seely

The Rumpus Interview with Hart Seely

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Fans of the New Yorker’s Shouts and Murmurs section are well versed in the genius of Hart Seely. His numerous gems for the magazine include “At The News,” the Oscars for political events, featuring George Bush as an aging mudslinger in “Unforgiven”; “The Xmas Files,” a parody of the X-Files and The Night Before Christmas; “Glengarry Glen Plaid,” a clothing catalogue as if it was written by David Mamet: “Maybe it was the easy way it hung on you, like a drunk temp at an office party. Friend, this is a flannel”; “Patomic Park,” a parody of the film Jurassic Park, about Washington being overrun by political dinosaurs; and “Oldfinger,” a piece about an aging James Bond being sued for sexual harassment.

He is most recently the author of The Juju Rules: Or, How to Win Ballgames from Your Couch, A Memoir of a Fan Obsessed. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). Previously, he was known for making fun of a certain former U.S. Secretary of State in Pieces of Intelligence: The Existential Poetry of Donald Rumsfeld, (Simon & Schuster, 2003), O Holy Cow: The Poetry of Phil Rizutto (Harper Collins 1997) plus many satirical pieces in Slate, The New Yorker and The New York Times.

I know Hart from my days after college at the Syracuse Post Standard, where he was and is an enduring voice of uncomfortable truths.

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The Rumpus: A lot of us have secretly suspected we were influencing games as we watched them. For you, it’s more of a calling than a suspicion, am I right?

Hart Seely: I don’t wear a tinfoil cap. It’s not that I think I’m controlling the game. I just blame myself when the Yankees lose. And I don’t think I’m alone. Everybody knows that when things are going well, you don’t change underwear. It’s like the radio announcer who won’t say the pitcher is throwing a perfect game. We know the juju gods are listening, and anything you say can and will be held against you.

Rumpus: What has been your go-to routine to ensure victory, I mean when the chips are on the line?

Seely: Nothing ALWAYS works. (Except for pictures of naked ladies luring men; that always works.) But when the Yankees lose, I want to believe the players gave all – and that I did, too.

I have a seat when the Yankees are in the field and a secret stance for when they come to bat. My most potent move is an intervention, also known as “charging the mound.” You get up a load of steam and confront your TV, eye to eye. When it works, it’s spectacular. When it fails, at least you gave it all.

Rumpus: As a career-long champion of underdog causes, how do you account for your love of the ultimate over-dogs – the Steinbrenner era Yankees?

Seely: Listen: I am not a crook. I want trees to grow, whales to live and every child to have a laptop, though some will have to settle for Dells. I recycle, I subscribe to newspapers – all that stuff. But there is no morality in baseball. It’s a nest of deceit. Pitchers act like they’ll throw a fastball, then they throw a curve. They lie with their eyes. And this isn’t about underdogs and over-dogs, or Democrats and Republicans. Nelson Mandela wore a Yankee cap. So did Hillary Clinton, Henry Kissinger, Ari Fleischer and Keith Olbermann. This is not about right and wrong. This is balls and strikes.

Besides, I view the Yankees as the great free luxury bestowed by America to otherwise oppressed slobs. It’s the one area where we can be Charles or David Koch. As a Yankee fan, you own A-Rod. You own Jeter. You might outspend an entire National League division. Other fans call us fat cats, complain that it’s not fair, whine that they can’t afford pitching. I say, let them eat cake. When the Yankees win, my car still needs a brake job, but I get to channel Donald Trump. And let me tell you, from my experiences, the man passes wicked gas.

Rumpus: When you can take a good and expensive team and then go out shopping for a Sabathia here and a Texeira there, isn’t that just buying a pennant?

Seely: OK, let’s get this straight: Yeah, the Yankees DO buy pennants. They buy them because other owners sell them. All these owners are just billionaires who pretend to be millionaires, so we’ll feel sorry for them. I don’t. The Yankees spend to win. The other owners renovate their boathouses.

