As corporate showcases of simulated honesty, TV commercials are the only branch of the entertainment industry that is gnarled and twisted enough to feature homely people on camera for reasons other than nepotism or their successful music careers. If a thing of beauty is a joy forever, then ugly gets exactly 30 seconds.
For that reason, commercial acting is a rite of passage on the time-honored journey from “new arrival in Los Angeles” to “the humiliation of moving back home.” Every day, friends of friends are brought into agencies with names like Sunflower, where they will hear for the first time from anyone, including their mothers, that they have a great look. Los Angeles, a place so shallow that it is autocompleted when you google “veterinary plastic surgeon,” is also the only place where ugly people can go professional.
Once we do, we receive sporadic invitations to audition—from the Greek word meaning “to humiliate oneself for free”—via emails that describe the person that a particular commercial is looking for. These emails have to be direct enough to convey to the recipient that they want him because he looks as though he was conceived during a hiccup, but also sufficiently tactful to inspire him to fight several hours of traffic to get to an office in Santa Monica, where he will assure a stranger behind a camera of his willingness to shave a question mark in his body hair, as he stands underneath a sign announcing that “actors will be towed if they use the parking lot.”
Here are six euphemisms commercial casting directors have used to describe me as ugly, in increasing order of cruelty:
This person could be good-looking, but for some psychological defect that expresses itself in his appearance.
Example: Clark Kent.
People who look “interesting” are like evolution’s concept album that critics viewed as a brave misstep. The interesting will find themselves spending long periods of time with other members of the opposite sex, but when push comes to shove, that is what those people will do to avoid kissing them.
Example: Mr. Potato Head; all Kennedys not named John.
This person has no alibi. They are objectively difficult to look at, but their brand of ugliness tells a story through a raft of uncontrollable associations in the viewer’s reeling mind, in the same way that the smell of sulfur can’t help but make gagging bystanders think of rotten eggs.
Example: Appalachian white supremacists; engineers.
Charactery is what happens when quirky goes wrong, and a neologism must be coined to describe the horror of watching someone who was once recreationally unattractive spiral downward towards the rock bottom of true ugliness.
Example: the lead singer of Steely Dan; the guy in Steely Dan who is not the lead singer.
Unique people are so specific that the only people they elicit comparisons to are
themselves. A person who is unique will most likely be shunned forever, unless he can somehow shoot the moon and become embraced as a “that guy.”
Example: Steve Buscemi; Stephen Hawking.
Someone who is so profoundly unappealing that they can only be found in the ugliest place there is: life off-camera.
Listen to David Taylor’s podcast, Until I Lose Interest.