Episode 515: Michael Imperioli, ‘Pepsi Where’s My Jet?’, Wendy Wimmer

Air Date:
Heard On BETA
Michael Davis as John Leonard looking into mailbox in 'Pepsi, Where's My Jet?'
Courtesy of Netflix (C) 2022

The Sopranos” actor Michael Imperioli on his debut novel which features the iconic rock star Lou Reed. Also, director Andrew Renzi on the Netflix docuseries, ‘Pepsi, Where’s My Jet?’ And Wisconsin’s Wendy Wimmer on her short story collection, ‘Entry Level.’

Featured in this Show

  • Actor Michael Imperioli revisits his friendship with Lou Reed in novel

    Emmy-winning actor Michael Imperioli has always loved writing. For years, he’d write short stories and attempts at fiction.

    He even earned his way into the rarified air of “The Sopranos” writing room, but he’d never tried his hand at a full-length novel until several years ago.

    In 2013, when Imperioli’s middle child was 16 and going through the “usual 16-year-old things,” Imperioli attempted to relate to his son’s mindset. He began writing a coming-of-age story set in his own adolescent era.

    “I set it in New York in the ’70s out of a fondness for the era, really,” Imperioli told Wisconsin Public Radio’s “BETA.” “I was 11 when this story kind of starts.”

    The novel — “The Perfume Burned His Eyes” — follows 16-year-old Matthew as he moves from Queens to Manhattan. Matthew’s father has just passed away, and his mom uses the inheritance to attempt to move up.

    The perfume burned his eyes

    As it turns out, Matthew and his mother move into the same apartment building as poet, musician, icon Lou Reed.

    Real world friendship

    In real life, Reed died in the fall of 2013 while Imperioli was formulating the book. The two of them had become friends in the twilight of Reed’s life and actually spoke shortly before Reed’s death.

    Imperioli said he included Reed as a character out of a deep admiration for the artist and his friend.

    “He’s been kind of a north star for me in terms of navigating my own artistic life. And he became very important to me. And when he died, I really felt something. That an era had really ended for me and for New York and for the music world. And part of me liked the idea of spending time with him in my mind,” Imperioli said.

    The trick was that the Reed that Imperioli befriended in 2001 was far different than the Reed circa the 1970s — who was in perhaps his most self-destructive phase.

    “He was an aging drug addict, alcoholic in the ’70s, to the point where he was really the rock star that everyone thought was going to die more so than like Keith Richards,” Imperioli said.

    It’s this troubled version of Reed that becomes an unlikely father figure to Matthew in the novel.

    The stage is set

    Imperioli based Reed and Matthew’s relationship on his own first interaction with Reed at a Knick’s game.

    It was in 1996 when Imperioli had been cast to play actor and “Warhol superstar” Robert Olivo — better known as Ondine — in the film, “I Shot Andy Warhol.”

    Reed was very close friends with Warhol and Ondine and had been very vocal about his disgust that the film was being produced.

    Still, Imperioli used the occasion to break the ice with Reed and to introduce himself. He was hoping to get some insight into playing Ondine.

    “I took the risk and I went up to him. I said, ‘My name is Michael, I’m an actor. I just got cast in this movie. I know you’re really not happy they’re making it,’” Imperioli said. “He goes, ‘I think it’s despicable they’re making a movie about that psychotic b****.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I know, I know, but I’m doing it anyway. And I’m playing someone who you knew whose name was Ondine.’ And he went, ‘Good luck.’ And he turned away.”

    Moments later, Reed paused and turned back to Imperioli.

    “He looks back at me a couple of times, and he waves me over to him. And I walked up to him, and he put his arm around me and said, ‘Listen, work hard, do a good job and just remember one thing — he was very funny.’ And that was it,” Imperioli recalled. “And in some ways, that little scene really was a seed and a germ for the relationship between Matthew and Lou in the book.”

    Life imitating art

    Imperioli is best known for his Emmy-winning turn as Christopher Moltisanti in HBO’s era-defining drama, “The Sopranos.”

    In addition to being an aspiring mafioso, Christopher fancies himself as a bit of a writer.

    In a circumstance of life imitating art, Imperioli became the only cast member who joined David Chase’s writer’s room. He penned five episodes over the show’s run including the fan favorite from season 2, “From Where to Eternity.”

