Only two weeks after attracting worldwide media attention with his tweets about a shrine to a dead raccoon in the streets of Toronto, former deputy Toronto mayor turned social media jester Norm Kelly was in the middle of another online firestorm. Kelly found himself ringside at the birth of a hip-hop beef between former friends and co-performers Drake and Meek Mill. Mill, motivated by God knows what, took to Twitter on the night of July 21 to claim that Drake does not write his own verses and is not real, the most derisive thing one can say in the hip-hop game.
Kelly, who is a huge Toronto booster on Twitter as well as our comic-in-residence at City Hall, did not take this lying down, tweeting at Meek Mill that he was no longer welcome in Toronto.
Mill returned online fire and all of sudden we were watching one of the strangest interactions that the internet has produced—it was like your grandpa showing up at a friend's house party coincidentally.
"Grandpa, what are you doing here?"
"What are you doing here? I've been friends with Rachel for years."
Kelly threatening rappers like he was Suge Knight should come as no surprise, especially if someone is digitally stepping to Drake. Kelly's Twitter feed in the past year has become quite a hit sensation amongst Toronto's Twitterati. With over 30,000 followers, Kelly is more popular than any counsellor who isn't a) the mayor or b) the most famous crack cocaine user since Rick James.
But what is driving a 73-year-old grandfather to become a verified Twitter god?
Before conquering social media, Kelly's professional career was spent honing to a razor's edge the art of being boring. This is a man who is so boring, so diligent in his ability to not step out of line in any way, that he was able to serve on the Executive Committees for Mayors Mel Lastman, David Miller, and Rob Ford. A man so boring that he was able to return normalcy to City Hall after the reality TV-meets-Mad Max circus of Ford. If you can put out the internet fire that was Rob Ford, that is a Bruce Lee level of boringness. I mean just try to keep your interest alive while watching this.
Kelly, who got a Masters in history from Queens, won the Governor General's Award for his work as a researcher on Pierre Berton's histories of the Canadian railroad. Let's repeat that. a researcher, not even a writer on this thing. This is a man who spent a huge chunk of his youth taking notes on dusty records about railroads and he wasn't even the one gaining the glory and fame from it, he was just happy to be there, a phrase that would describe much of his history on council. A conciliator—a man who was happy to just be part of the process. Now, however, this soothing balm of an old man is involving himself in hip-hop beefs. What happened?
I decided dive deep into Kelly's Twitter history to find out.
First off, I would say roughly 60 percent of his tweets match his personal history of ultra MOR-dom. There are This Day In History Tweets:
His traffic update tweets:
And his pothole-filling update tweets:
This is all perfectly reasonable stuff for a 73-year-old civil servant to be tweeting. Most of his fellow councillors traffic in this sort of harmless pap. But of course, if that's all it was, he'd be hovering around the 2,000 follower mark like those fameless losers and not making me and fellow people trying to write for a living feeling insecure about our middling abilities.
Then there are these tweets though:
The difference between his steady, responsible tweets and the ones that read like those of an aspiring comedian is striking. It's not only that they are funny—that's not surprising. Kelly is clearly a sharp guy. By his account, he reads up to four newspapers a day. That's like, every newspaper in business, pretty much. In many of his interviews, I see a sort of impish charm in his eyes. Despite the dullness of his appearance and voice, I can believe that there is a goofball somewhere in the recesses of his Dracula-hosting-a-kid's-show visage.
It's the tone and style of his tweets that raises my eyebrow. This is a man who has become fluent in the medium. His tweets read like he took a course. His rhythm and sense of timing are thoroughly of the internet. It's not clunky. Sometimes the material of the jokes is clunky and old-mannish; but the delivery, the way he lets references go unsaid, they way they are steeped in irony and self-depreciation, is very skilled.
So what, right? So he's good at Twitter? Yet he's also a man who in every interview since his newfound infamy has kept his lovable-old-man, Harper-Lee-side-character demeanor. I mean, look at this shit. He literally claims that he was unaware that "sick" could now also mean a good thing. And you're telling me that a guy who is so on his social media/pop culture game that he could drop this visual pun less than 24 hours after Drake dropped a response track to Meek Mill called "Charged Up"?
I smell bullshit: You can't tweet like you have Worldstar as your homepage and then claim to not know "sick" can mean "good."
Which brings me to the uncomfortable appropriation angle. Smarter, more appropriate people could speak to this better than me, but I thought it was particularly glaring that, on July 22, the same day the police who killed Jermaine Carby were exonerated despite their very questionable behavior, Kelly was sucking up all the media attention with his hacky, I'm an old white man hilariously getting involved in a hip-hop beef BS. His jokes remind me of when this was considered a good idea:
Kelly claims that he writes all his tweets. A friend of mine who works in City Hall told me she asked his staffers and they confirmed he writes his own tweets. He does ask them for help with Photoshop, but he's admitted that. I'm inclined to believe him due to the aforementioned hokey nature of some jokes. Ultimately, much like the question of does Drake have a ghostwriter, whether or not he writes his own tweets is less important to me than the motivation behind the material. Whether he writes them or not, Kelly clearly wants to be noticed.
There is a desperation and shamelessness to Kelly's tweeting. The way he'll bury a joke into the ground, like his hatred of Mondays (If you hate Mondays so much just retire, Norm. You're 73 years old doing a job where you have to be elected. Quit complaining about Mondays, you obviously want to be there.) I recognize it as the comedian's desperation, I've felt it before too. Once the laughs start, it's hard not to get addicted to it, and then you start chasing the laughs. They become the only thing you are thinking about, the thing you need above anything else. Kelly even admitted as much, stating:
I do, but I've told everyone that I steal shamelessly from everybody. If you say something to me that gets me thinking, or you're close to me and I throw them at you and listen to your response, I might use that.
Using personal conversations as a testing ground for material? That's a comedian talking right there. Look at this tweet:
Not a bad tweet, but what I'm interested in is its creation. It's existence suggests that Kelly is thinking of the jokes now, he's looking for them. This is not a man who accidentally stumbled upon a fun new game for his spare time—the way he likes to portray himself in interviews. No, this tweet to me suggests that Kelly is focused on becoming Twitter famous, that he's working very hard at it.
John Tory's election must have been tough for Norm. A man who had literally spent decades on the (political) sidelines had finally been thrust into the spotlight. And not just any spotlight! This was the media-frenzied, outsized spotlight that Rob Ford created. Norm had gotten a taste of what it feels like to be at the center of it all. He was the one with the answers for the questions everyone was asking, all the microphones were finally in his face, and I think Kelly found that he liked it, like really liked it. When Tory was elected and Kelly was expected to retake his position as a sensible man in a room full of insensible people he must have felt panic, must have wanted to grab at whatever passing star could keep him out of the Earth's orbit. In Toronto, there is only one man other than Ford whose fame is so big and grand that it can make others famous. Only one other man whose spotlight is so big there's room to be in it:
In interviews, Kelly describes a Toronto in transition from being a sleepy provincial capital to the sleek, sexy center of the universe. Kelly, though, found himself both part of that transition and, I think, inspired by it. I wonder if he thinks to himself, Hey, if Toronto can be this cool, then why can't I? His Twitter account then is evidence that Toronto is changing, that the eyes of the world and it's accompanying fame and attention are here. It shows what the effect of that can be, that it can turn even the most sensible of men into fame-hungry, hack comedians.
But maybe I'm not the only one who thinks it's all getting a bit much…
Need to charge up. Taking a break from Twitter. Be back in 2 weeks.
— Norm Kelly (@norm) July 27, 2015
Follow Jordan Foisy on Twitter.