At the suggestion of a friend with fine taste in pop culture, I started rewatching Cheers. It’s a fine show. In Season Three, Cliff Clavin (played by John Ratzenberger) has recently returned from a vacation in sunny Florida. For the rest of the season, in fact, he won’t shut up about it. In one episode, to woo one of the female patrons (a rare occurrence for Cliffy, to be sure), he asks her to join him in a game of pool and adds, “or, as they call it in Tallahassee, ‘pocket billiards.’”
No, they don’t. I’m pretty sure no one in America calls pool “pocket billiards” casually, but it’s definitely not some typical Tallahassee phrase. This may be just an intended flub by the Cheers writers for Cliff, because half of what comes out of the character’s mouth is bullshit, but I’m from Tallahassee. I did most of my growing up there.
Normally, no one pays Florida much mind. However, as a swing state, with 25 electoral votes, it comes into glaring focus when national elections are underway. The fiasco that was the 2000 presidential election also gave a lot of media people an opportunity to spew prejudicial bile against Tallahassee and Florida. Jokes about rednecks and senior citizens being unable to vote properly. Jon Stewart, appearing on Letterman, said, “I think they should settle it like they do everything in Florida by local custom, which, as you know, is the hot buns contest.” Ha ha. If your state had that much coastline and that much warm weather, it would undoubtedly have its share of Spring Break contests. Anyway.
On hearing Cliff’s gaffe on Cheers, I realized that, almost 20 years after that episode ran, a small but conspicuous number of TV and film writers are still using Florida’s capital as a punchline. They’re still getting my hometown wrong.
Some facts about Tallahassee:
- Tallahassee is funky. George Clinton, bandleader of Parliament-Funkadelic, moved to Tallahassee years ago. Since Clinton mandates that many of the musicians that regularly tour with P-Funk must be readily available to him, most have also settled in Tallahassee. A lot of those musicians play around town when not touring. Let me tell you, the pick-up funk bands in Tallahassee are unreal.
- The “T” in T-Pain stands for Tallahassee, his hometown. He represents, and not just for Auto-Tune.
- Cookie magnate “Famous” Wallace Amos is also from Tallahassee. His cookies are delicious, and I defy any big-shot media type to crack jokes about them.
Last season on 30 Rock, in “Double-Edged Sword,” Tina Fey’s character Liz Lemon decides to go on a trip with her boyfriend, Carol, played by Matt Damon. On the plane, Liz and Carol bag mean-spiritedly on the sorry appearance of other passengers, and Carol makes a crack, “Look at sweatpants guy. This is a $90 million aircraft, not a Tallahassee strip club.”
It’s good joke, sure, but I have a small point of contention that may fall like a bombshell on some readers: There are no strip clubs in Tallahassee.
This is a topic of interest for some. Tallahassee Code of Ordinances Part II Chapter 12 Article V Division 2 Section 12-139 (3) stipulates that, “No person or entity maintaining, owning, or operating an establishment dealing in alcoholic beverages shall encourage, allow, or permit any person to appear nude or to expose to public view his or her genitals, pubic area, vulva, anus, or any portion of the buttocks or simulation thereof. This section shall be violated if any portion of the buttocks is visible from any vantage point.”
I haven’t been able to discover why the code was drafted, but there are some theories. Maybe, considering Tallahassee’s somewhat small-town nature, it is more beholden to the nation’s puritanical Fun Police. Or, more interestingly, since Tallahassee is the state capital, perhaps this was a rare instance of foresight on lawmakers’ part, because it would be easy to snap a pic of a legislator or two letting it all hang down off-session. By now we’ve all learned (hopefully) what kind of career killer a naughty picture like that can be.
Anyway, good joke, writers of 30 Rock, but wholly inaccurate. If at any point I have been to a strip club, it was definitely not in Tallahassee.
- Tallahassee saw one of the Americas’ first Spanish missions, the Mission San Luis de Apalachee. The site was chosen because it was the capital of the Apalachee people’s territory. Later, the mission was briefly used as the western capital of Spanish Florida.
- Upon finding Wakulla Springs just outside present-day Tallahassee, explorer Ponce de León believed he had discovered the mythical Fountain of Youth. He hadn’t, and though he would make the claim several times over while exploring Florida, he didn’t realize that he’d found a mouth to one of Earth’s largest, highest-producing aquifers. To date, the true source of Wakulla Springs has never been found, though several scuba divers have lost their lives attempting to discover it. So it’s probably haunted.
