100 posts isn’t a huge milestone for most blogs, it’s just a bit of one here because I wasn’t confident I would even get to 10. I only signed up for this account so I could comment over at Cardboard Gods and a blog came with it. After ignoring it for a few months, I finally decided it could use it to post about non-Leaf things, the Leaf content living over at Pension Plan Puppets.
Over time, though, I just got tired of talking about the Leafs and didn’t feel like I was adding much new to the conversation. So I sort of migrated over here without really noticing I was doing it.
For no real reason, the post that led me to believe I needed a separate place to write about alternate subjects is a post I never actually got around to writing, until now.
Years ago, we had an old betamax tape of “Bill Cosby – Himself” – a live show of his from the early/mid-’80s. Out of 90 minutes of sketches, the one joke that has always stuck with me was from the bit about natural childbirth (“Natural! Child! Birth!” in Cosbyspeak). The Cosbys, having successfully learned all they needed to know in order to do what should happen naturally anyway, have made it to the hospital and Mrs. Cosby is now under the watchful eye of the doctor, “sitting there like Johnny Bench.” (See about 7:23 in the clip below.)
The humour is now the better part of 30 years old and people may like it or they may not as time and context tends to change what is considered funny, but that isn’t really what struck me. What I found interesting was that the joke only works if the entire audience knows who Johnny Bench is, and most everyone clearly does, based on the response. This wasn’t even a US audience. The taping was in Canada.
That got me wondering whether there was anyone in baseball today who could be used in this kind of joke. Does it work with Joe Mauer? Pudge Rodriguez? Somehow I don’t see it. Nobody else has that level of instant recognition even amongst non-baseball fans.
I wondered whether it was a reflection of a declining place of baseball in the national consciousness that would account for me being unable to replace Bench in the joke. Was it just that he could count on most of his audience knowing the game in 1983-84? Or was it more that Bench’s place in society transcended the game itself, much like a Gretzky was known even to people who weren’t fans of hockey and had maybe never even seen it played?
(It’s also possible that since that’s how I first heard the joke and given that I’ve heard it enough times in precisely that manner, I can’t imagine it working any other way. I don’t think so, though.)
In the past year or so that I’ve mulled this over, I’ve talked to some older fans (Bench’s heyday came when I was too little to really get what he was doing) and I’ve been able to get a little bit of a sense of how big a deal Johnny Bench really was at the time. The joke works because Johnny Bench equals “catcher” the same way Bobby Orr equals “defenseman,” even if you’ve never seen him play and even the better part of 30 years since he last swung a bat and meant it. You didn’t need to have seen Johnny Bench to know what he was, and that’s why it worked.
So if Bill Cosby was trying to tell the joke again today and needed a name to make the reference work, there really isn’t a better name he could use than Johnny Bench. Maybe that’s just my age and lack of imagination, but I find it pretty remarkable.