It's an alignment of events that shouldn't exist. It is a Tuesday night, the same night as the sixth game of the NBA Championship. But if we watch the game, we miss this chance to see 25-year-old television advertisements for home electronics — specifically for the defunct Federated chain.
The audience consists primarily of people staunchly fond of Federated's pitchman, Shadoe Stevens. In 1,100 commercials that ran from 1981 to 1984 — a new one daily, five days a week — Stevens adopted the persona of a manic, fast-talking salesman named Fred Rated.
Federated's business rose fivefold across the chain the first weekend the spots aired. Soon, the Federated Group, which began with 16 outlets, expanded to 78 superstores.
Tonight, roughly 200 people have come to Cinefamily's comedy festival at the Silent Movie Theatre to watch reruns and see Stevens. He speaks briefly and introduces his production crew, all alive and still prosperous at places like HBO and CNN.
Then the ads start rolling, along with the laughter and more than a few gasps.
From this point a quarter-century removed, the great joy of Fred Rated is that he presented a world in which anything was possible — even prices that don't end with 99 cents. Fred hawks electronics for $848.31, $373.13 and $187.23.
In one ad, Fred's pitch is captioned for the hula-impaired.
In another famous spot, the ads tout “RCA/Zenith Rabid Frog Bonanza Days” — a free rabid frog with every purchase.
But wait — there's more!
Now Fred appears as Hamlet — hyperactive and hyperintelligent as ever — mining Panasonics out of the Eagle Rock. He extolls the virtues of smashing televisions and the miracle of simulated walnut, and Fred's catchphrase is “Everybody laugh” — and everyone on-screen musters up the phoniest laugh they can.
The brands of stereos, tape decks and exotic VCRs are another atom-bomb blast from the past, lost paragons of quality swallowed up in a Sargasso Sea of their own making. Concord. Sanyo. Fisher. RCA. Quasar.
The ads are riddled with stock footage of rockets, nuclear explosions, ethnological films; Fred also parodied Night of the Living Dead, Psycho and, in one of his most famous and rerun bits, The Honeymooners. The woman in the role of Alice Kramden was known throughout the commercials' run as Frieda Rated — Stevens' wife at the time.
After the screening, Stevens explains that Frieda couldn't make it this night because “she lives in New Mexico and couldn't afford to fly out. Oh, and also she's totally crazy.”
Turns out, the tension on the screen was real. In August 1984, Stevens entered drug rehab. That same year, the Atari bought Federated and nixed Fred Rated.
Six months later, however, the company, its fortunes sliding fast, asked Stevens to come back. He refused.
Nine months after that, the company went bankrupt.
Stevens had other options. He had begun his career at age 10 as “the World's Youngest DJ,” and later helped to pioneer radio powerhouses KROQ and KMET. So after Fred Rated, Stevens returned to announcing, becoming the voice of Hollywood Squares and American Top 40 and, currently, the announcer on The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson.
In person, Stevens comes off as endlessly convivial and a little overwhelmed at the acclaim for ads that would have died forever were it not for their resurgence on YouTube — uploaded from videotape (or Beta for $7.88) recorded on machines very likely sold at Federated.
After showing the ads at the Silent Movie, Stevens answers questions and then screens his 1986 HBO/Cinemax special, a “comedy experiment” known as Shadoevision. In it, Stevens throws as many things at viewers as possible in 30 minutes — animation, Claymation, gratuitous ass shots and a plot about mind control. It's a heady reflection of his fractured, fast-paced life at the time. It's the kind of film you wake to at 3 a.m. and wonder where the hell you are.
The special promised that “lost trains of thought still exist and can be ridden.”
And that's the point, ultimately. Fred Rated was a train of thought, a modern manifestation of ancient and legendary trickster spirits, temporarily lost but now found on an entirely new kind of television set to smash.