Thank you, Stephen Colbert

Hello TedQuarters. I am procrastinating. I have actual, paid work I should be doing, but it’s a beautiful Saturday on the Upper East Side. And while I caffeinate, I figured I’d stop by my old haunt here to pay tribute to one of the people who indirectly made it possible. More on that soon.

As for that actual, paid work: It’s still happening, and you should check it out. The transition from writing for an extremely niche audience — Mets fans who want to know what I had for lunch — to the much broader one understandably preferred by USA Today took more of an adjustment than I expected, but I think I’ve finally found a way to marry the style that drove this site with the one necessary to appeal to more casual baseball fans. I’ve been pretty happy with my output lately, which is rare for me, and I suspect you’ll enjoy it too.

Anybody who regularly read this site likely noticed my appreciation for The Colbert Report, since I referenced it a bunch and posted videos wherever applicable. But this you may not know: In college, I hosted a sports-comedy TV show called The Award-Winning SaxaCenter Program. (It was initially just called SaxaCenter, but then we won an award.)

I pray daily that clips from the show — archived somewhere on VHS — never surface on the Internet, since it was generally more juvenile than good, and I try to maintain some semblance of professionalism now that I have a job and a wife and rent to pay and everything. I had a lot of fun making it and don’t regret it at all. But many of the things college kids do are best contained to college audiences. I’m sure you understand.

As the host of the show, I “played,” so to speak, a sort of exaggerated, pompous, ridiculous version of myself. My co-host usually served as my foil, playing a more pathetic version of himself. I never really considered it creating a character, but that’s what was happening. Acting has always come pretty naturally to me, and being myself on camera absolutely does not. (If you saw early SNY.tv videos, you watched me struggle to tone down my instinct for ironic shtick in a studio setting that felt wholly artificial to me. It made for awful web video, and I appreciate our producers for sticking with me while I tried to figure it out.)

I remember calling that college co-host the day after the Colbert Report debuted on Comedy Central in 2005, a couple years after we graduated. Our conversation went like this:

“Dude, did you see the Colbert Report?” I asked, dejectedly.

“Yeah…”he said.

“F@!#.”

That was the only time I ever lamented the program’s existence, but it did frustrate me at first. My dream, at that point, was to someday create a professional version of the show we had in college, to convince someone to pay me to make jokes about sports. And Colbert’s character, from Day 1, was a better-developed, funnier, more polished version of the obnoxious caricature of myself that I had used to make jokes about sports.

I knew immediately that Stephen Colbert was doing what I wanted to do better than I could ever do it, even if he was covering a different subject matter. And I realized that if I were to pursue it, I would inevitably look like I was ripping him off — even if it was something I started doing years before his show even existed.

It didn’t stop me from making jokes or liking sports, of course, since I made jokes and liked sports long before either became part of my professional ambitions. But it did force me to alter my hopes and expectations for whatever I would do in life. Keep in mind: This was before I had my first job in this career. I was in grad school, and prepping high-school kids for the SATs to help pay for it.

I loved the show from the start. Colbert is, I think, still underrated even after all the accolades. He’s a viciously talented guy, so good at and so dedicated to staying in character that its easy to forget he’s in character at all. He ad-libs in character. He conducts interviews in character. He creates SuperPACs in character. He hosted the White House Correspondents Dinner in character. It’s outrageously impressive, and totally punk rock.

About six months after Colbert Report first aired, I stumbled into a job at MLB.com. There, eventually, they let me start writing about the Mets on SNY.tv. In early 2008, I was hired by SNY proper, where they let me continue writing about the Mets, and soon let me write jokes for The Nooner — a well-intentioned but largely underwhelming and under-viewed daily sports-comedy web show.

They let me write. That’s kinda important to note. Maybe they even wanted me to write. But they never told me to write, and it was made pretty clear — especially at first — that I was not hired to write. I’m not bitter about it now, nor do I really blame them. Lots of people want to write, and if they wanted a full-time writer at my salary, they easily could have found someone a lot more established.

