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April 27, 2008

Christmas Ape Kills Michael Tunison

A promising journalist's career is undone by his participation in a raunchy sports blog. And he's OK with that.

David Goldenberg

Michael Tunison had a terrible secret. As a mild-mannered Washington Post reporter, Tunison would spend his days compiling notes about the Montgomery County School Board and writing about various civic problems in the D.C. suburbs. By night, though, Tunison would retire to his lair in his mother's basement, take off his pants, and morph into Christmas Ape, a foul-mouthed, politically incorrect blogger for the risqué NFL site Kissing Suzy Kolber.

Michael Tunison
"I think the Post could have found a use for creative, blog-friendly ways to cover the NFL."

Michael Tunison

For almost two years, Tunison lived a double life, but the secrecy was taking a toll. He started drinking. Heavily. Sometimes, at the Post, he would momentarily forget where he was and submit articles in a mock-Hines-Ward voice in which all of the "L"s were turned into "R"s. Each lie begat another; he longed to expose his inner Ape.

Finally, on April 14th, he could take it no longer. In a post on Kissing Suzy Kolber, he revealed his alter ego to the world. But the world was not ready to know. Instead of being showered with praise, he was swiftly dismissed from his job at the Post.

After cleaning out his desk and packing up the remnants of his former life into a small box, Christmas Ape resolved to spend his days in hiding and never trust again. (His occupation is now listed on his Blogger profile as "WaPo Discrediter.") But with a little cajoling, Gelf managed to convince him to talk to us about his blogging inspiration, the downfall of his alter ego, and what he plans to do now that he's got a bit more time on his hands. The following interview has been edited for clarity. You can hear Tunison and other sportswriters read from and talk about their work at Gelf's free Varsity Letters event on Thursday, May 1st, in New York's Lower East Side.

Gelf Magazine: How did the name Christmas Ape come about? Does it have anything to do with the animal imagery that features so prominently in your posts for Kissing Suzy Kolber?

Michael Tunison: The name is an obscure reference to The Simpsons, like a lot of content on our blog. Seriously, Matt Groening should look into royalties. As far as the animal stuff, during the offseason, we feature YouTube videos of animal-on-animal savagery as a means of appeasing our football-deprived, violence-craving readership.

GM: How did KSK form? Did you guys all know each other beforehand?

MT: KSK is entirely the product of the Deadspin comments. Commenters Big Daddy Drew, Unsilent Majority (Jack Kogod), Captain Caveman (Matt Ufford), Monday Morning Punter, and Footsteps Falco started the blog in June 2006. When Falco dropped out soon after, they brought myself and flubby in, in August 2006. None of us had met any of the others prior to starting this blog. We just saw something in each other's sense of humor on Deadspin. It was kind of the KSK training ground.

Michael Tunison

The photo that launched a thousand blog posts.

GM: Have there been any growing pains with the site, considering that you guys don't know each other personally? Are there ever worries about tone?

MT: There have been remarkably few problems within KSK. The right chemistry is there. There's the occasional disagreement, but otherwise, it's a good situation. Tone isn't a big issue because it's understood that we have six voices that, while somewhat different, have similar tastes and sense of humor.

GM: You wrote that you decided to identify yourself on KSK for the sake of full disclosure, and because you guys started making money from the site. If you weren't making money, would you have stayed in the anonymous closet?

MT: The money certainly made the decision much easier. I probably would have held out longer in anonymity if not for it. Still, I had wanted to reveal myself for some time. It had gotten to the point that putting that much effort into something and having a following doing it yet hiding behind this goofy name got a little tiresome. That and the desire not to get criticized for having no accountability when we attacked mainstream writers.

GM: Though you told Editor & Publisher that you didn't want to be fired, one of the tags on your coming-out post is "wapo will fire me in 3…2…" Do you think that there's a way you could have identified yourself without arousing the ire of the Post? (Maybe by skipping the reference to being "totally fucking hammered"?)

MT: I could have handled it in a more tasteful way, certainly. Doing so may have prolonged the amount of time I got to stay at the Post. Judging from the way they viewed the blog as a whole, it probably would have resulted in the same outcome eventually. At the time, I figured the Post's reaction would be more tempered than it was, but I still knew I was taking a risk and that's what the tag was making light of. I wasn't daring the paper to fire me.

GM: Could your work at KSK somehow have become part of the Post's sports coverage? Could they have realized some advantage from your after-hours gig, rather than seeing it as a liability?

MT: I think the Post could have found a use for creative, blog-friendly ways to cover the NFL. The writing styles of KSK and the Post aren't exactly compatible, and I realize that probably had something to do with the swiftness of my dismissal. But as many of our readers pointed out to the Post in the comments section of Dan Steinberg's blog, anything I did would have come with a built-in audience of readers they're already trying to attract.

GM: Who broke the news to you about the firing? How did that go down?

