The following discourse all stems from a party conversation I had last weekend before the police came. I was simply asserting, with my usual eloquence, of course, that Burt Reynolds is nothing short of a complete bad-ass. Somehow I wound up finding myself in a distinct minority and soon no one, not even a guy, would talk to me.
The issue burns in me still because I know that I was right. Water is wet, lemons are sour, Burt Reynolds is empirically v. cool. An undebatable question, it would seem. Then it occurred to me that possibly the problem is less about Burt and more about communication.
I think the whole thing starts with the cryptic tradition of Opposite Days, festivals spawned by brilliant kindergarten minds at my elementary alma mater, Riverside School. The jist of these days was, if someone said something you disagreed with, you declared the day Opposite Day. I think that every day was Opposite Day because of this.
“It’s Opposite Day.”
(No possible retort.)
Slowly it came to be that if something was stupid or uncool, its opposite was obviously smart and cool. And once this plateau was reached—this was probably around fourth grade—my friends and I suddenly had a goldmine of humor. Vicki from Love Boat was cool. The mean milk lady was Gregg’s girlfriend. This was irony in its simplest form, two layers deep. You took the object in question, the mean milk lady, for instance, and then coated it, or her, with a varnish of sarcasm. Very easy, but representing only one level of understanding.
For the next ten years or so, I worked on perfecting this sophisticated form of character analysis. Recently, however, it has become clear that two layers is often simply not enough. For instance, once I was watching the always stimulating (kidding) Jay Leno Show when Jay announced that Barry Manilow would be making an appearance that night. I was excited. Barry Manilow, I thought to myself, is very cool. Two layers.
About forty-five minutes later, Barry made his way out to the stage in his black sequined blouse and, seated on a stool, belted out a duet with Star Search female vocal semi-finalist So-and-so, a duet that was so incredibly horrible that I cannot describe it in words, not even italicized ones. He was awful. He was not funny, or cool. Thus suddenly I had to add a new coat to Barry. Layer one: Uncool. Layer two: Cool. Layer three: Dismal.
Or was it even more complicated than that? For there are people out there who dig Barry not because he is uncool, but because they think that his predominate feature is coolness. Thus he is supposed to be cool, is really a tool, therefore is a bad-ass, but yet at the same time is simply ghastly. Four layers.
And now we arrive at Burt. Burt is deep, man, five layers deep. He is ultimately marketed to be really really cool. All along, of course, people were kind of laughing at him. That’s two layers. Then as a reaction to the fact that everyone thought he was a complete knob, he turned out being cool. He was The Bandit. He won many car chases. Three layers. Yet at the same time he was not only annoying for being a Steve McQueen imitator (that was level two); he was also annoying because he had become popular for being horrible, which is kind of unfair. That’s four levels. But then, if you watch Deliverance (“Where should we bury the body, Louis?” BURT: “Anywhere. Everywhere. [pause] Nowhere.”), you realize that he is so horrible that he is brilliant. Boom, level five.
Five layers, of course, is not the limit. And I have heard it argued that some personalities, like Mr. T., have transcended irony entirely. B.A. Baracus is a whirling, barrel-throwing, blow-torch-wielding whirlwind of self-parody that winds up as simply bad-ass.
Confused? It’s late and I’m not very good at explaining things anyway. A good way to practice your levels of irony is by playing the Nice Shirt game. Go up to someone and say, “Nice shirt.” When they say “thanks,” say, “No, really. Really. It’s nice.” Continue to insist that their shirt is nice until, frazzled, insecure, drooling, eyes bugging, they have no idea whether you’re serious or not. Then compliment them a few more times, until you yourself have no idea either.
So there. Burt Reynolds is a bad-ass.