Regardless, I like writing, and I saw writing for The Nooner as an opportunity to make jokes about sports, even if it wouldn’t be me on camera telling the jokes. But despite our best efforts, the show kind of sucked. It’s just too hard for a writing staff of two dudes with limited experience to come up with five minutes’ worth of funny but generally inoffensive jokes about New York sports by 10 a.m. every weekday without chronically repeating themselves.

When writing, of course, I try my best to write things I will be proud of. And with The Nooner, I wanted to make jokes I found funny even if I knew they’d never be credited to me, and even if I realized half of them would get cut from the script for being too strange or too edgy or too stupid. Pages upon pages of jokes I wrote that no one but me and the other guy and our boss ever heard — many of which I still find funny — were lost forever when SNY reformatted my old computer. But again, no regrets: All good practice.

And I learned something about myself while trying to make those jokes: On mornings I watched the Colbert Report, I liked my output a lot more. It was never really a conscious thing. But I think, as someone who has always wanted to write comedy in some form, hearing good jokes makes me think about why they work and helps me better understand exactly what I think is funny. Maybe everyone does that. I can only speak for me, obviously.

So I started watching TiVo’d episodes of The Colbert Report every morning before I left for the office as something of a warmup, a habit that continued when they let me start writing this site. And I guess I recognized — again, not really consciously — that the best jokes are usually the most truthful and honest ones, even if they’re presented as sarcasm or satire.

Because that’s the most impressive thing about Colbert, I think: He manages to poke fun at nearly every aspect of our ridiculous political landscape in a deceptively nuanced way without ever seeming like he’s taking himself (or anything) too seriously. It’s a credit to him, his on-air persona, and his writing staff, and something I think often gets overlooked because we’re all too busy laughing to think about it critically. Which is the point, I suppose.

Writing here daily, I made honesty and clarity my overarching goals. So it might seem counterintuitive that one of its prevailing influences would be a show so firmly established as satire. But it was. I’ve always liked sports, but I never read much sportswriting before I started doing it myself.

Certainly I pick up bits and pieces from other sportswriters, taking note of what I like and what I don’t and doing my best to incorporate the former into my work. But if I’m being honest about the people that most influenced the way I think and the way I write, it’s a pretty short list: My family, my friends, a handful of dead novelists, a couple of songwriters, and Stephen Colbert.

Which is all a long-winded way of explaining why the news that Colbert will replace David Letterman on the Late Show nearly moved me to tears: It’s some form of pride for someone I’ve never met but long appreciated, and happiness for the remarkably redeeming reminder that sometimes the all-too-often misguided whims of mass media do reward the stealthy type of honesty, grace, talent and integrity that I strive for — that every so often the cream really does rise to the top.

I’m not saying I think I am or ever will be as good at anything as Stephen Colbert is at being Stephen Colbert, only that I feel vindicated by knowing that his ability and his dedication to it were enough to get him tapped for one of the top jobs in his game. And it makes me want to give the real Colbert — Stephen Colbert (person), not Stephen Colbert (character) — a big ol’ hug. I hope in his final performance on the real show, he can break character long enough for a curtain call, so the audience can give the real guy behind the persona the prolonged standing ovation he deserves.

I studied art in grad school, which does not exactly prepare a student for a career in sportswriting, or anything. But I loved it, because I loved the way it taught me to think and the way it helped me understand what I love about the art I love.

There’s a common thread: All of my favorite things, in every medium, combine the confidence that comes from technical mastery with the transparent joy of an artist who absolutely loves what he’s doing. I think that’s there in Dali’s best paintings and Hendrix’s best guitar solos, and I see it in Orson Welles’ performance in Citizen Kane and Frank Lloyd Wright’s design for Fallingwater and Biggie’s second verse on “Warning.”

And it’s there, definitely, in The Colbert Report every night. And I think, even more than the jokes, that’s what has made the show so helpful to me in my own creative pursuits for the last six years. Colbert is incredible at what he does, and he makes it look incredibly fun.

That should be the goal, I think, for everyone working in any medium, whether it’s sculpture or spreadsheets or woodworking or writing about shirtless photos of Harry Caray. It sounds so simple, but I think it’s all that really matters: Love what you do, and be great at it.

