“Americans only love the college experience because it’s the only time in their lives they live in a walkable community,” reads a viral January 2020 tweet. Ann Arbor fits the bill, hosting most campus buildings and housing within about a one-mile radius and offering free transit to students. I’ve always found pleasure in proximity.
I like to imagine the buildings on campus opened up like Richard Scarry books to allow peeks into what goes on. Scientists bait lab rats a short walk from where swimmers count down to the Olympics a step away from where a mother delivers a baby a hallway across from where a loved one is lost to an incurable disease. Elementary schoolers learn addition a block from where frat brothers play daytime pong; a world-class map collection sits steps away from the spot where I once laughed so hard that coffee came out of my nose.
In a dense area like Ann Arbor, the marvelous and the mundane are neighbors, and you can catch peeks of them from the windows of the Blue Bus. What a joy it is to get around.
Luckily, I’m not alone in my love for transportation. Bus sentiment varies, but a community of half-serious transit enthusiasts has risen up around an eminently meme-able transportation guru named Billy Magic.
Residing among University of Michigan meme royalty like Reggie Bee and Big Flappo, Billy Magic has become an integral figure of freshman orientation in the nine years since the Michigan Transportation Musical was created. Breaking the fourth wall, Billy Magic looks straight into the eyes of the eighteen-year-olds packed into lecture halls and preaches a gospel of new urbanism.
“The masses… need to know that safe ride offers a variety of free and low-cost options for a ride home!” Magic says.
With its slightly censorious cheerfulness and ever-changing ratio of irony and sincerity, the video has built a cult-like obsession for the campus’s decidedly unsexy fleet of blue diesel buses. How did this happen?
Baby you can drive my bus
I tracked down the writer behind the 12-minute musical, a Brooklyn-based director and social-impact storyteller named Emily Lyon. When I asked how the character of Billy Magic was born, she responded carefully.
“I was staring at a blank page and realized that my script about the magic bus needed a guide,” Lyon told me over the phone. “And then Billy Magic just came to me.”
She paused, deliberating.
“I can’t attribute it to anything except … inspiration from the gods,” Lyon said.
The former Music, Theatre & Dance student had made informational PSA-style videos for the University before with a student-run production company called Filmic, but no project had been this big. Tasked with replacing the previous transportation video, Lyon knew she wanted to use humor.
She felt an obligation to preserve the endearing cringe-worthiness of the video’s precursor, a late-nineties production that was memorable for its lack of self-awareness. Lyon described it as a “run-of-the-mill PSA video”
“But sort of dramatic, like D.A.R.E,” she said. “I loved it,.”
With that in mind, she and a team from Filmic let goofy ideas fly.
“We were aware that this was a ridiculous topic, and our audience is teenagers who are dubious of content … we decided to play into it,” Lyon said. “Few people show up to orientation thinking, ‘You know what I want to talk about? Buses!’ … Except maybe Billy Magic.”
The video’s three days of filming were chock-full of improvisation. Boundaries were pushed.
“We had a lot of fun with it … a lot,” recounted Lyon.
Others agreed, including co-star Nick Skardarasy. I called him on the phone to discuss his reflections on the project nearly nine years after he co-starred as a kid — “The Kid,” according to the credits — to whom Billy Magic explained campus transportation. Skardarasy told me that the team had a good time.
He also hinted that some scenes were cut on account of their suggestive content. One of those deleted scenes stuck with him for nearly ten years, and though he couldn’t tell me exactly what it was, he disclosed that it implied a sexual relationship between Billy and a bus.
As a creator, Lyon still has a knack for using humor to make dry but important topics palatable. I asked her what PSAs should be revamped to be funny, and her immediate response was “all of them.” Specifically, she’d like to see more jokes and gags in “Terms and Conditions” (the average American’s digital contracts would take 250 hours to read!).
“One of my favorite quotes is this: ‘Laughter is the sound of recognition,’ meaning that an audience that laughs is still with you,” Lyon explained.
