Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The End of Excellence

“They don't want you to be too good.” This was spoken to me by a man who has one of the hardest-to-get jobs on the planet—a Major League Baseball umpire. It's easier to become a brain surgeon. And in both those jobs, you'd think they'd want the best, right?

Guess again.

The ump explained to me, “When you first come up, you can't hustle too much or look too good. The old guys get mad.” Of course. That makes perfect sense.

Look at America Dances with Bachelor Apprentice Idols and all that other pap the networks foist upon us. I realize that tone-deaf people out there actually think these singers on Idol are extremely talented. People with summer-in-Nome IQs can tell that most of these “vocalists” are there for some star quality or frat-prank hairdo or sexual deviation. I can dish up a couple of dozen wedding-band singers in FairCoun alone who could go out there with one vocal cord tied behind their backs and wow the country.

What people watching this white zinfandel group of shows don't realize is that these series are to networks what a soft drinks are to Mickey D's: cash cows. The only “talent” they pay are the judges. No location shooting, no stunt doubles no crowd scenes. In its day, a single episode of “Friends” probably cost more to produce than a whole season of one of these schlockapaloozas.

Imagine a singer with the pipes of Linda Ronstadt or Karen Carpenter (perhaps two of the purest voices in pop history) trying to get on one of these shows. No soap, dudesses. You're too good. Plus you don't engage in histrionics, have enough piercings or deliver Mariahesque whistle notes of dubious pitch and quality.

Did I say quality? Sorry. Note to America: It's not the highest note, the fastest picking, the size of the drum kit, the thickness of the burger. There's a hackneyed word, so old-school that one does not dare speak it too loudly: technique.

I have watched Survivor exactly once. Some guy excelled at pole sitting or some other ridiculous physical feat. Of course, he was immediately voted off the show. Too good.

How about the guys in the Domino's commercials with chef hats on? That's about as apropos as Camryn Manheim in a thong. Chef of what? I am thankful to live where I am, surrounded by hundreds of pizzerias, staffed by people who actually care about what they make and plate up. (Yes, there will be an all-pizza column forthcoming, even though I rarely eat the stuff anymore.)

We use real cheese, the chains brag. As opposed to … don't ask. Yes, I'm sure Domino's mass-produced Bridgestone mozz is real cheese. But maybe, ya think, that hand-pulled scamozz' that someone made with love and pride might be just a scoche better? Or fresher?

And yet people all overt his country continue to buy this slop. I guess PBR-besodden college kids make up a good portion of this audience. But face it, Domino's (and all their crapalicious ilk) need to put out product that any minimum-wage prole can slap together—and be sullen at the same time.

It's why there's a slew of T.G.I.McChilis in Times Square—so people from Ohio have a place to eat.

Don't be too good in school, either. Every “learner” is equal. Administrators don't care about the brighter kids; it's getting the “learning delayed” slackers to boost their scores on standardized tests to make the school look better. I know of a middle school where students who score low on tests (do NOT say the “f” word!) get to stay in at recess and re-take the test until they passed. Imagine if drivers' tests were like that. “Grandma finally got her license!” The result: good-bye Geico--and your annoying gecko.

I had the pleasure of teaching a high school student I'll call Jameer. He was a teacher's dream: well-behaved, exceedingly bright, self-effacing and consummately industrious. When he was a senior, he asked me to write a letter of recommendation for him to an Ivy League school. I didn't hesitate. The ink on the form was fairly phosphorescent. I remember saying, “This student will handle whatever challenges you throw at him—and he will surpass your expectations.”

Before long, a sour-pussed guidance counselor called me on the carpet. “It's about Jameer,” she said. “You can't write a recommendation like that.”

“Well, I did.” Now I'm sure the last smile this woman allowed was when Billie Jean King came out.

“Mr. Holleran, Jameer's SAT scores are not even close to what the Ivies expect.”

“Maybe he's not good at that test. He's brighter than half the teachers here.” It went downhill from there.
Jameer ended up at UConn, with near-perfect grades in chemistry. He now makes a ton of money for a pharmaceutical firm.

Once, a local couple who were intent on The Right Thing decided, in between trips to Bloodroot, to host a drum circle. Now, I'm not sure what goes on at these gatherings; perhaps it involves thongs as well, plus quinoa and patchouli. But I was intrigued and accepted their invitation. When I asked what I could bring, the host said, “Well, we actually don't want you to drum. You see, you really know how to play, and it's not about that.” I went to Bloodroot instead. KIDDING!

Back in my copywriting days, it helped to dumb it down. Once I was on the road with my boss and clients. We went to a German restaurant favored by the client. When I heard the restaurateur's accent, I switched to German (contrary to popular belief, I actually did learn a smidge in college.). He was delighted to talk with me, and I dusted some dreck off my Deutsch.

My boss took me aside and said, “Don't speak German with the guy. It makes me look bad in front of the client.”

At another firm, our job was simply to lay out a pre-written ad. It was for an insert in the Sunday Times magazine. Not the Sheboygan Times, either. I happened to glance at the first layout. The headline blared:


I raised the red flag for my boss: “You can't use the verb to lay there.”

The boss: “Why not?”

Lay is a transitive verb; it takes an object. The correct verb form would be lying.”

“No way. That sounds like someone telling a lie.”

“They're spelled the same way, as a matter of fact.”

"The client wrote that line. We can't tell the client that he is wrong.”

“I think it's our job to tell the client he is wrong. Why can't we just remove the verb?” Of course, I lost the argument, and the ad ran as written.

Some weeks later, my boss informed me that the client was getting a slew of mail from English teachers and students (even from non-English-speaking countries!) pointing out the gaffe.

He said, “Ace, we never should have let that copy go out like that.” Your move.

C'mon folks: celebrate our mediocrity; earn that C average; enjoy those McSwill burgers; try the crossword in People.

I'll be tucking in at the Olive Garden, thank you.

Addendum, April 6, 9 am: Cripes, I forgot to cite the progenitor of all this averageness: sportscaster Jim Nantz of CBS. I've listened to more interesting small appliances than Jimbo--especially when he tries to do basketball. Newsflash to Mr. Nantz: You don't have to wait for the P. A. announcer to tell you who committed a foul. The ref actually points at the miscreant and flashes his number to the scorer. Imagine that!

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