The Essence of J. Peterman: John O’Hurley on Storytelling, Introspection and ‘Seinfeld’

July 1, 2015

[getty/nbc/louis seigal]
[getty/nbc/louis seigal]

“I’ve been filming in Greece the last three weeks and just finished the movie [“Swing Away”],” John O’Hurley told Tactics in early June, while on a break from his busy travel schedule. “I flew to Atlanta and was filming 12 hours yesterday for my new TV series. Then I hopped a plane and came to Akron, Ohio, to speak at the Inventors Night for Bridgestone. I’ve got to take off another hat and then put another one on.”

The award-winning actor, and former PRSA Boston Chapter member, wore yet another hat and hosted the annual Silver Anvil Awards Ceremony on June 4 at the AXA Equitable Center in Manhattan.

Here, O’Hurley talks about his PR roots, “Seinfeld,” the art of storytelling, the J.Peterman Company, his golf game and the parallels between acting and public relations.

You’re an avid golfer and just played your eighth BMW Pro Am golf tournament in Greenville, S.C.  Are there lessons that carry over from golf to your professional life?

There are a lot of parallels — personal responsibility being number one. If the ball is not moving, then your career is not moving. You are responsible for moving it. Sometimes actors get lost in that — the fact that the business doesn’t owe you a career. You are lucky enough to be blessed to participate in this cultural ebb and flow for as long as you can, as long as you’re culturally significant.

Golf teaches you that as well — you play as long as you keep the speed of your swing up and the accuracy of where you send the ball, and for as long as you can maintain the mental discipline that it takes to accomplish what golf demands at that level.

And what a lovely city Greenville is. It’s very difficult for me to describe to people around the country what an absolute phenomenon that little city is.

It is one of the most staggering examples of urban renewal that I have ever seen anywhere in the country. I travel — I do 15 cities a year at least, just on my tour of “Chicago,” and I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s just the most user-friendly, family-friendly, community-friendly and culturally stimulating little town I’ve seen anywhere in the country. To see what that city has grown and morphed into is almost beyond words.

Oh, there’s absolutely nothing like it — and I see why people want to live there. The quality of life is phenomenal, and the fact that they have a Boston Red Sox farm team means a lot to me as well.

You were a PR professional early on. Why did you choose public relations as your career path?

Since I was 3 years old, I defined myself as an actor. That’s all I was. People would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up and, with a sense of disgust, I would put my hands on my hips and I would point to the television in the corner of the room and I would say, “Well, I am an actor, so that’s what I’m going to be.”

And so, I grew up with an idea that I was an actor and this is what I would naturally do. I went through my entire life doing everything theatrical that you could do as a child in Hartford, Conn., and I majored in it in college and minored in voice.

In about the last three or four weeks of college, I started to get the shivers a little bit, and I realized people were going off to the Big Eight accounting firms for their jobs after college, and some were going to become salesmen for Campbell’s Soup. All of these wonderful perks were coming along, and people were saying, “So, what are you doing? Are you going to New York?” I said, “Yeah, I guess I’m going to New York.”

[There was] the realization that I didn’t know anyone, had no agent, had no idea of the business of acting and had no alumni who really could help coach me through it. I was the only theater graduate my senior year [at Providence College], so consequently, I won the Theater Award, but not by much!

I trained for something and I realized, “Oh, my goodness. I don’t know how to succeed in it and take it to the next level.” So like a deer in headlights, I went back to Hartford, lived with my parents for a little bit and tried to figure out what I was going to do. I was scared to death of the business of acting — and I should have been, because it’s not for the faint of heart.

So I put all my thinking together and I went to the next most theatrical thing that I could think of, which was public relations and advertising, and I figured that my skills were parallel in many respects.

What was your first job in public relations?

My first job was wrapping boxes at an industrial advertising agency in Hartford, Conn., where they made machine tools. They’re not a very pretty industry, but they had an in-house advertising and PR agency.

I would go to work every day in a suit and tie, and when I got there, I would take the tie off and roll up my sleeves and I would go do my wrapping the boxes thing in the ad agency. I just wouldn’t allow myself to think that I was not successful, or not going to be successful. And then, during lunchtime, I went around to the agency and I learned everybody else’s job.

I learned the art director’s job, the typesetter’s job, the job of the person who was doing the paste-ups at the time and the graphic arts area. I learned printing, copywriting. I learned everybody’s job because I figured I wasn’t brought this way to fail, so I’d better move myself up quickly, and I did. In two years, I was out of there, and I was director of public relations for one of the teaching affiliates at Yale School of Medicine in Waterbury Hospital.

So I moved quickly into public relations. I was then director of public relations for the National Red Cross in Connecticut, for the blood services program and for the disaster relief team as well — the whole American Red Cross.

It finally hit me that I wasn’t doing what I wanted to do. It never left me — that little three-year-old was still calling to me. That’s when I decided to pull the plug and resign. In 1981, I went to New York and I got my first show 48 hours after I arrived.