- Apprehended heading west across the Florida Pandhandle in Februrary 1978, Ted Bundy was brought back to Tallahassee and later indicted there for numerous murders and attacks that had taken place on the Florida State University campus in January of that year. After a venue change to Miami, his trial began in June 1979. This first nationally televised trial concluded in a guilty verdict and a death sentence for Bundy. He was executed on the morning of Jan. 24, 1989, at the state prison in Bradford County.
In Season Six of The Office, the titular office of Dunder Mifflin, Inc., is bought out by printer manufacturer Sabre, which, we’re told, has its head office in Tallahassee. The founder and CEO of Sabre, played by Kathy Bates, is portrayed as a quintessentially Southern woman by the name of Jo Bennett. Her heavily accented speech is what those in the sociolinguistics business call Southern States White English, and her colloquialisms, such as “You can’t give me gravy and tell me it’s jelly, ’cause gravy ain’t sweet,” might seem convincing to outsiders, but are likely made out of whole cloth. At least, I’ve never heard anyone say such a thing. Thankfully Jo’s not portrayed to be racist or developmentally disabled, as so many cartoonish Southerners are written.
The Southern thing doesn’t quite stick to Tallahassee, though. Though it is in Florida, and Florida certainly did secede from the Union in 1861, the “Old South” of increasingly atavistic collective memory receded deep into the backwater through most of the 20th century. Tallahassee, for example, is a big college town. With around 40,000 students, Florida State University is one of the country’s biggest universities. With 13,000, Florida A&M, also in Tallahassee, is one of the top historically black universities. This creates an influx of faculty and faculty families from all of the country, not just Southerners.
Alabama Whitman’s willingness to sleep with a guy on the first date does not line up with any of the girls I knew back home, though I used to pray regularly to meet Alabama’s real-life equivalent.
When my mother was in high school, my grandfather moved the family from Kansas to take a teaching position at Florida State, which is how I came to be born in Tallahassee. He’s now professor emeritus of botany from that institution, and, I assure you, the most lovable kind of egghead. He’s originally from Idaho, and I’ve heard before from sociolinguists that I actually speak with a more western dialect, if anything.
Of course, students also come to Tallahassee from across the country, some even from outside the States, and they make a noticeable impact; when classes are in, the community swells to around 180,000. The students also generally like to party.
For about a year during college, I worked for the State Archives in Tallahassee. I can’t remember meeting a single person in the State Department that had a Southern accent.
A lot of the disappearance of the “Old South” has to do with telecommunications, too, and the growth of America’s retail chains. The spread first of nationally programmed television, followed by broadband, and the darkly hegemonic rise of every globally recognized brand from Walmart to McDonald’s has had the effect, I believe, of eroding the most distinguishing of many communities’ pre-20th century cultural characteristics, especially accents. David Riesman has a lot more to say about all this in The Lonely Crowd. Anyway, by now the South has lost much of its uniqueness as a region, and I’ll leave it up to the reader to decide if this is a positive or a negative thing. For me it’s a complicated loss, even though admittedly most of it happened before I entered the world.
So it’s not like I didn’t hear Southern accents growing up, but they were in the minority; half of the kids I knew who lived way out in the country still spoke like—seemingly accentless—TV characters. The strange result is that, based on my experience, the Office characters who work at Dunder Mifflin in Scranton, Pa.., remind me a lot more of people I knew in Tallahassee than the character who is supposed to be from Tallahassee. We are all Northeasterners now.
- Believe it or not, Tallahassee is known for being lesbian-friendly. Why? It’s credited to the fact that FSU was women-only between 1905 and 1947, and was one of the largest women-only universities in the country. Old habits die hard.
- The popular college activity known as “streaking” was invented on FSU campus in 1974. For reals.
- Unlike many culturally insensitive and offensively cartoonish Native American sports team mascots, the Florida State University Seminoles and their use of Seminole leader Osceola are actually endorsed by the Seminole Tribe of Florida.
Look, I didn’t watch Lost. If you’re anything like my former roommate and going to give me the third degree about it, (1) please don’t, and (2) you might want to skip this section. I gave Lost a chance and watched most of the second season, but thought the acting was mostly bad, and I suspected that the writers were taking the audience for a ride. It was a magical island, it was a dream, whatever. In researching this article, though, I found that Tallahassee is referenced a lot on the show, and there’s even an episode titled “The Man From Tallahassee.” And in another episode, titled, “What Kate Did,” a character says, “I spent a week in Tallahassee once. It’s all strip malls and Waffle Houses.”
