6:10 PM EST, January 30, 2013
It probably still happens the old-fashioned way: a beautiful face spotted sipping a milkshake at Schwab's, a screen test and stardom.
But you get the feeling that Beck Bennett's Hollywood story is more typical in the new millennium — you know, 30 years after Schwab's closed.
Since heading from Wilmette and New Trier High School to the University of Southern California to study acting, Bennett has formed a comedy troupe, made scores of YouTube videos, done improv shows, earned important nods from Will Ferrell and Steven Spielberg, and, just recently, won his first big national break via an AT&T ad campaign.
Bennett plays the adult straight man interviewing little kids about whether fast is better than slow, two is better than one, and other benefits that AT&T claims for its cellphone service.
The actors started with scripts, he said, but almost all of the material that has made the final cut has been improvised.
And that loose charm — as the kids demonstrate dubious talents or tell outrageous stories about cheetahs and grandmas, all while Bennett urges them on — has made "It's Not Complicated" one of the ad campaigns most heavily mentioned on social media since debuting in late November. The spots have been so popular that Bennett is scheduled to shoot another handful of them in coming weeks.
"It's the classic straight-man/funny-man dynamic," copywriter Jason Miller and art director Rory Odani, the creative team at BBDO Atlanta that came up with the ads, wrote in a joint email. "It frees Beck up to just react to whatever the kids say. And a big part of the fun comes from Beck's deadpan responses to the kids' ridiculous statements."
At the same time this is going on, Bennett and his partners in the Good Neighbor comedy team have just turned in a first cut of a series pilot to Comedy Central. "The Good Neighbor Show," about a disintegrating local late-night talk show, is being made by Gary Sanchez Productions, the company run by Ferrell and former "Saturday Night Live" head writer Adam McKay.
And the AT&T ads were directed by Jorma Taccone, one third of The Lonely Island, the group, also featuring Andy Samberg, whose "Digital Short" videos have been so prominent in recent "SNL" history.
"He and Beck had great chemistry, which made our jobs much, much easier," said the ad-agency team.
"Lonely Island was what we aimed to be when we were in college," Bennett said.
So naturally, the actor, 28, is luxuriating in his success, confident that the ads are just the start of bigger things. Right?
"At this point, this is amazing. It's like a dream job for an up-and-coming actor," Bennett said by telephone from Los Angeles. "But I am also getting nervous. Sometimes, I'm like, 'Oh, this good thing, is it really a bad thing for me?'"
But, no, his friends and agent tell him: You don't have to worry about overexposure. You needn't fear being typecast as a Leslie Nielsen-anchorman type who is really into what little kids have to say.
"They tell me, 'It's only good,'" he said.
In Winnetka, his parents like it too. Friends keep telling them they've seen Beck, their middle son, on TV, and Beck, who has lived frugally since graduating in 2007, now has a little walking-around money.
"He even took me out to lunch over Christmas," said his mom, Sarah Bennett. "It was very exciting."
Flash back to high school, the summer between sophomore and junior years: Bennett already has the acting bug. He's taken improv classes at Second City; his mom may have even exaggerated his age to get him in early. He's done school theater. He'll be Jean Valjean in the 2003 New Trier production of "Les Miserables."
But he also plays lacrosse and football. And he tells his folks that he's decided to let football go so he can spend more time acting.
"He was a fullback. He was pretty good," said his father, Andy, an options trader. "I tried to bribe him with buying him a very used convertible to keep him on the football team, but he wouldn't have anything to do with it."
They had always said they thought their son would be an actor. Turning down a car was only confirmation.
"It was a passion even before he started getting instruction," said Andy. "We knew it was going to be his thing."
Bennett chose USC for the acting program, and he still likes doing "serious" roles, although his agent lately has told him to stop confusing the issue and just tell people he's a comic actor.
As a freshman, he joined a campus improv group, and there met Nick Rutherford and Kyle Mooney, who would become the performing members of Good Neighbor. The fourth member, Dave McCary, only wanted to shoot and edit video, a pretty important talent in the YouTube era.
"Beck is incredibly talented as a performer," in both comedic and straight roles, Rutherford said. "Every play I've seen him in, every short I've seen him do, no matter how terrible the production is around him, you can't take your eyes off of him. He is very tuned to the emotions. He kind of has, like, a short fuse, but that's where his power comes from, I think."
Plus, Rutherford said, Bennett has a similar work ethic to him. Instead of talking about doing comedy or making videos, he gets it done.
A shot at more
Good Neighbor's comedy is typically ultra-deadpan, dark, casual and off-center, much more about interpersonal than topical matters.
But their first burst of Internet fame came via a topical video called "Pregnant Jamie Lynn Speaks Out," a reaction to news that 16-year-old Jamie Lynn Spears was pregnant. Shot TMZ-style, it's an ambush interview of "Jamie Lynn," who's actually a girl of maybe 3 in big sunglasses. In the end, she gets in a car driven by "Britney," another toddler.
Gossip blogger Perez Hilton linked to it, and the page views piled up: It's at 6.75 million now, but the 4 million views it earned in the first few days were enough to get the group meetings, and a deal with a management company.
When Maker Studios, home to some of YouTube's most popular talents, signed Good Neighbor to a promotion and revenue-sharing contract, there was enough monthly money for Bennett to quit his waiter job.
At the same time, they would still do live shows at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, one of Los Angeles' comedy epicenters. And they pitched two TV shows that never made it to air.
An encouraging note early on from Spielberg, Bennett said, was a "huge validation." Spielberg's daughter had apparently shown her father a Good Neighbor video paying homage to the imaginary dinner scene in Spielberg's "Hook," and he liked it enough to tell them to keep at it, said Bennett.
Another encouragement — and Rutherford told this story, not Bennett — came when McKay had Bennett come in and read the Will Ferrell role as actresses auditioned for the "Anchorman" sequel, scheduled to be out in December, according to IMDB.
When it came time to renew with Maker at the end of 2010, the group turned down the first deal, then, "running out of money," Bennett said, took one that gave them signing bonuses and had the three performers also develop individual channels, in addition to the Good Neighbor channel.
He and Rutherford together developed "Theatre of Life," an ongoing, very funny, very low-key series where they set up lawn chairs at (mostly) Venice Beach and conduct a bromance while inventing dialogue for the passers-by they mock. Some of it is very off-color, to the point you wonder what a parent might think.
(Parent? Andy Bennett said that stuff generally doesn't bother him because the material is amusing, but his son "is in an independent film that's coming out this year ('Beside Still Waters'). Apparently there's frontal nudity. I don't know if I'm gonna be sitting in the front row for that.")
It was for his solo channel that Bennett developed the show "Fresh Perspectives," a short-lived Web series that had Bennett playing an anchor type interviewing kids about world problems — a guy who, in his words, "genuinely believes these kids have the answers."
But when he got to the auditions last year for the AT&T ads, the people involved did not seem to know "Fresh Perspectives," he said. He went around telling them, "This is what I do!" and showing the videos.
The ads' creators said the idea for them began not with "Fresh Perspectives" but as a reaction to the "clutter" in the wireless market: "We thought, why not simplify things to the point where even kids would understand? … We found out about 'Fresh Perspectives' after we'd already come up with the idea. It just solidified in our minds that Beck was the perfect guy for the campaign."
Guess who agrees?
"As an actor," Bennett said, "a lot of things you do, people don't see it. It's nice for this to happen. … Now I almost feel bad for my friends, like, 'Yeah, I'm on TV.'"
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