Yeah, we buy pennants. But when the million-man Persian Army marched toward Thermopylae, did those 300 Spartans run to the media to whine about the payroll disadvantage? When a Hollywood blockbuster soars over budget, does Ben – “I would rather utter the words, ‘I worship you, Satan,’ than, ‘My favorite baseball team is the New York Yankees’” – Affleck support a salary cap for actors? Hell, no. War is war, movies are movies, and billionaire owners who DON’T try to buy pennants are nothing more than scheming, pock-faced, Koch-headed tightwads.

Rumpus: Word is Affleck’s making a movie about two Yankee pitchers, the ones who swapped wives back in the 70’s, so you may actually get to see him in a Yankees hat, one for your wall I’m guessing.

Seely: Yeah, it’s about Fritz Peterson and Mike Kekich. Affleck playing a Yankee is like Mel Gibson playing Golda Meir.

Rumpus: You and Tom Peyer created “O Holy Cow: The Selected Verse of Phil Rizzuto.” What was it about the words of Rizzuto – and later Donald Rumsfeld – that made you want to put them into verse?

Seely: Basically, Rumsfeld and Rizzuto are the same critter: Old guys trying to tap dance. The difference is that Phil had the grace to stick with what he was meant to do: Broadcast Yankee games. He didn’t try to run wars. Rumsfeld looked out at the adoring media throngs and drank his own Kool-Aid. He saw himself as wise and whimsical. Listen, Barbash – the day you start running around, thinking yourself wise and whimsical, it’s over. Pack it in.

Rumpus: Listen Seely. I loved the Scooter. I listened to the Scooter growing up, and Donald Rumseld is no Phil Rizzutto.

Seely: They are astral twins, carbon copies, bone marrow matches. Seriously.

Remember 2003, the start of the Iraq “liberation?” Whenever you turned on the TV, there was Rummy, cracking one-liners, holding court, regaling reporters. He talked about “shaved gorillas.” He talked about chasing chickens across the barn yard. He always scored laughs. He killed. The networks even started touting him as a sex-symbol. You could look it up.

I remember one night when Rumsfeld spoke a perfect Zen circle. He said: “I think what you’ll find is, whatever it is we do substantively, there will be near perfect clarity as to what it is. And it will be known, and it will be known to the Congress, and it will be known to you, probably before we decide it, but it will be known.”

I remember thinking: Holy shit, it’s Rizzuto! I went to my old Rizzuto book, and there it was.

QUESTION TO MOORE

Hey, Moore,
Can I talk about
The no-hitter now?

No?
Okay.
I won’t.

Here was Rumsfeld – architect of two wars, the Big Pharma exec who nearly strangled humanity with NutraSweet, maybe the world’s second most powerful man – and he was channeling the Scooter. I’m not kidding. Look at their words.

A CONFESSION

It’s amazing.
Once in a while,
I’m standing here, doing something.

And I think,
“What in the world am I doing here?”
It’s a big surprise.
Donald Rumsfeld
May 16, 2001, interview with the New York Times

AND ON IT GOES

To me,
Days are…
One is just like

Another.

I can’t figure
What day it is,
What month.

Phil Rizzuto
August 9, 1992
Boston at New York

These guys would be finishing each other’s sentences. They could share a kidney.

Rumpus: I see it now. Where Rizutto saw the humanity in baseball, Rummy saw the leisurely diversion of war perhaps.

Can you talk here a little about humor writing – a few of the New Yorker pieces – where did they emerge from? And why is it that a sort of cross pollinating humor works so well in this particular cultural (and political) moment?

Seely: To write humor, you have to be nuts. And to survive, you have to fake sanity – pretend to be normal.

But at the cocktail party, while everybody else is flirting and experiencing life, you’re in the corner eating Cheetos, trying to think of something funny to say. Everybody else surfs through the evening, but you’re living or dying for a joke that may not come. I’ve worked with comic geniuses like Frank Cammuso and Tom Peyer, but I’ve also known nutjobs who were funnier than any of them. They just couldn’t fake normalcy.

Basically, my scam is to take a cultural reference from Column A – let’s say Vagaries of Baseball – and one from Column B – Politics – put them in a blender and press FROTH. Do that, and usually you get something that passes for humor. And if it looks funny, people will laugh, because they don’t want to be left out of the joke.

