Here's pop culture critic Chuck Klosterman, in a 2005 interview with
espn.com columnist Bill Simmons:
Arguing about sports is the ultimate cultural equalizer: I can't think of
any subject that so many people know so much about. I feel like I personally
know at least 100 guys who have a "near expert" understanding of the NFL.
If you watch the games each week (and especially if you grew up watching the
games each week), you can easily have a 90-minute conversation about pro
football with a total stranger in any airport bar (assuming said stranger
has had a similar experience). There is a shared knowledge of sports in
America that is unlike our shared knowledge of anything else. Whenever I
have to hang out with someone I've never met before, I always find myself
secretly thinking, "I hope this dude knows about sports. I hope this dude
knows about sports. I hope this dude knows about sports." Because if he
does, I know the rest of the conversation will be easy.
This was a sentiment I'd encountered before. I've often heard sports lauded
for their ability to overcome all sorts of barriers, from emotional
estrangement — you know, "even when I could never talk to my dad
about anything else, I could talk to him about the Mets" — to the
"What else can I talk to my
about?" It's a good question. I mean, I'd love to live in a world where
I could kick off a conversation with "So, Alan Moore's really playing around
with intrapanel time duration in Neonomicon, eh?" or "Dude, I played
a killer double hane tesuji last night!" But I don't, so it's been helpful
to know a little bit about sports. Even more helpful, in my experience, has
been to know a little bit about Scooby-Doo.
On multiple occasions both in high school and college I was struck by the
way a group of relative strangers could suddenly wind up bantering like
lifelong friends once Scooby-Doo came up. If you're around my age you've
probably participated in the Scooby-Doo conversation a few times yourself.
"Hey, what d'you think Fred and Daphne got up to while the others were off
looking for clues?" "What were Scooby Snacks, anyway? Some kind of
dog amphetamines?" "Yeah, and what do you make of a guy named Shaggy who's
always got the munchies?" Etc., etc. If this sounds like the most horribly
clichéd Gen-X conversation you can imagine, that's because it was
countless conversations like these that spawned the cliché. So what
made them so compelling?
Let me start, as Nick Montfort does in Twisty Little
Passages, with the riddle. And as long as we're on the subject of
1970s cartoons, I'll use the riddle the Sphinx presented to Batman in an
episode of Superfriends:
What builds up castles and tears down mountains, makes some men blind and
helps others to see?
The answer, as Batman correctly guesses, is sand. What makes this a
satisfying riddle is that at first it seems so unlikely that there could
possibly be anything that meets all four divergent criteria, and then
suddenly the answer clicks into place: sandcastles, erosion, sandstorms,
glass lenses! It all fits!
From here it's a short step to the joke. The example that springs to mind is
one I've posted about before, quite possibly the funniest I've ever heard.
and I were out visiting her family in Long Island, and she and her brother
Scott were talking about how their two-year-old step-niece had been trying
to get out of a chair when it fell to pieces under her, leaving the poor kid
bawling with shock. That led to the following exchange:
Yeah, it was a real Incredible Hulk moment. Next
she'll be smashing through the wall.
Like Kool-Aid Man.
Except Kool-Aid Man never burst through the
wall and then collapsed into tears.
He did at Jonestown.
I think it was Immanuel Kant who first proposed the now widely accepted
notion that humor is rooted in incongruity. It looks to me like there are
at least three forms of incongruity here:
the transition from the goofy mascot for a crappy powdered beverage mix
to the horror of the mass murder/suicide in Guyana
the transition from the relatively innocuous context of a startled
toddler to that of a jungle compound blanketed with dead bodies
the use of something we
expect to encounter in a joke
as a punchline
But incongruity is only half the story. What really makes this joke work
is the fact that, like the answer to a riddle, the Jonestown reference
provides the pleasures of satisfaction. Unlikely as it seems that
there could possibly be a link between an anthropomorphic pitcher of fake
juice and the deaths of nearly a thousand cult members, we live in a strange
enough world that in fact the connection is
Adding immeasurably to the effectiveness of the joke is the fact that it
wasn't scripted; the notion of Kool-Aid Man collapsing into tears arose
organically out of the story of the broken chair. So not only does the
joke provide the satisfaction of an unexpectedly perfect fit, but the
listener is left marveling at the odds against such a perfect setup line
spontaneously presenting itself. (In the case of this listener, that
marveling manifested as several minutes of uncontrollable laughter.)
