For a minimum of $50, this professional nerd will show up anywhere, any time to mingle as a sort of mutant party animal, "just being my own nerdy self." At a Super Bowl party in January, he brought a bag of mashed potato chips and a huge bowl. "Get it? A...super...bowl," says Hornby, punctuating his pun with a goofy hiccuping guffaw.
Hornby's outwardly normal alter ego is 27-year-old Mike MacDonald, a computer programmer until he was laid off six months ago. The Berwyn, Ill. resident was attending a career workshop when he decided to revive a character he had devised for Halloween six years ago. "I did a presentation as Hornby, and everybody cracked up. I decided to start the business the next day. I called the Yellow Pages to place an ad, and this lady hired me then and there, right over the phone," he recalls.
A closet nerd since high school, MacDonald has seen his business explode quicker than a spaz's first chemistry set. Averaging six bookings per weekend, Hornby has done numerous TV and radio talk shows, and there is a poster deal in the works. There is also talk of buttons, toilet paper advertisements and even a line of clothes. With a degree in mathematics and a minor in physics from the University of Illinois at Chicago, MacDonald certainly has the proper academic credentials to be a nerd. Of course, there are nerds, and then there are nerds. "You could be a stupid nerd, or you could be a dorky nerd," says MacDonald. "Hornby is a lovable, friendly and fun-loving nerd."
Friendship for a fee
He bills himself as "The Original Video Companion," but you can call him Sam. Formality has no place between friends, and there's no doubt Sam is the best buddy money can rent or buy.
Need proof? Well, for starters, he's always there when you need him. Just turn him on—electronically speaking, of course—by sticking his cassette into your VCR. And there he is, a pleasant-looking yuppie type wearing a white wool sweater and tan pants. He is sitting in an armchair, listening to music. On his right is a lamp and on his left a telephone. As soon as he "sees" you, he turns off the stereo and aims his engaging grin in your direction.
He likes you no matter what you door what kind of mood you are in. He is a Mister Rogers for adults. "Hi," he says. "I'm Sam, and basically I'm here because I want to be your friend. How does that sound?" There's a built-in pause for you to respond, and even if you snort with derision, Sam takes the answer to be positive. "Great!..I've been looking forward to this moment for quite some time...I'm just so happy that you decided to put me on today."
Sam always puts your interests before his own; for instance, when he's chatting with/at you, he won't even talk on the phone. In fact, he just picks up the receiver long enough to hang up on whoever is trying to reach him. Sam can be quite the little flatterer as well. "Oh, boy," he says, placing his face close to the screen to take a look at your digs. "Nice place! Wow! You know what? You've got great taste, if you don't mind me telling you."
This Barnum of bonhomie is really 33-year-old Ben Hollis, former waiter, bartender, ad copywriter, actor, sit-down comedian and current creative director of the video division of a Chicago-based advertising agency. Hollis created Rent-A-Friend last December. "In the theatre, we try to break down the proscenium; in TV, we try to break down the screen," he explains.
A class clown since his days at Chicago's Latin School and then George Washington University, Hollis seems to have tapped into more than just the novelty tape market. One reviewer claimed Hollis had touched upon "a major psychological and sociological issue." Hollis' grandmother bought a tape and suggested he "get them to elderly people."
Hollis' tape runs 42 minutes, and it can be rented for only $2.00. Or, if you would prefer to Own-A-Friend, Sam can be yours to keep for just $19.95. That way, you'll be friends for life—or at least for the life of your VCR.
When he was a guard at California's Soledad prison, David "Dutch" Van Dalsem used to take a lot of kidding about his previous career as a bit actor in Hollywood. Some of the inmates even promised to come see Van Dalsem when they got out so that they could all make movies together. "Wonderful," Dutch told them. "Just what I need—a Rent-A-Gang."
Today that's exactly what he's got—a motorcycle gang that hires itself out for TV and movies. So far Dutch (left foreground, above) and his scruffy disciples have appeared in episodes of Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, Night Court and Cagney & Lacey and have done feature work in films that include Cobra, Night Shift, The Falcon and the Snowman and Sly Stallone's Over the Top.
The gang is made up entirely of bikers, and that is just about all they have in common. "Ninety-nine percent of these people who are classified by society as outlaws are not," says Van Dalsem, who left prison-guarding after being hurt in a riot. "We've got a retired federal policeman and somebody who works for Amtrak. True, we've got people who have been in trouble, but we also have guys who have never even had a jaywalking ticket...Just because I look like the kind of guy who would rape your father and murder your mother doesn't mean that I have to be that way on my own time."
The gang works for $55 per day per man, $100 per bike, plus overtime. On the job, they are all business, with Van Dalsem enforcing the rules. "You'll be on time, be sober, no drugs, and don't give anybody any lip," he tells his leather-jacketed colleagues. "They go on break only when they're told to," he adds, "go through the lunch line only once and, most important, intimidate only on cue."