What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about storytelling and engaging an audience from playing J. Peterman on “Seinfeld,” or from any acting?

Everything begins from the point of innocence. That’s how you tell a story. I think you always begin with introspection so that people can see what you’re thinking about — that the story is occurring to you as you’re telling it, and that’s the essence of what Peterman was always about. It was always as though you were capturing the story kind of mid-sentence, as it was occurring to him.

His stories didn’t start with “Once upon a time.” It always started, “So anyway, as I was saying to” [Laughs.] It’s kind of mid-thought, and it’s a wonderful sense of the point of innocence — to get to the point. If you’re going to tell a story, tell it from an interesting perspective. Attack your listener, your audience, so that they listen to you.

I read that your character’s monologues gave the writers a chance to do some more long-form writing, rather than just quick quips back and forth.

The back-and-forth one-liners set the joke up — you get the punch line and you’re out. That’s common sitcom formula. But “Seinfeld” wasn’t written as a gag or as one-liners; it was written as scenes where people played them out in a humorous way, and humor came out of the interaction, the timing and the fact that everybody was desperate.

Everybody was desperate around Jerry; Jerry wasn’t desperate about anything. He was kind of even-keeled, but everybody around him had a desperation to them: Elaine for her work or her boyfriends; George for not wanting to swing on the middle rung of the ladder of life; and Kramer because he always had the next idea. So that’s what made the writing interesting.

When I say long-form, once they read the J. Peterman catalog, which is what inspired the introduction of the character, they had the opportunity to say, “Let’s just throw these things like he’s this kind of corporate Mr. Magoo, or he’s this raving lunatic, with a sense of lyrical poetry attached to it.”

So it’s something that I hooked onto quickly because it was something that attracted me. I just loved that idea of that kind of mock Shakespearean legend in his own mind with no particular point when he gets to the end. [Laughs.] And it’s funny, I got the style of humor, and in many respects, I kind of created the style of humor that they developed as we went on. The writers all loved to write the character because it gave them a chance to extend beyond the one-line stuff.

It wasn’t the twitch muscles; it was the hamstrings [that they were exercising].

You’re now part owner of the real J. Peterman Company.  In a sense, would you say that you do public relations for them every day now?

Absolutely. I’m kind of identified with the company. We are one and the same, and it’s the funniest story in American media. When Marshall McLuhan once said that the message and the medium will eventually become indistinguishable, I’m the living example of that. I liked the role so much that I bought the company. And I’m clearly identified with Peterman, and he’s kind of a cliché or a little colloquialism in pop culture, and I don’t mind it — I love it. It’s nice. I love to be able to take that half-look over my shoulder and see that you left something on the table that people still remember.

But in terms of doing public relations for them every day, absolutely, I do. Everybody always says, “How are things going over at J. Peterman?” Well, if I’m on Fox Business or if I’m on CNBC or if I’m on the “Today” show, they always want to talk about it.

Of timely coincidence, actually, I’m heading to Costa Rica in two weeks with J. Peterman himself, John Peterman, to begin filming the sizzle reel for a Travel Channel pilot called “Uncommon Goods,” which is the travels of the real Peterman and I together.

What relationship do you see between theater, acting and public relations? Does one inform the other for you?

Yes, because I move back and forth between corporate communications now, as a spokesman for many companies, and I do a lot of motivational speaking.

I find that the storytelling continues. I went into it because I wasn’t as interested in telling someone else’s story as I was my own, I guess — my own interpretation of things that you do in theater. You add your personal view rather than the corporate view, and that’s what attracted me to acting and what kept me in it. It’s more of the personal poetry, rather than the business poetry.

However, the business poetry has never left me. I still find myself engaged with corporations now, from Xerox to Coors to AARP. I’m the spokesman for a bunch of people and I’m telling their story through who I am. So I love that too, but I find the parallels are very similar.

What advice would you share with a new professional looking to break into communications or the arts?

Go back to classic things. People still want to hear storytelling from storytellers, and unfortunately — culturally — we’re becoming a group of people that have become addicted to reality TV?and reality shock value, where it’s more interesting to become the story than it is to learn the infinitely more difficult art of telling one.

Yet, if I stand up at a podium and start talking, people listen and that’s because I’m a storyteller. That is innate in this human experience — storytelling has to be the most important thing, and it stands the test of time. But you have to go back and learn how to tell stories.

If I were to talk to young professionals in public relations, I would say: Learn from the masters — all the way back — how they told stories, how they found interesting ways to say things, because that is the essence of what the art of public relations is. It is taking whatever the features and the benefits are of the particular product, service or event you’re doing, but creating a mini-play out of it — one that has a message, that has an experience, and you don’t want them to miss the message of it.

Amy Jacques

Amy Jacques is the managing editor of publications for PRSA. A native of Greenville, S.C., she holds a master’s degree in arts journalism from Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School. She also holds a bachelor’s degree in advertising from the University of Georgia’s Grady College and a certificate in magazine and website publishing from New York University.

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