Thursday, March 24, 2022

An Incompleat Taxonomy of March Madess Characters

Every single year I watch less and less college basketball and know fewer and fewer players on any of the teams and think I could not possibly care about the NCAA Tournament and then I watch a few minutes of a game and get hopelessly sucked in because a team I’ve never heard of whose mascot is a disconcertingly accurate marmot or cartoon rendering of a blacksmith whose plush face has features a horrifying rictus has an ungainly 6’9” center with a wispy mustache wearing what appear to be prescription shoes who is somehow getting buckets off an NBA lottery pick and I am back in. 

A delightful air of mystery surrounds the tournament. The sport is simply too large and unwieldy for anyone to master, and with one and dones and players transferring it is hard to keep track of who is even on the big teams anymore to the point where the eight foot person on Purdue has a different name every year. The tournament thrives from its veil of ignorance; there are entire schools no one has heard of and players no one knows that arrive fully formed at the tournament with their whole thing that they have spent the last five months workshopping in dusty conferences at the margins of their sport until they are on the court desperately trying to beat a name brand school before blowing three consecutive attempts to inbound a ball.

The NCAA Tournament is where the weaknesses of college basketball as a product– that it is generally very bad basketball when compared to the professional leagues– work exactly in its favor because no one cares what the games look like or how they are played as long as they are close and there are upsets. Teams, even those with future NBA stars, melt down. They miss shots. They commit atrocious fouls. There are probably cumulative hours of NCAA tournament play each year where someone who is months away from starting dental school is ineptly throwing James Harden step-back threes in the general direction of the rim and instead of being aesthetically revolting it is exciting because the opposing team has a 5’9” point guard who is wearing what appears to be a giveaway t-shirt underneath his jersey and refuses to miss. I understand the NBA people who, even putting aside the monstrous elements of college sports, hate college basketball on an aesthetic level, but in the tournament it is precisely the maddening and inexpert play that allows strange teams filled with unorthodox zones or unexpectedly lumpy players to rub elbows with the glamor teams and makes everything so entertaining.

The ephemeral and unexpected nature of the NCAA Tournament means that we will see players appear that we have never heard of and become legends for several hours or maybe a week or two before fading back to obscurity. The top of the line March Madness guy is a large, unexpectedly doughy oaf who is the best player on the team, somehow throwing dazzling passes out of the post or throwing up preposterous layups and hook shots. The second best is a very short player who catches fire from three. The next best is a freaskishly tall player; there’s at least one in every tournament, and since the NBA has stylistically negated gigantic, earthbound centers, it’s always nice to see a reminder that being enormously tall is an advantage in basketball as this guy lopes around and drops the ball into the basket or swats opposing shots into the stratosphere while only sort-of jumping. It is also very important for a successful NCAA tournament to have players who favor atrocious semi-formed facial hair, unnecessary accessories, or unorthodox hair styles destroy a big-time basketball program while the opposing coach writhes in agony.

While novelty powers the NCAA Tournament Experience, there is also a comfort in familiarity. Though college basketball’s overwhelming discourse revolves around movement-- top players leaving for the NBA after a year and the constant churn of transfers-- any moment of continuity helps, so a lesser type of enjoyable NCAA tournament character are players on perennial tournament teams that come back year after year until they appear as the most wizened and grizzled 24 year-olds on the planet. There are also the coaches who appear every year with the same rat-based yell faces, the same hoarse screams, the same cronenbergian combovers straining over undulating head veins. Generally if you recognize a college basketball coach, there is no joy greater than seeing him tossed from the tournament like rotting produce.

The reassuring sight of Brad Underwood's combover that looks like a 
tarantula that is grasping onto a half pound of ground chuck

There’s a sports radio cliche that everyone roots for upsets the first week and then wants to see the big programs after that, but that is not true for me. I want to see the upsets in the first rounds and then not much else because the schools I’ve never heard of coming out of nowhere and the various unexpected basketball weirdos they produce forms the only necessary part of the tournament. The whole event’s appeal for me is that it is a few days of chaotically delightful sports nonsense that happen on a weekday while you are probably supposed to be doing something else. After that, it’s just college basketball.


The MLB owners ended their lockout only after the rounds of fruitless late-night negotiations, the secret last-minute provisions, the endless shots of baseball players in casual conference-ware walking determinedly across parking lots, and the universal derision aimed towards commissioner Rob Manfred for being Rob Manfred. After the bitter labor fight, Manfred and the league decided to placate angry fans with the only gesture that can delight twenty-first century sports consumers: a relentless flurry of Big Time Deals. Within several days, teams began a whirlwind of signings, trades, and player movement that have come to overshadow sports themselves and by now have their own rituals: the Auspicious Reporter Tweet, the Eyeballs Emoji, the Dribbling of Incomplete Information, the Let’s Go Bicep Emoji Tweet, and finally the Jersey Over Dress Shirt Press Conference. I’m not going to pretend I’m above this as I monitor the rumors and hoot and holler with everyone else because for some reason sports transactions hit an incredibly satisfying part of the brain even if the hit is brief and ephemeral and it is clear that the Cubs are going to continue to stink.