Rumpus: I’m wondering who you modeled yourself after as a young writer – was it the great sports writers of the day, like Red Smith, or the gonzo crowd – Hunter Thompson, Tom Wolfe. Which novelists do you admire most?

Seely: I grew up reading The Sporting News – Jim Murray, Joe Falls, Jerome Holtzman, Furman Bisher, et al. One night at dinner, I told my dad that I wanted to be a sportswriter. He went heart-attack red, shoved aside his burger and practically chased me to my bedroom. He covered high school sports for The Waverly Sun, the local weekly. I’ve never forgotten how angry he was. I think it blew some gasket blew in my head. In my entire newspaper life, I’ve written about everything – weather, bugs, salt potatoes, et al. But I’ve never covered sports.

Somewhere after high school, I began fantasizing about the great American baseball novel. What did it was Robert Coover’s The Universal Baseball Association Inc.: J. Henry Waugh, Proprietor. It remains my favorite all-time piece of fiction, the one that coaxed me into writing.

After Coover, my list of faves is pretty typical: Dellilo, Roth, Heller, Updike, Barth, Wolfe, et al. In recent years, I’ve come to adopt Carl Hiassen and James Lee Burke. Right now, I’m doing an all-Stephen King summer. He’s a Redsock fan, and I figure he’s more horrified than I am.

Rumpus: I know you’ve had a few novels in the works yourself, can you talk about them?

Seely: I spent about 15 years writing a dark comedy about two crazy fans, who roam the country, blowing up baseball stadiums to protest artificial turf. Best writing of my life. It was called Fireworks Night. I finished in the summer of 2001, a few weeks before the World Trade Center fell. A comedy about terrorists. Dead on arrival.

I rewrote at least 10 times, trying to make it fit a post-9/11 world. When I finally gave up, the thing was unreadable. My agent declined to take it. Basically, it ended up in the ashes of those buildings. In The Juju Rules, I wrote about losing that book, and drawing from it to help a friend get through a far worse loss. So I guess it wasn’t a wasted effort. Strange how things work out, eh?

Rumpus: You have since I’ve known you always been one of the best arguments that great writing can and should happen in a newspaper. Can you talk about newspapers as a home for great writing and the frightening void we seem to be stumbling towards as newspapers continue to cut staff and close their doors?

Seely: People talk about the public’s thirst for good journalism, but the clicks don’t show it. The pageloads show more interest in Tom and Katie’s breakup. And pageloads are all that matter.

For 150 years, the one thing newspapers had going for them was that nobody could statistically compare the reader interest in a well-crafted news item to that of a dumbed-down chunk of crapola about Liz Taylor’s pool boy. You bought the paper, and you got both. Thus, everybody ended up on the same page. But now, every click is counted, and the jig is up: We know that the pool boys get the clicks.

So online news outlets will do what they have to do: Chase clicks. That is going to kill quality local news.

They say a newspaper is supposed to do two things: 1) Show why today is different from all other days, and 2) Show why today is just the same as all other days. That second part is collapsing. Once everybody can only read the news they want to hear – and that day is coming – well, I don’t even want to think about it. Listen: When that day comes, it won’t be the newspaper slapping onto our doorsteps, it will be the wolf.

Rumpus: And where do sports fit in within the gloom and doom?

Seely: What is human history, but the poor, graceless masses who worship the physically gifted – be they brutes or beauties. While they dazzle us, as our heroes, the connivers make off with all the money and the power. This goes back to ancient times. It will never change. That doesn’t mean you quit hoping, or trying, or even fighting. But good grief, in your spare time, it’s OK to be a Koch brother. It’s OK to sit in your pitching chair and root for your team. At least if the Yankees don’t win, we’ll run out and sign somebody. It’s the best free deal capitalism will give you. All you have to do is believe.


Tom Barbash is the author of the novel "The Last Good Chance" and the non-fiction book, "On Top of the World." His work has appeared in McSweeney's, Tin House, One Story, The Believer, The Observer, The New York Times, Narrative, Story, VQR, Storyquarterly and other places. He is on the faculty at California College of the Arts. More from this author →