Requiem for the Jester: We won’t see his like again

Betty BeanKnox Scene, Obits

He was a wisecracking funnyman whose T-shirt bore the logo, “Call me when you’re serious,” and he meant it.

Most people are pretty good at something. But Tom Jester was one of those rare humans who was pretty great at most anything he tried. He probably had difficulty picking a label to wear because he was a musician, a journalist, a humorist, a composer, a jingle writer and a keen observer of humanity. He was a Swiss Army Knife of talent.

Tom was smart, and without doubt his smartest move was to secure Jenny Hines as his life partner.

I’ve read a lot of tributes to him since he left us in March, but one thing that hasn’t been discussed enough is his stellar political TV ads. He created some of the most creative, memorable political advertising that anybody’s ever seen around here.

I got to thinking about this after attending a celebration of his life last week. Somebody mentioned his Little Cheeper Dealer – You can talk turkey for chicken feed, ’cause a little bit of scratch is all you need – campaign. Pretty corny. Hugely effective – some of you are probably humming that tune as you read this. Car dealers everywhere adopted that earworm and its chicken logo as their own and pretty soon there were Little Cheeper dealers all over the country.

Tom was one of Knoxville’s original advertising Madmen, and when politicians discovered the power of local TV and went looking for someone to harness it, who better than Jester?

He produced remarkable stuff. Compare Jester’s political ads to the unalloyed meanness that passes for wit today – an olive-green Gloria Johnson in a witch’s hat, or even worse, morphing her into Lane Kiffin – to the 1999 ad Jester did for state senate candidate Tim Burchett that showed him meandering through the countryside in his pickup truck and stopping to rescue a turtle from the middle of the road. The turtle ad won a national award and helped launch Burchett’s upward political trajectory. He remembers every detail and says people still mention it to him.

Another standout Jester commercial was the one he did for Tommy Schumpert in 1994. It was even more consequential, since Schumpert, a Democrat, was locked into a very tight race with longtime County Executive Dwight Kessel, a Republican who was, in fact, the only County Executive Knox County had ever had (he’d been elected in 1980 under the new county charter, which ended the old Commission/County Court form of government).

The TV spot Jester created starred Schumpert as a smiling tow truck driver pulling a Cadillac labeled Knox County out of a mudhole. I was (and still am) convinced that it provided the popular educator/coach the margin of victory. Jester, who paid meticulous attention to detail, was proud of finding a 1980 Caddy to symbolize the year Kessel had taken office. Most Knox Countians went to bed not knowing who had won, and the final tally didn’t come in until the wee hours of the morning: it was Schumpert by a whisker.

Think about that.

When’s the last time a Democrat beat a Republican in a high-profile countywide race?

There’s no way to say for sure that the Cadillac stuck in the mud swung the election to Schumpert, but what I do know is that everybody who talked about politics was talking about the Jester commercial. It was sly and funny and edgy and above all, original. But made its point without name-calling or photoshopping. That couldn’t happen today, more’s the pity.

Tom Jester became the gold standard of Knoxville’s political advertising for a good long stretch. He didn’t come cheap, but when candidates got serious, they knew who to call.

Betty Bean writes a Thursday opinion column for

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One Comment on “Requiem for the Jester: We won’t see his like again”

  1. Pingback: Tom Jester: 'Call me when you're serious.' - Blue StreakBlue Streak

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