Let’s just assume that this jerkoff is right—which I don’t, seeing how I’m writing an article about the proper way to depict Tallahassee with nuance—but it’s a cheap line. You could easily say the same of Charlotte, Atlanta, and any city of comparable size in the Southeast. Change Waffle House to White Castle or Denny’s, and you just covered two-thirds of the country. (Though Waffle House is way better than White Castle or Denny’s.)
My point is that Lost had really awful writers.
- Florida State University is home to the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory, the world’s most powerful magnet laboratory and the only one of its kind in the U.S. As such, some of the most cutting-edge experiments in particle physics and magnetic fields are done in Tallahassee, and that is a scientific fact.
- The Marching 100, FAMU’s famous marching band, is one of most successful marching bands in competition, and has been one of the most influential marching bands in American history. You’ll know that The Marching 100 was approached to appear in the 2002 film Drumline, but declined. Well, it’s widely believed in Tallahassee that the band declined to appear in the film because the script called for them to lose a fictitious competition during the movie’s opening, and they thought it would hurt their sterling reputation to even pretend to lose.
- Real nicknames for Tallahassee as used by its citizens, some of which can be used to refer to said citizens: Tally, T-Town, Tally-Ho, Tallahussey, Tallahustle, Tallahassle, Tallywhacker.
Zombieland, the 2009 film, features characters named for their cities of origin, and Woody Harrelson plays Tallahassee. In the film, the character Tallahassee loves weapons, doesn’t trust authority, and dresses like a grossly vain Southern rock star. This would easily be another case of writers and costumers creating a too-colorful Southerner, except that almost all the characterization, down to the clothes, was done by Harrelson.
“What this guy wears is who he is. You want to get a sense of this guy as soon as you see him,” Harrelson said, describing the wardrobe process.
Now, ordinarily I’d accuse the film of doing an exaggerated Southern stereotype, but I actually know a guy from Tallahassee who’s discomfitingly close to Harrelson’s characterization, minus the Southern accent. Plus, I think Woody’s great in this role (and all his roles!), so I’m gonna give this one a pass.
Then there’s True Romance. The opening of Tony Scott’s 1993 film (which, it bears mentioning, was written by Quentin Tarantino), features a voiceover by Patricia Arquette, playing Alabama Whitman, where she opines in another almost cartoonishly Southern accent, “I had to come all the way from the highways and byways of Tallahassee, Fla., to Motor City Detroit to find my true love.” Well, first, the accent is a little condescending and a tiny bit false, as I mentioned, even if it was done in tribute to Sissy Spacek in Badlands. Secondly, there’s only one real highway to speak of in Tallahassee, I-10, and due to the culture-corroding effects of mass culture I brought up earlier, it’s nearly indistinguishable from any other U.S. interstate, save for a higher Waffle House-to-exit ratio than in Connecticut, for example. Furthermore, the character of Alabama Whitman is another hurtful Southern stereotype: white trash (or, depending on your taste, stylishly retro camp). Her tacky retro-chic fashion (cheap clothes, lots of polyester, unnaturally colored animal prints, etc.) and her willingness to sleep with a guy on the first date does not really line up with any of the girls I knew back home, though I used to pray regularly to meet Alabama’s real-life equivalent.
And there’s more: Because of the high density of college faculty and students, Tallahassee citizens are better educated than the national average. As Florida’s state capital, Tallahassee’s influx of big business and politicians also makes it more affluent on average than the rest of the state. This may not sound like saying much to some readers, but Tallahassee is just less conventionally “trashy” than the rest of Florida and a good deal of the South by comparison, and Tallahasseeans know it.
- Even though evil then-Florida State Secretary Katherine Harris handed the election over to Bush, it was not Tallahassee’s fault. Leon County, of which Tallahassee is the seat, was the first of all Florida counties to return its results, and its results were certified by Supervisor of Elections Ion Sancho. (It should be noted that Leon is decidedly blue as a county. Al Gore actually cleaned up there.) Sancho is praised nationally for his rigorous integrity, and he was recognized by the Board of County Commissioners as providing “statistically the cleanest county elections in the state.” Such is Sancho’s record that he was asked to head the independent panel responsible for the state’s recount before it was halted by the U.S. Supreme Court. Ballots would later show that Gore did win the popular vote; Sancho has strongly suggested that the election was stolen. If you are unhappy with the outcome of that election, blame Katherine Harris, blame a few counties in south Florida, and blame the U.S. Supreme Court; but don’t blame Tallahassee.
