If you grew up, like I did, on a steady diet of junk pop culture, you have probably dreamed up imaginary backstories for your favorite TV shows, movies, pop songs, and video games and their characters.
You’ve likely had doubts about the sitcom logic of, say, “Gilligan’s Island” — the Professor can MacGyver a lie detector, a hot air balloon, and a Geiger counter out of coconuts and bamboo but can’t fix a hole in the S.S. Minnow? You may have also wondered why on “Star Trek” all the aliens speak English and live on planets with breathable atmospheres.
Such is the comical premise of “Dear Luke, We Need to Talk, Darth: And Other Pop Culture Correspondences,” John Moe’s collection of faux memos, diary entries, interview transcripts, e-mails, text messages, and other fictitious documents that explain, explore, and poke fun at some of our most beloved media memories.
What if Fonzie from “Happy Days” was actually “an ancient wizard . . . borne unto Earth thousands of years ago when magick pervaded, and it wasn’t just nerds and the psychotic who spelled it with a k”?
Or perhaps E.T.’s alien crewmates debated whether to go back to Earth to retrieve him: “I gotta say, I kind of agree with Dan,” one gripes in an e-mail. “I have never liked that dude.”
Or envision the manager of the bar where Billy Joel played piano finally busting a valve: “[P]eople kept yelling at you all night. ‘Sing us a song, piano man! Sing us a song tonight!’ they shouted. But instead of doing so, you simply shouted their words back to them and added a line about how you were making them feel all right. Which you weren’t.”
The host of Minnesota Public Radio’s show “Wits” and the man behind McSweeney’s “Pop Song Correspondences” series, Moe imagines alternate worlds where James Taylor goes back on his “You’ve Got a Friend” promise (“I regret to inform you that, as of July 1, I will no longer come running when you call out my name”) and “Fight Club” has more than eight rules (“12: There’s a sign-up sheet on the fridge. Please sign up for a night to bring snacks and juice boxes.”)
From “Memo regarding changes to the Hotel California in light of Mr. Don Henley’s recent complaint” to “Top secret British intelligence notes on the fates of Agents 001 through 006,” Moe leaves no cornerstone of American entertainment unturned.
Some riffs work better than others. Angry letters from Dorothy to Glinda the good witch, Max the dog to the Grinch, and hound dog to Elvis Presley are repetitive. “Rejected Super Bowl Halftime Show Proposals,” a recurring joke throughout the book, feels like a forced march through our pop culture of yore. Oddball ideas like Robert Plant’s contractor interpreting the lyrics to “Stairway to Heaven” as blueprints, or “Bill Cosby’s sweaters in the 1980s” sending letters to each other feel too surreal to make much comedic sense.
One occasionally senses Moe is grasping for material. Let’s see, I haven’t made fun of “Mad Men” yet. How about “Don Draper’s cocktail recipe note cards”?
The best bits arise when Moe strays from his phony memo-speak and lets the characters speak for themselves. “Interviews with Disney personnel about the Goofy-Pluto conundrum” and “An Oral History of the Pac-Man Ghosts” are brilliant. “I felt like a monster,” says Bluto in “The Cast of the ‘Popeye’ Cartoons Remembers.” “Big scary beard, impossibly muscular torso, so when I was treated like a monster, it made a sort of sad sense. That’s what I had for happiness.”
When John Moe gets at the heart of our affection and nostalgia for inane cartoons, children’s book, sci-fi movies, songs, and other pop cultural detritus, “Dear Luke, We Need to Talk. Darth” supersedes comedy to become smart and biting criticism. Moe’s book also makes me feel a lot better about all those hours I spent with Gilligan and the Skipper, or at Arnold’s Drive-In with Fonzie.