As the Giants ran towards a World Series victory last year, Brian Wilson was a pleasant surprise: a ballplayer with equal parts focus and humor. He appeared in odd places, and said funny things about himself and the game. His charming, modern antics enriched the enjoyable run of an overachieving team.
This season, he’s already toeing the line between charmingly eccentric and outright douchy. His commercial for MLB2K11 is really funny. I dig the lines about “the most perfect honey” and the magic powers of his beard. Good stuff, funny concept, enjoyable execution. His turn as a ship’s captain on “Lopez Tonight” could’ve floundered, but it floated.
Then I saw Wilson in a random Spring Training interview on President’s Day. Some news guy behind the camera, fishing for yet another hilarious Bri-Wi quote, asked him who was on the $50 bill. Wilson, on cue, produced a fat wad of scratch, leafed through it on camera, and produced a $50 bill. “That guy,” said Wilson. Fine, a little gag. The news guy pressed onward, though. “Who’s on the $100?” “That guy.” What should probably have been at most a few chuckle-worthy sound bites became the SNL sketch that wouldn’t end.
There’s a couple of factors in play that determine whether Wilson’s course will be solid or subpar: context and taste.
The context of the Brian Wilson phenomenon is crucial. He clearly enjoys an extended ham session, and something like a commercial provides the necessary cues by which to enjoy him in action, and to judge him on the merits of comedy. In other words, with a commercial or a late night TV appearance, the viewer knows what to expect.
An interview in the locker room, on the other hand, is the realm of information, insight, some level of professionalism (which doesn’t preclude humor, by any means). It’s not the place for rehearsed skits performed with grinning sportswriters, especially when those skits involve the inflated ego that defines Wilson’s comic turns outside of the ballpark. Comedy needs misdirection and a level of the unexpected. But the locker room is within the bounds of the game of baseball. It’s already a bubble of half-fictions and escapism. To try and redirect a redirect shows lack of taste.
And that is the key to the game that Wilson is playing: taste. There’s no accounting for it, and it’s a fickle mistress. Taste doesn’t mean good manners. It means knowing when to talk, and when to ball. It means understanding context, and withholding some choice lines in the locker room for later use in street clothes. It means knowing when to leave some room for the audience–because at this point Wilson is clearly cultivating his audience–to breathe a little. Harness the power of anticipation, maybe play it straight for a couple of days.
I like to see players having fun, because baseball is fun. It reminds me of when I played baseball, and the characters I played with that made every day different and enjoyable.
But Wilson shouldn’t expect fans of levity to follow him down this entertainment rabbit hole, enjoying every canned move he pulls out, heedless of the situation, which threaten at this rate to soon read more like an episode of Saved By the Bell than the asides of a witty ballplayer.