Episode 110: Live From New York, It’s Sneakers And Video Games

Air Date:
Heard On BETA
Times Square in New York City at night
Photo by Wojtek Witkowski on Unsplash

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jennifer Egan dives deep with her latest book, “Manhattan Beach.” And, poet and critic Kenneth Goldsmith offers his love letter to the Big Apple. Plus, “Too Many Cooks” creator Casper Kelly is back with another viral video and Nicholas Smith talks about the footprint sneakers have had on American culture.

Featured in this Show

  • Creator Of Viral Hit 'Too Many Cooks' Returns With Surreal Take On Video Games

    Do you remember that surreal, trippy Adult Swim video that took the internet by storm a few years back? The one called “Too Many Cooks”?

    It starts out as a parody of the opening credit sequences of sitcoms from the 1980s and 1990s, complete with an incredibly accurate jaunty theme song. But then it gets progressively weirder and weirder.

    Casper Kelly — the brain behind “Too Many Cooks” — has now unleashed that wild imagination into the realm of video games with a video called “Final Deployment 4: Queen Battle Walkthrough,” which Kelly co-created with Nick Gibbons.

    “One of us had the idea of doing like a ‘Gears of War’ Space Marine,” Kelly told WPR’s “BETA”. The space marine is a common trope in video games and Kelly and Gibbons thought it would be interesting to pursue the idea of what life would be like for that type of character once the war had ended.

    They built on the premise by adding the idea of walkthroughs within walkthroughs — à la those nesting Russian matryoshka dolls — and the feeling of being controlled.

    “Hopefully, we can all relate to this feeling of sometimes we don’t feel like we’re in control of our lives,” Kelly said.

    So what exactly is a video game walkthrough?

    “It’s usually on YouTube or Twitch,” Kelly explains. “And it’s a screen capture of a video game and a person talking over it. Or there might be a little window in the corner where you can see them talking. And they either play the game for fun just for your amusement, or they show you and demonstrate how to get past a tricky part on a certain level.”

    Like “Cooks”, Gibbons’ and Kelly’s new video starts typically and progresses into the bizarre. Near the end, “Final Deployment 4” explores some pretty deep philosophical questions about things like free will, whether or not it exists, and also whether we control our media or our media controls us.

    “Well, that’s very much just something I struggle with,” Kelly said. “I play a lot of video games and I know they’re designed to be addictive. And some of these games are even designed that you can’t play them. There’s a timer or your energy has to refill and you literally can’t play for a while. And it’s sort of just to train you to come back regularly and to build these habits. So it’s very much about my own struggles with … I don’t know if I would say addiction to games but, I certainly play them too much so maybe that is the definition.”

    Kelly continued: “But also just there’s so many things in life that intellectually I want to do and it’s the smart, right thing to do. But the animal part of my brain is like ‘No, you’re not gonna do that, you’re gonna do this thing instead.’ It just kind of sprung up from the idea of you being a character in somebody else’s video game.”

    “Too Many Cooks” was released in 2014 and was an instant internet sensation. It has received millions of views. Rolling Stone called it an “instant cult classic.” Director Rian Johnson even said it should have been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Short.

    Kelly said that he was trying to channel his inner Andy Kaufman when he came up with this idea.

    “I wanted to do something kind of Andy Kaufman-y. He did this famous standup routine where he would read from ‘The Great Gatsby.’ And then when people started to leave, he would put the book down and act like he’s about to start the routine proper. And when people settled back down, he would read from the book again. So it was kind of just wanting to do something like that and I just hit upon sitcoms with characters smiling to the camera and their name coming up was a funny feeling of something to repeat. And that’s basically how it started.”

  • Author Jennifer Egan Dives Deep In Creating 'Manhattan Beach'

    Author Jennifer Egan’s last book, “A Visit From the Goon Squad,” earned her the Pulitzer Prize in 2011. Now she’s back with her follow-up — a World War II-era noir adventure, “Manhattan Beach.”

    On the surface, there should be little in common between ‘Goon Squad’’s structurally inventive story about a large cast of characters connected to a record company executive and his assistant and the historical fiction based in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Nevertheless, Egan tells WPR’s “BETA” that for her, there was a through-line.

    “Interestingly, I kind of approached the two books the same way,” said Egan. “They both are complex stories. I think ‘Goon Squad’ calls attention to its complexity a little more because it’s structured like a concept album.”

    “If music led me through ‘A Visit from the Goon Squad’ from one world to another, the water led me through ‘Manhattan Beach’ from one world to another,” she added.

    “Manhattan Beach” tells the story of Anna Kerrigan as she becomes enchanted by the sea as a little girl while accompanying her union boss father, Eddie, on a mysterious trip to visit the Oceanside manse of the enigmatic Dexter Styles.

