Tickle Me Elmo co-inventor Ron Dubren on creativity, in-house champions and ‘Elmo’s Law’
Ron, I’m delighted to speak with you. There’s lots to cover but let’s start with invention. How would you describe your approach to designing toys and games? And did it evolve over the years?
One of the ways I survived and thrived as a toy inventor was to understand that it wasn’t enough to come up with a toy or game idea – you had to figure out a marketing hook, and that was often wrapped up with branding. That said, my approach was only guided by that around 40% of the time. Most of the time, I was led by what amused me. I’d invent things that I thought were cool.
Can you give me an example of one of your inventions that came from that marketing-first approach?
I invented a Tetris game. Tetris was hot at the time and I wanted to see if we could bring that into board games.
The best example is obviously Tickle Me Elmo, but that didn’t start off as a branding idea. Greg Hyman and I invented it as Tickles the Chimp. That was how we presented it to Stan Clutton at Playtime Products – this was just before Tyco acquired it. He loved it, but Stan thought it would make it a great Elmo.
He said: “The problem is, we don’t have the rights to Elmo. Why don’t you walk across the aisle and see Gene Murtha – he’s working with the Looney Tunes licence… Maybe he’ll come up with something that fits.” I went over and presented it to Gene. The first thing out of his mouth was: “Tickle Me Taz”.
But Tickle Me Taz never saw the light of day?
Nope, it never came out, but we did license it as Tickle Me Taz. In the background, Playtime’s Marty Scheman was trying to get the Sesame Street plush license away from Hasbro. Playtime had the plastic rights, but not the plush rights. The plush rights were in limbo at this time.
He had the great insight to want to take Sesame out of its sleepy educational setting and make it more mainstream – and he wanted to do this with a TV-promoted plush toy. He told the Sesame people: “If you give us the entire license, including plush, we’ll TV promote a Sesame product for the first time.”
When this came into play, Stan realised that all he had to do was walk across the aisle and tell the guys working on the Looney Tunes toys that they wanted the Tickle idea back. They got it back and Tickle Me Elmo was born!
Wow! We’ll put the TV ad in here too so people can check that out.
I wonder whether a Tickle Me Taz would’ve taken off in the same way Elmo did…
Well, the Looney Tunes people were pretty pissed off about it. That said, after the Tickle Me Elmo craze happened, we did have two follow up products that did come out under the Looney Tunes license – Tickle Me Bugs and Tickle Me Tweety. A bittersweet moment perhaps, because I’m not sure how well they did!
At what point did you realise Tickle Me Elmo had taken off in such a spectacular way?
At Thanksgiving. They’d manufactured 400,000 and it was sold out by Thanksgiving. There was suddenly no product in the prime selling period. And around that time, the media also started wanting to speak with the inventors. That hinted it was taking off.
The other key moment that communicated it to me was in December when I was flying to Chicago to see family. I grabbed a copy of The New York Times and there was a piece in the business section that said: ‘If you’re not aware of Tickle Me Elmo, you’ve probably been living on another planet.’ That told me we were in the middle of a phenomenon.
Before we properly started the interview, you said the phrase ‘Elmo’s Law’. Talk me through what that means…
Ha! Elmo’s Law is when anything that can go right, does goes right. It’s also a slug against Murphy’s Law – and to be honest, Murphy wins most of the time! There’s also the expression: ‘Luck is when preparation meets opportunity.’ I really believe that.
Well, I’ll be using ‘Elmo’s Law’ whenever I’m lucky enough to use it! Now, how did you come to co-invent Tickle Me Elmo with Greg Hyman?
I’m basically a blue-sky thinker. I come up concepts, but I don’t really have industrial design skills, so I partnered with people who complemented me. This meant I often teamed up with people who had skills in technology. One of my best partners in this area was a guy called Bob Jeffway.
Anyway, there was a subset of toy inventors here in New York and Greg was part of that. Greg had invented Alphie for Playskool; his strength was in the technology area. His previous inventing partner had sadly passed away and he had been on his own for a while, so he was willing to partner with other people – so I approached him with an idea that needed his skill set.
And this was Tickles the Chimp? That was your first collaboration?
Yes. It was inspired by a laughing jag – when you laugh and laugh until it gets out of control. I spoke to Greg to make sure he wasn’t already working on anything like that and we went on from there.
You mentioned pitching to Stan Clutton. How much of a champion was he for the idea?
Stan was critical. I’m sad because he died, and he died relatively young from a brain tumour. He was in his early sixties. It makes me sad because he really was so important to making this all happen. I actually licensed my first toy to Stan back in 1980 when he was at Gabriel Toys. Another person that was key to that was Larry Mass, who was at Gabriel too. I brought them a game which ultimately became Chinese Chess.