Meme page fame
There’s a contagiousness to Billy Magic’s pure and uncomplicated adoration for buses that catapulted the video to meme fame almost immediately. Skardarasy recalls freshmen pointing at him and approaching him after the video’s first showing in fall 2012; nearly eight years later, C.J. Eldred (who played Billy) was repeatedly asked to sign autographs on the Diag during a recent visit. Borderline evangelical zeal for the short film continues to this day.
In the poll the Facebook group UMich Memes for Wolverteens used to determine its official endorsement for 2020 Democratic nominee for president, Billy Magic got 11.52% of the vote, coming in third place only behind Reggie Bee and Bernie Sanders. He later appeared in a meme captioned “AND WITH 100% OF PRECINCTS REPORTING, BILLY MAGIC HAS WON THE 2020 PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION!” Meme page admin Zachary Wernet made the short film its own IMDB page. A Billy Magic design for wall art in Animal Crossing got over 450 likes. Seniors get graduation photos in front of M-buses in honor of the video, and the team behind the video even reunited to speak at the virtual 2020 graduation. A quirky 12-minute informational video has made buses, of all things, inexplicably cool for almost ten years.
Over the phone, Lucas Renno, renowned admin of UMich Memes for Wolverteens, recounted to me his first impression of Billy Magic.
“I remember sitting turning to the girl next to me in the auditorium and saying ‘What the hell did I just watch?’” Renno told me.
In his opinion, the Michigan Transportation Musical is great because it tries just hard enough.
“Too many big institutions try too hard,” Renno said. “They make communications that are obviously intended to be funny or ‘hip with the youths,’ and they fall flat on their face. It’s clear from the beginning that this video was written and directed by students rather than school bureaucrats.”
Planes, trains, not automobiles
The Michigan Transportation Musical isn’t the only corner of the internet where deliberately over-the-top enthusiasm for public transportation runs free. There’s a wildly popular Facebook group called “New Urbanist Memes for Transit Oriented Teens” (NUMTOT for short) in which hundreds of thousands of members share their passion for high-density housing, bike lanes, parks, trains and other urbanist ideals.
Every day, the group is filled with half-serious posts like: “Nascar is cancelled. I want to see public buses celebrated and raced!!” Another recent post shows a trolley problem meme with an empty set of tracks, captioned: “There is no trolley. America killed it in the mid-20th century in favor of suburban sprawl and the personal automobile.”
Underneath layers of ironic stan lingo is a genuine passion for sustainable, human-centric urban planning. It’s all a meme, but no one is joking.
The group is built on a scaffolding of disappointment — a shared longing for a world in which federal subsidies in the form of highways and suburban housing had not fractured postwar public life into suburbs of sequestered private residences. The NUMTOT ideology criticizes the glut of motor vehicles infesting modern cities, mourning the walkability that could have been. This truth — that we’re living in a “car-tastrophe” — is the root of every joke. Humorous posts about concepts like the North American lawn fetish and regular bouts of shaming NIMBYs are memeified versions of well-substantiated social commentaries.
I became a NUMTOT (pressed “join” on a Facebook group) around the time I first watched The Michigan Transportation Musical at orientation. Coming off of a gap year living in Chicago I had neither a car nor a care in the world. That year, I gained confidence biking in cities; I acquired an elegant command of the subway; and I grew to hate the way rideshare apps clogged the already-congested streets (in Manhattan, ride-share app drivers spend 40% of their time idling between customers). A Facebook community gave me the nudge I needed to spin my private adoration of buses and trains into bona fide advocacy.
Both NUMTOT and the Michigan Transportation musical build an online cult around the otherwise lame topic of transit. That enthusiasm may prove essential as President Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure plan is debated in Congress, where lawmakers from suburban and rural districts often prefer money for roads. Biden, a long-time Amtrak rider, wants to spend $85 billion over eight years to help local governments invest in mass transit systems so that driving doesn’t have to be the default.
For a specific demographic of very-online young people, garnering broad political support for mass transit might take on an interesting form. To make an impact, the messaging may involve a precise genre of satire, one that conveys that the poster is definitely kidding, but totally serious.
Statement columnist Annie Rauwerda can be reached at email@example.com.