Now throw in one more factor: you actually have to get the references to
appreciate the joke. When you hear the word "Jonestown," you immediately
have to iterate through the associations it suggests: the acolytes drink
the poison, Kool-Aid Man comes bursting in with a hearty "OHH YEEAAAHHHH!!",
he looks around at the hundreds upon hundreds of corpses, his eyes fill with
horror... again, it all fits! And not only are you rewarded with the
satisfaction of seeing order emerge from chaos, but you get a little jolt of
self-affirmation. Yes! I had the requisite knowledge to put the pieces
together! Just as I thought, I am the sort of person who knows enough about
macabre moments in history to be able to pick up on what she's talking about!
The Mystery Science Theater guys always said that they didn't worry
about how obscure their references were because "the right people will get
it" — and I'm one of the right people!
This element is especially important where in-jokes and their cousin geek
humor are concerned. Example: a few years ago I was browsing a go web site
and happened across a page about an imaginary book called Get Strong at
Empty Triangle. I thought this was hilarious! See, there's a real
series called Get Strong — Get Strong at the Opening,
Get Strong at Invading, etc. — but the empty triangle is a
shape you want to avoid playing if at all possible! Why, that's like a
cookbook about how to burn food! What an incongruous title!
Okay, maybe it's not actually all that funny. But the explainable comedic
value of a joke is only part of how well it works. First of all, I enjoy
go, at least when I'm playing well; my thoughts on the topic are full of
pleasant associations, so the joke probably gets extra points from me for
triggering some of those, even if I'm not consciously aware of it. It also
gets a little boost up the incongruity scale, because if you actually read
the Get Strong books and spend a few moments in every game looking
for ways to avoid empty triangles, seeing them in a joke means processing
familiar concepts in an unfamiliar context, a key element of comedy. And
then there's the way the joke plays to a go player's sense of self. Again,
there's a bit of self-congratulation involved — hey, I get it!
I didn't need anyone to explain it to me! good job, me! — and a
bit of self-definition: not just anyone would get this joke! indeed, the
very fact that I get this joke is one of my distinguishing qualities!
Which brings me back to Scooby-Doo.
I think the reason Scooby-Doo was such a surefire conversation starter was
that, in addition to whatever comedic value the jokes contained —
and, c'mon, "dog amphetamines" is pretty funny — your ability to
participate in the Scooby-Doo conversation said a lot about you. It said,
"I spent my childhood steeped in this crap, just like you did." It said, "I
have also, quite possibly under the tutelage of David
Letterman, developed the ironic distance that allows me to see the sheer
inanity of this crap as hilarious, just like you have, to the extent that you
can keep up." It said, "On top of all this, just like you, I'm far enough
along into adolescence that I can recontextualize the show into a world full
of sex and drugs, and, jinkies, it's a better fit than you'd think, huh?"
And it said, "The fact that I get this means that I'm not one of the Baby
Boomers who've had a stranglehold on the culture for our entire lives and
show no sign of relinquishing it. Just like you, I'm an outsider."
And that's how Malcolm Gladwell, in his foreword to The Book of
Basketball, introduces Bill Simmons. "Bill is exactly like you or
me. He's a fan," Gladwell says, and "a fan is always an outsider." The
"insiders" in this case would be the mainstream sports reporters and
columnists who are expected to maintain at least the pretense of objectivity
and a modicum of decorum. Guys who, as Gladwell points out, depend on their
access to athletes and therefore have to make sure not to say anything
that'll make Kobe Bryant stop returning their calls. But by 2000, readers
were beginning to drift away from traditional sources of sports news and
towards these new things called blogs. This came as a surprise to a lot of
media magnates — why would you care what a bunch of nobodies, who
got all their sports information off TV just like you did, had to
say? — but it turned out that the audience for sportswriting
didn't want to hear from the voice of institutional authority all the time.
