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The Gift of Insults and Irreverence
Just in time for Valentine's Day: my interview with Ian Kalman, founder of Bald Guy Greetings.
Quick note to ‘Daly Grind’ readers: I realize that this is the third email you’ve received from me this week, and I assure you that this won’t become a habit. I’ll be going back to the once-a-week format very soon. It’s just that I have some big (and timely) things going on at the moment, including my “Restitution” book launch party (Feb. 5) and release (Feb. 8), the below interview (which you’re going to love, and lines up with a quickly approaching holiday), and a celebrity interview that I have slated for next week.
All great stuff, but I also understand that it’s an awful lot of “Daly” coming at you at once. I promise it’s very temporary, and thanks for understanding. Now, enjoy today’s interview!
I’ve long contended that the most blatant form of false advertising is the “Humor” section of a store’s greeting card aisle. But years ago one day, as I was waiting on my wife in an Estes Park boutique while she spent an inordinate amount of time browsing through clothing and jewelry, I was finally given some hope.
I’d spotted some bold-colored cards on a rack in the corner, and remembered that my brother’s birthday was coming up.
Yes, the two of us still exchange cards, as does the rest of my family and some of my closest friends. I figure that the very least you can do, to let someone know you’re thinking about them, is to spend a few bucks on a card once a year, put a stamp and address on an envelope, and drop it in the mail.
(By the way, if you’re a friend or family member who’s reading this, and I never send you a card, please don’t take that personally. I can’t necessarily explain why you shouldn’t take it personally, since I just wrote that sending a card is the very least I can do for people like you, but… Wait, is that the doorbell I just heard? Better answer that).
Okay, I’m back. Appears to have been a ding-dong ditch. Where was I? Oh yes, the cards at the store…
When I walked over and picked one up, the lady behind the cash register said, “Those are so funny.”
“Oh yeah?” I replied, thinking “You have to say that” in my head.
But as it turned out, she was right. Honestly, I couldn’t believe it. Only, the cards weren’t merely “so funny.” They were very — and in some cases intensely — funny. I thought to myself, “What strange new world had I just walked into?”
They were all from a company called “Bald Guy Greetings,” with each card featuring a uniquely drawn character (mostly in black) beneath an initial greeting that felt pretty consistent with regular cards. But once you opened them up, most delivered either a dismissive or irreverent (but very comical) gut-punch to the recipient. They were fantastic!
Below are a few examples to give you a taste (I’ve enlarged the inside captions, on the right, for easier screen reading):
There’s even a funny message on the back of each envelope.
I not only bought a card for my brother, but stocked up on several others, covering just about every upcoming occasion I could think of. And since the cards spanned lots of occasions (even some kind of made-up ones), it was a good sized bill.
“What happened?” my wife asked when I ended up outspending her at the register that day (something that I’m pretty sure had never happened before).
I’ve become a huge fan of Bald Guy Greetings, and have made it a habit to stop at that store whenever I’m in Estes Park to check out the latest selection. Over the past year or so, I’ve also been purchasing cards directly through the company’s website, where lots of new releases are now available.
The mastermind behind the Richmond, CA based business is the “Bald Guy” himself (no false advertising), Ian Kalman. I consider him the Don Rickles of stationary. I recently emailed Ian to see if he’d be up for an interview for my newsletter.
His reply: “I guess Rick Hallmark turned you down, huh?”
But, despite his curmudgeonly persona, he was more than happy to participate. Below is our conversation. I hope you all enjoy it as much I did.
John: Ian, Thanks for taking the time to do this interview. I hope this imposition isn’t taking too much time away from your creative, card-writing genius. In addition to being a fan of your work, I’m hugely impressed that you’ve managed to use your follically challenged scalp as part of a successful branding effort. As a fellow bald guy, I have yet to figure out a way of capitalizing off my mostly bare, disfigured cranium (which more resembles that of an embryonic chicken than a normal human head).
Ian: Hey John, thank you so much for asking to interview me. You can bill this interview as an exclusive, because literally no one ever asks to interview me. All I ask is that you take my answers and edit them in a way that makes me seem much more charming than I really am.
John: Noted. I was reading about the history of Bald Guy Greetings on your website, and learned that the venture began with you writing a funny message on a friend’s birthday cake: “35 years old! If this were the 1700’s, you’d be dead!” It received a big laugh from everyone.
I too revel in finding unique ways to roast my friends (they deserve it), so I understand the rush that comes with it.
But when someone said to you that the message would make a great greeting card, you didn’t just say “Thanks” and pat yourself on the back. You realized an opportunity, and recognized the fact that most supposedly funny cards aren’t funny at all. You then got to work on writing an entire line of dry-humor cards, and enlisted the help of an artist friend (Sean Farrell). You got the ball rolling, made things happen, and now your cards are sold in stores across the country.
Would you say this makes you an American hero?
