Ah, the corporate training video. That warmed over, half-assed stab at killing two birds with one sad, mediocre stone. If you’ve ever worked a small job for a big company, chances are that you’ve been subjected to at least one. As a former high school grocery clerk, I’ve been holed up in the break room with a crusty VCR on several occasions, my eyes clamped open A Clockwork Orange style, obvious puns and visual gags beating me into submission as I supposedly learned the finer points and newest techniques of customer service.
That being said, I have a hunch that there are quite a few training videos (known in certain circles as “industrials”) out there that are worth watching. Not for training purposes, of course, but for the sake of pure entertainment. Without an earnest, smug manager holding a gun to your head, industrial videos are an easier take. Like their brethren the infomercial, these videos have a certain corny, public-accessy charm that satisfies cravings for low fidelity, bad jokes, and violence (yes, violence! Just ask the guy who had to lose a pretend finger to a pretend buzz saw: safety videos can get really real) in a way little else can. While there must be decades of these gems stockpiled in thrift stores and break rooms across the country, we no longer are slaves to the Found Footage Festival’s footage finders. Thanks to the groundbreaking technology of YouTube we can find and display them anywhere at anytime. Exhibit A: Sears and Roebuck’s Freeze-In.
Yes, Freeze-In, as in “sit-in,” “love-in,” “be-in,” or “teach-in,” but most notably as in Laugh-In. It’s a parody of the then-massively popular Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, a hilarious sketch show to which Saturday Night Live and innumerable others owe a great debt. Freeze-In was shown to Sears’ lucky freezer salesmen in 1969 in order to promote (what else?) freezer sales. Not just any freezer, as you’ll see in the clip, but the “Kenmore Coldspot Time bank,” an upright alternative to the chest freezers (“coffins,” if you like) of the day.
Not content with a run-of-the-mill imitation, Sears actually got Arte Johnson and Judy Carne, two of Laugh-In’s biggest stars, to bring some of their most famous characters and catchphrases (“Verrrry Interesting...” and “Sock it to me!” foremost among them) to the production. The short has all the hallmarks of a Laugh-In episode, including but not limited to painted bikini babes (doing a dance I’d like to call the “proto - Carlton ,” jump cuts, an old time radio announcer, wordplay, visual gags, and one-liners.
It’s no wonder that writer Bill Pryor chose Laugh-In as the inspiration for his film. The edgy comedy was not only hip (or, for the sake of historical accuracy, “happenin’”) but, as the best-rated television show of the 1960s, it was popular; sure to keep the attention of the old boys selling at Sears. But Laugh-In did have a risque reputation that might have been at odds with Sears’s squeaky clean family image. Pryor offered this anecdote in a 2011 interview: “Of course the Sears suits were on the set, and they got nervous when Judy came out in this revealing bikini. They protested to the director, who quietly told one of our guys to go to the Sears store on Truman Road and buy the skimpiest bikini they had. He had Judy Carne put it on, and it was more revealing than the first one. Even Judy was embarrassed to be wearing it. The Sears guy couldn’t say a thing. It was their product, after all.”1Freeze-In, of course, was not the first time that a “square” used Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In to their advantage. Famous evangelist Billy Graham appeared on the show, as did Richard Nixon, who credits his 1968 presidential victory to the appearance.
As a production of the Kansas City-based Calvin Company, Freeze-In is actually an industrial film of particular pedigree. Calvin Company was the largest and most successful maker of industrial films of the twentieth century. While this may sound like a claim to fame about as exciting as “largest nail factory” or “wettest piece of spaghetti,” there is actually something to it. Calvin’s kind of legendary. Many directors cut their teeth making industrial films for Calvin in the same way that the next generation of filmmakers would cut their teeth making music videos. For starters, renowned director Robert Altman (the Robert Altman) got his start at Calvin. He even used some of Calvin’s cast, crew, and equipment to film his first two features, 1956’s The Delinquents and 1958’s The Cool and the Crazy. Freeze-In was produced well after Calvin’s heyday, which would limp along until 1982 but was pretty much dead by 1968. Many of Calvin Company’s films have been preserved by the Library of Congress and can be downloaded from the Prelinger Archives.
It’’s clearly time for a reevaluation of corporate training and safety videos. Curators, get curatin’! What’s good enough for Robert Altman is good enough for me. And what better place to start than Sears & Roebuck’s Freeze-In? You’ll laugh, you’ll ogle, and you just might revisit one of the best and most important television shows in history.