From the first moment Jimmy Kimmel joked he believed Gonzaga didn’t exist, the response from the school and community was as over- sized as his claim.
At first it was amusing. To have someone on one of the biggest late-night shows on television reference your school in such a way is refreshing, and the response helped to put the school’s basketball mania on display.
Despite the hints of East Coast bias (Kimmel is from New York) and subtle elitism in the delivery, it’s still great to see GU made its way to the forefront of popular culture in a positive way.
I don’t believe Kimmel expected to hear anything more about his joke when he first told it. It was just a single 30-second blurb about a school many people only recognize as a spot on their brackets: a one-off joke that probably did not warrant revisiting.
As is the usual with basketball, GU, as well as the residents of Spokane, refused to let it go. #GonzagaExists became a trending hashtag that countless students and Spokane residents rallied around. People shared, commented, tweeted and clapped back, with varying levels of seriousness. As is the case with all righteous movements, custom T-shirts were made to support it. Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson swore on a Bible the school does, in fact, exist.
Kimmel obliged and kept it going, and there were four more bits about whether GU really exists. The joke transformed from a one-liner into a full-blown conspiracy theory.
Kimmel sent his popular assistant Guillermo to dress up in a Sherlock Holmes outfit and “investigate” the team at the tourney locations, showing up to media events, interviewing players and generally just causing a scene.
People started to refer to it as a “beef,” as if a comedian and an institution of higher learning can have something akin to a rap feud. At this point, it feels like we heard the same joke on repeat for two weeks.
But there’s something about our community’s collective obsession with this gag that is telling about the atmosphere here, especially in March.
Students are proud to go here. They’re always willing to brag about GU, especially on primetime. They love to say GU exists, and we’re a pretty great school.
Kimmel gave us a platform to do exactly that. Regardless of how funny you think the joke actually is, there’s a reason we keep going along with it. It shows just how invested every student at GU is in their university and its teams.
But there’s also another side to this whole affair that’s a little less appealing. This joke doesn’t feel like it kept going because of its inherent humor value. It felt like it continued to be perpetuated primarily because it benefited both the university and Kimmel to do so.
Let’s not pretend that this doesn't also effectively serve as a free marketing campaign for the university. According to a KXLY article, the feud gave the university over $800,000 in free advertising. Perhaps the real conspiracy is the higher-ups at GU giving this joke as much attention and press as possible in order to bring visibility and money to the school.
In an article titled “Top Ten Clues Gonzaga Exists” posted on the GU website on March 28, the school makes an effort to piggyback off the publicity, providing “clues” that are really just marketing points for the school.
“The 46% of undergraduate students who study abroad are proof positive that Gonzaga exists EVERYWHERE,” the article says.
This is a statistic straight from a brochure for potential students, reworded slightly in order to reference the joke. I understand it’s a great opportunity and position for the school to be in. But at this point, is it really about humor? It’s hard to imagine the university participating so actively in a joke about itself if it didn’t stand to gain money and potential students.
Basketball has always been the biggest reason for this school’s growth as an institution in the last 20 years. It makes sense to build off that, but masking a PR campaign as a response to a joke just comes off as self-serving and ineffectual. There’s nothing wrong with marketing GU for its spirit and the atmosphere on campus, but jokes become stale very quickly, especially when they don’t feel genuine.
On Kimmel’s side, he continues to get clicks and exposure in that same context. The entire population of Spokane is a considerable audience, and anything that has a possibility of going viral is beneficial for generating views and bringing in more potential fans. It’s not like he is simply giving away this publicity to GU for free — it feels almost transactional.
I typically find Kimmel pretty funny, but when I think about why we’re still talking about this joke, I find it difficult to laugh. Perhaps I’m simply cynical and I’m in the minority on this. I still love any representation our school can get, and they always do us proud on the national stage, so it’s not the most harmful thing in the world.
Regardless of the circumstance, another Zags March run is a thing to be celebrated. Kimmel can say what he wants, and people can respond how they want, but we can all agree on the tangible effect this team has on our community. That’s what really matters.
Connor Gilbert is a staff writer.