So on November 6th of that year ESPN added a new section to its web site:
"Page 2," which was billed as "an outstanding lineup of non-traditional
sportswriting" by such contributors as gonzo journalist Hunter S.
Thompson, political reporter Richard Ben Cramer,
and comedian Nick Bakay. Six months later, finding that this still wasn't
quite what the blog readers were looking for, ESPN just hired one of the
bloggers. Bill Simmons, the blurb at the bottom of his early columns said,
had been brought on board to give an "irreverent take on the sports scene."
He would openly root for certain players and
root against others, and brazenly mock the ones he hated. He would use
undecorous phrasings like "I just threw up a little in my mouth." He
would also eventually take over Page 2 to a great extent and become
the face of ESPN on the Internet, a position that he would parlay into a
New York Times #1 bestseller.
Gladwell, in the foreword to that bestseller, expands on the notion that
Simmons "is exactly like you or me," calling him not just a fan but "an
obsessive fan, in the best sense of the word." I don't know whether it's
the best sense, but the "obsessive" part is certainly on target. A lot of
people writing a book about basketball might do a chapter on their all-time
starting five, or even a full twelve-man team — fifteen if you
throw in injured reserve. Simmons writes up his entire personal Hall of
Fame, counting down from #96 (Tom Chambers) to #1
over the course of 339 pages, which is still less than half the book. He's
also the sort of guy who then treats the list that he pulled out of his ass
as if it were the product of some kind of mathematical formula. Here's what
he said about Kobe Bryant a couple of months ago: "In my book, I had him
ranked No. 15 as a Level Four guy. Last season's title moved him to
Level Five; I thought he'd move into the top eight if the Lakers made the
Finals again. Which they did. But if they win again? Now we have to talk
about Duncan's No. 7 spot." As Slate blogger Tom Scocca put it,
"Bill Simmons says that Kobe is so successful, Bill Simmons will have to
reconsider the place where Bill Simmons has put Kobe in basketball history."
That said... for someone who, among other things, reranks his
100 favorite songs at
least once a year, there was more than a twinge of recognition there.
I could also relate to the specifically NBA-related geekery on display. I
can't say that I'm a huge fan of pro basketball, but kind of by accident I
happen to know a lot about it; it was the sport that my parents occasionally
watched and which my brothers and I then picked up. There are things I hate
about it — above all else, the fact that fouling is such an
integral part of the game. Breaking the rules should never be advantageous!
On a related note, I hate how the referees play such a major role: because
multiple fouls could be called on just about every play, what the refs choose
to call and choose not to call has as much impact on the game as what the
players do. But there are also things I like about it. I like that on any
given possession the offense and defense are about equally likely to be
successful, rather than the offense needing to have 99 things go right to
get a score and the defense only needing one thing to go right in order
to prevent one. I like that at every moment a team is padding its lead or
losing it, catching up or falling behind, unlike the sports that amount to
two hours of anxiety about whether this will be the one moment in the match
that a sudden chaotic burst of activity will actually affect the scoreboard.
I like that basketball games often come down to a single set piece in which
players scramble for the most advantageous positions on the floor and then
one of them takes an all-or-nothing shot — even though I know
it's easier, I find making a buzzer-beater a much more impressive way to win
a game than hitting a home run, throwing a touchdown, or eluding a goalkeeper.
And what I like most, much more than the sport itself, is the fact that a
basketball team is small enough — fifteen people, twelve of whom
are allowed to play, eight to ten of whom actually do play, and five of whom
play at a time — that constructing one is an interesting inventory
puzzle. You're not fielding an army, like in football, or adding new talent
by signing thousands of Little Leaguers and hoping that a few of them make it
out of the minors, like in baseball. Draft picks, trades, and free agent
signings take on more weight in the NBA than in other sports leagues, and
there's a clear narrative to the rise and fall of the various teams from one
season to the next.
