Watergate Hotel. Rachel Carson had Silent Spring. It was the My Lai massacre for Seymour Hersh. We guess that leaves us with the El Pollo Loco fake smoke scandal.
Watch for the commercial, but don't believe everything you see.