    Years later, when her father goes missing, Anna is left to care for her family. She enrolls at the Brooklyn Navy Yard during WWII to backfill for the men at war, and once again, the sea calls.

    She begins an improbable journey into the world of deep-sea divers who repair and prepare ships for the war. Her work leads her into the Manhattan nightlife where she again crosses paths with Dexter and is haunted by the disappearance of her father.

    To capture the world of deep-sea diving, Egan immersed herself in her research. She visited maritime museums, read archaic diving manuals and became intimately involved with a tight-knit group of veteran Army divers. The veterans hosted annual reunions where they allowed Egan to actually wear the 200 pound Mark V diving suit.

    “When Anna talks about the pain of the dress, I know that quite viscerally because they actually dressed me in the Mark V at that reunion,” Egan said.

    Additionally, Egan formed a relationship with Andrea Motley Crabtree who was the first woman to dive for the U.S. Army in the 1980s. Crabtree offered Egan a glimpse of the sensations of being in the water and what it felt like to be near enormous ships and how they “vibrated or almost seemed to hum.”

    She also talked about the sexism that she encountered in diving which was profound and ultimately ended her career,” said Egan. “It’s a tough world for a woman.

    This comprehensive research was essential for Egan to create such a vivid depiction of an era she did not live through. She said it was a difficult process to write about a time and place in the past.

    “My portal into fiction is times and places and I use my memories a lot in writing about that so I felt like I just had nothing,” Egan said. “I often felt like I was trying to build a bridge and walk across the bridge at the same time.”

    Egan said that her first drafts were “stiff” and lacked the extremes she seeks in her writing. She felt foreign to the world she was trying to depict.”

    “It was the equivalent of trying to interact with someone in a language you don’t know very well and finding that you’re a very un-nuanced person in that language,” she said. “You don’t get jokes, you can’t make jokes. In a certain way, you’re effectively not capable of complex thought.”

    Egan would not be content to publish the book if it did not meet her standards. Therefore, her thorough research and relentless drafting process created a “fluency” for her into the psyche of her characters that allowed her to realize her fictional universe.

    Normally, Egan says she rarely desires to return to a fictional world that she has already explored.

    “If I finish the book and I’ve really done it right, that world should feel somewhat exhausted for me,” said Egan.

    Although with “Manhattan Beach,” Egan admits she had such a thrill writing it and has a bit of nostalgia for that world and those characters.

    “I miss being in the noir-ish version of New York that I was writing about in ‘Manhattan Beach,’” she said. “I feel a longing for it even while I’m in New York. I’ll sort of look around at old buildings and think ‘I just want to be back with Dexter Styles in his nightclub.’”

  • Kenneth Goldsmith Has 'Written' The Anti-Superlative Book About New York City

    Poet and critic Kenneth Goldsmith’s all-time favorite book is “The Arcades Project” by German Jewish philosopher, cultural critic and essayist Walter Benjamin.

    “Basically, it’s a thousand pages of quotations about Paris in the 19th century,” Goldsmith told WPR’s “BETA.” “Benjamin sat in several libraries and read books and took notes on what he considered to be the most interesting parts of those books, just copied passages out, and then arranged them into various what he called ‘convolutes,’ or categories. Basically, it was a collage novel that tries to give the sense of what Paris was in the 19th century. It’s unreadable.”

    So Goldsmith decided that he would write his own version of “The Arcades Project,” replacing Paris with New York City and swapping out the 19th century for the 20th century.

    He’s described Benjamin’s book as “The Guinness book of records” for Paris. Does this mean that he sees his own book as “The Guinness Book of Records” for New York City?

    “I’d like to think of it that way. I think it’s slightly misleading. I mean, ‘The Guinness Book of World Records’ is all superlatives. Now you would say there are many books about superlatives that deal with New York. You know, ‘Greatest City in the World,’ ‘Thousand Best Things Ever Said About New York,’ ‘A Hundred and One Great Things to See in New York.’ Superlatives. My book is an anti-superlative book,” Goldsmith said. “It deals with the quiet moments, the unnoticed moments, the cracks in the sidewalk, the shoes that are lying on the street, the manhole covers that are being run over by tanks coming down Fifth Avenue.”

    Goldsmith spent 10 years in libraries poring over books to find memorable quotations from a wide variety of sources, including histories, memoirs, newspaper articles, novels, government documents and emails. The quotations are organized by categories such as “Sex,” “Central Park,” “Commodity,” “Loneliness,” “Gentrification,” “Advertising,” and “Mapplethorpe.”