I talked to a college kid a few days ago about his lofty career goals, and it got me thinking about myself in college and my own silly 21-year-old dreams. But then I realized, for the first time, that I’m now doing exactly what I always wanted to do: I get paid to write jokes about sports.

I’m not trying to brag. It’s incredible. And though I may grumble sometimes about some aspects of my job like everyone grumbles sometimes about aspects of his job, I know I’m incredibly lucky.

And I think I owe it, in part, to a TV show that served as a daily reminder of what I want to do and how I want to do it. So thank you, Stephen Colbert. Enjoy being the Alpha Dog.

Friday Q&A, pt. 2: Food stuff and randos

Man, I haven’t even thought about it yet. Actually, I haven’t even thought about the Super Bowl much at all. I’ve spent most of my days wrapping things up at the office, and most of my nights struggling with jetlag and trying to sleep. Joe Flacco favors Haribo Gold-Bears, as I do. That’s about all I’ve got, Super Bowl wise. I pretty much missed the NFL Playoffs.

I’ll probably have wings. That’s unoriginal, I know, but I haven’t had much time to plan a menu, I certainly haven’t ordered ahead, and I’m totally sweet at making wings. So I’ll get to Fairway and buy up some wings (assuming they’re not already sold out) and Buffalo those suckers up. Maybe I’ll talk my wife into making guacamole, and probably she’ll be excited enough for her first Super Bowl in years without any looming obligations that she’ll do it. So I’ll have wings and guacamole, like everyone else. And then I’ll fall asleep in my easy chair before halftime, because this jetlag.

Yes! We ate incredibly well in Southeast Asia. A lot of that meant stuff we already knew about — pad prik king, pho, banh mi and the like. But some popular regional foods were new to us, especially khao soi in Northern Thailand and cao lau in Hoi An, Vietnam. They’re both noodle dishes, and, interestingly, they both include both boiled and fried noodles. But the similarities end there: The khao soi noodles are swimming in a yellow curry broth with vegetables, the cao lau are served with fresh pork, lime and an array of fresh herbs. They’re both amazing, and I’ve used Menupages.com‘s find-a-food search to figure out where I’m going to try both in New York.

I’m not sure it counts as cultural, but the most eye-opening thing was definitely the difference in traffic patterns and roads. I think Americans — at least this one — tend to take our infrastructure for granted, but it’s pretty amazing the way so much of the contiguous part of this country is linked by our interstate system, and how you can drive in a reasonably direct path from anyplace to anyplace mostly via huge, well-paved two- and three-lane highways. In Ho Chi Minh City, a bustling, modern metropolis of over nine million people, we needed to take all sorts of odd sidestreets and alleys to get from the airport to our hotel — and our hotel was close to the center of town. I don’t know if it was something the driver was doing to skirt traffic or what, but it was enough to make a lifelong New Yorker appreciate the Van Wyck. And the traffic inside Ho Chi Minh City is unlike any I’ve seen anywhere: thousands upon thousands of mopeds and seemingly far, far fewer traffic lights per intersection than we’re accustomed to, creating an oddly ordered chaos expertly and somewhat patiently negotiated by the locals but appearing completely overwhelming to tourists. Check out some of the videos on YouTube. It’s mesmerizing.

And all that’s to say nothing of the grueling songthaew trips we took in Southern Laos, which were amazing and confusing enough to make for their own blog post sometime when I’m not charged with cleaning out my desk before getting out of here.

Friday Q&A, pt. 2: Food stuff and randos

I’m tempted to say the Breaded Steak from Ricobene’s, the highest rated sandwich ever reviewed on this site, but I’m pretty sure I’d go with the Full Bird, the sandwich that made me love sandwiches. I think I’d want something comforting in my final hours on earth, and that’s a sandwich that makes me feel like I’m at peace with everything, and home.

No disrespect to the bankers out there, but no. I do often dream of having much more money, though, and banking would probably be a good way to get about that. But I really don’t have the head for the particulars; I’d start thinking about how much money changes hands, and how that money rarely takes physical form and is instead just this weird ethereal wealth-cloud zipping through wires and how serious everyone’s being about this formless thing that seems six steps removed from anything of real, tangible value, and then I’d giggle a lot and lose focus on whatever banking stuff I’m supposed to be doing. Also, I don’t even really know what bankers do.

