The House Rock Built

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Author: Liam Farrell '04

Banner by Brian Stouffer

I.

When Dayne Crist woke up from what he thought was a nightmare in November 2010, he was horrified to learn that not only had Notre Dame actually lost to Tulsa, but Brian Kelly and Michael Floyd were, indeed, zombies.

After a heartbreaking loss to USC in 2009, Notre Dame quarterback Jimmy Clausen and wide receiver Golden Tate made sense of it the only way they could — by painting a picture of a sad clown and getting drunk at an underground cockfight, respectively, all to the strains of R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts.”

Welcome to “Stuffing the Passer,” the puppet show put on by the blog The House Rock Built that provides Notre Dame fans a funhouse mirror through which to view their team.

There’s puppet Brian Kelly, who speaks in a Kennedy-esque accent; puppet Dayne Crist, who has a recurring problem with fine motor skills; puppet Tommy Rees, who at one point mentions he is ND’s starting quarterback “pro tempore”; and puppet Michael Floyd, who is blue with green hair, does not lack confidence so much as he lacks clothes, and believes the Main Building was built in 2008 so he would “have something to base jump off of.”

Michael Fotopoulos ’03 and Brian Stouffer ’04 are the comedic brain trust behind the series. These Chicago alums trade their day jobs — described as “cubes in undisclosed locations” — to become amateur Muppeteers in their free time.

In an Internet full of fans who take the trials and travails of their teams seriously, the House Rock Built is often a whimsical breath of fresh air.

“We have really tried to just show our affection for our school,” Stouffer says. “We saw a need out there.”

The two Domers were neighbors in Keenan Hall and first started writing things together for the Keenan Revue, the annual popular send-up of campus life. Post-graduation, they were involved in separate blogs and “it just kind of snowballed from there,” Fotopoulos says.

According to the duo, the puppet show was born during a going-away party for a friend who was moving to New York. Conversation drifted into the existence of the Muppet Whatnot Workshop at FAO Schwarz, where people can purchase customized Muppets, and the potential of doing a show centered on Notre Dame.

“It started out as a joke, and we just got too many beers into it,” Stouffer says. “We were like, ‘Oh my goodness, we have to start doing something.’”

The ensuing productions have definitely been on the guerilla filmmaking side, making up in enthusiasm what is lacking in budget. One recent innovation was an $8 tripod from Walmart.

“We basically doubled our efficiency,” Stouffer says. “It’s fun having the giant challenge.”

II.

College sports, with their fervent rivalries and fan bases, have proven fertile ground for the Internet. The website SB Nation, for example, hosts hundreds of sports blogs. Many are specifically tailored to college football, from Purdue-centric Hammer and Rails to Penn State-focused Black Shoe Diaries and Michigan-dedicated Maize n Brew.

A standard-bearer of this subculture is Every Day Should Be Saturday, a blog that covers college football through its uniquely jaundiced eyes. Past features have included an award for the program that has the most run-ins with the law and NCAA violations, and recurring satirical Top-25 rankings from long-time coach Howard Schnellenberger, who routinely finds “suspenders” to be a worthy No. 1.

Things can take an even more entertaining turn in the blog’s comments section. That’s where dozens of college football fans enter a virtual sports bar and rag on each other’s teams, illustrate their emotions with television and movie clips, and spin inside jokes like how the Clemson Tiger’s eyes make him look like a drug addict.

Perhaps the biggest Notre Dame footprint on the Internet belongs to NDNation, which basically functions as a discussion board for Fighting Irish fans. Other sites, such as Her Loyal Sons and One Foot Down, have tried to mix humor with more straightforward analysis. The lines between traditional media and blogs continue to blur, with Keith Arnold ’02, a writer from NBC, even taking part in a virtual, weekly Q&A discussion called the Irish Blogger Gathering.

For years, one of Notre Dame’s most popular and informative blogs was Blue-Gray Sky, a collection of people who knew each other from Notre Dame or from posting on the Internet. Their work was noticed by mainstream publications such as Sports Illustrated. Despite officially shutting down in March 2010, the site still gets comments on its website.

