In 1998, Rick Reilly wrote that Carolina Panthers quarterback Kerry Collins had "all the 'nads of a jelly Danish" for asking to be taken out of the team's starting lineup. "Maybe I'm just getting old, but I remember when your average NFL player would come to the sideline, spit out three bicuspids, Scotch-tape his humerus together and get back out there,"Reilly opined in Sports Illustrated. On Nov. 19 of this year, Reilly praised Collins in ESPN the Magazine, explaining that the QB "never makes excuses" for his failings. By contrast, he asks us to consider Dieter Baumann, a German runner who nine years ago explained away the results of a drug test by saying his "toothpaste was spiked."
It's not particularly significant that Rick Reilly did a 180 on Kerry Collins, who has improbably led the Tennessee Titans to an 11-1 record this year. Every columnist should be entitled to change his opinion, and Reilly—the 11-time National Sportswriter of the Year, longtime resident of SI's back page, and recent ESPN hire—is more entitled than most. What is worth noting, however, is the remarkable persistence of Reilly's favorite linguistic maneuver: the dental one-liner.
Bicuspids and toothpaste are just the beginning of Reilly's oral fixation. Dental floss is a particular passion. In a July 2005 SI column, he said that riding in Lance Armstrong's team car at the Tour de France was "about as boring as flossing a shark." I'd "sooner floss crocodiles" than go skydiving, he wrote in 2003. Three months before that, he broke off a punch line—"Clyde Barrow used to floss"—that had something to do with Utah basketball coach Rick Majerus. Tiger Woods' victory in the 2002 Masters had, in Reilly's estimation, "all the suspense of a good floss." In 2001, after complaining at length about baseball commissioner Bud Selig, he added: "On the plus side, he flosses regularly." In 2000, he said that a hammerhead is the "kind of shark that flosses triathletes from between its teeth." A year earlier: Wayne Gretzky "would rather spend a year flossing rhinos" than undertake a long farewell tour. Upon turning 40 in 1998, Reilly imagined his perfect day: Play strip poker with Heidi Klum, watch Pat Riley go bald, "[f]orget to floss." That January, he observed that downhill "[s]kiing isn't like flossing sharks." In 1992, Reilly conjured the perfect endorsement opportunity for large-toothed Broncos QB John Elway: Johnson & Johnson dental floss. And in 1990, he noted that a golf contraption called the Swing Ring was "as much fun as flossing." (In the interest of brevity, I'll omit the floss joke that Reilly cracked recently on ESPN.com, as well as the two floss quips in his golf novel Missing Links.)
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.)
As a service to sportswriting and dentistry aficionados, I've compiled all of Reilly's tooth jokes on a single page, with a link to the relevant story when available. Along with all the floss, you'll find 11 molars (three of which are impacted), nine tooth-having or floss-happy animals (three sharks, two crocodiles, two rhinos, a deer, and a schnauzer), seven allusions to picking one's teeth (the items picked out include spinach, AstroTurf, and Retief Goosen), six sets of bicuspids, six orthodontists, five dentists, four allusions to the pains of gum surgery, two cavities (one of which belongs to a sick crocodile), and references to both "standing around waiting" and PGA Tour Qualifying School as evoking anesthetic-free dental surgery. For visual learners, there's a tag cloud below—the larger the word, the more Reilly's used it.
Read all of Reilly's tooth jokes in one sitting, and you'll get an alternative, oral history of the last two decades in sports. In one of his maiden SI pieces in 1985, Reilly described soon-to-be hit king Pete Rose as "sliding molars first." When Tiger Woods first rose to fame as an amateur in 1995, he wrote that the golfer possessed "a Steinway smile that would make an orthodontist go broke." Mark McGwire chased Roger Maris' home run record in 1998, brandishing "the kind of power that causes 50,000 people to display their cavities in unison." And this year, as A-Rod became a tabloid staple, Reilly said that the Yankees third baseman probably wished that "he'd gone into dentistry."
