Behind the Tendency Classics: Alysia Gray Painter's "Butterball Help-Line Help-Line"
In this column, exclusive to our Patreon page, authors explain the stories behind writing their iconic McSweeney's Internet Tendency pieces. In this installment we check in with the author of a piece first published 15 years ago and they we've re-published every Thanksgiving ever since.

- - -

Title:  "Butterball Help-Line Help-Line" 

Author: Alysia Gray Painter  

Date of Publication: November 26, 2003


Q: Cinnamon or nutmeg?
A: Cinnamon is a nice spice people are comfortable consuming throughout the year, sprinkled either on toast or in a delicious coffee beverage. Nutmeg is a nasty, gritty substance that wants nothing to do with us in the spring or summer but demands our favor come November, only to disappear to the back of the shelf for another year. Why do we continue to accommodate this so-called seasoning? Nutmeg is a stupid jerk.

On the inspiration behind writing the piece...

I've always loved the idea that there are kind-hearted helpers waiting to assist you in this world, with answers to a variety of your concerns, and asking a question is free. It's so instant, so fast, so reassuring. But all people need comfort, so I wanted to give hard-working help-line employees their own way of reaching out for advice during what we might call "turkey crunch time," across the phone line, to a friendly voice. What pressure these help-line staffers must feel as they help cooks get the biggest meal of the year right! Also, in the age of online-everything, I'll never forsake the phone as a humor device. Two strangers talking, voice-to-voice, is amazing.

On the writing process...

It took about an hour to write, from idea to hitting the "send" button, off and on, over a day. I'm obsessed with holiday minutia, from lumpy mashed potatoes to where relatives sit at the table, so my main concern was "over-spicing" the piece, if you will. It was more a process of discarding, then proceeding to punch up the stuff that seemed to work best.  

On the audience reaction over the years...

People quote the "nutmeg" bit more than any other part, which charms me. It also got a sassy shout-out in The Onion, too ("McSweeney's Rejects Mike Mussina's Seventh Consecutive Submission"). I'm so pleased this little turkey of a piece has become a Thanksgiving tradition on McSweeney's, tickled, really. I adore holiday-themed pop culture treats that return, year after year, to lend cheer through nostalgia and familiarity. I didn't know I'd be lucky enough to have have my own. In the spirit of the holiday, I'm very, very grateful, and awash in thanks.