He can handle both comedy and drama with aplomb and is always ready for a fight, a shootout, even a dance sequence. He’s a descendant of an Olympian, never complains and is always prepared to work. And while he has starred in some memorable scenes in recent years, he never tries to steal the best lines from his co-stars, even as he towers over them—literally, because he’s twenty feet tall.
The inflatable air dancer—also known by various aliases, such as the dancing tube man—spent years in the limited role of storefront shill, but lately he’s made his mark in television as the go-to prop in shows like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, American Dad, Rectify, Broad City, Better Call Saul and Brockmire. (The air dancer has also been used as a comic foil in ads for companies like DirecTV, and earlier this month it even made an appearance in a New Yorker cartoon.)
“There’s something in the zeitgeist,” says Rectify creator Ray McKinnon, who adds that the “flailing inflatable man” gets cast because while “he doesn’t have great range, he always brings it every day.”
Ironically, the air dancer’s move into TV comes as its promotional career in car lots around the country has been in decline. The dancer’s origins trace back to the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, when Trinidadian artist Peter Minshall conceived of large air-filled puppets for the opening ceremonies; an Israeli artist, Doran Gazit, brought it to life, although the 60-foot high Tall Boys (Minshall’s name) or Flyguys (Gazit’s moniker) had two legs and no faces. They made another appearance at the 1998 Super Bowl halftime show, and soon Gazit was licensing out the concept; at some point they morphed into the single-legged, smiley creatures that dotted the landscape over the course of the last two decades, especially at car dealerships. (They also turned out to be good scarecrows, particularly with reflective strips added on.)
“I never considered it having a history,” says Gordon Smith, who wrote “Inflatable,” the Better Call Saul episode in question, and who learned of its background listening to a podcast. “I always thought it was just part of cultural landscape.”
The air dancer became so popular that many cities, including Houston, began banning them, and gradually these colorful distractions started disappearing from roadsides… even as they became more popular on TV. Seth McFarlane turned to animated versions on two different shows—Family Guy, which had a mock ad for a store selling “Wacky Waving Inflatable Arm Flailing Tube Man” in 2005, and American Dad, in which Stan gets pummeled by an air dancer. In 2010, It’s Always Sunny brought one on board a party boat, where Dee (Kaitlin Olson) learned dance moves from it.
But it took peak TV to provide the air dancer with its artistic credentials.
On Rectify—a brilliant, slow-burning SundanceTV series, about a family and a town coping with the release of Daniel (Aden Young), who was wrongly imprisoned on death row for 19 years—the inflatable man outside the family’s tire shop was a regular presence. In the fourth and final season, Daniel’s stepbrother, Teddy (Clayne Crawford), drunk and suffering as his own life unravels, grabs his rifle and tries to shoot the dancing tube, only to have a bullet ricochet off the base and hit him in the leg. It’s a scene that could play as slapstick, but instead inspires sympathy for a man who’d begun the series as one of its most unlikable characters. The rookie season of IFC’s Brockmire, which ended in May, uses an air dancer to show Hank Azaria’s title character as a pitiable creature, a fallen star so close to rock bottom that he takes out his frustrations by getting into a one-sided brawl with an air dancer.
McKinnon says the air dancer was originally just a secondary prop. But in the Season One episode in which Daniel attacks Teddy at the store, this silly bit of fabric was elevated to the stature of the eyes of TJ Eckleburg in The Great Gatsby: “Daniel and Teddy thought they were the only two there, but really there [were] three, and this thing was watching it all. It felt like that in Teddy’s mind, who saw the flailing inflatable man as mocking him. So it became a wonderful character.”
Two seasons later, McKinnon came up with the idea that “Teddy would get drunk and shoot the son-of-a-gun and that it would backfire. We put it in the final season as the further humbling of Teddy, because he needed it.” It’s a crucial moment in the character’s arc, the culmination of a nuanced and memorable transformation.
Better Call Saul went the opposite route, using an air dancer to inspire Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk), even if all he was aspiring to was self-sabotage. McGill had been trying to tough it out at a buttoned-down law firm, but he wanted out, needing to set loose his inner Saul (the irrepressibly loud one viewers know from Breaking Bad), and a colorful air dancer showed him the way. In an exuberant and funny montage—one of many excellent montages in the series’ first three seasons—Jimmy reinvents himself as a flamboyant and tactless pest that the firm just has to fire (letting him keep his bonus), establishing AMC’s spinoff as a show that stood on its own two feet (as opposed to the air dancer, who remained on just one).
Smith says that Melissa Bernstein, an executive producer on both Better Call Saul and Rectify told him the latter show had already introduced an air dancer, but Smith felt the roles were different enough that it wouldn’t be an issue. McKinnon jokes that Better Call Saul knew they could use the same character because “only 20,000 people saw our show.”
“We were looking for something that could give Jimmy the idea to go loud and get fired, something he could come across,” Smith says. “It took a lot of discussion to find the right thing. These things are larger than life and colorful, a lightning rod for attention—once we came up with that, we realized it was like Jimmy’s spirit animal.”
The air dancer’s appeal, he adds, is that “it’s banal but also very vivid and over the top.” And it can be adapted to just about any show, he says. “There’s something to the blankness of it that lends itself to people putting whatever they want to on it—it’s an empty symbol.”