The problem I had with Chinese Chess is that I couldn’t work out an ending where all of the pieces get captured, like in checkers. Larry said: “Why do you have to end it in that way? Why not make it so the first player to capture 13 pieces?” It wasn’t an elegant or ‘perfect’ solution – but it taught me a valuable lesson about design and helped get that game over the line.
So I owe my first product to Larry and Stan. I continued to present products to Stan over the next 15 years – and not one did he want! There’s a lesson there about persistence and having a very thick skin – or a dumb skull; they’re both likely useful! Stan had the vision to see that Tickles the Chimp could be applied to a licence, and he was instrumental throughout the product’s journey in lots of different ways.
Inventor relations people are the gatekeepers. They have to see your idea and ‘get it’. And getting it isn’t even enough! They have to fall in love with it and champion it. A lot of times they’ll get an idea, but they won’t love it. You really need a champion.
What makes someone good at inventor relations?
The best inventor relations people are the ones who look out for the inventor. One of my favourite people at this is Mike Hirtle. He’s the ideal IR guy because when you brought an idea to Mike, he always had a way to make it better. He’d make great suggestions – and that was rare because the position of a toy company can often be: ‘I don’t want to give away ideas.’
He knew his job was to make it a better idea and that would give it a better chance of becoming a product. He licensed my Nemesis Factor puzzle game. It’s one of my favourite inventions and I’m trying to revive it as a digital product. I didn’t even have any tech in my prototype… I made it out of Styrofoam, but he got it!
Did the success of Tickle Me Elmo make any aspect of inventing and pitching easier for you?
There was definitely a halo effect for a while; a perception that everything we presented might be gold! That wore off after a while. You’re only as good as your last toy. But it definitely afforded me opportunities. People took a second look at our stuff and were more likely to champion an idea in case it could be the next Tickle Me Elmo.
Did you put any pressure on yourself to create another smash hit?
No, not at all. In college, I never had any clue what I wanted to do, and no idea how to make money, but I’ve always been very curious. I’m passionate about movies and taught myself how to write screenplays in much the same way as I got involved in inventing toys. I actually see my career now as a writer/producer in the entertainment business. Eight months ago, I wrote the first screenplay I’d written in 10 years. It’s called Funny Money. Since then, I’ve written a play and also a Tickle Me Elmo script.
Oh really? Telling the story behind the product?
Well, it came from an article I saw in The New Yorker about the Barbie movie. It addressed lots of things, including how there was an indie sensibility behind that film. Suddenly I thought ‘I’ve got a story to tell – and I’m the best one to tell it because I lived it.’ I’m in the middle of developing it now.
That’s exciting. Now, Tickle Me Elmo gets a lot of attention but what would you say is your most underrated invention?
Nemesis Factor is one of them; it’s such an interesting take on a brainteaser. Hasbro did it because they felt it had mainstream potential and I think it still does. Another one is The Next Word – it’s a strategy word game. I’ve sold it three or four times; it’s a combination of Boggle and Othello. It’s a wonderful game but it’s never sold well. We’re developing a digital version of it at the moment.
Both sound great. Good luck with the digital version. Now, you’ve been in the business a long time…
This is your way of saying I’m an old fart?
Ha! You don’t look like an old fart!
Well, I was going to ask if a career in play helps you feel young and energised about the work you’re doing?
It’s important to stay in shape. I learned that early on. But people might say: “Sure, Ron can be enthusiastic about all this! He created Tickle Me Elmo!” The main thing Tickle Me Elmo gave me was the freedom to do what I wanted to do – and I’m doing it. So yes, financial freedom might contribute to me being playful today, but I was like that before Tickle Me Elmo. I’m a normal person; of course I’m down sometimes but I’m a child of the 60s and I’m an idealist. It’s in my DNA.
The other aspect to that is that I got into weed and psychedelics early on. I had a period of time where it was very important to my creativity and spirituality. I don’t believe drugs help you create better concepts – and I don’t do drugs now and haven’t done so for years – but it helped get me into a place where I could tap into a sense of play and joy. It was genuinely helpful at the time.
I see myself now as 25, starting a career as a writer/producer. I think I’ll have a very fertile next 20 years. Look at Eddy Goldfarb – he’s 102 and still going strong! He’s a role-model. Ageism is the problem… People might look at me and think ‘What can this old fart do?!’ Well, I’m a creative old fart!
On that, what fuels your creativity today?
Curiosity and play. I have a very playful side and I enjoy the creative process. I’m less interested in what sells or the outcome. It’s far more important to get your joy from the process of creativity than the outcome. Whatever you do, you have to enjoy the process. The last thing on my mind when I was a toy inventor was making a hit toy. The pleasure is in the process.
Ron, a huge thanks for this. It’s been a lot of fun – and good luck with the Tickle Me Elmo movie project.
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