Lights up and zoom in on our host, decked out in D.C. apparel. He’s squinting as if he’s slightly in pain, as if he knows what’s coming isn’t for his own good, the good of the studio audience or even the sparse population watching at home. And he’s right.
When “Ridiculousness” with Rob Dyrdek first came on the air in 2011, it billed itself as sort of a “Tosh.0” for the extreme sports crowd; “Web Soup” with more motocross videos. In form, that’s exactly what it is. Every show begins with Dyrdek standing atop an enormous laptop with the screen as his background. He’s accompanied by a video DJ and Chanel West Coast, the secretary with rap aspirations from Dyrdek’s previous show, “Fantasy Factory.”
But in practice, “Ridiculousness” is a barren quagmire bereft of any semblance of humor. Like a bad comic strip, “Ridiculousness” is all set-up, no punchline. Here’s an example of the comedic stylings of Dyrdek from “Dan Heaton,” an episode I chose at random from the second half of the show’s first season.
On a video of a monster truck doing a flip: “Okay, I don’t know what this guy is trying, but it looks like he did it perfect. If by perfect you mean knocking yourself unconscious and mowing down all your friends! Not quite as good as it looked in the beginning.”
On a forklift plowing into a stack in a warehouse, knocking everything over: “Worst case scenario in a forklift: You hit one support beam, you knock down the whole building. Great work. Great work. Flawless execution.”
The studio audience howls with laughter, the dishonesty of which is accented nicely by Chanel’s high-pitched braying.
Dyrdek wears a shirt that reads “Make your own luck,” which is appropriate. As basically anyone that every watched “Rob and Big” knows, Dyrdek parlayed a professional skating career, an extroverted personality and a massive, affable bodyguard into a show about exactly those things. And he excelled in the form, cultivating a loyal following of millions of guys that dreamt of fucking around all day, racing turtles, pranking friends and setting the occasional world record here and there.
But when Big Black left the show, Dyrdek looked for a little more creative license. And MTV gave him that in spades, moving his operation into an enormous warehouse space for a show called “Rob Dyrdek’s Fantasy Factory.” There, Dyrdek could do basically anything his eclectic mind desired. Attempt the most expensive grilled cheese ever? Why not? Roll with John Mayer, then guilt him into apologizing to his mother? Check. Man a massive tennis ball gun? Obviously. That hangar-sized concrete room was Dyrdek’s oyster and he was cranking out pearls. But with “Ridiculousness,” to mix a metaphor, the whole jug turned sour.
The situation calls to mind another self-made creative that’s recently been granted an enormous degree of artistic freedom and, by all accounts, is making the absolute most of the opportunity. Bill Simmons, the ESPN columnist and best-selling author, recently spun out his column into a full-fledged arm of the World Wide Leader’s universe with the founding of the website Grantland.com this summer.
The self-styled “Sports Guy,” famed for the way he’s been able to weave focused pop culture references into his encyclopedic sports knowledge, rode that skill for years but was made editor-in-chief of his own website last summer. As he assembled a star-studded cast of writers (Chuck Klosterman and Dave Eggers both appeared on the masthead at the website’s founding; writers like Charles P. Pierce and Coleson Whitehead have contributed since), it became clear that Simmons would use the website to realize some of his long-standing pet projects.
So far, in the half-year of the website’s existence, Grantland has presented a Reality TV fantasy league and a Bad QB fantasy league. They’ve run a long-form feature on the World Series of Poker and statistically broken down the New York Times wedding announcements. Simmons has assembled a talented, motivated group of people that all kind of think like him, and the results, so far, have been spectacular.
But therein lies the worrying part of the scenario. When MTV took the leap to putting Dyrdek alone in a concrete room and hoping something interesting would happen, they were investing in his personality, banking on the fact that his charisma could carry a show. The situation with Simmons feels similar: ESPN must have felt that their premier columnist had the connections and breadth of ideas to run what’s essentially an online publishing house, that Simmons has enough awareness to surround himself with talent and manage it to its potential.
The problem is, while people like Dyrdek and Simmons might never run out of ideas, corporations like MTV and ESPN inevitably do. And that’s when they look to their biggest talent, stroke their egos a little bit and sell them on selling out. Everyone loves “Fantasy Factory,” Rob. All you’ll have to do is stand on this keyboard and be yourself.
Here’s hoping it doesn’t happen with Simmons. Call it paranoia, but I can hear it now: Jim Rome’s spot is wide open, Bill. You’ve been on “Pardon the Interruption.” You’ve done “E:60” spots before. People want to hear what the Sports Guy has to say every day at 3:30. When the pressure to build a brand becomes bigger than the motivation to entertain, entertainers end up lying face down in their own failed experiments, and the truest words sting the most: not quite as good as it looked in the beginning.