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Teaching dogs and cats about the birds and bees

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 farts 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.

Pffffffffffffft.

"Voila! Instant turnoff."

That's Joey. He presses the button, expelling a cheeky battle cry from the speaker strapped to patient Dane.

Pffffffrrrruuuuuttt.

"Seriously, dude. You should get that checked."

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 ShamWow guy, black 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 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 of penetration?

More than 5 million cats and dogs enter shelters each year. More than 3 million are euthanized. Strays are immeasurable, but the ASPCA estimates cats alone at 70 million. That's tens of thousands in Tampa Bay.

There are programs in place, task forces and agencies. There are people, like Joey's wife, Anne, who catch, spay and release.

The couple noticed more and more little baby kitties showing up around their neighborhood. But the babies vanished. Eaten. Dead. Anne captured feral cats and took them to get spayed before releasing them 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 spokesperson. "I think 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. They filmed a video, nothing fancy, just Joey behind a table in his trademark orange shirt. He talked about animal overpopulation, which is 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. The sex."

• • •

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 guys who stand back and eat Twizzlers. Hours of production culminate in a couple minutes of strange, hilarious footage.

In There Goes the Neighborhood, Joey dons a 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 informercials for Jonas Brothers-style "purity collars." A cat translator who teaches Joey to meow "Cat, please abstain from doing it." 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 became fans on Facebook. A few hundred. Then 4,000. Help Joey spots aired on Internet radio stations. During 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 anti-humping stickers on fire hydrants. 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 will wind down the campaign in February, analyze if it really made a difference, if it was just too weird.

Meanwhile, away from the filming and editing running amok, Joey's wife quietly spayed two more neighborhood cats.

Teaching dogs and cats about the birds and bees 01/21/11 [Last modified: Sunday, January 30, 2011 12:46pm]

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