Ross Shafer '75: Laughter is golden

by Tod Jones

The first thing Ross Shafer did after graduation was slide into women’s lingerie.

Well, not literally into women’s lingerie. More like into the selling of it, a job that, shall we say, exposed something about his life to come: Shafer, a six-time Emmy Award winner, motivational speaker, and at one time owner of the world’s only stereo-store-and-pet-shop, would not be following anything resembling a traditional career path.

The man whose credits also include authoring Cooks Like a Stud, and Nobody Moved Your Cheese: How to Ignore the Experts and Trust Your Gut, and who mounted a campaign to change Washington state’s official song from “Washington, My Home” to “Louie, Louie,” says it was partly the feeling he was a bit of an outsider that drove him from marketing graduate to progenitor of successful, if a trifle offbeat, ventures.

“I had trouble finding anything that I was passionate about, or that made me happy,” says Shafer, 50, who grew up in Federal Way, Wash., and now resides in southern California with his wife, Leah. He has two grown sons, Adam and Ryan.

To be sure, Shafer displayed hints early on that lurking inside him was an entrepreneur and entertainer yearning to break free. As a child, his ability to force milk out of his nose or fit an entire deck of cards in his mouth earned points with his young schoolmates. Then there was that time (he credits UPS with his first professional comedy gig) when Serni Solidarios hired him and football teammate Ron Reeves ’76 as a singing comedy duo (appropriately called The Linebackers) for several UPS functions. A brief stint as a shopping mall public address announcer instilled dreams of Carson-like fame.

And Shafer’s entrepreneurial zeal, which still shows no signs of slowing, was clearly made manifest with his post-graduation creation of the “combination pet and stereo store” business, a niche that to this day contains just that one contribution.

“My business partner and I realized that a conventional stereo store didn’t get year-round traffic,” says Shafer, whose employment history also includes a number of “regular” jobs, “so we began selling pets and pet supplies.”

The concept was a huge novelty that garnered much publicity and brought in lots of traffic, but little money, and the venture soon folded. Still, the dots were beginning to connect between Shafer’s talents for publicity, marketing, and comedy, and his ability to repeatedly reincarnate his career.

A community play awoke a love for the stage. Goaded by a friend, he tried out for a stand-up comedy competition. “I was marginally witty,” he says. Witty enough to win the 1983 Showtime Comedy Laugh-Off and four years as a host, actor, and writer of “Almost Live,” Seattle’s seminal late-night comedy show, which led to six Emmys, his own radio program, and the aforementioned “Louie, Louie” campaign in 1986.

“That began simply as a blatant attempt to generate publicity for ‘Almost Live’,” says Shafer. “But it took on a life of its own … to the point where we had 5,000 people chanting ‘Louie, Louie’ on the capitol steps.” The legislature eventually rejected the proposal, but the attendant hoopla elevated “Louie, Louie” to the status of an unofficial state anthem, and the effort put Shafer and “Almost Live” on the map, garnering a Dubious Achievement Award in Esquire magazine.

Shafer’s exposure on TV developed into, he writes on his website (rossshafer.com), “a disturbing and almost profitable pattern” of stints as host to game shows such as “The Match Game” and “Love Me-Love Me Not.” Along the way, Shafer-the-entrepreneur discovered another way for Shafer-the-comedian to fulfill his passion for writing, comedy, and a regular paycheck.

“My line of work means I’m on the road a lot, staying in hotels, eating in restaurants,” he says. “I’m in constant contact with people in the service industry. And I was amazed at how bad service was.”

A chance encounter with a room-service clerk who went out of her way to bring Shafer his favorite soda illuminated light bulbs over his head, and the “Many Happy Returns—a program on customer service” employee training video was born.

“It really just wrote itself,” says Shafer, who had found time to work as an employee trainer in one of his past jobs. The success of “Many Happy Returns” prompted the production of a dozen or so other training films, filled with basic service messages and laced with gentle humor. It also attracted the attention of corporations that were looking for someone to deliver motivational words of wisdom to their employees in person. Which is how he added stand-up comedic motivational business speaker to his repertoire.

“As it turns out, it’s not just one thing that makes me happy,” says Shafer. “Because I’m able to wear a lot of hats, I can maintain my interest and my passion.”

And then there’s always that lingerie job to fall back on.