Progressively funny: How Ben & Jerry’s ice cream picks its comedy flavors

Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield — the Ben & Jerry of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream — stopped by Late Night with Jimmy Fallon again last night to talk up fair trade and allow Fallon to “flog his flavor” in his ongoing friendly competition with Stephen Colbert.

Roll the clip.

Fallon’s Late Night Snack. Stephen Colbert’s Americone Dream. Saturday Night Live‘s Schweddy Balls. Ben & Jerry’s has been on a funny run in the past four years, which is a departure from their longer-standing relationship with jam bands and popular flavors like Cherry Garcia and Phish Food. Have Ben & Jerry decided to pursue a comedy career in their later years? Are they just trying to be funny? Or is something else at work here? I asked the company’s spokesman, Sean Greenwood.

Ben & Jerry’s had named flavors for Jerry Garcia in 1987 and Phish in 1997, then switched to comedy the following decade with Stephen Colbert’s Americone Dream in 2007. I can figure on the hippie-dippie connection to jam bands, but what led the guys and the company to make the switch to comedy-based flavors in recent years? Is it based on Ben & Jerry’s personal taste in comedy, or is there another method to the madness?

“I don’t think there’s a rhyme or reason that it was educated or focus research,” Greenwood said. He noted that the company has a rich history in having a “tongue-in-cheek humor” with flavor names such as Chubby Hubby, as well as a left-of-center tradition, being progressive and renaming Chubby Hubby as Hubby Hubby to show the company’s support for gay marriage. He said Ben & Jerry’s is left-of-center, and likes to align itself with people who also are a bit askew.

In terms of Colbert, Greenwood said: “We really love his style of humor. And we’re probably not going to do a flavor with someone who’s at the opposite end of the spectrum from where we are and our sense of humor.”

“Jay Leno seems like a great guy,” he said, “but we chose Stephen Colbert because he seemed left of center. Being left of center meets the quirky character of the company, what our ice cream is about.”

He said the company always is interested in showcasing its own sense of humor and being rooted in popular culture.

“Willie Nelson(‘s Country Peach Cobbler) is someone who we actually launched that same year, 2007,” to recognize his record of raising money for farmers and poor people through Farm Aid and other endeavors.

“But there wasn’t a rhyme or reason that we do all comedy now,” Greenwood said.

Two years ago, Ben & Jerry’s sold a flavor called Maple Blondie to honor Vermont Olympic athlete Hannah Teter. “We loved her because she’s a Vermonter, she’s already selling maple syrup for charity,” he said. “Not a lot of people know Hannah Teter. But it’s not this is our biggest name that can sell a bunch of ice cream. It’s more about who can align with our brand.”

He also cited the renaming of Butter Pecan as Yes, Pecan! in recognition of President Barack Obama’s electoral victory, as well as the Hubby Hubby renaming, as examples of other recent flavor changes that weren’t tied to comedians. The Ben & Jerry’s marketing crew gets together periodically to plot future projects such as these, or the comedian flavors, to stay in touch with what’s going on in the news.

Were the “Late Night Snack” and “Schweddy Balls” flavors concocted in response to Colbert? Or to put it another way, did Fallon and/or his show approach the company to get their own flavor in response to Colbert, and then, in turn, did SNL see the Fallon flavor and begin negotiating for its own?

With Late Night Snack, it may not have been deliberate, but the idea did start with a 2010 bit on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. “They did a skit on the show about Ben and Jerry’s, with Jimmy and The Roots all dressed up in costume, singing as Ladysmith Snack Mambazo instead of Ladysmith Black Mambazo. They did a skit on Hot Pockets that way, and they did a skit on Ben and Jerry’s,” Greenwood said.

“It was just funny, well-done, so we called their office and said funny thanks, and we sent them some ice cream. And then Jimmy called back, and he said thanks,” Greenwood said. “He was really positive and complimentary.”