Ian: Hahaha, American hero? I think that may be over-selling my card line a bit. Just because Bald Guy Greetings has been making Hallmark look like a bunch of turds since 2006, doesn’t make me an American hero. But by all means, I would love for you to spread that around. Maybe if it catches on, my mother won’t be so disappointed that I didn’t become an accountant.
John: Where do you draw inspiration from when coming up with card ideas? Do you ever read another company’s card, that is supposed to be funny (but isn’t), and think to yourself: “This would have been way better if they had just…”, and then incorporated that into one of your cards?
Ian: This is going to be an unbelievably dated reference, but there was a movie I saw when I was a child called “Crazy People.” Dudley Moore was an advertising copywriter that had had enough of the BS world of advertising. He just wanted to be honest with people and say what was really on his mind. So he wrote ads that were honest and he was a huge success. And that’s basically how I write my cards. They’re real and they’re honest. People that are 50 know they don’t look 29 years old. And that’s okay. Don’t blow smoke up their butt and tell them they do. Be honest. That’s all I try to do. And thankfully, there are enough amazing people out there that like the honest approach. Does that make sense?
John: It makes perfect sense. And on a side-note, my friend from New Zealand, Nicola (who I interviewed last year), loves “Crazy People.” She showed it to me when we were teenagers, and I actually made fun of her (a lot) at the time for thinking it was so funny. I wasn’t nearly as into it, but now I feel bad for giving her such a hard time, being that the film was an inspiration to my favorite greeting card writer. Sorry for making you cry, Nicola (she didn’t really cry).
Anyway, Ian, on social media, you occasionally post “rejected” Bald Guy Greetings cards, along with the reason they were rejected. Here’s one:
This has me wondering who you test-market your cards to. Do you solicit feedback from friends or family members? Do you stick with people who have a healthy sense of humor, or do you broaden your focus-groups to include those who may be tougher nuts to crack (in hopes of also appealing to more uptight consumers)?
Ian: Oh sure, I tell you my process and then you replicate it and make better cards than me? Nice try.
Seriously, my test market is just a small group of friends that I’ve known since my advertising days. These are some of the funniest and smartest people I have ever known and I trust their opinions. They vote on their favorites and that helps me narrow it down to the top 12 or so. I usually write about 50 or 60 to get down to 12. That leaves plenty of rejected cards.
Sometimes I’ll post one of the rejected cards on social to see if we made a mistake. As it turns out, we make mistakes and have ended up printing some of our rejected cards. We are super lucky that the people that buy our cards really seem to care about us as a company and will encourage us to make some of the “rejected cards.” And it doesn’t hurt that the people that like our cards are awesome.
John: Pictured below is one of my favorite Bald Guy cards. I like it both for its candor and accuracy:
Did you recognize at some point that testicle humor is grossly underrepresented in the greeting card business, and decide it was finally time to remedy that?
Ian: Ha! This card was a sleeper hit for sure. About once a year, I’ll write a card that makes me laugh, but I’m pretty sure it won’t sell well. I just want to have it in my line. This was one of those, but it turned out to be a huge seller for us. I can pretty much tell what someone’s testicles look like by how hard they laugh at this card.
John: A few months ago, you released your 2021 card line, and it was a hoot. I noticed that none of the cards featured the character drawings that many of your earlier cards did. Was there a business concern that those characters may have actually been frightening some consumers into not opening up the cards to properly appreciate the brilliance inside?
Ian: Hey, thanks for noticing. We actually changed the artwork for a few different reasons:
Sean has illustrated over 250 of those characters, so he wanted to mix it up.
Those illustrations take him quite a while to draw, because of the intricate nature of his cross-hatching style. A simpler design should allow us to release new cards more frequently. Our goal is to make two new cards every month. That way, we’ll always have something new.
John: I’m guessing, as was the case with most businesses, that COVID-19 was very hard on the greeting card industry in 2020. In the early months of the pandemic, many shops that sell greeting cards were closed down, and a lot of people were even afraid to open their mail (out of fear of viral contact-transmission). Plus, most people weren’t feeling particularly celebratory.
Yet, this didn’t deter you from releasing a line of cards in which you played off of the pandemic. Here are a few from that line:
I’m curious what kind of reception your coronavirus cards got. Were they appreciated, or did you find that people were in no mood for pandemic jokes (even good ones)?
Ian: Overall, the coronavirus cards were greeted with open arms. Thank goodness, because without those six cards, Bald Guy Greetings never would have made it through the pandemic.
Imagine every store you work with closing in Mid-March 2020 and 95% of your sales simply go away.
It was scary. Very scary.
So, I wrote those cards and Sean shifted to a less complex art style. Hopefully, it was clear that we weren’t making Covid jokes or even making light of the magnitude of the pandemic. We were just making Covid observations and people understood that. After all, they were observations that we could all relate to. (Social Distancing, Missing friends, Zoom calls, Weight gain, etc.)
