Monday, 9 June 2014

Report on a Project for Idle Moments

For the past couple of months, I have been working my way through the Carson Cistulli-Dayn Perry podcasts at Fangraphs, from the very beginning up to the point where I started downloading them as part of my podcasts-via-iTunes subscription, which I took up about a year ago.

Let me start the report with my initial thought about these conversations, which is that they were a sorry example of what happens when one has a position of authority, as an editor, and a misplaced sense of what might appeal to an audience. In other words, they are exercises in self-indulgence, of a kind that, having worked myself in the media for several years, I am all too familiar with. So often one hears 'wouldn't it be a good idea to...' from people either on the fringes of the industry, or outside it altogether. A professional examination of the idea leads to the answer 'no, it would not'. This is rarely enough to stop an idea with supporters in the right place. And yet — although I don't know where to find download data for these Cistulli-Perry exchanges, they do appear to have an audience of some kind. There is a sort of 'what on earth will they do next?' fascination involved here. And that, my dear readers, is what drew me in.

Having first heard what was clearly either a fully matured version of an original idea or, possibly, a show that has 'jumped the shark', I assumed that it hadn't actually started like this. It just couldn't have. It has a certain polish, a shape that has been honed by some practice. The repartee is that of two chess players who have come together on many occasions, and know each other well enough that they will allow the other to advance towards a well-worn position, confident that, having stopped it before, they can accomplish the stalemate again. The individuals themselves are somewhat interesting, too.

Dayn Perry is a figure of some renown in the sports media of the internet era. He currently works for CBS Eye on Baseball, 'the home for all baseball fans' as he repeatedly reminds us. However, at the time the podcasts commenced, he was, like many talented individuals, underemployed by a system that is as ruthless as any nineteenth-century factory in taking in young men and transforming them into prematurely aged, broken individuals, who move from casual job to casual job, trying to piece together a sufficient income to keep body and soul together. The media industry is a cruel place, where at times even 'who you know' joins 'what you know' as a worthless commodity. His persona as presented in the mature versions of the podcasts is of a foul-mouthed, crass individual with a rather better estimation of himself than is warranted. Like the archetypal sophomore literature student, his intent is to make you remember him through his ability to disturb the bounds of propriety. Although he now lives in that most American of cities, Chicago, he is originally from Mississippi. His contempt for his origins is repeatedly manifest, and being a Southerner turned Midwesterner, he bears a cross of arrogant insularity, a burden he does not recognise. For a while, he emphasised a sort of ultra-patriotism that might be seen as an aspect of this insularity; a costume that, obviously satirical, has lost its former prominence. When he isn't playing a part, Perry is clearly a man of boiler-plate American liberal views. Mostly, he just seems to be in a temper.

Carson Cistulli is at first glance a far more sympathetic character. His vocal manner strives to achieve a kind of patrician rectitude, although that vowel at the end of his surname is the death knell for any serious attempt to achieve membership of the WASP Ascendancy. However, no people do patrician elegance better than the Italians, so Sig. Cistulli should treat this supposed shortcoming with the kind of patrician contempt that from time to time he unleashes against Perry, when the latter's transgressions go too far. Like Perry, Cistulli is a student of literature specifically. Unlike Perry he has some knowledge of civilisation more generally. He has odd blind spots, however, as the occasion when he plainly seemed unaware of what a Pietá is. His grasp of Classical culture is far stronger than a typical member of his generation, which is to be applauded in these grim times for our Western heritage. His generously paternalistic politics match this old-fashioned patrician manner. He claims to be an elitist, and I heard no reason to doubt this assertion. It is all of a piece. While some might assert he is pretentious, he shows sufficient familiarity with demotic culture to belie that notion. ('Pretentious' is usually bandied about by people lashing out at the possibility that one is looking down at their cultural choices. One is not really interested in their cultural choices, and they mistake a lack of interest for a feeling of superiority.) The fact is, at second glance, Cistulli is a far more sympathetic character, too.

Yet these personas are finished. Tracing the history of the podcast, one can see the development. Most significantly, when the series began, there was an attempt to link these conversations with goings-on in the world of baseball. The very first had an introductory character, and Perry is very guarded. The shape of the future became apparent in a subsequent encounter, where there were minor eruptions such as remarks about Cistulli's ethnic heritage, and the first bleeping-out of Perry swearing like a trooper. However, Perry goes on to fret about this shocking attempt, pleading with Cistulli not to post the conversation so that his mother won't hear. If anything, in this episode the two almost reverse their later characters, with Perry dodging all of Cistulli's little jabs. Neither persona was as yet crafted as fully as it would be. Cistulli is far from his patrician demeanour, especially in his vocal manner, while Perry is not universally out to shock.

Two weeks later, under the title 'The Great Dayn Perry Experiment' we had the first free-form chat between the two, during which Perry answered demands for 'Trick or Treat' on Hallowe'en, a remarkable metaphor for what was to come. Are these podcasts 'tricks' or 'treats'? That is for each listener to determine. Cistulli characterised this podcast as a search for a new style, suited to Fangraphs. The opening music, while still Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, was changed from 'The Charmer' to 'Spanish Flea', which people of my vintage might remember from The Dating Game. Yet they weren't quite ready to dispense with baseball altogether, as they talked over the recent St Louis Cardinals victory over the Texas Rangers in the World Series. They conclude with an agreement, between themselves, that this had been a 'terrible' podcast. It is hard to disagree that this was a trick, perhaps because they still held that the podcast had to discuss baseball.

The nadir of this stage of experimentation came with 'Dayn Perry, mustachioed gentleman' during which one heard Cistulli nearly break down in tears of frustration at Perry's unwillingness to co-operate with the production beyond responding to Cistulli's questions. The episode ended with 4 minutes and 33 seconds of dead air, an homage to John Cage. This was followed by the first episode in which we see, nearly fully formed, the personas that I have described above, as Perry turns from a defensive churlishness to a truculence that Cistulli applauds. The chemistry between the two blossoms as they discuss Perry's history as a baseball-card collector, (a topic that dissipates the truculence momentarily) and propose the vandalisation of Manny Sanguillén's Wikipædia page. Cistulli's trick is to get Perry to talk about his personal relationship to baseball, as opposed to talking about baseball events themselves. This was the elusive podcast gold.

For the acme of these exchanges one might find it hard to surpass Dayn Perry Can't Help You. However, even as the exchanges acquired a degree of comedic value, they began to decline in frequency. In the summer of 2012, they began to appear biweekly, rather than the advertised weekly occurrence. An attempt at weekly appearances returned in the autumn, but after the World Series, it became quite clear that the two of them could no longer meet regularly, and in the course of 2013 they drifted into appearing about once a month. This is where things stand at the moment.

So what to make of these entertainments? Are they worth listening to? I give a reserved 'yes' in answer. They are not as funny as they think they are, and a lot depends on how Perry responds to Cistulli's attempts to pursue variety, as in the case of the most recent 'Allow Dayn Perry to Disappoint You', when Perry, daunted by being put on the spot by having to invent questions to answers supplied by the listeners, gives up on the project. However, when Cistulli begins by touching on his own personal vulnerabilities when confronted by a beekeeping PhD in 'Dayn Perry, Spleen of Chicago' we again achieve podcast gold. And that is the key. When these two address their own fears, or confront their own pasts, they create compelling listening. When they don't, we're all [beeped].

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