So I found that Simmons's chapters on the season-by-season history of the
NBA — right up to 1983-4, which by coincidence is the first
season I paid attention to — and on 33 alternate-history
scenarios — Jordan over Bowie, Len Bias lives, Kobe goes to
jail for rape, etc. — made for pretty absorbing intellectual
junk food. And I was amused by the basketball-geek humor in much the same
way that I was amused by Get Strong at Empty Triangle. Here's
Simmons on Paul Mokeski, backup center for the Milwaukee Bucks from
1982 to '89:
Mokeski was extraordinarily unathletic and ran like he had two prosthetic
legs; if that weren't enough, he tried to bring back the
curly-perm/wispy-mustache combo that should have died in the early eighties.
Throw in male pattern baldness and a disappearing chin and Mokeski looked
like a Jersey cop who should have been standing in a donut line.
This falls into the category of "it's funny because it's true," or, rather,
"it's funny because I already knew that it was true." It's funny for
the very fact that he's talking about Paul Mokeski at all, for the fact that
of all the obscure basketball players he could have brought up, he chose the
one who was a running joke when my brothers and I watched basketball. Even
my mother tried to get into the act — the Bucks played the Sixers
in the '83 and '85 playoffs and knocked them out in '86 and '87, and she used
to fume, "I don't like that
and Mohhh-keski!" And while that memory kind of makes me cringe, the
mere fact that I had a Mokeski-related memory to trigger gave me that little
glow of being in someone's target audience for once.
But then, this sort of thing has been part of sportswriting for a long time.
When I think of baseball writing in particular, I think of 40-year-old men
making in-jokes about, like, the right fielder for the 1937 Cincinnati Reds.
("Just for the heck of it: Kiki Cuyler.") Where Simmons departed from those
who came before him, and established himself as the flagship sportswriter of
Generation X, was in his insistence on tying sports to the broader
entertainment world. And yes, pop culture references have also been
part of sportswriting for a long time. ("Their playoff chances are as dead
as Michael Jackson with a case of swine flu!") But Simmons's chief gimmick
from the beginning has been extended interplay between sports and music,
sports and movies, sports and television. Here's a typical example, chosen
pretty much at random, from the section on Tim Duncan:
If you keep banging out first-class seasons with none standing out more
than any other, who's going to notice after a while? There's a precedent:
once upon a time, Harrison Ford pumped out monster hits for fifteen solid
years before everyone suddenly noticed, "Wait a second — Harrison
Ford is unquestionably the biggest movie star of his generation!" From 1977
to 1992, Ford starred in three Star Wars movies, three Indiana
Jones movies, Blade Runner, Working Girl, Witness,
Presumed Innocent and Patriot Games, but it wasn't until he
carried The Fugitive that everyone realized he was consistently more
bankable than Stallone, Reynolds, Eastwood, Cruise, Costner, Schwarzenegger
and every other peer. As with Duncan, we knew little about Ford outside of
his work. As with Duncan, there wasn't anything inherently compelling about
him. Ford only worried about delivering the goods, and we eventually
appreciated him for it.
When Simmons isn't making long-winded analogies like this, he's making
shorter ones. Again chosen at random, here he is on Gary Payton: "In Boston,
a washed-up Payton was still trying to beat guys off the dribble, posting up,
demanding to cover top scorers and sulking when he didn't get the ball. It
was like watching Jason Alexander order people around on the set of some
crappy sitcom ('Don't you realize who I am? I'm Jason Alexander!') and
failing to realize his time had come and gone." Then, a few lines later, in
a footnote about the praise Payton received for making some key plays in the
'06 playoffs: "What would be the equivalent in other walks of life? [...]
Springsteen getting a standing O at the Meadowlands after a rocking solo
in his new gig as the harmonica player for Modest Mouse?" You get the
picture. Imagine flipping on ESPN one night in 1993 and seeing thirty
seconds of Sportscenter followed by that
beer commercial with
the grunge-lite guys shooting pool while name-checking "Green Acres" and "The
Mod Squad." Take that sixty seconds of television, throw it into a blender,
and you've got Bill Simmons.