John: As an author, people sometimes ask me which of my books is my favorite. I struggle with the answer, since I kind of view my novels as my children (just less needy). Do you get asked this question about your cards, and do you have a favorite among them?
Ian: I do get asked that question and yeah, it is tough to answer. The best time to ask me is right before we print the cards. That’s when I can be the most objective about it.
“I like this one, because it makes me laugh the most”
“I like this one, because no one is going to see the inside coming. They’re going to be surprised.”
Before I print the cards, they exist in a vacuum of sorts. My love for the cards is based solely on my own opinion. Once they go on sale, I’m influenced by the feedback I receive from stores, online customers and which cards are selling the best.
One of my favorite cards I’ve ever written simply says, “May your 1st marriage bring you nothing but happiness.”
It’s subtle. Most people don’t even get that the card implies the marriage won’t be their ONLY marriage. It’s a very dark card and I don’t think people are expecting that from a greeting card.
So they either miss the joke or don’t think the joke is funny. Either way, they’re probably right.
And that’s okay. My cards aren’t for everyone. They’re only for people that enjoy laughing and are able to laugh at themselves. After all, those are my favorite people and the ones I want to spend the rest of my life with.
John: Beyond cards, you offer an invaluable service for $19.99 that I’m pretty sure no other card companies offer: phone call excuses for individuals who’ve forgotten important holidays.
Below is the description of your Valentine’s Day Excuse service, taken from your website:
The Bald Guy will call your Valentine and tell them that you did order them a card back in mid-January, but it must have gotten lost in the mail. Then he will explain to your Valentine that you are an amazing human being and you did everything you could to track down that card. Again, The Bald Guy will take the blame to improve the relationship. We're here for you.
You provide the service for Mother’s Day and Father’s Day was well.
Again, I ask you: doesn’t this make you an American hero?
Ian: I like that you keep bringing up this American hero thing. Please keep doing that.
When I first offered the Valentine’s Day Excuse, I fell in love with the idea.
It was such a simple premise that I didn’t understand why it hadn’t been done before.
If me making a quick phone call for someone can save their relationship with their spouse or their mother or their father, that’s amazing and I’m happy to do it.
After all, sometimes life gets busy, and you don’t always have time to get a card for every occasion.
In those instances, Bald Guy Greetings is here for you. We really do care more than the other greeting card companies do. I promise.
I run my company the way I wish other companies were run. With the customer’s happiness in mind.
And the fact that my cards make someone happy or make someone laugh – man, that’s what it’s all about. I love my job and I hope I get to do this forever. Also, I don’t have a career plan B, so thank you for helping to spread the word.
John: On your birthday, do friends send you cards? It seems to me that you’ve put them in a bit of bind. If they send you another company’s card, that kind of makes them traitors. But if they send you one of your own cards, you’ll already know what’s inside.
Ian: I get a lot of Bald Guy Greetings for my birthday. Some from friends and family that love the cards and they want to support my small business. But also, because when someone gives me a Hallmark card, I usually read it, roll my eyes and then tear it up into a thousand pieces -- in front of them. In a very comical way. I promise.
John: One last question. What’s one holiday or occasion, that Bald Guy Greetings doesn’t have a card for yet, that you would like to create a card for in the future?
Ian: We get asked for St. Patrick’s Day, Halloween, and Thanksgiving cards a lot.
But I honestly don’t know anyone that gives cards like that. Maybe that’s just not OUR customer.
We have been asked for sympathy cards the most and we have tried them, but they’re a hard card to give. Really hard.
I lost a friend to Covid last year and I wrote a Sympathy card to send his wife. It’s the kind of card that he would of loved and she appreciated it, but it’s not the kind of card that we should be selling. Don’t get me wrong, I printed it, but I’m not sure we’ve sold more than five of them.
It reads, “I’m so sorry for your loss.”
And the inside reads, “I know exactly how you feel. I lost my keys last week.”
It’s cringe-worthy and almost impossible to give, but I have 995 of them left, so I’ll be giving it out for the rest of my life.
John: Thanks again, Ian, for doing this interview. For readers interested in Bald Guy Greetings cards (and I’m prepared to call those who aren’t, “idiots”), you have a store locator on your website where they can find local stores that sell them. Alternatively, they can order select cards directly through your website. Is there anything else you’d like to say to ‘Daly Grind’ readers?
Ian: I guess, if your readers take away anything from this interview, I hope it’s that I’m a fricken’ American hero and that they should tell EVERYONE they know to please buy six to eight Bald Guy Greetings. It’s the right thing to do. For America.
Also, if anyone is still reading this interview --- thank you so much. I sincerely appreciate you taking the time.
Note from John: at the end of our interview, Ian extended a special discount for ‘Daly Grind’ readers. If you enter the promo code JOHNDALYBOOKS when ordering from the Bald Guy Greetings website, you’ll get 10% off your purchase. So have at it!
You can read the entire review here.
That’s all for now. Thanks for reading today’s Daly Grind.
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Take care. And I’ll talk to you soon!