Friday, February 06, 2015

The origins of the Olaf card

Late one night, I was telling my friend Sam that I had recently run into a panhandler who was deaf, and who communicated via a stock message on a business-sized card. Having someone wordlessly hand you a card was a strangely powerful experience. Sam and I immediately started thinking of alternate messages that could be conveyed with this new medium. Somehow, we latched on to the idea of a total stranger using it to ask people to tickle them. And it would be even funnier if English wasn't their first language. This quickly evolved into a large, friendly Norwegian man, asking to be tickled:

("Hello, My name is Olaf. I am recently from Norway and do not speak the English good. Please tickle me. Thank you.")  

The idea was to walk up to a total stranger and hand them the card– without saying a single word. The wordlessness is a crucial element. Your initial communication with the person is solely through the card – and your friendly, hopeful facial expression.

We laughed until our sides hurt.

Then, in classic Sam style, he insisted that we go to Kinko's at once – at 1 o'clock in the morning! – to have the cards actually printed. My friend Mike Hanscom was working at that Kinko's, and was delighted to oblige, chuckling the whole time.

The first run was 500 cards. We burned through that one pretty quickly. The second run of 500 went fast, too. The fad faded in the middle of the third batch, but a few stories stand out.

I have almost never handed them to total strangers. Instead, I show them to people whom I already know (or have just met), saying, “Pretend like you don't know me, and I walk up to you without saying anything, and I hand you this card.” Since I look faintly Scandinavian, and I've usually just met them, it's not too much of a stretch – and it was a fun way to break the ice.

But Sam actually took a batch of cards to Costco to perform a sociological experiment. (If you don't know Sam, imagine a 6-foot-5 cross between Kyle MacLachlan and Waldo from “Where's Waldo.” When he walks up to you as a total stranger and hands you an Olaf card, you're going to pay attention. Sam handed cards out to people until the Costco folks asked him to leave. He had enough data to identify three major categories of response:
  • 85% of people would laugh, take the card, and keep walking.
  • 10-12% would immediately turn and go without any response at all – studiously making no eye contact.
  • The remaining 3-5% would look at Sam furtively, look down at the card, look at Sam again … and then reach out very gingerly, tickle him very briefly, and then make a break for it.
Sam's theory was that this last group was afraid of what he would do if they didn't tickle him.

Sam and I knew that we had struck some kind of chord when we took a road trip to UAF and saw one taped to someone's dorm door – someone whom neither of us knew.

The largest distributor was my friend Rod, who moved to Tuscon and started handing them out. He would go out dancing in his vintage green '70s leisure suit, giant afro wig, and big sunglasses ... and hand out Olaf cards. He went through an entire batch himself. For many in Tucson, Rod is “Olaf.”

Rod was also a dinner captain at a very nice steak restaurant in Tucson. One night, Kevin Spacey had been a customer and was on his way to the door when Rod intercepted Spacey briefly and handed him an Olaf card. As Spacey was walking away, out of the corner of Rod's eye, he saw Spacey look down at the card, actually read it, chuckle, and then put it in his pocket. High praise, indeed.

To this day, every once in a while, I'll get a “hey, you're the guy who handed out the Olaf cards!”