New word, old tales

Feb 3, 1999 at 12:00 am

After the fifth series of rings in 10 minutes, I begin to get annoyed. "Would you answer that damn phone?" I snap at the Lizard of Fun, who’s lounging on a pink inflatable chair and sipping a margarita.

The Lizard gives me an exasperated look from over the rims of its mirrored shades. "I’m screening my calls, freak girl. They bore me, all wanting to know the same thing."

"Which is?"

"Do we deliver."

Since when did we become a pizza place, I wonder, until the Lizard lets go of my leg. "Forget the pizza. They want the backstory, baby. They’re convinced there’s gotta be one hell of a tale behind the Lizard of Fun. I’m starting to feel like my past lives are peeking over my shoulder, wanting to make up for lost time on the dance floor."

Ah, yes, the backstory. Everyone’s got one. You, me, Bill Clinton, Darth Vader, the Lizard of Fun. It’s the part of our lives that went on before the current action began – you know, the part about the college parties or the Little Rock hotel room or the conversion to the dark side of the Force.

The backstory is what you have to know to understand why what’s going on now is important – it puts stuff in context ("Oh, so that’s why the Lizard drinks margaritas").

The word has also become current jargon for background of any sort – an explanation or story of what’s going on behind what you see.

Most movies and sitcoms have backstories, whether they’re discussed or not. Sometimes they fuel mystery and intrigue, sometimes they’re just the plausible or implausible explanations for why characters are obsessed with money, or afraid of frogs, or have a pressing need to take over the galaxy.

Comic books have backstories (think, Peter Parker + radioactive spider = Spiderman), and even the more complicated video games now have them, so you’ll know why your electronic kickboxer or warrior princess is bouncing around in that jungle, anyway.

The word implies a behind-the-scenes cool, an inside line to all that’s important in pop culture. The backstory to backstory is that suddenly, this term is everywhere.

Mind you, the word hasn’t made it into Webster’s yet, but students in the linguistics department at Houston’s Rice University have identified it as a genuine neologism, right up there with "cometised" (a word to describe Netscape when it freezes and you sit looking at the little comet icon for way too long) and "interquel" (which is sort of like backstory, except it refers to an episode of a TV show or a movie that covers the time between the original show and the sequel).

"Are you done with the explanations, already?" The Lizard asks, threatening to hit me with a copy of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Silmarillion, a hefty backstory if there ever was one. "All they need to know is that when it comes to TV, if you don’t know the backstory, you don’t get all the jokes."

"And what about your backstory, O scaly one?"

The Lizard smiles its best movie-star grin. "I thought you’d never ask."

I sort through the remnants of the Lizard’s sordid past, looking for a suitable anecdote that will neither incriminate nor glorify it beyond all bounds of ego.

I could talk about the Lizard of Fun’s efforts to break into commercials, and its heartbreak at losing out for a part as a Budweiser lizard (quite the blow after almost being an extra on the set of Jurassic Park).

Or maybe delve back deeper, to tell about its rescue from the clutches of evil 1970s-era self-help book writers, who extolled the virtues of the lizard brain, the prehistoric part of our cranium which controlled all our base, hedonistic and dirt-level desires (such as the need to eat, get laid and occasionally read self-help books).

("Don’t get into that," warns the Lizard, quickly hiding its old velour lounge suit under the inflatable sofa. "I’m still hiding out from the Scientologists.")

"Well, then, should I tell them about your jail sentence?" I tease.

"I was innocent!" the Lizard protests. "One minute I was partying on the beach in Mazatlan, drinking tequila from a starlet’s beach sandal, and the next thing I knew, there was a bag over my head and I had this horrible feeling like the walls were about to cave in. How was I supposed to have fun in the tank?"

I mention that I’ve heard most lizards imported as pets end up toes-up under the sofas of their no-longer-interested keepers long before they ever taste the fun of life. The Lizard shoots me an appropriately grateful glance, adds another shot of tequila to its margarita, and puffs up its chest.

"There have been rumors that I’m the alter ego of a local celebrity," it teases. "Do you want to tell them about that?"

I shrug. "It’s as plausible as anything else, I suppose."

The thing with backstory, the Lizard points out, is that it can also contain all the myths and legends that an individual believes.

"And you believe your own backstory, I take it?"


Just as I decide there’s a little Lizard of Fun in all of us, the phone rings again. This time I pick up. "So, who or what is the Lizard of Fun, anyway?" the caller demands.

"Here," I say, holding out the receiver. "You wanna take this one?"