Monday, February 6, 2012

6 semi-obscure references the internet doesn't find as hilarious as I do

When the Washington Wizards recently fired head coach Flip Saunders, my first instinct was to rattle off a string of Twitter wisecracks about Flip’s early ‘90s tenure as coach of the minor league La Crosse Catbirds. “Wait a second,” I told myself, “Most people on the internet did not grow up in the greater La Crosse, Wisconsin area, where Flip’s back-to-back championships were the stuff of legend. Nor did most of your Twitter followers attend Flip’s remarkably half-assed basketball camp, the one where you shelled out good money to play in some pick-up games and watch Flip do a lot of ball-spinning tricks. Therefore, most of your audience will have no idea what you’re going on about.”

And so I kept my Flip Saunders-themed witticisms mostly to myself (mostly). There have been plenty of times, however, when my amusement over my many one-man in-jokes has gotten the better of me. If you’ve spent any internet time with me, here are a few choice references that may have caused your eyes to glaze over.

Throughout the 1970s, Robert Altman cranked out an unstoppable parade of critically beloved, paradigm-expanding cinema classics. Quintet is not one of those. It’s generally dismissed, if not outright reviled, as one of Altman’s greatest failures, but I quite like it. It’s a post-apocalyptic story set after the second Ice Age, when most of humankind has retreated underground to obsess over a game called Quintet. The actual gameplay of Quintet is incomprehensible, but apparently it sometimes involves killing one’s opponents and royally pissing off Paul Newman.

Anyhow, any time it gets treacherously cold in Minnesota (which is fairly often), I crack a joke or two about trying to get a Quintet pick-up game going. I have no evidence that anyone has ever laughed at these jokes. I remain undaunted.

Dino, Desi and Billy
I just can’t understand how anyone can not find it fascinating that the pubescent sons of Dean Martin, Desi Arnaz and their Realtor formed a boy band in the mid-1960s. Even with the participation of genius producer Lee Hazelwood and the best bunch of studio musicians money could buy, DD&B’s blandiose covers of age-inappropriate tunes like “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and “Like a Rolling Stone” are nothing short of hilarious to me (and me alone, apparently).

Nathan Jawai
Nathan Jawai was a third-string center for one of the worst teams my hapless Minnesota Timberwolves ever fielded (seriously – the guys in front of Jawai were Ryan Hollins and Oleksi friggin’ Pecherov). He was also the first Indigenous Australian to play in the NBA. Ordinarily a doughy big man with a limited skill set is a guaranteed fan favorite, but Jawai’s lack of any discernible personality kept him from joining the ranks of Greg Ostertag and Robert “Tractor” Traylor. The few Wolves fans who even acknowledged his existence seemed mostly unaffected by it. Case in point: I once spotted Jawai shopping at a local Best Buy. It’s hard to miss a 6’10”, 280-pound Aboriginal Australian wearing a full Timberwolves warm-up suit, yet somehow my wife and I seemed to be the only people in the store who recognized him.

Personally, I found Big Nate’s brief presence in Minnesota delightful. I try to work his name into basketball conversations any time I can. Thus far he has inspired no more enthusiasm online than he did on the court.

Ornette Coleman / Stan Brakhage
OK, so these guys aren’t entirely obscure. Coleman and Brakhage are renowned within their circles as pioneers of, respectively, non-melodic jazz and non-narrative film. Still, Ornette Coleman and Stan Brakhage jokes are relative rarities in most circles that don’t include me. My usual riff involves me juxtaposing the formless nature of the artists’ work with the expected conventions of their genres. I might crack a one-liner about having an Ornette Coleman dance-off, for instance, or heap praise on the narrative complexities of Brakhage’s Mothlight. Heady stuff, I know. Hard to believe I haven’t found much audience for it.

Remember that great sitcom Bob Newhart named after himself? No, not that one. No, not that one either. I’m talking about Bob. Oh, you mean you don’t remember Bob? Don’t worry, you’re far from alone.

Me, I loved the first season of Bob. I have no idea if it would hold up for me nowadays, but I like bringing it up in online conversations as though it was some buried gem of ‘90s comedy. The rest of the internet seems nonplused by my references to the insanity of casting Bob Newhart as the creator of a hard-edged superhero comic book called Mad Dog, the comedic timing of supporting comics nerds Chad and Albie, or the timeless allure of Cynthia Stevenson in her “serving wench” uniform. Even worse, the web’s bizarre embrace of Betty White last year left me feeling betrayed and sick to my stomach. Everybody knows that meddling producers scuttled Bob’s second season by shifting the setting to a greeting card company and casting Betty White as Bob’s sharp-tongued supervisor. I just don’t see how the rest of you can forgive and forget a thing like that.

Sheb Wooley
Back when Twitter was first gaining cultural currency, parody celebrity accounts were all the rage. I was a big fan of fake Nick Cave, fake Christopher Walken, fake Bill Walton and several more. When the time inevitably came for me to launch a parody account of my own, I decided not to go after anyone too obvious, but I didn’t want to be pretentiously obscure either. I wanted to choose someone who’d make people say both, “I can’t believe someone bothered making a parody account for ___” and “Wow, that ___ parody account is surprisingly spot-on.” My perfect middle ground: @Sheb_Wooley, a Twitter account dedicated to the posthumous musings of the semi-beloved novelty songwriter, cowboy actor and Hee Haw regular.

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For a while there, I counted @Sheb_Wooley as one of my proudest accomplishments. I focused on Sheb’s imaginary adventures on the fringes of the ‘60s and ‘70s Bakersfield and Hollywood establishments, making him a confidant of Clint Eastwood, Roy Clark and a wide array of my favorite character actors. (“When we were shooting ‘Josey Wales,’ I bet John Vernon $50 to eat a pair of cowboy boots. He only ate half of one but I paid up anyway.”) I found it all quite hilarious, but Sheb struggled to attract followers. His output pretty much petered out after a year, leaving 43 broken-hearted followers yearning for nonsensical anecdotes about Elisha Cook’s poker game and Buck Owens’ steamer trunk of mystery.


  1. Ornette Coleman as "non-melodic?" I know you're trying to be funny, but Ornette's always been *melodic.* What he threw to the wind was *harmony.* Pat Metheny is a big fan and even if you find Pat's stuff dull as drying paint, you can't say it's non-melodic (you can, but it would be inaccurate.)

    1. As an obsessive music lover who nonetheless harbors zero actual musical ability, I'm gonna admit that I don't understand the technical definition of "melody" and obviously ought to have gone with a different term. I was presuming "melodic" to be synonymous with "recognizably song-shaped." I appreciate the correction.

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