    The book — called “Capital: New York, Capital of the 20th Century” — includes quotes from a wide assortment of people, including the historian Lewis Mumford, Andy Warhol, and the cosmic horror writer H.P. Lovecraft.

    Did Goldsmith think that this decade of reading and research was time well spent?

    “It was the most glorious decade of my life. And I was so sad when it ended,” he said. “Oh, my dream is just to spend my life in a library. Yes, looking at old books. What could be better?”

    Are there passages that Goldsmith has discovered since publishing that he wishes he could go back and add?

    “I missed everything,” he said. “Everything. Of the percentage of books in the University of Pennsylvania library where I teach and spent a lot of time researching, there are shelves and shelves and shelves of them. I think I only got through a few shelves. But it’s very much like the city itself. I mean, how can you describe New York City? It’s impossible. Most of the history in New York City that’s being made perhaps at this moment that I sit here speaking to you will go unrecorded. You know, it made me think that really history is, in fact, impossible to write. It’s a complete fiction. All history, historical writing, historical narratives are a fiction. And in this sense, this book is a great failure. To describe the city — how can you describe 100 years of New York in 1,000 pages?”

    So is the fact that it’s an impossible task to accomplish the reason that Goldsmith decided to curate existing quotations instead of creating his own original writing?

    “I’m not a historian, I’m a poet. And my poetics have always questioned the validity of my own words as opposed to others,” Goldsmith said. “You know, this book is an autobiography of mine but I didn’t write a word of it. But, then again, I wrote every word of it. I can read this book and I can cry in certain sections because I’m from New York, I’ve never lived anywhere else. I find the book to be vastly sentimental and all about myself. So how can you write a book that you didn’t write and have it be a book about you?”

  • Sneakers Have Left A Massive Footprint On American Culture

    Nicholas Smith figured that it was only fitting to explore the history of American culture in the 20th century through the lens of the humble sneaker.

    “Sneakers are one of those things that on the surface seems like a very simple object,” Smith told WPR’s “BETA.” “But the more you dig into it, the more you find that it touches areas of business and fashion and sports and advertising and all sorts of other things. What other object is worn by Michael Jordan, Kurt Cobain and Mister Rogers?”

    Not to mention The Ramones.

    One of the most surprising cameo appearances in the history of sneakers is made by an African-American doctor named Gerald W. Deas, said Smith, author of “Kicks: The Great American Story of Sneakers,” released in May.

    “Dr. Deas was an internist at the Jamaica Hospital Medical Center in Queens. Living in Queens in the 1980s, there was lots of crime on the streets. And what Dr. Deas saw was young men were getting very wrapped up in sneakers and other things. And he kind of attributed this crime and negativity to shoes, among other things. So he wrote a poem called ‘Felon Sneakers,’ where he kind of saw as this troubling trend of kids wearing their shoes without laces, as prison inmates did. And one of those lines in the poem, I’ll quote right here: ‘You shoot and kill, you wearing those sneakers but you lost your will.’”

    Deas’ poem was turned into a rap song in 1985.

    One year later, Run-DMC released their hit single, “My Adidas.”

    It turned out to be a game changer because it led to the first endorsement deal between a music act and an athletic company. It paved the way for future endorsement deals between bands and brands, especially in hip-hop.

    “My Adidas” served as a response to the “Felon Sneakers” song. “The line in that song (‘My Adidas’) is ‘I wear my sneakers but I’m not a sneak,’” Smith said. “So it’s kind of talking about what this well-meaning but misguided doctor wrote and then turning it into a pop culture touchstone with their song. Deas thought that imitating the way inmates wore shoes would hold young black men back, Run-DMC saw it differently.

    “They saw it as sneakers were empowering, they were their way of expressing themselves,” Smith explained. “The group is identified so closely with those sneakers and sneakers ended up becoming a positive thing for them. So this kind of speaks to just the many varied ways we can read into one single type of shoe.”

    The 1980s proved to be a pivotal decade in the history of sneakers when Nike paid basketball star Michael Jordan to endorse his own line of shoes designed by the company — the Air Jordan. This led to a series of iconic black-and-white TV commercials starring Jordan and a young director named Spike Lee reprising the character of Mars Blackmon that he’d played in his debut film, “She’s Gotta Have It.” The “Mars and Mike” campaign was one of Nike’s most successful ad campaigns ever.

Episode Credits

  • Doug Gordon Host
  • Adam Friedrich Producer
  • Doug Gordon Producer
  • Steve Gotcher Technical Director
  • Casper Kelly Guest
  • Jennifer Egan Guest
  • Kenneth Goldsmith Guest
  • Nicholas Smith Guest

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