One thing about that commercial, though — the references are all
from the mid- to late '60s, which even if you take syndication into account
seems like a better match for the thirtysomethings at the ad agency than for
the characters onscreen. What struck me when I first encountered Simmons's
writing was that, even though he's five years older than I am, his references
were often eerily resonant with me. Like, when I was a kid, there were four
movies my brothers and I basically knew by heart, because we'd recorded them
off cable: in order of how frequently we watched the tapes, they were
Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, Rocky IV, The Karate Kid,
and (a fairly distant fourth) Teen Wolf. The last three of these are
movies Simmons cites incessantly. Even more than the Scooby-Doo
conversation — for what made the Scooby-Doo conversation work was
that pretty much everyone born at any point in the 1970s was familiar
with Scooby-Doo — the message drew me in: "I spent my childhood
steeped in the exact same crap you were! Except I was actually well
into my teens! But still!"
Now, as noted, there was more to the Scooby-Doo conversation than just that.
What about the ironic distance? Does Simmons do ironic distance? Oh, yes.
In fact, as I noted in my Late Shift article,
Simmons overdoes ironic distance:
[...] while Leno's comedy succeeds or fails with each individual joke,
Letterman's is more about communicating an overarching worldview. Spend
enough time watching Letterman and eventually you don't need him to
recontextualize things for you [...] The problem is that while this wry
view of the world can help you find humor in things without needing a
comedian to supply the punchlines for you, it's also apparently pretty
easy to cross the line into deciding that therefore everything is funny.
Bill Simmons is a good example of this. His
falls asleep in front of the television set? Knee-slapping hilarity!
A football player looks moderately chagrined after a loss? Uproarious
laughter! A blue car? Comedy GOLD!
There is practically nothing that doesn't break the needle off Simmons's
Unintentional Comedy Scale; when he wrote a
column about it he listed 250 items (Paul Mokeski was #205) and has
added about 250 more items on a weekly basis over the course of the
subsequent eight years. The problem is that not everything is funny. And
here is where, for all the pop culture touchstones we seem to have in
and for all of Malcolm Gladwell's assurances that "Bill is exactly like
you or me," I find myself starting to wonder if he might not be my polar
When I was in high school, I read an essay by William Golding of Lord of
the Flies fame that asserted that there were three types of thinking.
Grade-three thinking meant going along with what everyone else thought.
Grade-two thinking was reflexive contrarianism.
And grade-one thinking was the genuine search for truth. It wasn't a very
good essay, but the tripartite system it proposed stuck with me, and it
later struck me as a helpful way to think of the evolution of the typical
Gen-Xer's relationship to pop culture. Grade three: you spend your
childhood steeped in crap, enjoying it because you don't know any better.
Grade two: you reach adolescence and come to realize how insipid the vast
majority of pop culture is, but love it all the more because laughing at it
is even more fun than laughing with it. (In college I visited a high school
friend who had turned his room back home into an ironic shrine to the Fonz
and was working on a comparable collection of Pac-Man paraphernalia. I
agreed that this was indeed truly epic comedy.) Grade one: you finally
grow up and focus on stuff that's actually, y'know, good. There was
a brief window in the 1990s when this seemed to be happening on a wide
scale, as pop culture significantly improved: some great bands arrived on
the scene and actually broke onto mainstream playlists, some very good
movies turned up in the theaters... there were even a few TV shows that were
surprisingly decent. And then all of that went away. We were, after all,
the baby bust, and the kids in the next generation outnumbered us. Once
their purchasing power started to outstrip ours, the culture reconfigured
itself around pop quintets grown in vats by the marketing wings of lunchbox
manufacturers. Those who continued to seek out quality were forced to turn
away from the mass market — and since different people have
different tastes, they fled in different directions. Call it narrowcasting,
or microtrending, or the "long tail"... the conventional wisdom among the
observers I read was that pop culture was fragmenting, and that you and your
peers were likely to end up with fewer and fewer common references as time
marched on. And that certainly jibed with my experience: