When I initially took over this site there was a lot of discussion amongst former and current editors about doing a weekly feature devoted entirely to Rick Reilly's ESPN column. It would be too easy to just pick apart its contents FJM-style (R.I.P), but given his hubris, his enormous contract, and the thinly veiled penis-showing contest he had with "blogger" Bill Simmons, he seemed entirely deserving of some sort of weekly takedown. One reader actually submitted a pretty clever idea early in the summer, which was just to keep a running list of Reilly's out-of-date references in each of his columns. His initial list went as follows: Johnny Unitas, The Taco Bell Chihuahua (!), Mike Tyson, Scottie Pippen, Jack Clark. Leitch's idea to add up the words at the end of the year to see how much his per-word rate was pretty good as well. But then there's this Slate story by Josh Levin about Reilly's overuse of tooth-oriented jokes that is just so insanely inspired, it makes all other past and future ideas seem incredibly bland.
Pick up a handful of Reilly's columns, and you'll soon be overwhelmed by the patois of the hygienist's office: cavities, fillings, molars, root canals, gingivitis. News database searches of the sportswriter's output for the Los Angeles Times, SI, the Times of London, and ESPN, as well as an examination of four of his books, reveal that Reilly has cracked a minimum of 116 dental jokes in his career: 95 in his newspaper and magazine writing and 21 in his books. My not-so-scientific tooth-joke-finding methodology: to Nexis and Google every chopper-related word I could think of. The final total would've been a lot higher if I hadn't restricted it to tooth references that were 100 percent superfluous—that is, jokes and turns of phrase that come out of nowhere in otherwise toothless stories. Any dental fragment that appeared for a defensible reason—Reilly sharing an anecdote about a basketball player's bloody tooth falling into his notebook, or explaining what it's like to be a Chicago dentist who shares a name with Michael Jordan—didn't make my count. (I was a little less forgiving when it came to Reilly's fiction, considering that he manufactured all of the tooth-baring scenarios.)
Oh and there are tag clouds, graphs, and even a handy sidebar that lists all of the tooth references by column date. It's almost like a piece of performance art. And for extra-extra credit, Levin even contacts Reilly about his tooth problem to get his explanation:
"I know gingivitis is funny," he writes, adding that "root canals are generally a strong image." He then offers a psychoanalytic explanation: "I was a terrible Sugar Babies addict, so I had more cavities than the surface of the moon. Really, I'd have three and four every time. So maybe I'm taking it out on dentists."
The question is — will these tooth jokes continue now that his abuse of dental humor has been exposed?
Rick Reilly's Complete Dental Records [Slate]