The Strange Case of Dr. Sweets and Mr. Edwards

The opening line of L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between is brilliant: “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” Same goes for classic literature. Books like Moby Dick or Pride and Prejudice seem as remote as a foreign country to most people—a place they don’t care to visit and might not be welcomed if they did. Thug Notes is out to change that—or at least introduce the great themes of classic lit to an audience broader than college kids trying to check off their English lit requirement.

If Greg Edwards worked at a museum, he’d be called an interpreter. He uses a character, Sparky Sweets, PhD, to explain something essentially foreign—classic literature—to his audience in clever short videos. Think urban CliffNotes or streetwise SparkNotes with a lot of bad words (bleeped, but c’mon, we’ve all heard it before and we can read lips). It’s well-produced; there’s a writer, producers, and camerafolks behind the scenes. And it’s clever; the opening sequence is a riff on the PBS Masterpiece Theater series and…well, just watch a few.

It’s a fine line to walk between creating relevance and maintaining respect, and some people think Sparky Sweets, PhD, crosses the line. But the characters in these books cross lines all the time—that’s what makes the plots gripping and the themes eternal. Lady Macbeth’s sleepless mind unable to clean the blood from her guilty hands. The privileged boys in Lord of the Flies descending into vicious clan warfare. The upstanding Dr. Jekyll struggling with the despicable Mr. Hyde (I don’t think Dr. Sweets has reviewed this one yet, but it’d be a natural).

Whatever lines Greg/Sparky is/are crossing need to be crossed. Or at least poked with a sharp stick.

Every good interpreter knows how to read an audience. There’s an art to grabbing an audience—the timing, the hooks, the language, the length. Sparky Sweets talks to a YouTube audience—anyone with an internet connection and four-and-a-half minutes to spare.

People who object to the language don’t have to watch it. The internet is a big place. But before getting offended, they should remember that Shakespeare’s plays were written in the common everyday language of his times, and many of the plays include bawdy jokes, obscene gestures, and double entendres. The folks in the cheap seats loved it as much as those who rattled their jewelry.

I’ll admit I’m curious about the demographic breakdown of his followers and subscribers—how many are the kids he seems to be trying to reach and how many are people like me who just find Sparky Sweets’ take on the classics entertaining and insightful? In my museum work I try to help young folks understand old stuff. I think there are things to learn from anyone who has a fresh perspective, and that’s want is—fresh.

In the course of my work, I’ve seen several museums edit all the fun out of their texts/tours/interactives/labels out of a misguided notion that humor and informal language is unprofessional. Obviously an internet video is a completely different medium with different standards and different audiences than a museum. But I recently worked with a museum that objected to the word “stuff” because it’s unprofessional. Really.

I think the balance lies somewhere in between. I’m tying to decide whether to tell them to stuff it. If I’m truly inspired by Sparky Sweets, PhD., I will. And maybe I’ll add an expletive.