As many of you may know, Michael Schur, the co-creator and showrunner of the one great remaining network sitcom, is a huge fan of David Foster Wallace’s masterwork “Infinite Jest.” He wrote his undergraduate thesis on Pynchon and DFW, owns the film rights for Infinite Jest, and has even directed a video for the Decemberists (“Calamity Song”) that draws on one of the novel’s most memorable sequences, the game of Eschaton.(1) While the show has historically kept its stylistic debt to this weighty tome subtle – a matter of debate between careful observers – this week, the writers had a bit more fun, and engaged the novel directly. During Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott)’s visit to his hometown of Partridge, Minnesota, every name we see onscreen is plucked straight out of IJ.
I was lucky to see this episode in a preview followed by a Q&A with four members of the writing staff (Michael Schur, Megan Amram, Aisha Muharrar, and Dan Goor), and couldn’t abstain from asking Michael about the references. He was kind enough to indulge me, and noted that they felt like they had to pepper the episode with references, because it takes place in a town called Partridge – a toponym also featured in IJ. Here is a guide to all the references I caught in last night’s episode, with a few brief thoughts on each:
The first reference is flashed quite prominently, perhaps to perk up the attention of anyone who might be interested in IJ-spotting. The law firm that Councilman Jamm (Jon Glaser) uses as representation in his assault case against Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman) goes by the rather unwieldy name of “Gately, Wayne, Kittenplan, and Troeltsch.” Don Gately is one of the protagonists of IJ, and his name probably serves as a signpost for all the other references. The three other names belong to students at the Enfield Tennis Academy, on of the novel’s major locations. While I wouldn’t want to read too much into each of their stories (and I don’t think the episode wants to reference them directly), I’d like to single out Ann Kittenplan’s name – one of the funniest names ever invented, I’d argue. Kittenplan is an overly competitive Eschaton player (see note 1), and she fits right into Pawnee’s motley assemblage of delightful names, alongside such jewels as Perd Hapley, Fester Trim, Derry Murbles, Barney Varnm, or Denise Yermley.
A bit later on in the episode, we also get to see the firm’s motto on an LCD screen: “Gaudeamus Igitur,” which I would assume is not a reference to the original medieval song that has become a mainstay at graduation events all over Europe, but to its use in the novel, where it prefaces the chapters that take place on two important yearly occasions at the tennis academy: the game of Eschaton and the fundraising tournament.
Later on, we pick up Ben and Leslie in Partridge. Ben collapses in pain due to a kidney stone, and he is taken to the Facklemann Memorial Hospital, where he will spend the rest of the episode in an opiate-induced daze. This is a clear (although misspelled) reference to Gene Fackelmann, a drug addict debt collector who ends up murdered by his former associates in one of the novel’s darkest scenes:
At the hospital, Ben is treated with morphine by Dr. Clipperton, who takes his name from a competitive high school tennis player who lists himself as independent, and wins every game by threatening to blow out his brains with a Glock revolver if he doesn’t win.
Meanwhile, in Pawnee, Ann Perkins (Rashida Jones) is going through her own medical/psychological adventure: she is trying to figure out her level of compatibility with presumptive sperm donor Chris Traeger (Rob Lowe), by taking the “Incandenza-Pemulis Parenting Compatability [sic] Test”:
The Incandenza family is at the core of IJ’s narrative, and the test’s name likely refers to Hal Incandenza, the Hamlet version at the core of the novel. Michael Pemulis is his best friend, a working class kid from Allston, MA – one of the neighborhoods featured prominently in the novel, which, alongside with Brighton, forms the real setting that circumscribes the borders of fictional Enfield, the major location in the book, which would be located somewhere on the Allston/Brighton border, on Warren Street, for those of you who know your Boston B Green Line geography. Pemulis is a math whiz, who always runs the simulation to calculate the impact of hits in games of Eschaton, and therefore a likely programmer of an OKCupid-like algorithm.
When their compatibility is pegged at 58%, and Chris seems to have more in common with all of her coworkers than he does with Ann, the two decide to see a counselor. This encounter takes place in the C.T. Tavis Medical Building, named after the Infinite Jest character who runs the Enfield Tennis Academy. Tavis is the half-brother of Avril Incandenza, Hal’s mother, with whom he is also having a sexual relationship. This is one more of many references the novel makes to Hamlet, as most of the narrative takes place after the grisly suicide of Hal’s father, James Orin Incandenza, the founder of the tennis academy.
Here, Ann and Chris meet with a Dr. van Dyne, who is named after Joelle van Dyne (a.k.a. the PGOAT – Prettiest Girl of All Time), one of the most complex characters in the novel, whose beauty is at the center of the ultimately addictive film that entertains audiences to death in the book’s plot. Joelle herself is trying to be a doctor (a Ph.D. of media studies, to be more precise), and is one of the main linking characters between the Enfield Tennis Academy and the second main location in IJ, the halfway house down the hill from it. We never see the Parks and Rec doctor’s full name, but, based on the out-of-focus scribbles on the plaque visible in the background, I’d bet money it’s Joelle:
The denizens of Partridge, of course, also come straight out of IJ. The town’s mean-spirited mayor Stice (J.K. Simmons), who is trying to trick Ben into being publicly humiliated for his past as an unsuccessful eighteen-year-old town leader, is named after the novel’s Ortho “The Darkness” Stice, a Partridge, KS native and talented tennis player who earned his nickname by only wearing black on the court. As you can see, mayor Stice also wears an approximation of such an outfit:
The final two references are hidden in the end titles. The Partridge residents who heckle Leslie as she stands in for Ben at the fake town key ceremony are credited as Kate Gompert and Ken Erdedy – the names of two of the drug addicts at the “Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House,” the redundantly named halfway house in the novel.
This is what I’ve managed to spot after two viewings; let me know if you have more.
(1) Eschaton is a game played in the novel by students enrolled at the fictional Enfield Tennis Academy, one of the major locations in the book. It is basically a simulation of the end of the world (as the name suggests), played on three adjacent tennis fields with a world map superimposed on their surface. All the players have a geographical affiliation, and they lob tennis balls, each of which represents a 50 megaton nuclear device, towards other areas of the map.