Duck Tape

I don't walk like a duck or talk like a duck. But if Aflac comes calling, I will quack like a duck

  • Illustration by Tomasz Walenta for TIME

    Like most people who are me, I long to be a worldwide icon. Unfortunately, my copy of The Worldwide Icon How-to Guide was published in 1950, when you could get famous writing a column in TIME magazine. Now there are easier options for becoming famous — auditioning for American Idol , videotaping surprised cats, being a housewife who is real. But even those take some effort. Then I found out that, after a public relations disaster with its spokesduck, the multinational corporation Aflac is looking for someone to voice the duck in its commercials. I only had to quack the company's name, and America would have to endure me on an hourly basis. There's nothing more influential than representing a big corporation. I'm sure being a politician or a movie star is fulfilling, but which icon of cultural aristocracy can you picture clearly right now: Woodrow Wilson, Margaret Dumont or Mr. Peanut?

    I went to a casting office in Santa Monica, Calif., where I sat in a hallway next to Anita Gonzales, another one of the 11,200 applicants. Gonzales had a sore throat from two weeks of practicing. She also had a baseball cap with a plush duck affixed to it and a folder of photos of ducks in her yard. This seemed a little bit totally insane until associate casting director Kate Enggren gave us our orientation. She told us to create a story about a duck in our mind, not tell anyone about it and then act that tale through quacks. I was with her on the not-tell-anyone-about-it part.

    After some devious journalistic trickery to get Gonzales to reveal her story — which consisted of my asking what her story was — she said, "It's a mama duck looking for her baby ducks." I'm not a therapist, but between the photos, the hat and the story, I was pretty sure she was hitting on me. I watched part of her audition on a monitor, and I heard all of it through two walls. She sounded exactly like a duck and also exactly like Roseanne Barr being waterboarded. I decided to go a different way. My story was about a duck that realized print was a dying medium and had to humiliate himself by making one loud human noise over and over but at least got invited to make that noise at corporate functions with cocktail shrimp at the buffet.

    I walked into a room where I was being videotaped, which seemed unnecessary for Aflac's decisionmaking process, especially considering that up until now the duck had been performed by Gilbert Gottfried, who is in every way the opposite of Ashton Kutcher. Acting teacher James Reese told me to picture life as a duck and then say the word Aflac. Which I did, but not to Reese's satisfaction. "A little happier. A little less Brando," he told me. I get Brando a lot when I act.

    Then Enggren actually told me to "have some fun with it." I did a Nixon duck talking to a Kissinger duck, which caused me, in both cases, to mispronounce Aflac in a way the FCC would fine me for. Finally, Reese had me quack as loudly as I could as I pretended to walk in a room with a buffet. Which I totally nailed. For that one moment, I wasn't just a guy pretending to be a duck. I was a guy thinking about a duck while he was pretending to be a duck. The sound guy said I was the best he'd seen all day. And it doesn't matter what the video guy thought.

    I was getting excited because, while the job paid only $445.30 per ad recorded, with residuals, that could total well into the six figures annually. To negotiate my deal, I called Daniel Amos, CEO of Aflac, which is a giant company that has something to do with ducks. The commercials, it seems, aren't really that effective.

    Amos hadn't watched my tape, but he said he "heard it went well." I warned him that I'm an opinion columnist who sometimes takes gutsy, poorly considered stances to get attention, since I knew Gottfried was fired for making jokes on Twitter about the Japanese earthquake, which was particularly insensitive, as 75% of Aflac's business is in Japan. "We'll work with you on it," promised Amos. I vowed to offend only countries too poor to buy whatever product it is he sells.

    Then I asked Amos to quack for me. And it was good. It was like a duck that was so rich, he force-fed himself and then ate his own liver. It's a sound 11,200 people aspired to make. I don't think that's because the economy is bad. I think it's because all our Facebook pages, Twitter accounts and YouTube videos make us hunger for a bigger audience, because fame hasn't been democratized in effect but only in expectation.

    But what the other 11,199 people don't remember is that no one knew Gottfried was the Aflac duck until he wrote an offensive joke. Which is why I'm sticking to the job I already have. Unless they start casting for a new Aunt Jemima. I'm pretty sure I could get a lot of attention for that one.