Reasons why everybody is writing Top Ten lists

November 21, 1994|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,Sun Staff Writer

The 10-legged beast is among us. Ever since David Letterman half-heartedly launched his first Top Ten List in 1985 ("Top Ten Things That Almost Rhyme with Peas": No. 1 Meat.), homemade Top Ten lists have become a comedic epidemic.

Why have they sunk into the popular culture? Because Top Ten Lists give regular folks 10 fast and easy chances to be funny.

"It's hard to fail, and it's a way of getting satire and sarcasm into an acceptable format," says Dr. Ken Fleishman, who did his residency training for psychiatry at Sheppard Pratt. "People already know they are supposed to laugh."

At his Sheppard Pratt graduation last summer, Dr. Fleishman regaled the crowd of students, residents and administrators with his "Top Ten Reasons to Come to Sheppard Pratt for Residency Training." He's already forgotten his inside jokes, but remembers he didn't use one because it poked too hard at the administration.

"If you get too honest or angry, it's not funny," says, Dr. Fleishman, who now practices in Atlanta.

On his two late-night talk shows, Mr. Letterman has issued more than 200 Top Ten Lists. A "surprise" Top Ten List is promised for tonight's "Late Show with David Letterman's Video Special," his first CBS prime-time special at 10 tonight on Channel 11.

"I can only say it will be a feast for all the senses," says "Late Show" writer Steve O'Donnell, who has written his share of lists for his boss. Mr. O'Donnell happens to collect amateur Top Ten Lists and finds most of them dreadful.

Because they appear easy to write, Top Ten lists are easy marks for amateurs. We found about 10 examples of homemade Top Ten Lists. All are in the spirit of Mr. Letterman's concept, but few remotely match the master. Some don't even try.

Spokesman Jim Lynn at McCormick spices sent us the company's Top Ten Spices by volume. And the Number One Spice by Volume is . . . Dehydrated Onion! The United Way of Central Maryland has its "Top Ten Things You Can Do To Help Get Pledge Cards Off Desks." And the Number 3 Way To Get Pledge Cards off Desks is . . . Schedule a Brown Bag Lunch!

In the recent elections, two candidates slapped Top Ten lists on campaign T-shirts and posters. From the Ellen Sauerbrey camp, "Top Ten Tax Reasons Why Marylanders Cannot Afford Parris Glendening" offered such scorching one-liners as No. 3, Broadened state sales tax, and No. 8, 50 percent increase in real estate transfer tax.

Bob Ehrlich,the newly elected Republican congressman from Baltimore County, attempted a funny Top Ten List. Cleverly named "Top Ten Reasons to Vote for Bob," No. 5 was "Someone's got to "Gore" Clinton's agenda," and No. 4, "He gave up the NFL for this."

Of course, this falls short of hearing a Top Ten List in all its glory, audio and drum rolls. Over the years, Mr. Letterman's Top Ten subjects have ranged from "Top Ten Rejected Crayola Colors" (No. 7, Shecky Green) to "Top Ten Signs You Have a Bad Airline Pilot" (No. 1, Keeps referring to the control tower as "Mommy").

The lists are syndicated in hundreds of newspapers, are carried on radio stations, and appear in Top Ten Lists books. Why has this simple device become so popular?

"I attribute it to the decline of organized religion," says Mr. O'Donnell at "Late Show." "People need some kind of structure on which to base their empty lives."

In 1986, Mr. Letterman's writing staff even came up with "Top Ten Reasons to Stop Doing the Top 10," which included the convincing "Impassioned letter from Lou Rawls." But the Top Ten beast refused to die.

Vice President Al Gore read his own "Top Ten Best Things About Being Vice President" in 1993. Last week, New York Gov.-elect George Pataki came on the show and read "Top Ten Ways to Mispronounce Pataki." One way was "Cold Six Packy."

The Top Ten List formula is more subtle than it looks. In Mr. Letterman's lists,the lead spot, No. 10,is usually better than the last entry or No. 1, which is purposely kept short and is "the last sucker punch before running away to hide," as Mr. O'Donnell says. The staff sometimes writes 100 items for every one list, forever editing until air time.

The number 10 is significant. A Top Seven List has no ring to it. A Top Five List comes up short. To promote its airing of Mr. Letterman's show, WNUV-TV in Baltimore broadcast its own "Top Five Reasons to Stay Up Late." To give you some idea of where this list headed, the No. 2 reason was "In the Heat of the Night."

Before he graduated from Towson State University, a guy named Dan Cronin wrote Top Ten lists in 1992 for the university's weekly, The Towerlight. A sample is his "Top Ten Excuses for Drinking at Towson State:"

10. Chances of slamming beers with Hoke Smith again very slim.

9. Dow Jones up.

8. National Velcro Day.

7. Lab results came back negative.

6. Just bit into a York Peppermint Pattie.

5. Tastes great!

4. Thought it was O'Doul's.

3. Willard Scott Appreciation Day.

2. Less filling!

1. Kelly's switched to New Improved plastic cups.

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