We learn a lot about San Diego’s classiest newsman in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. For one, he owns many leather-bound books and his apartment smells of rich mahogany.
But there’s so much more we want to know. Where did Burgundy grow up? How did he get into the news game? What’s his advice on how to survive a prison riot?
All this and more is presented in his new memoir, Let Me Off at the Top!: My Classy Life & Other Musings (in bookstores on Nov. 19).
Never mind the fact that Burgundy doesn’t actually exist. (He’s a character, famously played by Will Ferrell in the 2004 comedy-classic film Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy.) Books by fictional characters have become a micro-trend in publishing, one that speaks volumes about our obsession with these characters and our arch, oh-so-knowing meta sensibilities. What’s real or not is irrelevant. All that matters is that we’re in on the joke.
“This is dependent on a tongue that is really, really deeply ensconced in the cheek and never leaves it,” says Robert Thompson, a professor of popular culture at Syracuse University.
One of the features of postmodern culture is that questions of what’s “real” tend to lose all currency. They actually make a person look kind of square – at least to those steeped in cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard.
The hyper-ironic, pomo culture we live in got chugging along in about 1982, Thompson says, and now it has become the lingua franca of our contemporary moment. Its ascent has also tracked with our obsession with film and television – blogging about it, tweeting about it, writing fan fiction based on it.
We’ve all become so familiar with the tropes of television and film playing off life, and life playing off film and television, that there is not much else to do but sit back and see who can tickle our sense of knowingness the best in the great mishmash of cultural signifiers and references.
That’s part of the appeal of the Burgundy memoir, Thompson says. Whatever else it was, Anchorman was about the pretentions of celebrity news people.
“And what is one of the things that celebrity news anchors do?” Thompson asks. “They write their memoirs.”
The best mustache in local news is far from the only character producing books these days. Fellow fake newsman Stephen Colbert has been filling up shelves since the release of I Am America (And So Can You!), in 2007.
It’s no wonder Colbert has been so successful at it, Thompson says.
“Comedies or things with comic elements are probably the most useful for this,” he says. “That whole ironic thing gives you all kinds of leeway.”
But it’s not just comedians in on the act.
Hank Moody, the writer played by David Duchovny on the television show Californication, is famous for having written the broody novel God Hates Us All. That novel was published in 2009 (here in the world you live in; it was published at least two years earlier in the world of the show).
In 2010 we saw the publication of Sterling’s Gold: Wit and Wisdom of an Ad Man. It’s the book Roger Sterling published on season four of Mad Men.
Last year we saw The Autobiography of Sherlock Holmes, by Sherlock Holmes, of course. According to the publisher it was written in 1929 and recently discovered as an unpublished manuscript in a bookshop in England.
All of these books are by characters who have devoted fan bases, and all of them can be linked back to an early forerunner: The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer, published in 1990 and written by the character who was killed on TV’s Twin Peaks. (Fun fact: It was written by the daughter of Twin Peaks co-creator David Lynch.)
While they’re all great examples of third-order simulacra, says Doug Mann, an assistant professor in the Faculty of Information and Media Studies at Western University, they’re also, he points out, just straight-up tie-ins, a way of cashing in on a character’s popularity and further stoking fan interest that goes back to the 1950s.
“The idea of creating this sort of phony biography is a slight variation, but it’s an old theme,” Mann says. “It’s just marketing, pure marketing.”