Is there a worse tie-in book than the humor tie-in book? Humor tie-ins, books that are basically collections of pictures, catchphrases, and badly written text pieces designed to snare fans of tv shows/movies without contributing anything are the worst. Take the 3rd Rock From the Sun book, a “report” hastily flung out in the fall of 1996 after the show debuted in the winter. That book was a lot of generic, gross jokes that could’ve been about anything. The Beavis and Butthead and Bart Simpson “guides” feel like they could’ve been about any character. As for the Ron Burgundy “memoir,” we may have words about that one VERY soon.
So what would it take to make a good one? Well today’s text provides a rare example, Pawnee: The Greatest Small Town in America, a tie-in to the much beloved Parks an Recreation, is the rare comedy tie-in that actually works to flesh the show out. Written by Nate DiMeo and a team of writers from the show, the book operates as a guide to the show’s setting and characters. The book clearly intends to read like an object from the show, which indeed it is in an episode that promoted it, and it succeeds. Why though? Why is it good when others aren’t?
Let’s start by looking at the source. The book comes between seasons 3 and 4 of a show that famously and frankly inaccurately was known for a rough first year and a 1/4. Honestly I think it started good and got great. One reason it started so strong was the characters were set early on. Ron Swanson is the man we know and love immediately. Sure things change but that’s the whole point of the show. The core was set.
Key to that core was Pawnee, Indiana, the show’s fictional setting. Pawnee is one of the best developed worlds of any tv show every, ranking with Springfield and Mayberry. By the time the book came out, viewers could list 15-20 locations without blinking. They could list a host of characters outside the core cast. If you’re going to do a book on an invented setting, this is the ideal.
Thus with this much material, something rarely seen in these comedy books, there was plenty to work with and this book runs with it. This is a very dense book that shows how thoroughly crafted this world is. There are long sections of the book that truly are just world building in a unique way. This is a history of this fictional world played completely straight which makes it hysterical given how utterly absurd it is.
Take the list of Pawnee beauty pageant winners. It’s just a list of jokes and in another book it would’ve been generic gags about how trashy pageants are or how funny it would be that these women are doing weird talents. Here there’s a distinct thread of how specifically middle America this world is and how panicky/reactionary this town is. Getting jokes about Y2K work because Pawnee’s odd just-barely dated trends are embedded into the show. This is specific in other words.
The same is true for the other sections in the book. The products of Sweetums, the menu at the Snakehole Lounge, the list of Pawnee’s slogans, and especially all the history given, these are all 100% out of the show. You truly suspect you’re reading the actual bible the writers crafted for the town, which I’m certain this had to start as. This is a true artifact of the show.
And again, it’s funny. Writing about comedy is so very hard. All I can tell you is that this book cracked me up. There are turns of phrase so perfectly executed in it they slay me. Saying more is useless. Comedy works on a pass/fail scale and this passes.
If you’re a fan of this show and you think you’re in for another Ensucklopedia, rest assured you’re not. It’s rare to see this style of tie-in done right but this nails it.
Next time: The Death and Life of Superman.