At the very last second before the lockout, the Cubs locked up pitcher Marcus Stroman to add to their beknighted rotation. Then they emerged from seemingly nowhere to sign the star Japanese outfielder Seiya Suzuki. Suzuki, one of the top hitters in NPB for the Hiroshima Carp, inexplicably eschewed a number of contending teams to sign with the Cubs. He is the best possible kind of signing for this Cubs team because he arrives as a mystery who can exist as pure possibility. There are no MLB stats to quibble with that always come with worrying indicators that any success is bound to regress to the mean and no emotional baggage from being annoyed with him on the other teams; Suzuki currently exists only as insane NPB stats and videos of him hitting exquisite bombs and the hope that somehow he could become a superstar to replace the World Series heroes that the team so cynically jettisoned at last year’s trade deadline.

The big splashy moves that the Cubs made don’t make any sense because if the Cubs wanted popular, expensive, and skilled players they could have simply re-signed even one of their World Series stars. Instead, the Cubs appeared to be poised to rebuild, to gleefully throw themselves into the shitter and hope that a few of the teenagers they traded for will be good in several years while charging major league prices to watch some minor league flotsam. Other than those two signings and a few cromulent major league veterans to completely avoid embarrassing themselves, this is what they are doing. Unless it turns out that the 30 year old guys who unexpectedly had a few hot months are actually somehow good now, that Frank Schwindel is somehow the second coming of Miguel Cabrera, and that all of their underperforming holdovers all of a sudden start playing the best baseball of their lives, the Cubs will be a very bad baseball team. But if the Cubs are tanking, at least they put a little bit of art into it, throwing us a couple of bones with Stroman and Suzuki while watch Baez in Detroit, Rizzo in New York, and Bryant in some sort of phantom zone. Until those jerks trade Willson Contreras.


Matt Berry has the gift of a sonorous baritone voice that he wields expertly to make himself sound like a spectacular dipshit. I first became aware of him watching grainy downloaded bootlegs of Garth Marenghi’s Dark Place, a British show about a schlocky horror novelist whose 1980s supernatural hospital drama has been resurrected and intercut with interviews with Marenghi and the cast and featuring deliberately awful acting, clumsy effects, and atrocious dialogue. Berry played Dr. Lucien Sanchez, the sidekick for Marenghi’s character Rick Dagless M.D., whose job is to gravely ask questions and fight supernatural forces with karate.

Berry also had a wonderfully strange sketch show called Snuff Box and is great on the vampire comedy What We Do In The Shadows, but my favorite thing he has done is the bizarre theater comedy Toast of London. He plays boorish actor Stephen Toast, who desperately attempts to work in a surreal London thespian world of deranged plays often opposite his sworn nemesis Ray “Bloody” Purchase, nonsensical voice-over roles helmed by sneering producers one of whom is named “Clem Fandango,” the concept of “high winds acting,” and various directors all played the same guy who at inevitably threaten to murder him. But Toast of London is not really about anything more than an excuse for Berry to pronounce words in a ridiculous way and for people to have silly names. It is the type of show where a joke is that Purchase greets Toast by saying “well well well” to him with the camera dramatically zooming in on every “well.” 

It is rare that a camera move gag lands so well, but one of my favorites in recent years comes from the master of the camera zoom joke Hong Sang-Soo.  The quick pan and zoom to the woman in the car looking miserable after her friend angrily calls her stingy and storms off tearily during the road trip in the movie Night and Day is funny even without the context of the pathetic quasi-love triangle. 

Seven years after the last episode of Toast of London, Toast has returned in Toast of Tinseltown, where Stephen Toast has come to Los Angeles in the belief that he has a role in a Star Wars film. The Hollywood setting gives him a new tableau of strange characters– the first thing you see is in Toast of Tinseltown is Larry David playing a JFK conspiracy theorist who is teaming up with Clem Fandango to berate Toast who is incredulously narrating his audiobook. But Toast of Tinseltown does not go Hollywood. The show was filmed in London and (with some exceptions, including a mysterious and annoying roommate played by Fred Armisen and his housekeeper who is not all she appears to be played by Rashida Jones) largely features British actors doing variously successful American accents. This creates an even more surreal Hollywood artificially created on British sound stages that feels of a piece with the earlier incarnation’s grotesque London.  Hollywood is so fetid and filled with weirdos that even with Toast's baseline befuddlement and malevolence, he is occasionally the voice of reason.

The change of scenery has thrown Toast of Tinseltown off a little bit, unmooring Toast from his usual haunts for the most part and adding in awkward Zoom cameos, but the basic Toast rhythm of him finding himself in a terrible acting job filled with deranged people with ridiculous names and then making it worse by being an unaware, malicious (Berry would probably pronounce this mal ISS eee us) buffoon, and that is exactly what I needed.  There is a hospital drama where Toast is paired with an international pop star who breaks into an unexpectedly bawdy rap, there is an almost hallucinatory trip to the desert, there is a dream-like meeting with a Hollywood legend in black and white, there is (of course) Clem Fandango adapting to a California lifestyle seemingly engineered to irritate Toast.  

Toast of Tinseltown came out early this year in Britain.  I have no idea when or if it will be available to watch legally here.  I managed to track down a low-quality bootleg version because I could not wait, just like how I had watched the original series on a youtube feed where the entire thing had been shrunk to a small corner of the screen to avoid detection.  Though it's not ideal, there's a certain charm to watching it this way, almost reminiscent of the effort it took to track down weird cult stuff before the internet trained us to expect everything to be easily available instantly and all of the time.  Hopefully, it will be available soon on one of the streaming platforms so I can see what happens when on the version I saw the video cut out and just showed a blurry, red Toast head superimposed over the screen, but perhaps that is the way it is meant to be seen.

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