In recent internet news, everyone lost their minds over a review of the Olive Garden in Grand Forks, North Dakota written by an 85 year-old woman named Marilyn Hagerty. Like anything found on the internet today written without a trace of irony, to many people this review reeked of parody. Surely no one could write such a sincere, effusive, and praiseworthy review of a chain Italian restaurant without coating it in about eight layers of winking irony and flawless deadpan. This had to be one of Conan’s writers, right?
Nope. This was just the food critic of the Grand Forks Herald giving her honest to goodness opinion of “the largest and most beautiful restaurant now operating in Grand Forks” a month after it opened because “the lines were long in February.” We all know no one can be serious anymore, lest you get mocked mercilessly for having a real opinion about something, so I’m not here to pile on that stale eulogy. I’m more interested in this question: What does this mean?
My favorite television show on the air right now is “Parks and Recreation.” I think the biggest reason I like it so much is that these characters don’t know they’re funny. As Steve Heisler of the AV Club notes in his review of the excellent “Dave Returns” episode, “Parks & Rec is made up of everyone that sat at the uncool table in high school. But I sat at the uncool table, and let me tell you, those were some mighty fine folks who learned not to give a fuck about what anyone thought about them.”
Tom’s a nerd who can’t differentiate between movies and real life. Leslie and Ben are obvious nerds. Ron’s a weird outcast who doesn’t like anybody, and so is April. Chris is wildly off-putting in his intensity. Andy is like a golden retriever who’s sense for what’s cool seems frozen in carbonite from when he was 14. Amazingly enough, the coolest one on this show is probably Donna, and she’s the one we know least about. These folks are all heart, no posturing. Everyone unabashedly reveres a pony. No one even acknowledges the sign shop is called “Signtologist,” which underlines how blissfully not clever everyone is (except the writers, who kill it every fucking week).
Compare this with a show like “The Big Bang Theory,” which I also enjoy. Ostensibly these people are nerds too, and while they have all the standard nerd signifiers in terms of hobbies, professions, and speech patterns, they’re some of the coolest people on the planet. Everyone on this show is ready with a quip. No one is ever at a loss for a witty rejoinder, a spirited turn of phrase, or a hearty zinger they just keep in their holster. It’s like a show where the entire cast is played by Don Rickles. If these characters were half as witty as they’re written, none of them would ever have girl trouble ever again.
Then you look at poor Tom Haverford, who, despite keeping a wardrobe that would make GQ’s Style Guy jealous, still can’t keep himself from acting like a complete goof. He bowls by walking up to the lane, spreading his legs wide open, and heaving it down the alley granny style. It’s hideously embarrassing to watch. Or take Ron, with his shame over his sexy saxophoning. He loves playing the role of Duke Silver, but hides it from the rest of the group. Total nerd move.
The point is, the characters of Parks and Recreation act like people you know. Most of the people I know aren’t actually clever. They sure as hell think they are, and after I get done ripping into something will say, “Wow. Why don’t you tell me how you really feel?” You can watch the satisfaction of unleashing that zinger wash over them like a shot of Wild Turkey even though that’s basically the hoariest joke in all the world.
In a lot of ways, the humor of today comes from re-purposing that kind of poorly executed honest attempt at wit into a shiny new package. Take the Twitter feed @DadBoner, which Hart will have more on tomorrow in Happy Friday. This character is every sad, suburban, divorced, middle aged loser you’ve ever known. He drones on about “top shelf margs” and thinks it’s really clever when he calls someone “kimosabe.” He talks about “power moves” and loves Seger.
This couldn’t possibly be real, right? Well, as you’ll read tomorrow, it likely isn’t. But DadBoner is such a joy to behold because you feel like you’re watching something pure. Something uncorrupted. Something uncool. Whereas so many on your Facebook wall are posturing trying to make themselves look engaged, and hip, and funny and important, DadBoner gushes obliviously about how great the new Taco Bell Doritos Locos Tacos are. Do you know anyone who would do this unironically without fear of getting publicly reprimanded by cool society?
Which brings me back to poor Marilyn Hagerty, who wrote a review of the Grand Forks, ND Olive Garden. The funniest part to me that everyone seems to miss, is that her opinion of the Olive Garden is pretty much exactly the opinion you’d expect an 85 year-old woman from North Dakota to have of the Olive Garden. If you were reading this 15 years ago, you’d go, “Yep. That’s about right.” If you read it at all.
And that’s why I think this review went viral. We’re bombarded by so much irony and having to decode everything in such a sophisticated way all the time, we yearn for something authentic. And when we find it, we almost can’t believe our eyes. How can this exist like this? It’s so uncorrupted! Look! She actually likes the décor of the Olive Garden! And she called the chicken alfredo “warm and comforting on a cold day”! Ha! Can you believe it?
Sometimes I wonder where we go from here. After the whole ironic t-shirt phase got old, I happened upon some “hyper ironic shirts.” These look like they have some sort of pun or hidden meaning or winking irony, but they don’t. For instance, one of the shirts has a picture of a covered bridge and it reads, “Oh my, what a lovely covered bridge.” There’s another with a picture of a fork, and it says, “I’m all out of clean forks!” What does it mean? Nothing. There is nothing there beyond what you see. You’re both thinking too hard about it, and not hard enough.
So how many steps of layered meaning do we need to encase everything in before we blow it all up and start back at square one where everyone just bluntly announces how they feel? I have no idea. But I do know that sooner or later we’ll all burn out on figuring out who’s being serious and who isn’t. Or what’s funny and what isn’t. As an intellectual exercise, consider this question: Is Jersey Shore intentionally funny or not? Take that in any direction you want.
In the meantime, I’ll be eagerly awaiting the next time someone from Iowa reviews their local Red Lobster and hipster douches everywhere re-tweet it endlessly and use the reviewer’s headshot as their new Twitter avatar.
15 Mar 2012 E Dagger