The Office, Grantland, and the Footnoting of Entertainment

A caveat before we begin: this has nothing to do with Michigan. Not that there isn't anything going on to write about, like how the stripey stitching uniforms put us a stone's throw from maize uniforms, or how Michigan great Juwan Howard's championship dreams probably died as Dirk hit another improbably ugly shot. It's just that this is really the only outlet for my increasingly infrequent writing, so I get to post it.

Grantland, a Bill Simmons joint founded with the backing of ESPN.com, has been live now for just about a week (if it's not a week, it will be shortly). The site promises to be a blend of pop-culture and sports, written by some of the most respected writers, erm, writing today. The addition of Klosterman to the masthead alone speaks to the site's ambition, and the fact that the ESPN editors have allowed Simmons et. al. some leeway in terms of content (Simmons drops an F-bomb in his "welcome" piece) might just allow it to succeed. This alone is somewhat exciting. Bill Simmons was the mastermind behind the universally applauded 30-for-30 series of documentaries, and has been itching for years to have ESPN give him more reign. This appears to be that opportunity. Simmons has, for the majority of his career as what I'm calling a "producer of content," be it podcast, columns, diaries, or documentaries, tried to push the envelope in terms of what that medium can handle. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn't. Some might say that he defined the very medium you're reading right now: the sports blog.

I'm going to switch gears here, but I promise there's a tie-in. Remember when The Office debuted, first in Great Britain with Ricky Gervais, then on NBC with Steve Carell? Part of what made that series funny in the first place was the fact that the "faux documentary" style in which it was filmed allowed the actors (and writers) more leeway in what could be made into a joke. Traditional sitcoms had always relied on actors abilities to show when something was awkward. This required the writers to really hammer home, through dialogue mostly, the situation in which these characters were placed, and why/how that situation was funny - be it a mistaken identity, slapstick, satire, etc. The characters were largely static across sitcoms; a protagonist, antagonist, love interest, and buffoon. One of the reasons Seinfeld was so successful and refreshing was the fact that they always switched who played which role. George was often portrayed as protagonist, antagonist, and buffoon - sometimes in the same episode. I'm getting off track. The bottom line is that traditional sitcoms had to show you what you were laughing at. They had defined characters who acted a certain way, and when that way was "disrupted" by the situation, boom - laughter.

The Office changed that. Instead of the writers having to show you what was funny, they could just tell you what was funny by having the actors "break the 4th wall" via the faux-documentary style. The audience no longer had to rely on their knowledge of character and situation, and the writers didn't necessarily have to set up their jokes via dialogue between characters. The actor could basically set up a joke by telling the audience what the plan was (interview), then execute that plan "live" with the other characters (live action), then give you reactions by those characters (interview). Jim's antics with Dwight in the intro "throwaway joke" that precedes the credits perhaps illustrates this best. Some could call this cheating (Community did a parody episode wherein they call out The Office on it), but it's led to a new genre of sitcom defined by The Office and mimicked by Parks and Rec, Modern Family, and others. It's funny. It works.*

This brings us back to Grantland and an interesting stylistic choice that seems to be intentional. Simmon's welcome piece linked above had footnotes. He took these footnotes as an opportunity to let the reader in on the site's creation, the increased leeway he was getting from ESPN (he explains the F-bomb in one of them), etc. At first I thought it was just something he wanted to do in explaining the genesis of the site. Then I read Klosterman's next piece, and it had footnotes. Now every article on that site has footnotes, and I realized that Simmons is basically doing to print what the faux documentary style has done to television. He's allowing a designated space to be used for the author to explain things directly to the audience. I'm not sure this has been done before, at least as extensively as Grantland apparently is going to use it. In the footnoted space, Simmons and Klosterman have further explained different topics, made jokes, set up future topics, and gone meta. It's allowing them to pull back the curtain and allow the reader, if interested, to dig deeper. It's also allowing them to not necessarily have to show everything. In many cases, they can just tell the reader what to look for.

Take the aforementioned f-bomb. Simmons drops it in paragraph 5 of his welcome piece, saying:

Eight and a half years have passed. I can't remember how Jimmy answered, just what his face looked like. You wouldn't call it nervous, you wouldn't call it overwhelmed, you wouldn't call it anything … he didn't fucking know.

Later in the piece, in footnote 12 to be exact, Simmons explains:

For instance, I dropped an F-bomb earlier and it felt pretty organic, you have to admit. If I dropped a second F-bomb to celebrate dropping the first F-bomb? Probably a little gratuitous. Then again, fuck it.

He uses this to go meta, then makes a joke. Under traditional writing conventions , he could have either dropped this note into a separate paragraph within the piece, or he could have just shown us that he wasn't going to swear just for the sake of swearing by only utilizing that language when it came about "organically." This would have either added length to his piece and felt a little out of place, or it would have come about naturally over however many years Grantland is around. Instead he could write the column he wanted to and just tell the curious reader what was going on in a footnote.

There is probably a larger point to be made about how information is available today and reader's dwindling attention span. Simmons has essentially created a sub-column within each piece in which a writer can do whatever he/she deems necessary to increasing reader engagement. With the options available to today's Internet dwelling "content consumer," it might prove to be a good idea. Or it might be incredibly distracting. I think I'd like to see a footnote on whether the footnoting is going to stick around. One thing is for sure though - Simmons is actively trying to push the conventions of how columns are written in digital format, and taking his cue from The Office he might have found something that allows him and his writers to make the jokes and the inside stories they want while still maintaining flow and rhythm to the main column.

*I can do it too! No really, The Office probably wasn't the first show to do this but it did popularize the style. And of course you can go back to stage shows where actor's "asides" would bring the audience up to speed. Heck, at the end of A Midsummer's Night Dream Puck spends an entire paragraph just straight up talking to the audience. So right, The Office didn't invent it, but it did make it popular. That is all.

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