    Ironically, it was Michael’s post-“Sopranos” screenplay and teleplay writing experiences that led to him focusing on writing a novel. He had three or four projects in various stages of development that never made it to air due to network and studio agendas. He became frustrated by that.

    Screenplays and teleplays are not works unto themselves. They’re blueprints or schematics. Once you make the actual show, they’re worthless. And until you make the actual show, they’re kind of worthless. And I said, ‘Well, if I write a book, it’s an end unto itself,’” he said.

    “There was something about the isolation and solitary qualities of writing a novel that, at that time, really appealed to me,” he said.

    During the isolation of the pandemic in 2020, Imperioli revisited “The Sopranos” for the first time since making it. He and fellow “Sopranos” cast mate, Steve Schirripa (Bobby Baccalieri), created the “Talking Sopranos” podcast.

    “The podcast gave me a real, new appreciation for (‘The Sopranos’) with some distance,” Imperioli said. “Because when you’re making it and you’re involved in it, there’s so many personal things that you don’t have much of an objectivity … And this was with 13 years of distance. And I was really able to kind of watch it and understand why it has held up and has so many fans.”

    In addition to writing another novel, Imperioli does have some other TV/film projects in the work, including one with Chase and Shirripa. In season two of HBO’s “The White Lotus,” streaming currently, Imperioli plays Dominic Di Grasso.

    “The Perfumed Burned His Eyes” is available now from Akashic Books.

  • 'Pepsi, Where's My Jet?': Advertising case from the '90s is now the subject of a Netflix docuseries

    Director Andrew Renzi loves to find stories that have some special ingredient which he refers to as “a Trojan horse.”

    And that’s certainly the case with his Netflix four-part docuseries, “Pepsi, Where’s My Jet?” The effervescent series chronicles college student John Leonard’s quest to convince the beverage behemoth to give him a multimillion-dollar Harrier jet, simply because the company did not include a disclaimer in one of their commercials.

    “I think the Trojan horse for me was really just the glitz of the ’90s advertising world, and specifically Pepsi and what Pepsi meant at that time,” Renzi told Wisconsin Public Radio’s “BETA.

    In the spring of 1995, the Cola wars between PepsiCo and Coca-Cola were in full force. One of Pepsi’s efforts to win the war was a loyalty program called “Pepsi Stuff.” This program gave customers the opportunity to use points to buy a wide array of premiums, including T-shirts, hats, leather jackets and mountain bikes. People could obtain “Pepsi Points” from specially-marked packages of Pepsi.

    Leonard, the college student, was 25. He happened to see one of Pepsi’s commercials encouraging viewers to use “Pepsi Points” to buy “Pepsi Stuff.” The end of the commercial showed a young actor landing in a Harrier jet on his school grounds, quipping, “Sure beats the bus.”

    These words appeared at the bottom of the screen under this image: “HARRIER FIGHTER PLANE 7,000,000 PEPSI POINTS.” Leonard was surprised to notice that there was no disclaimer, indicating that Pepsi was serious about this offer.

    As Leonard says in the documentary: “No fine print. That is a legit offer.”

    He proceeded to crunch numbers and do the necessary research. He learned that a Harrier jet retailed for $32 million and tried to figure out how much Pepsi he would have to buy to make this crazy dream come true.

    Then he realized that there was one person that might be able to help him. That person was Todd Hoffman, a businessman, investor and entrepreneur.

    The bizarre case comes to Netflix

    Nearly 30 years later, the case of “Leonard v. PepsiCo, Inc.” is still talked about and even taught in law school. That’s part of what drew director Renzi to the story.

    “Every lawyer studies this case in law school. And it is so much fun to hear that the legacy of this bizarre, absurd case from a 20-year-old kid in the ’90s has literally changed advertising law forever,” Renzi said. “I mean, you certainly will not see a promotional campaign that does not have a disclaimer ever again because of this case.”

    Renzi was 11 years old when the advertisement aired. But even at that age, he was tuned in to the media landscape, in part because of the influence of his dad, a real cinephile.

    “I just kind of had a sense of media and I just I loved it,” Renzi explained.

    As for Leonard’s story, Renzi loved the spirit of the college kid’s attempt to get himself a jet.

