He will never be mistaken for Julian Lennon, Paul Young or John Cougar Mellencamp. Yet Herb, the nerd on those TV commercials who’s never eaten a Burger King Whopper, is about to follow in their footsteps as a guest veejay on MTV. Prepped for the taping (the segment will air on Feb. 19), actor Jon Menick is sporting his Herbaceous outfit—olive-green jacket, high-water pants and black galoshes that Pee-Wee Herman would cross his heart and die for. But a question arises: Isn’t Herb too dull even for VH-1, let alone MTV? “The country wants to know about him,” declares MTV executive producer Julian Goldberg. “He’s on the cutting edge…kind of.”
The edge cuts both ways. Menick, 35, is paying a price for playing Herb. During a grilling by a reporter, the atmosphere in the MTV studio becomes a little tense. A Burger King rep suggests that the questions should dwell on Herb and not on the actor portraying him. An unassuming sort, Menick would like the publicity, but not if he has to bite the feed that hands him his paycheck. “Look,” he tells the reporter, “I want to cooperate. I really do, but you have to understand….”
Playing Herb can be as tough as a day-old burger. For one thing, Menick has inherited an uphill battle; the introductory commercials, in which he did not appear, were a less-than-sizzling success with TV audiences. In addition, since his character debuted on Super Bowl Sunday, the actor hasn’t always received good reviews. His sexuality was questioned in New Orleans, and controversy even flared in Menick’s hometown, Beaver Dam, Wis., when he was honored last month at the high school. “There was quite a bit of stress on our community,” says school principal Richard Fitzpatrick. “Some felt Herb the nerd was going to bring a negative connotation to the state.”
Menick is in a pickle. As his handlers shuttle him through U.S. and Canadian eateries—where the first consumer who IDs him can win $5,000 and become eligible for a million-dollar sweepstakes—he must conduct himself Burger King’s way. Until the campaign ends on March 15, he’s got to give his full time to Herb and little time to himself. Not that there’s much difference between the two. “I based Herb on myself,” he says. “Neither of us are with it. I might have ended up just like him.”
One saving choice Menick made was to act. Two sources of his inspiration are his mother, May Sawyer, who performed in a traveling theater group before marrying now-retired Juneau, Wis. Police Chief Harold Menick; and Beaver Dam’s other celebrity, Fred MacMurray. After studying drama at the University of Georgia and doing extensive stage work in the South, Menick moved to New York last year with his wife of four years, accountant Louisa Coplin, 32, whom he met in Georgia. In December he was picked from 75 candidates to be Burger King’s missing man. If he can prevent the campaign from turning into a $40-million turkey, Menick hopes that Herb will prove beneficial to his career.
It might just happen. Swinging into its final month, the Herb crusade is starting to show signs that it can cut the mustard. Since the commercials with Menick began airing three weeks ago, Burger King is claiming an average 10 percent jump in sales. The actor is learning to accept the special demands of his role—”I’m loving every minute of it,” says Menick, or, as Herb would put it, “I’d rather be called a nerd than nothing.” He might even be developing some sex appeal. Back at the MTV studio, Martha Quinn (who hawked Chicken McNuggets on TV in her pre-veejay days) admits that Menick could be the kind of guy she’d date. “Depends on what restaurant he’d take me to,” she says. “If it’s like the Four Seasons, maybe. If it wasn’t Burger King, you know?”