Jay Barry ’92, one of the blog’s founders, says Blue-Gray Sky entered the Internet landscape at a “fortuitous time.” Few pure Notre Dame blogs existed, and other college football sites were just getting started as well.

“There was sort of this nascent base of college football blogging,” Barry says. “I was kind of shocked and surprised ND didn’t have more established blogs.”

And the proliferation of new media tools such as YouTube and TiVo allowed more comprehensive access to game film.

“The DVR made all the difference in the world,” Barry says, referring to the digital devices that can record and store hours of live television.

Those forces let Blue-Gray Sky feed a niche for original humor, long-form analysis and play-by-play breakdowns concentrated on a single team. In one corner there was a rundown of the greatest villains in Notre Dame football history (Desmond Howard, Jimmy Johnson, the referee who threw the clipping penalty flag in the 1991 Orange Bowl). In the other corner were analyses of offense formations.

“We had the luxury journalists don’t,” says Pat Mitsch ’99, a former Blue-Gray Sky contributor who edited Maple Street Press Irish Kickoff 2011. “We could write as long as we wanted and whatever we wanted.”

Even the most successful labors of love can get submarined, and Blue-Gray Sky met a fate similar to many other blogs when obligations such as children entered the picture. Barry estimates that at one point he was working 10 to 20 hours a week on the blog, and about 300 posts still remain in draft form.

Mitsch says the late nights — and an era of football games that could be equally as dark — left some marks.

“It took its toll, especially when the team was terrible,” he says. “We’ll encapsulate the Charlie Weis-era, for better or worse. There were a lot of late nights, but it was fun.”

III.

For the average college football fan, there has likely never been a time when there are simultaneously as few and as many places to get information.

Games — the central product of college football — are placed in limited hands, with the monolith of ESPN controlling a good deal of the landscape and other networks concentrating on specific conferences or teams where available. But it is now possible to follow a team without ever laying eyes on major media because of the Internet explosion.

Sure, actually seeing the gold helmets on game day will require Fighting Irish fans to buy tickets or tune into NBC or ESPN. The monopoly on trenchant analysis is over, however, especially when it can come in the form of puppets.

“There is always going to be a spot for a team-oriented site,” Mitsch says. “They will probably be the amateur guys doing it in their off-hours.”

That is certainly the case for the puppeteering team of Stouffer and Fotopoulos. During the football season, they comb the Internet for the hot topic of the week, which could be anything from the stadium evacuation during the Notre Dame-South Florida game to conference realignment.

Those topics then get filtered through layers of the language that reflect the duo’s background as members of a generation raised on Sesame Street, The Simpsons and South Park. “We tend to speak in constant pop culture references,” Stouffer says.

Yet the world they have created is most definitely their own. All the characters, Fotopoulos says, “have their own quirks” in “Stuffing the Passer.” Coach Brian Kelly may call his quarterback “Tommy” in real life, but online the sophomore is stiffly addressed in patrician-Northeastern style as “Thomas.”

“We’re not exactly parodying the actual people,” Stouffer says. “They are the Muppet imitations of them.”

Sometimes, however, reality and parody come pretty close together. Over the years, a rather manic puppet incarnation of former Irish wide receiver Golden Tate has made a habit of referencing his infamous 2009 leap into the Michigan State band, occasionally in holiday song (Oh touchdown tree/Oh touchdown tree/We love you more than field goals/And in the air or on the ground/Jump in the band and dance around).

Shortly before Notre Dame played the Spartans in the fall, Tate’s Twitter account hinted he and his puppet may not be so far apart, posting, “All I kno is someone better keep the tradition going and jump into MSU band.”

It’s all part of the strange and sui generis Notre Dame love letter known as the House Rock Built.

“I hope [the players] enjoy it,” Fotopoulos says. Notre Dame “is very, very much a part of who we are.”


Liam Farrell is this magazine’s alumni editor.


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