- Another thing about Sancho: In 2005, while working to ensure that another electoral fiasco would never occur in Florida, Sancho was instrumental in the so-called Hursti Hack, which took place in Tallahassee and proved that Diebold voting machines could easily be hacked to give false returns. This was a huge black eye for Diebold, as well as the politicians that had supported use of their machines. If you take nothing else away from this primer, please know that Ion Sancho is a champion of the democratic system, and a badass.
- Oh, and Tallahassee has the best tasting tap water in the country. This is my opinion, but it’s an opinion that many share.
It’s not that I don’t understand why TV and film writers do it, use Tallahassee for a punchline or some shallow, hastily contrived character traits. The South is an easy target. Low-hanging fruit. I won’t at all argue that low-hanging fruit can’t be just as delicious as fruit that’s way up high in the tree. And since the South is generally less populous than the Northeast, or the West Coast, writers in both New York and LA are relatively safe from people correcting them on serious fallacies, seeing how few people pay attention to catch them.
I get the folksy charm of the South, too. I really do. Compared to the rest of the nation, a lot of it has been backwards, historically. The Civil War, followed by Jim Crow. Then the unwillingness to integrate until forced to do so by the federal government. Big, ugly stains on our heritage. More recently we’ve had dickhead preachers like Terry Jones (who, I’d like to remind everyone, leads a church in Gainesville, not Tallahassee) to cause us shame. Still, that folksiness clings to the South and is easy to reference, even as it fades.
Walking back from the mailbox, my grandmother noticed what she would later describe as a six-foot gator, tip to tail, lying in the green grass on the opposite side of the drive.
I also understand that the very name of Tallahassee is colorful in its own right. It just rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it? TV writers may find interesting that the correct pronunciation of Tallahassee uses two trochaic feet, or one pair of stressed syllable-unstressed syllable undulations. The metrical foot named “trochee,” in fact, comes from the Greek trokhós, meaning “wheel.” Thus is the rolling nature of Tallahassee’s seven hills easily conveyed. (N.B., guess which other city famously had seven hills? Rome, dude.) The Creek people, ancestors of Florida’s now-government-protected Seminoles (shameful history there, too), are credited with the original place name, which meant “old fields.” In fact, were screenwriters to dig a little deeper, there’s a wealth of material to pull from when mentioning Tallahassee, or any place for that matter. I know screenwriters work on tight schedules, but perhaps a little extra effort would make them look less like asses.
When I was eight, an alligator crossed my front yard. My grandmother, the botanist’s wife, had gone out to get the mail. My younger brother, Trevor, then four, followed her out to play. Upon walking back from the mailbox, my grandmother noticed what she would later describe as a six-foot gator, tip to tail, lying in the green grass on the opposite side of the drive. My brother played idly and unaware a mere 20 feet away. When my grandmother noticed the gator, she dropped the mail and swooped him up, rushing into the safety of the house. Thus was my brother rescued. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission was called onto the scene, and the gator dawdled across one more yard before men showed up and shot her dead. In the week that followed, and with the most evident deliberateness, my brother found renewed interest in one of his stuffed alligator dolls.
American alligators, or Alligator mississippiensis, were taken off the endangered-species list in 1987, and are now something of a nuisance in some parts of the Southeast, much in the same way deer can be troublesome. Except, of course, deer rarely eat pets. Just don’t feel too badly about this particular adventurous specimen, is what I’m saying. Hundreds upon hundreds are hunted for sport in Florida each year, and they do, in fact, make for good eatin’.
In any case, an alligator wandering through the suburbs is by no means a frequent occurrence in Tallahassee. Really more of a problem down around the Everglades. The only time I’ve heard of it happening in Tallahassee was in our family’s case. But it has happened. My anecdote is welcome to the world. In fact, to all you screenwriters out there, if, in the interest of your script, you need to have a character’s younger brother actually be eaten by an alligator in Tallahassee, I agree it would make for a better punchline. Sorry, Trevor.