I think the only way I could actually do it would be as concept art. I’m not even sure if it’s true, but I read one time about David Byrne scheduling business meetings with executives, then showing up and putting on bizarre Powerpoint art presentations. I think I could do that type of banking.

Thin, definitely. No one wants a steak-sized portion of deli ham. Thinner slices allow for better ribboning, and better ribboning makes for better sandwiches. That’s proven.

One issue I’ve had though is it feels like people go so crazy with requesting their deli meat sliced thin that everyone’s always trying to one up each other, like, “Sliced extra thin!” First off, the deli man at anyplace worth its salt knows that you probably want your meats sliced thin, so even if you don’t say anything you’re going to get reasonably thin slices of meat. Second, there’s no “extra thin,” at least not that you want. When you specify you want your meat sliced thin, the guy’s going to set the slicer to make it about as thin as it can be without shredding the meat. Extra thin is a big (delicious) pile of shredded meat that’s impossible to do anything with after it’s wrapped up and it basically reconstitutes.

At good New York pizza places, they’re largely unnecessary. A good, well-proportioned slice of New York cheese pizza is like a perfect thing. There’s no need to upset the balance. Sometimes I’ll order one slice of cheese and one slice of something meaty (buffalo chicken, perhaps) for the sake of having protein, but chicken works better than pork on pizzas — and no disrespect to pork here, obviously — because pork is crazy greasy and so is pizza.

Also: Pepperoni pizza is wildly overrated. It’s fine, and I’m not going to turn down a slice if you hand me one. But I would way rather you give me a small stack of thinly sliced cold pepperoni and a slice of cheese pizza than watch bake that pepperoni onto the pizza. Not a synergistic relationship. Once the pepperoni heats up, the fat drips out and the pizza becomes unreasonably greasy.

Do you eat seafood and shellfish, or no? This sushi sandwich was awesome. And if I could eat lobster rolls without getting sick from them, I would do so as often as my budget would allow. Plus, I’ve recently decided to learn to like fish, so I’ll get back to you with more ideas if you’re open to fish.

If not, it’s pretty much falafel. The upside is that falafel’s amazing. Also, I’ve heard really good things about the broccoli sandwich at No. 7 Sub, but I’ve never been able to bring myself to order it when there are so many meatier options.

Our man Ceetar’s referring to a weird recent Twitter thing wherein I have been accused (by many people, multiple times) of Tweeting as @JedSmed, a now defunct account known for making jokes about the Mets. It’s just not true. I don’t particularly care if people think it’s true, but I don’t want to take credit for the guy’s material either. Also, I can’t understand why anyone thinks I’d do that. I make jokes about the Mets on Twitter under my own name, both for sad pathetic Twitter validation and because it increases my exposure and helps me promote this site. Why would I put effort into making other jokes about the Mets on a second, anonymous account? Also, I write thousands of words here every day and manage all the real-job parts of my job, to boot. How much time do people think I have?

I started a fake Twitter once. I’m not going to tell you what it is. It was a stupid meta-joke about fake Twitters, no one seemed to get it, and it lasted about two weeks. That was the only time I’ve been moved to do so. Have I mentioned that I’m incredibly vain? I like having my jokes attributed to me.

Droppin’ science

I’ve got a busy morning. Here are two of my favorite humans, Neil deGrasse Tyson and GZA, discussing science and hip-hop. Tyson has a Ph.D. in astrophysics from Columbia and a list of accolades as infinite as the cosmos, so it’s awesome to see how impressed he is with The (other) Genius. But that’s part of what makes Tyson so awesome:

Humanity’s pinnacle achieved

I don’t want to oversell this, but I’m pretty sure this kid who calls himself HandFartMaster on YouTube is the greatest artist since the dawn of human ears and hands. He’s got versions of “The Cave,” “Hallelujah,” “Comfortably Numb,” “Let it Be,” and Pachelbel’s “Canon in D,” all performed with hand farts. Can this possibly be real?

Via Vulture.