There are stage lights and a clap board and a chihuahua named Dane, as in Great Dane, who is very, very calm, considering what's about to happen.
Dane is fitted with a belt — a Gas Girdle — that breaks wind on command. Instant birth control. No one wants to get busy when noxious fumes waft into the woo. Not even an animal biologically programmed to seek a whole bunch of sex.
"Voila! Instant turnoff."
That's Joey. He presses the button, expelling a cheeky battle cry from the speaker strapped to patient Dane.
Everyone in the studio stifles a laugh. Awkward silence is crucial.
• • •
Joey Henry, that guy, is a character played by Joey Crawford, an advertising guy from Carrollwood. He is 35 with a towhead buzz cut and moony blue eyes like a Kewpie Doll. A mix of Opie Taylor and the Sham Wow guy, boy-band headset and all.
The character is part therapist, part informercial hawker, part dimwit purity crusader in a series of spoofy Internet videos on HelpJoey.com. The purported mission? To end animal overpopulation by stopping cats and dogs from having sex.
The videos come with a disclaimer.
It's a little weird, we know.
Animal campaigns have the heartstring tug down. Those commercials. Big, watery eyes. Quivering lips. Rusty metal cages. And the music.
In the arms of the angel. Far away. From here.
But when is it okay to laugh? To tell cats to "protect your flower." To call butt sniffing a "gateway activity." To lurk in bushes and scare cats and dogs just before the crucial moment.
More than 5 million cats and dogs enter shelters each year. More than 3 million are euthanized. It's impossible to know how many stray animals roam the streets, but the ASPCA estimates cats alone at 70 million. That's tens of thousands in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.
There are programs in place, task forces and agencies. There are people who catch, spay and release.
Joey's wife, Anne, was one. The animal-loving couple own four cats of their own, and they noticed more and more little baby kitties showing up around their neighborhood. Cute, was the first thought.
But the babies vanished. Eaten. Dead. Some other horrible fate. It was too much to bear, so Anne took up the matter herself. She captured feral cats in the neighborhood and took them to get spayed before releasing them back into the wild void of kitty seed. After eight cats around $25 a pop, things were getting expensive.
So Joey said, "We should just stop the cats from having sex."
Haha. Ha. Ha.
Joey joked with friends at the Tampa advertising agency where he works, Pyper Paul + Kenney. It was funny, sure. But in this day of bumbling Borat humor and dry situation comedy like The Office, it was something to think about. The company already did advertising for the ASPCA. Maybe people would appreciate an animal abstinence crusade, inferring that the real message was about spaying and neutering.
The ASPCA agreed to fund the campaign. Every video would include information about how to get pets spayed and neutered. The videos would either work like butter, or flounder one precious step from people's limit of intuition.
"It was tongue-in-cheek parody of a very serious subject that is sometimes hard to communicate," said Elizabeth Estroff, an ASPCA spokeswoman. "The general feeling was that this could be an interesting way to reach a new channel."
In September, Joey and friends went to Blog Paws in Denver, a convention for animal bloggers, and asked people what they thought of the idea. They filmed a short video, nothing fancy, just Joey behind a table in his trademark orange shirt. He talked about animal overpopulation, something beyond the control of one man.
"But I can do something else," he said. "Until every cat and dog has found a loving home, I'll be out there making sure that animals aren't . . . you know . . . doing it. You know.
• • •
Each video gets weirder.
They're shot in local streets, parks or the Pyper Paul + Kenney studio in downtown Tampa. About a dozen people help, from sound guys to a makeup artist to actors to dog handlers to guys who stand in the back and eat Twizzlers. Hours of production culminate in a couple of minutes of strange, hilarious footage.
In "There Goes the Neighborhood," Joey dons a giant furry dog costume and runs around Carrollwood.
"We're here in this neighborhood today teeming with sexaholic cats who are about to get their freak on, and we're going to stop them. This should ruin the mood. Woof! Woof! Raarrrr."
In "Sniff Sniff," Joey stages an intervention with a dog and its owners.
Joey: "Scruffy, you're addicted to sex, and your behavior is ripping your family apart . . . Don't you see how your family is being devastated by your constant sexing?"
Man: "You should see him with Bichons."
Woman: "He's an animal!"
There are fake informercials for Jonas Brothers-style "purity collars." There is a cat translator who teaches Joey to meow "Cat, please abstain from doing it." There are Humpables, plush stuffed animals designed, Joey says, for your pet to "hump and hump and hump and hump and hump and hump and hump and hump without causing any unwanted pregnancies!"
People started to become fans on Facebook. A few hundred. Then 4,000.
Help Joey spots aired on Internet radio stations. On the day of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, an electronic Help Joey billboard went up in Times Square.
"It was really cool to see that," said Joey. "Something so small could become so big so quickly and grow so virally."
There were 10,000 fans. Then 20,000.
Joey put antihumping stickers on fire hydrants. He hid in doghouses. He walked three dogs at once so they'd be too tired to have sex. He distracted cats with cans of tuna. He confronted a dog about sexy pictures discovered under the doggie bed.
"Other dogs aren't playthings, Mr. Bobo. They're people, too. I mean, they're dogs, too. You know what I mean, Mr. Bobo. Just stop doing the sex."
In January, Help Joey hit more than 40,000 fans. But how the campaign stacked up to the sad ads remains a mystery. The ASPCA said it will wind down the campaign in February. They'll analyze who responded to it, if it really made a difference, if it was just too weird.
Maybe there will be more. Maybe not.
Meanwhile, away from the filming and editing running amok, Joey's wife quietly spayed two more neighborhood cats.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8857.