    “I was so drawn to this sort of Spielbergian, kind of like Peter Sellers in “Being There” — just the innocent quality of this kid where he genuinely felt like these guys were offering this jet and that he was going to go get it,” he said.

    “The spirit of John Leonard is something to be celebrated because had this sweepstakes existed today, there would have been 10 million people on Twitter pooling their points to go get that jet. And it would have just been democratized in a way that would have been so exciting and fun,” Renzi added.

    A universal story

    To make the documentary, Renzi had to first track down John Leonard. And that took a while.

    Renzi started doing some research on the internet, and he found a phone number in Denali State Park in Trapper Creek, Alaska.

    “And so I call this place. This woman answers in Denali State Park. And I said, ‘Hi, I’m looking for John Leonard. And she’s like, ‘Oh, can I ask what this is about?’ And I was like, ‘Oh, I’m just I’m a documentary filmmaker.’ And that she goes, ‘This must be about the Pepsi story,’” Renzi said.

    Two weeks later, he received an email from Leonard.

    “He was basically like, ‘You’re persistent. I really appreciate that. I never really wanted to tell this story again. I’ve moved on from this, but this sounds interesting,’” Renzi recalled.

    Then Renzi met Hoffman, Leonard’s friend and businessman.

    “Once I met Todd (Hoffman), it kind of all clicked. I was like, the whole story here is so much less about this actual case from the ’90s and so much more about this friendship between these two people. And I just loved how universal that felt,” Renzi said.

    John Leonard and Todd Hoffman mountain climbing in
    John Leonard, left, and Todd Hoffman in “Pepsi, Where’s My Jet?” Photo courtesy of Netflix 2022

    Hoffman and Leonard met during a mountain climbing expedition in Alaska.

    “I think that their friendship is really boiled down to kind of that wonderful thing that happens on the mountain where if you’re a 20-year-old kid (which Leonard was at the time),” Renzi said, “and you’re helping a man who’s much older than you, who had just come off of a brain tumor, the idea of age and success and all those things just goes out the window, and you become equals.”

    Renzi believes that their friendship was “based on this kind of mutual need of one another where Todd represented this guy that was worldly and knew a lot about the world and had a lot of success. And John represented somebody that was helping Todd pursue this dream that he wanted to do and get back on his feet and really kind of become whole again.”

    “And so I just love the spirit of that, where it’s like Todd took a swing on this kid, and that’s the spirit of this whole show,” he said.

  • Wisconsin's Wendy Wimmer describes her writing style as 'scary/funny/sad'

    How does Wendy Wimmer describe her writing style?

    “I would describe it as scary/funny/sad. With slashes,” she says.

    “I find that there’s so much humor in these odd moments, and yet there’s also so much sadness in funny moments in some ways,” Wimmer told Wisconsin Public Radio’s “BETA.”

    “And everything’s a little uncertain. I’m a little spooked by things that most people aren’t spooked by. And then I’m also not spooked by things that other people are spooked by. So I find that incredibly interesting to kind of situate myself in that kind of axis between those three spaces,” Wimmer continued.

    Born and raised in Green Bay, Wisconsin, Wimmer’s debut short-story collection is called “Entry Level.” It’s the winner of the 2021 Autumn House Fiction Prize.

    Former BETA guest Dan Chaon describes Wendy’s stories as “propulsive, delightfully unpredictable, and utterly addictive.” And he’s absolutely right.

    Wimmers’ stories often veer into the uncanny. For example, the opening story, “Strange Magic,” takes place at a roller-skating rink where the employees discover that they can reverse the aging process. There’s another story called “Texts from Beyond” in which a company called Fluid Tel helps customers communicate with relatives who have passed on.

    All 15 stories in “Entry Level” focus on characters who are underemployed, a theme that resonates with Wimmer. She said she comes from a blue collar background.

    “My family was a restaurant family,” Wimmer explained. “They grew up in restaurants and bars and what they call in northern Wisconsin taverns. In fact, my grandmother and my great-grandmother literally lived in the tavern that they ran. So I heard many, many stories of that.”

    “I said I’d never work in restaurants, and of course I did. But I later became a cubicle denizen of a cubicle landscape — just this mass of acres of cubicles,” she continued. “And (I) was doing my graduate work while I was programing a computer.”

    Back then, Wimmer was making $22,000 a year while working on getting her Master’s degree at the same time.

