Why is this commercial so wonderful?


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.

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  1. Ha! When I saw that commercial on TV the other day, I commented on how “wonderful” it was, using that exact same word! I haven’t enjoyed a commercial on that level since this overplayed but still hilarious Carnival one:


    It’s strength is, I believe, in that jump cut (like the Harlem Shake) from calm to chaos, and also in the fact that that woman is, second-for-second, the funniest person on TV.

  2. I didn’t laugh. I’m reverse engineering your argument a bit, but to get this, do I have to be racist or like sports or car insurance? I definitely do like slapstick, but for that to work actual people should get hurt; slapping at random, unimportant stuff doesn’t cut it.

  3. Excellent commercial. Excellent post.

    As an NBA nut, though, I have to contend with one point.

    He played in Houston, sure. But only for 5 of his 18 years.

    Career history
    1991–1996 Denver Nuggets
    1996–2001 Atlanta Hawks
    2001–2002 Philadelphia 76ers
    2002–2003 New Jersey Nets
    2003–2004 New York Knicks
    2004–2009 Houston Rockets

    He’s probably best known for playing with the 76ers in the Finals against the Shaq/Kobe Lakers. Or, for this Hawks days, when he did the finger waggle most prominently and won a few defensive player of the year awards.

    Mt. Mutombo – who has done amazing charity work (http://www.dmf.org/) and speaks 9 languages – was the cause for a rule change, which surely puts him in a special pantheon of players. Due to the finger waggle, the NBA said no to taunting. I love that.

  4. In part, I find this commercial funny because I remember that finger waggle as a very serious gesture followed by a badass block. That finger waggle inspired a lot of vitriol or elation (depending on who you rooted for) and also lots of technical fouls. I remember Jordan once dunking over Mt Mutombo and giving him the finger waggle, which was a really big deal. In the moment, I thought there might be a malice-in-the-palace like scenario.

    For me, the incongruity of seeing that very serious finger waggle turn into something silly renders it hilarious. This probably say something awful about what I do and don’t take seriously in my life, but there’s a bit of Dr. Strangelove humor going on here: take something very serious and joke about it, and suddenly it becomes hilarious.

  5. Well done, Spencer. However, I remember Mutombo most for the Nuggets series, when they were an 8th seed and knocked off the number one. I don’t remember who that was, but I remember Mutombo clutching the ball, falling to the court and howling. It was pretty great.

    Also, he played for the Knicks? I do not remember that at all.

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