Zing white people one too many times and the backlash is fierce! I refer not to Reverend Jeremiah Wright, erstwhile pastor of Barack Obama's Afrocentric church, but to the newly popular blog Stuff White People Like, a site Reihan Salam calls "the Family Guy of web comedy, and for that reason alone it merits summary execution, Chinese-style."
Adam Sternbergh piles on in The New Republic.
Let me defend SWPL by saying that Reihan is right: it is the Family Guy of web comedy, by which I mean that it's 1) regularly funny if you're half watching it while drinking a beer and surfing the Internet; 2) not nearly as funny as its biggest fans imagine; 3) and not quite as bad as its critics say, because they're mostly reacting against the excessive praise of its biggest fans when they criticize it.
As a quick digression understand that writing comedy is very hard. Consider an item from The Top Ten Things That Would Change if People Lacked Index Fingers:
#7 -- "Rock, paper, scissors" becomes "rock, paper, fuck you!"
Hi-brow transgressive comedy it ain't, but I defy you to think of a funnier item to add to that list. Or since we're talking Family Guy style humor lets try something that's edgier and arguably offensive (though not in the way stuff on Family Guy is offensive) -- The Top Ten Ways That World War II Guilt Manifests Itself in Germany Today.
#10 -- State of the art fire sprinklers installed in the Reichstag.
#9 -- Beer mugs affectionately called Stein.
#8 -- Discotheques forced to play techno music to remind people how awful it is when history repeats itself.
#7 -- "Thanks for the Marshall plan. Here's Heidi Klum."
My guess is that different items on that uneven list strike you as more or less funny (and perhaps more or less offensive) as other items on that list, yet they were all created by the same arguably comedic mind, one that can't, incidentally, write even one more item that approaches the average funny level of that list.
Perhaps as someone who occasionally tries to write comedic stuff I am more forgiving of those who regularly write stuff that isn't all that funny -- e.g. most of the entries on the site Stuff White People Like -- but that is occasionally very funny, as in the entry that happens to be my favorite, The Idea of Soccer:
Many white people will tell you that they are very into soccer. But be careful, it’s a trap.
If you then attempt to engage them about your favorite soccer team or talk about famous moments in soccer history, you are likely to be met with blank stares. This is because white people don’t actually enjoy watching soccer, they just like telling their friends that they are into it.
In fact, the main reason white people like soccer is so they can buy a new scarf. As you may or may not know, many soccer teams issue special scarves, and white people cannot get enough of them!
Most white people choose a favorite soccer team based on either a study abroad experience or a particularly long vacation to Europe or South America. When they return, they like to tell their friends about how great “football” is and that they are committed to ‘getting more into’ now that they have returned home.
Now Reihan is right when he says that "the website has chosen a very rich vein of comedy," a bludgeon he uses to bloody that site for its often lackluster posts -- Bottles of Water is arguably the most tired, unoriginal entry -- but choosing a rich vein of comedy isn't an incidental thing anyone could do. Its much easier to write items on a top ten list than to conceive the list itself; or if you prefer, its easier to write Onion articles than conceiving the concept behind them, as This American Life fans well know (and yes, that show is mentioned in an entry).
Numerous people have pointed out that SWPL isn't actually about stuff white people like as much as it is about stuff yuppies or bobos or Hipsters or post-boomer residents of coastal cities like. True! 29 percent of the amusement I get from the site is garnered from watching my liberal friends enjoying it and chuckling inside about how they'd enjoy it less if it were titled "Stuff guilty yet self-satisfied white liberals like," though the latter title would be more apt.
Which brings me to my tip sheet for critics who'd like to be driven less crazy by the site:
1) Decide what you think it's really satirizing and pretend its name refers to that thing.
2) Learn what I absorbed in the late 1990s in a freshman dorm at Pomona College while reading a philosophical text I cannot recall: "Your feelings about Dave Matthews Band should depend not on the degree to which other people like it excessively, but on your own independent assessment of its good and bad qualities." People who learn and widely apply this lesson are happier than those who don't, though they probably listen to worse music.
3) When judging how good or bad SWPL is do a quick perusal of "Internet humor sites" -- Google that, or better yet search it on AOL or Yahoo -- to see how truly awful it isn't.
4) Don't overthink it -- its creators haven't!
That should tide you over until the site inevitably exhausts its shallow well of novelty less than a month from now.
p.s. Here is the appropriate level of enthusiasm for SWPL, as expressed in a mock up of an e-mail written to one's best friend while at work:
Also, the way you know the site is misnamed is that Ronald Reagan could never be an entry. Which makes me wonder: is this basically the same as what Jeff Foxworthy does?
Photo by Flickr user Peter Pearson under a Creative Commons license.