The Quirky in Dallas: Let's Play a Game

Moby Dick So far this blog has focused on some wonderfully quirky places I’ve visited around Dallas. I’ve been to thrift shops, speakeasies, and 24-hour diners all with the goal of disproving the notion that Dallas lacks distinctive culture.

In a lot of ways this quest has become quite personal, it’s led me to some great places, and made me realize that it’s not just the crazy shops and charming diners that make a city interesting; it’s the colorful people behind them. And so today, I want to do something a little different and shift the focus from places to people. I’m excited to introduce you to some very special people in Dallas who have created something wonderfully original and refreshingly funny.

It’s a card game called “Dick” that’s based on Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. If you’ve seen New York magazine’s gift guide or browsed the Washington Post recently you may already be familiar with it.  

SMU English professor, Tim Cassedy, is the mastermind behind the game and he’s had some help bringing it to life from two former students, Jenna Peck and Chelsea Grogan (DCH graduate and former weekly blogger!).

You might be wondering what a card game about a classic American novel could possibly have to do with comedy. It’s a valid thing to wonder, but I’ll ask you this; do you enjoy the occasional dirty joke and inappropriate innuendo? If yes, it turns out you might have more in common with Herman Melville than you ever could have guessed at 16 when you struggled through Moby-Dick in your high school English Class.

This past spring during my senior year at SMU, I took an English seminar class and Tim was the instructor. Moby-Dick was one of the texts we studied during the course, and Tim consistently found inventive ways to bring the story to life. He did everything from jumping on the table and reenacting one of Ahab’s speeches to bringing in a giant tub of “whale sperm” (really just some soap making products) and asking us to sit in a circle and “squish the sperm” so that we could better understand what happened on those whaling ships. Because of these moments, we were able to connect with the text in an unexpected and delightful way.

During that semester, Tim came up with an incredibly unique idea--create a cards against humanity style game that highlights the colorful, absurd, and sometimes downright sexual language in the novel.

A few of my friends and I had the great pleasure of testing out some early versions of the game in the basement of Dallas Hall at SMU. We would spend hours after class sitting cross-legged on the floor and cracking up at the hilarious (and dirty) combinations we came up with.

Since those afternoons, the game has made its way out of the basement and is getting quite a bit of press. So, I thought this would be a good time to hop on the media bandwagon and ask two of the creators a few questions:

"Dick" has gotten a lot of press recently (Washington Post, New York magazine, Avidly, Dallas Morning News, etc.). When the idea was born, did you have any idea that it would appeal to this many people?

Jenna: At first I thought it was amazing and hilarious for the gaggle of literature nerds we played it with. I wasn't sure if people who hadn't read Moby-Dick would get it or care about it. But it kind of turned into a thing that played most with people who don't know much about the book, like it's trying to show them that maybe they should read this vague book they've heard of or skimmed in high school, because it's so weird and hilarious! 

Tim: I am very surprised by the game’s commercial success. But Moby-Dick has a strange hold on American culture. The book is definitely about America: American men, American power, American capitalism, American religion. I think most people have the sense that it is a big earnest book about rugged American masculinity, strength, doing what’s necessary, hard work, sin, faith, virtue, etc., etc. This is why senators and boards of education like it: they think Moby-Dick is reciting the pledge of allegiance or singing “America the Beautiful.” I also think this is exactly why no one wants to read it. No one wants to be lectured to for 700 pages about the same earnest pieties that you hear from presidential candidates. (People don’t listen to “America the Beautiful” for fun.) And if you have any sense that those American ideals of rugged masculinity, strength, courage, etc., don’t quite have you in mind — if you have any sense that you are not John Wayne — then you think Moby-Dick is telling you that you don’t belong. And it may be that on some level that is exactly how your teacher wants you to feel, because the teacher is the person in the room who has the power, and it’s frequently tempting or expedient to make sure the students know it. 

Is there anything specific you hope people who play the game take away from it?

Jenna: I think we want people to get that books written and read by people 200 years ago were just as quirky and weird and silly as the stuff we like now.

Tim: I’m hoping that the game undermines the sanitized view of history (and literary history) that we’re often fed: that people used to be virtuous, pious, chaste, obedient, respectful, etc., until the television or the sexual revolution or the Internet arrived and destroyed that past purity. Dick argues that there was no past purity to lose.  It argues that culture has always been messy and complicated and riotous and subversive. Or maybe that is just a lofty way of saying that I want people to understand that dick jokes existed in 19th-century America. But I really do.

Do you think Melville was intentionally trying to be comedic or does the language just sound funny to us now because we’re removed from the time and culture Melville was writing in?

Jenna: Melville was 100 percent trying to be weird and make puns that make us do a double take on the text. However, there is an element to the language of the time that is full of funny words and phrases that were weird and different at the time, but possibly humorous to us for different, but not dissimilar reasons.

Tim: Some of both. Moby-Dick is incredibly playful at the level of the word. Ishmael can’t help himself from playing with words and is constantly throwing in little ironies or clevernesses, most of which are not dirty, although some of them are: “that unaccountable cone” (the whale's penis), “the grandissimus” (the whale's penis), “methodically knocking people’s hats off,” “a loaf-of-bread face,” “an eruption of bears," “making the tallest boys stand in awe of you” (what you get to do when you are the teacher, Ishmael says), “a prodigiously hearty breakfast of chowders of all sorts,” “George Washington cannibalistically developed,” etc., etc.

The book is about male sexuality in addition to everything else it’s about, so when you snicker at Moby Dick being a sperm whale, that’s not just your dirty mind.  

According to their website (www.whysoever.com), “This novel, America’s national epic, is weirder, funnier, and more subversive than you think. As is America.”

Personally, I think the game is brilliant on so many levels. Its quick moving nature helps make the text more accessible to a generation that is accustomed to memes and gifs. But perhaps the thing I like best is that the game shows its players that they don’t have to choose between being smart and getting a laugh. In fact, the two go hand in hand remarkably well.

Hayley Waring is a level 5 improv student at the Dallas Comedy House training center. If the world was a perfect place she would spend her days writing poetry with Alexander Hamilton while sharing an ahi tuna tower.