You might not have noticed, but I started a new podcast a few months back. While it's often Waldo-level hard to spot, there has, in fact, been a new episode embedded in every column I've written since the end of last year. The initial idea was that each episode would be centered on the topic of my column that week. For the most part, that's worked out to be the case, and if you're one of the people who've been asking in the comments, it explains why the podcast is embedded here rather than having its own spot on the site.
Now this, please.
Sometimes, though, it works the other way around, and the podcast ends up completely changing the idea behind the column. That was the case a few weeks ago when I wrote about organizations that get more hate than they deserve. The original idea was for that to be a column all about how silly it is to watch wrestling as an adult. If you read it, you know I didn't bash wrestling at all, but instead took a shot at explaining why some people take the "sport" as seriously as they do.
What changed? Well, if you give it a listen, you'll note that most of my points in that entry come from the conversation I had with John Cheese on the podcast that accompanied the column. He made such a strong case for why wrestling isn't as silly as it seems that it completely changed what I wrote.
The same thing happened with the podcast this week. Don't worry, I won't hide it this time, you can listen to it right here.
More importantly for the topic at hand, though, is the third guest, Brian Dunkleman.
#4. Brian Dunkleman Rejects American Idol, Gets Treated Like One Anyway
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Brian Dunkleman is a name that pops up on "Where are they now?" lists on a regular basis. He was the co-host of American Idol for one season before famously quitting to pursue a career in disappearing from the general public's memory.
I've had the pleasure of getting to know him by way of the stand-up comedy show I host, which he's appeared on several times. When I first planned this column, my intention was to make it a sequel to that column I mentioned earlier about organizations that get more hate than they deserve.
Turns out they totally deserve it!
I wasn't going to defend American Idol, really. It was more about the contestants and the theory that appearing on the show gives you an unfair leg up in the music business. We actually talk about that a bit on the podcast, but in the course of talking to Brian Dunkleman, it became fairly obvious that the column shouldn't be about defending the contestants; it should be about defending him (and three to four more people, because this is Cracked and lists fuel our engine).
Here's the thing: In the annals of pop culture history, Brian Dunkleman's decision to quit American Idol is cited as a totally self-inflicted Pete Best situation.
Ha! Pete Best, am I right, kids?!?!?
Whereas Best was jettisoned from the Beatles by force right before the band got huge, Dunkleman left by choice at the exact same moment in the trajectory of American Idol history. It's generally accepted that he left because he thought the show was going nowhere and that it was the right move for his career, a decision that, in hindsight, seems completely insane.
Of course, there are two sides to every story, and the Dunkleman side of this one makes it clear that, no matter the financial ramifications, leaving was at the very least the right decision from a mental health standpoint. Until we recorded the podcast, I'd never actually asked about the American Idol stuff. I expected to hear tales of woe about leaving a gig that could have set him up for life when the situation, in retrospect, really wasn't that bad. What I got instead was a series of harrowing stories about a year spent working for what must be one of the worst employers on television and with the worst co-worker imaginable.
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That, of course, is Ryan Seacrest, and his alleged failings as a co-worker and as a person in general, as told to me by Brian Dunkleman, are too numerous to comprehensively list here. My favorite horror story, though, involves Seacrest repeatedly and intentionally failing to read lines written for him on the teleprompter. These lines were intended to set up the lines that Dunkleman would deliver next, thus giving the impression that Dunkleman was the one fucking up, and he did it solely for the "entertainment" value of it all. It happened four times in one episode alone, and apparently shenanigans like this were standard operating procedure for Seacrest.
Shockingly, though, aside from the part where he's haunted him ever since, it seems like Ryan Seacrest probably wasn't even the worst part of Dunkleman's year in reality singing competition hell. That title would be reserved for show producer Nigel Lythgoe.
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This guy is a dick? No way.
He's the subject of a particularly depressing story that involves reprimanding the hosts for not doing enough to make a contestant feel worse after Simon Cowell had just trashed his performance. This happened in the very first episode, mind you.