MT: I put the post up on a Monday and didn't hear anything about it the rest of the day. I took the following day off work because I had to take my parents to the airport so they could go on a two-week vacation. About an hour and a half after I dropped them off, I got a call from the seething top editor of the Metro section demanding to know why I put this thing up. He told me he'd talk it over a little more with other editors but there was a good chance I'd be fired for the post. The next day, I went to work and went about my business most of the day. Then in the afternoon, I was ordered to come downtown to meet with the editor, who reported to me that my employment was over at the paper.

"The NFL has remarkably few blogs that are anything but completely serious in tone."
GM: Is KSK going to become your full-time job, or are you looking for another journalism job? Have you heard from any newspapers that want to hire you?

MT: It's probably unlikely I'll get hired by another newspaper anytime soon. Blogging (for KSK and elsewhere) and freelancing is going to be my immediate focus going forward.

GM: Were you excited about KSK's Weblog awards or do you share Jack Shafer's sentiments about the nature of online awards?

MT: We were excited about winning the first one, because it was early in our run and it showed us we had a dedicated enough readership to vote for us for something like that. Shafer, the curmudgeon that he is, is right—the awards are so numerous that they're irrelevant. The voting wasn't that extensive, either. The winner only received a few thousand votes. It was cool, but we weren't all that concerned that second time around.

GM: Why, with a full-time job and a lot of blogging at KSK on your plate, would you work for Deadspin on the weekends?

MT: The money from KSK isn't quite enough to cover the bills, but supplemented with income from the other two blogs I contribute to, Deadspin and SportsbyBrooks, it replaces the income I lost from my job at the Post. Doing Deadspin also allows me to write about sports other than football, which is nice. Football is by far my favorite sport, but I have plenty of interest in others.

GM: How would you rank the other sports besides football?

MT: I don't know if I could rank sports themselves, because there are a lot of sports I don't particularly enjoy that I appreciate, so I could really only rank my interest in them. After football comes a mix of college basketball, baseball, the NBA, NHL, and a loose smattering of everything else.

GM: Who's your favorite NFL player, and why?

MT: Hines Ward is my favorite player in the league. Partially because I'm a homer Steelers fan, but also because he's the non-white Brett Favre in a lot of ways. He's a team leader who plays in every game and visually carries his emotions. He smiles after every hit, and cried following the AFC Title Game loss to New England after the 2004 season when it seemed like Jerome Bettis would hang it up. But he's still given to mocking an opposing player's TD celebration. Same sort of rascally toughness. Peter King would be proud.

GM: Who's your favorite celebrity/journalist/ball player to imitate (besides Hines Ward)?

MT: Philip Rivers has been a big hit and last year he gave no lack of material, with him berating opposing quarterbacks, the crowd, coaches, just about anybody. He doesn't come across as the most affable of NFL players. The two weeks before the Super Bowl each year we do "celebrity Super Bowl picks" where we write fake narratives for famous figures and that's a lot of fun. This year, I did Michael Cera, Barack Obama, Tom Cruise, Keith Olbermann, and Jimmy McNulty from The Wire.

GM: What are your thoughts on the buildup to the draft? Are you more with Will Leitch or with Drew?

MT: I'm sided with Drew on this one. After each pick, I'm trying to account for how the team might improve with that player. In my mind, they all somehow work out, so I don't really account for that fact that most of them will be disappointments. That's how excited I am during the process.

GM: What did you think of the Steelers' draft class? Are you worried about the O Line?

MT: I was puzzled with the first-round choice of Rashard Mendenhall. Willie Parker's late-season injury must be more of a concern than I thought, or they were really impressed with Jacksonville's running-back tandem of Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew running all over their defense twice last year. The offensive line was the main concern going into the offseason and they didn't address it until Round 4. I would say adding a running back wasn't high on my personal wish list. If I had to rank their needs, it would go: offensive line, receiver, pass rush, then special teams. That said, I can't blame them for not taking a lineman at No. 23, considering all the first-round graded talent was off the board by that pick. I figured a pass-rushing end would be the pick instead, considering the way the defense fell off in that department late in the year. I liked the pick of Limas Sweed in the Round 2. The team already needed a receiver going into the offseason and that need was compounded with the forced release of Cedrick Wilson. They ended up with one of the better wideouts in the draft.

GM: What other NFL sites do you follow?

MT: Given the success of the NFL, it seems like there would be more, but somehow, other than team-specific blogs, there aren't a great deal of football blogs out there. I like Yahoo's football blog, Shutdown Corner with MJD. Tirico Suave is funny, but even that delves into other sports. The NFL has remarkably few blogs that are anything but completely serious in tone, which is quite different from other sports.

David Goldenberg

David Goldenberg is the co-founder and editor of Gelf, and the host of Geeking Out, Gelf's monthly science speaking series.







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Article by David Goldenberg

David Goldenberg is the co-founder and editor of Gelf, and the host of Geeking Out, Gelf's monthly science speaking series.

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