It is a very specific culture that produces this auto insurance commercial, in which Dikembe Mutombo Mpolondo Mukamba Jean-Jacques Wamutombo, a man from Africa who played professional basketball in Houston, knocks various objects out of the air. It is an ultra-specific culture that finds it hilarious, as I do. Probably it is helped along by my predilection for slapstick. I submit that certain elements of it are pure art, though, such as the sequence in the grocery store aisle that begins at :16. Motumbo has to be standing so close to the kid to get that reverse shot, such that he becomes conspicuously absent from the shot preceding it. Your brain has to go backwards in time and add him in. It is a visual expression of the incongruity theory of humor—something that was itself technically impossible until about a hundred years ago—and it makes it.
Or maybe it’s his Cookie Monster voice. Mutombo ranks high among the funniest basketball players of all time in part because of his scratchy, throaty, relentlessly foreign timbre, which sounds exactly like what you want a seven foot-tall man from the Congo to sound like. Probably, this observation is racist. It is also ubiquitous. Stuart Scott—who is African, too, in roughly the way that pizza is Italian—consistently referred to Mutombo as “Cookie Monster” on SportsCenter. And just listen to the man’s voice:
How could he not eventually appear behind children and explode their cereal in midair? And how could the image of him doing so not be broadcast into millions of homes to sell car insurance?
I can actually think of several ways. In a big-picture, weak anthropic principle kind of way, the unlikelihood of this commercial coming into existence is mind-blowing. First, you have to have a planet with a bunch of water and carbon and arboreal primates who eventually descend to the ground and walk upright. That last part is just so you can have sports other than gymnastics. Then you need cars, third-party insurance, television, the NBA, the legacy of slavery that both inflects our understanding of the NBA and the meaning of a man from the Congo coming to play in it, and Cookie Monster. Then Dikembe Mutombo has to become the second-leading blocker in league history, which is hard. And he has to have a sense of humor. And—although this is not strictly necessary—he should sound like Cookie Monster.
It’s kind of a perfect storm, is what I’m saying here. Our culture is a given in the most literal sense of the word, but it is also the product of radical contingency. Any tiny change in history, including but not limited to Mutombo’s mom meeting a shorter guy who is into music, and we spend this morning talking about something else entirely. In pretty much every other possible universe, this commercial does not happen. When you laugh at Cookie Monster smashing a box of cereal out of the air and running away, you are lifted by a wave of ecstasy on a sea of arbitrary, interlocking events, each of which becomes necessary from the perspective of that moment and, as part of the mass, vertiginously unlikely.
And then it’s gone. Although I cannot effing compass the idea now, eventually this Geico commercial featuring Dikembe Mutombo will not be funny to me. Probably it will have something to do with my watching it 30 times in a row this morning. One way or the other, though, this gem of contemporary salesmanship—this diamond that required mountains of accumulated American history and tectonic social/economic forces to produce—will lose its luster. It will be replaced by another funny commercial, hopefully involving a dog that wears pants and works in an office.
One way or another, though, it will vanish. I don’t mean to bum you out, but so will you. Dozens of generations of specific people had to meet each other and fall in love and/or share a water source to produce the specific you, who went to college and majored in theatre arts or whatever, and in a few decades you will be gone like a funny Geico commercial. It’s an absurd system, when you think about it, ordered from only a very narrow perspective. For 30 seconds at a time, though, standing in the sun in our Montana apartments or watching Cookie Monster block a coffee filter, it’s great.