Lythgoe was apparently also the man responsible for writing scripts so terrifyingly cheesy that Dunkleman eventually resorted to paying (out of his own pocket) other comics like Doug Benson to write jokes that he would go off script to sneak into the broadcasts. Seriously, though, how bad could the jokes he was supposed to deliver really have been? Glad you asked, here's an example:
Seacrest: "Our contestants are gonna be famous now, they'll have to learn how to deal with the paparazzi."
Dunkleman: "Yeah, that stuff can really repeat on you, but a pizza's just not the same without it!"
Seacrest: "Paparazzi, not pepperoni! Get with it man!"
If you laughed at that, you're the answer to every "Who is buying this shit?" question ever. Money is great, but when you're trying to build a career in comedy, letting someone put jokes like those in your mouth can destroy your momentum pretty quickly. So, Brian Dunkleman had to decide whether the money he stood to make from sticking around was worth doing work he hated under terrible conditions. He decided it wasn't.
What came from that decision speaks directly to the point I wanted to make when I decided to write about the show in the first place. American Idol is regularly dismissed as a cheap and easy way for someone to "win" a career in music. Is it, though? For one thing, you don't win a career; you win the opportunity to release one album. Music history is littered with countless acts who had one shot to release an album and made nothing else of it, and the majority of them didn't have the stigma of being a "contest winner" who hasn't paid enough dues to be earning a living playing music. Carrying that burden just makes your chances of succeeding all the more slim. For every Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood who managed to actually develop a successful music career, there are twice as many Taylor Hickses and David Cooks we'll most likely never hear from again.
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Taylor Hicks: The Steve Martin of being forgotten by everyone.
Unfortunately, that same stink has been following Brian Dunkleman's career prospects around for over a decade now. He didn't get on the show by waiting in line for eight hours at the Superdome hoping to tell jokes to Paula Abdul; he was just the co-host for a season. Nevertheless, that brief stint on the show has somehow landed him in the same category as the Bucky Covingtons of the world in the eyes of a lot of people, even though he was quite possibly the first person to publicly call bullshit on what the show was about.
So, that's the story of how this column came to be about public figures who tried to do the right thing and got burned for it. Now let's talk baseball.
#3. Jose Canseco Outed Steroid Users Before It Was Cool
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It's probably hard to imagine now, but once upon a time, accusing Major League Baseball players of using steroids wasn't a cool thing to do. Sure, Mark McGwire sprouted the forearms of a comic book hero in the span of a year or so, and Barry Bonds experienced head growth at a similarly suspicious rate.
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Look at the size of that thing!
Still, this is America's pastime we're talking about, and those freakish growth spurts just happened to coincide with a home run race that reignited interest in a game that a lot of people had rightly written off after a series of labor disputes made everyone in the league look like an entitled twat.
Reminder: Jose Canseco is a New York Times best-selling author.
So, when former home run machine and forever crazy machine Jose Canseco released a book in 2005 called Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant 'Roids, Smash Hits, and How Baseball Got Big, his allegations of epidemic-level steroid abuse in baseball was mostly written off as another attention-grabbing stunt by a washed up athlete who sorely missed life in the spotlight.
If any baseball purists have conveniently forgotten that, here's a quote from Canseco's former manager, Tony LaRussa, in regard to Canseco's allegations:
"First of all, I think he's in dire straits and needs money. ... I think there's a healthy case of envy and jealousy."
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Good luck staying mad at him with that backdrop behind him.
While that might have been partially true, it didn't change the fact that Canseco was telling the truth. Time and an absurd series of congressional hearings would eventually prove that, indeed, scores of MLB players, including several of the biggest names in the game, had been using steroids for a long time.
Still, no one likes a tattle-tale. That's as true in baseball as it is anywhere else, and Canseco's reputation has never fully recovered from falling on the wrong side of that life rule. You can hate him for that all you want, but at least he was the first of that now reviled group of athletes to come clean about what had become of baseball.
He's still pretty fucking crazy, though.