Despite an early affection for molars—six mentions between 1985 and 1990—Reilly's mouth fetish didn't really take off until he started writing a regular weekly column for Sports Illustrated in 1998. As you'll see in the chart below, seven of the writer's top-eight tooth years have come in the last decade. (Note that the bar graph takes into account only Reilly's newspaper and magazine stories.)
It's understandable that Reilly's tooth-joke rate would increase as his writing metabolism sped up. The most likely reason for the sportswriter's dental surge, though, is the influence of legendary Los Angeles Times sports columnist Jim Murray. Six months after he took over SI's back page, Reilly eulogized Murray beautifully, saying that the Pulitzer winner's "column was about sports sort of the way Citizen Kane was about sleds." (He also wrote a 4,500-word profile of Murray for SI in 1986.) Reilly seeks to emulate his hero's breadth and humanism in his own writing, regularly centering his stories around "great, heroic deeds from small people." His words also betray the influence of Murray's sharp sense of humor. To Murray, Rickey Henderson had "a strike zone the size of Hitler's heart." His suggestion for how to kick off the Indianapolis 500: "Gentlemen, start your coffins!"
The Murray-Reilly school of one-liner-based column-craft demands a bottomless wit and a skill for self-editing. Humorists like Dave Barry and Gene Weingarten spend paragraphs setting up and detonating a single joke; Reilly launches a grenade every other sentence. When you're such an ostentatious jokester, every punch line is a referendum on whether you're still funny. A good way to lose that referendum is to pop in a molar quip every time you can't think of a Murray-esque witticism.
It's no crime to have a taste for all things dental. Sure, tooth jokes are often corny, but bicuspid and gingivitis are legitimately funny words. Mouth metaphors can also be quite apt on occasion—the PGA Tour's Q-school does seem a bit like anesthetic-free dental surgery. In broader terms, no one would deny the comedian or the columnist the use of catchphrases and deliberate repetitions. The great Chicago newspaperman Mike Royko regularly trotted out characters like Slats Grobnik, and the New York Times' Maureen Dowd drops nicknames like "Rummy" and "Poppy Bush" to give her columns a consistent tone and vernacular. Reilly's ESPN colleague Bill Simmons, too, has a list of regular talking points that function as a kind of call-and-response with his readership: trips to Vegas with his team of sidekicks, copious Karate Kid references, and how-sports-work explications like the Ewing Theory and the Levels of Losing.
But that's not Reilly's game. His reaching for the floss is an unconscious tic, not a willful decision to mine the mouth for comedy. In response to an e-mail query, Reilly says he wasn't aware of his dental habit. "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."
Reilly says this isn't new territory for him: Around 1995, a reader complained that he'd overused the word spleen. "When you've been writing columns for 30 years," he continues in his e-mail, "I suppose you exhaust every body part." (He also asks if I've counted his references to Barcaloungers. I just did: 15.) The not-enough-body-parts defense is a reasonable one. It's also a symptom of how difficult it is to sustain a wisecrack-heavy writing style. At a certain point, your comic imagination will be outstripped by your perpetual need to fill your column with yuks. A good marker for when there's no more toothpaste left in your tube: the day you make your 116th dental joke.
Reilly is a gifted essayist and wordsmith. His long profile of Bryant Gumbel, "The Mourning Anchor," written for SI a decade before he became the mag's featured columnist, is one of the greatest pieces of sportswriting I've ever read. The first column that Reilly wrote for ESPN back in June, about reconciling with his alcoholic father, is a remarkable demonstration of how much you can say in just 800 words. The rest of his ESPN output, though, has shown signs of complacency. In just six months, he's made five tooth jokes and written two separate columns that refer to a rat gnawing on someone's stomach. Both Reilly and his editors need to start giving his copy more attention. He's far too talented a writer to succumb to something as treatable as tooth decay.