Greenwood said he visits New York City about once a month from the company’s Vermont headquarters, and on a trip to visit with The Colbert Report, he brought some ice cream for Fallon’s staff, and met with producer Mike Shoemaker and other producers. “We told them we wanted to highlight fair trade and if there’s a way we can do that with you,” then they could develop a Fallon flavor. “They were interested in a late-night theme,” he said. “His whole team was jumping in with suggestions, and potato chips was one of them.”

As far as Schweddy Balls goes, Ben & Jerry’s definitely took the lead in pursuing an SNL flavor. “We were interested in partnering with them! They’re a wonderful institution,” Greenwood said. “Over the last decade, we’ve approached them a number of times. This is one that we came up with that they appreciated. We think they liked the humor of it. It made sense in a lot of ways that it aligned.”

And since Fallon and SNL share a lot of overlap with top executives, it was easier to seal a deal.

Once the company decides to go forward with one of these celebrity-based flavors, who participates in the process of coming up with the appropriate ingredients?

“The first one, Cherry Garcia, Ben and Jerry sent a case over to the band,” Greenwood said, and reportedly, once word got to the late Jerry Garcia, he replied, “As long as they don’t name a motor oil after me, I’m fine with it.”

“We did a thing with Elton John two years ago, just for Vermont stores, when he was coming to town. We talked to his team and asked, if he had a flavor, what would he want?”

In other cases, the flavor comes first. “Our research and development team put this flavor together, peach cobbler, and we thought, who’d be the best fit for that?”

“With SNL we had the idea of what we wanted to do and it was pretty locked-in with the nature of the skit, we could send it over and say, ‘What do you guys think?'”

I remember the first time I visited the company factory in Vermont two decades ago, and at the end of the tour, we could write in our own suggestions for flavor names and ingredients, and if you liked it, you’d make it and send us free ice cream. Is that still a thing that exists?

“We still have an area on our website where people can make suggestions,” Greenwood said.

Although he was quick to point out that pretty much anything fans have dreamed up, already have been cooked up and discussed and debated about over the decades in Ben & Jerry’s marketing meetings.

“When we came out with Imagine Whirled Peace, one of the ingredients we used was fudge peace signs,” he said, and they received an email from a customer claiming the idea. “Yeah, we’ve had 130 people suggest fudge peace signs over the past five years.”

But Greenwood added: “Cherry Garcia is our number-one flavor, that was a suggestion from a fan.”

He said they receive about 17,000 suggestions a year for new flavors.

The most recent suggestion that turned into an actual flavor? “Karamel Sutra was actually a suggestion by a writer in New York, who suggested the name Karamel Sutra, and then we put the flavor together.”

Have there been other comedians, sitcoms or comedies that the company thought about basing flavors upon, and for one reason or another never produced? Any of those make it at least partially through the process?

“Oh, tons,” Greenwood said. “We usually don’t talk about them because we might go back to them. If we had talked about Saturday Night Live 10 years ago, someone else might have done that before us. We try to guard those.”

“We’ve definitely talked about lots of other comedians, people you could see would be an easy Ben & Jerry’s fit, who are progessive and left of center,” he said. “Part of our process is vetting it through, so once you start making samples….when you get to the point of making it in the lab, it’s a very sizable investment.”

Have comedians or celebrities approached you directly to have their own flavor?

“We definitely have some people who call, and say, ‘We want a flavor,'” Greenwood said. “We don’t just want to be a celebrity ice cream brand, though.”

If out of 35 pints in the freezer section, you see a few celebrity flavors, that’s a good ratio for the company to maintain. “Even if it has funny names on them. I think that’s our plan. I dont think we want to roll one out every four months. That’s not special.”

Even just having two late-night comedians as flavors made the company wonder if that may be too many. “What’s next? David Letterman’s Old Bitter Nut Crunch? I kid. I love Dave! But Jimmy, that was organic. That just came up. That was too great an opportunity to pass up.”

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Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

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