    Wimmer’s mention of cubicles reminded us of Canadian author Douglas Coupland’s coining of the term “veal-fattening pens” to describe cubicles. Coupland is one of Wimmers’ favorite writers.

    “And it’s interesting because when I first started working at the company where I was coding, we didn’t even get whole cubicles. We just had a line of desks. So it reminded me very much of cow stanchions. That was us. It was very impersonal and almost dehumanizing in so many ways,” Wimmer said.

    Wimmer’s own personal experiences with service industry jobs allow her to inhabit her characters and helps readers empathize with them.

    I think that life is really difficult to get out of without a little bit of damage. So I think of them as imperfect — as we all are — and oftentimes damaged by the universe that is maybe predatory or at best, you know, disregards them,” she said.

    “But I also see them as having hope. They’re being strong, they’re surviving. They’re finding a way to make it work, even though the system is kind of against them.”

    Roller-skating in ‘Strange Magic’

    The opening story is “Strange Magic.” It was inspired by the Rola-Rena roller-skating rink in Green Bay which closed in 2019.

    As part of the restaurant and service industry, Wimmers’ parents worked during the day on Saturdays. Her stepfather’s sister was in her mid-teens, working at the Rola-Rena.

    “She was a kid and my mom would say, ‘Hey, do you want to be babysat by Aunt Mary?’ And she would then just drop me off at the Rola-Rena,” Wimmer recalled. “I don’t even know if she gave me money to go in because she just assumed that this 15-year-old kid was going to like sneak me into the roller-skating rink and then also babysit me. And I thought it was great because it meant I got to spend all day roller-skating.”

    Rola-Rena Roller Skating Center
    Rola-Rena Roller Skating Center in Green Bay, Wis. TheKarenD (CC BY-NC 2.0)

    It’s already an intriguing idea to reverse the aging process by roller-skating. The story is made even more powerful by Wimmers’ careful attention to detail. For example, roller-skating clockwise will not work; you have to skate counterclockwise. The disco ball has to be spinning. But it’s not clear if the laser beams have anything to do with it.

    Wimmer coupled her own experiences from the roller rink with a writers’ workshop ran by Dan Chaon to make “Strange Magic.”

    Chaon teaches a kind of organic, “subconscious level of story origination” that she was taught by Madison cartoonist Lynda Barry, MacArthur Foundation “genius” award winner.”

    “It involves starting with a word and coming up with the images that flood your mind with that word. And then from that image that you get further fleshing it out and further developing it,” Wimmer explains.

    “And as we flesh that out, I could hear the soundtrack of a roller-skating rink — the various sounds that you hear, the wheels kind of going over the rink, the actual music that’s involved, which of course, plays a huge part,” Wilmer said.

    The title “Strange Magic” is a reference to ELO’s 1975 hit of the same name.

    Speculative fiction

    Wimmer had the chance to talk to the great Canadian author Margaret Atwood a while back about a pandemic novel she was working on.

    “We were talking a lot about migratory birds for most of the conversation, because I didn’t want to be like that person who had this great treasure of a living author in their car and is like, ‘So can you tell me about how to get past writer’s block?’ I don’t want to be that person. We ended up talking a lot about migratory bird patterns and Canada geese.

    Instead of bringing one of Atwood’s more popular novels to sign, Wimmer had Atwood sign her copy of “Negotiating with the Dead,” a book about the craft of writing.

    This was before the pandemic when Wimmer was working on a novel that had “gone from being speculative to not at all speculative.” She finished writing it at the end of 2019. It’s a novel about a pandemic that shuts down the world and puts everyone in lockdown.

    “So it is creepily prescient. But at the time, I was really dealing with the fact that a lot of the things that I was writing about in the novel, people were like, ‘that would never happen.’”

    And Atwood told her that all of the content in her novels that was described as “speculative fiction” was not speculative.

    “Nothing was speculative. Nothing was out of the ordinary. Every single thing had happened,” Wimmer said. “So as long as I based it in authenticity and reality as spec, I could be as speculative as I wanted without fear of it being unbelievable.”

Episode Credits

  • Doug Gordon Host
  • Adam Friedrich Producer
  • Steve Gotcher Producer
  • Steve Gotcher Technical Director
  • Michael Imperioli Guest
  • Andrew Renzi Guest
  • Wendy Wimmer Guest

Related Stories