Freelance copywriter Chris Bittler was in the middle of a long and tedious catalog gig three years ago when his mind began to swim with ideas for nonsensical products. "There were a lot of qualifiers in the particular products that I was working on that would kind of set me off--things like 'batteries not included, uses 12 D-cell batteries, do not use near electric equipment,'" he says. "I was kind of fried and started writing about the indestructible toothpick."
The toothpick--which "maintains its size, shape, and tensile quality in any environment, from Antarctica to the surface of the sun"--was followed by Wally's Pet Attractor, a fragrance "for years known only to sanitation engineers and waste treatment employees," and dozens of other items, including a caffeine patch (in both personal and office sizes), the Skinner Box ("Train your children, spouse, or employees with classic behavior techniques"), Rhesus Pieces ("chocolate-covered bits of those cute little monkeys used in lab research"), and Inspirational Urinal Pads ("Aim High," says one).
"I've always come up with these fatally flawed ideas--ideas that seemed like they'd work until you start thinking about them," says Bittler. The Sill Grill, for example--a barbecue grill for apartment dwellers that hangs out the window and drops hot coals on the heads of passersby--appears on page 45 of the self-published Bad Idea Catalog, which Bittler wrote with his Los Angeles-based partner, Dave Markov. They met in the early 1980s when both were part of the Night Light Players improv troupe. They started collaborating a short time later, contributing "pie and seltzer" sketches to WGN's Bozo show. Eventually the pair moved to LA, where they penned jokes for Byron Allen and other comedians and cowrote 1994's Raging Angels, a forgettable film about cults that "got rewritten so many times, nothing we wrote was actually in it....Since nobody else wanted their name on it, we figured it'd be good at that point to have our name on a movie.
"It didn't help."
Bittler says he "basically starved" in LA; he moved back to Chicago in 1996 to help out a family member with some health problems, and ended up settling in Glendale Heights. "As long as one partner's out there, that's good enough," says Bittler. He and Markov are currently shopping around a script for a mockumentary, upon which he refuses to elaborate. Meanwhile, he still works as a copywriter and devotes his free time to his new publishing company, Bad Idea Books. A sequel, tentatively titled From the Desk of Mr. Genius, is in the works.
He's also had some bites on a few of his "fake" products--particularly the Unwelcome Mat. "I'm not very handy, so I have to figure out how to put the words Go Away on a mat without it running all over the place," he says.
Bittler will demonstrate the Unwelcome Mat as well as prototypes for New Job Smell, Coin Goo, Edible Urinal Cakes, and other products on Friday night at 7:30 at Quimby's Bookstore, 1854 W. North (773-342-0910). He'll do it again at the same time on Friday, November 9, at Barnes & Noble, 590 E. Golf in Schaumburg (847-310-0450), and on Saturday, November 10, at the Bookstore, 475 N. Main in Glen Ellyn (630-469-2891). All events are free; for more info see www.badideacatalog.com.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.