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David Letterman, the Origins of Pajiba, and the Meaning Behind the Site's Name

By Dustin Rowles | Think Pieces | May 20, 2015 |

By Dustin Rowles | Think Pieces | May 20, 2015 |

Publisher’s Note: This is a long story. It involves David Letterman, the origins of Pajiba, and a falling out that ended a formative, lifelong friendship. By the end of the piece, however, I promise that I will finally reveal the meaning of the word “Pajiba,” or at least the origins of the term.

I’ve been turning over and over in my head the proper way to pay tribute to David Letterman as he retires, and while I have watched and read numerous tributes to Dave, both tearful and heartfelt, they all come up short in truly capturing what David Letterman meant to a particular generation of people. I don’t expect that I can string a bunch of superlatives together and do any better, because as I’ve said before, trying to properly pay tribute to David Letterman is like filling a teacup with the ocean. It can’t really be done.

So instead, I thought I’d take the time to explain the origins of this site, what the term Pajiba means, and David Letterman’s role in it all. I’m going to need to back up 25 years.

The first recollection I ever had of Timmy Fairlane was seeing his grandmother screaming at my little brother — then around 10 or 11 — after he had pushed Timmy down a very large hill. I don’t remember why my brother pushed Timmy down the hill, but over the next 15+ years of getting to know Timmy, I can probably guess why. Timmy was the kind of obnoxiously pedantic guy who — even in junior high school — would correct people’s grammar. He was a smug and sarcastic, a wise-ass who talked down to practically everyone he met. He had an air of superiority about him that kind of made you want to push him down a hill.

It didn’t take long for the two of us to become best friends.

I don’t remember exactly how that transpired, but I do remember that I began giving him rides home from school, and that we bonded immediately over a shared affection for David Letterman. This may not sound like a big deal now, but at the time, in Arkansas, there weren’t a lot of people with whom you could geek out over Letterman, and geek out is exactly what we did. I watched him live every Friday night at 12:30, and every night during the summers and I taped his shows on VHS every night during the rest of the year. I named my first dog Stealth, because David Letterman had a habit of saying “Bitchin’ Stealth Bombers.” When it came time to choose NFL allegiances, I eschewed the favorite team among most in my state — the Dallas Cowboys — for the lowly Indianapolis Colts, because Dave hailed from Indiana.

But we didn’t just talk about Dave; both Timmy and I, independently, had affected many of Letterman’s mannerisms, his stammer, and we had absorbed his turns of phrases into our own lexicon. We had worked diligently to exchange our thick Southern drawls for Letterman-ese, although Timmy — better than I — could pull off the Letterman attitude, an attitude which got him called an “asshole” by Cher and made him maybe the most intimidating guy in the entertainment industry at the time. Dave did not give a shit. He bad mouthed his bosses, he pissed off his guests, and he had a condescension borne out of midwestern insecurity.

David Letterman was an asshole, and so was Timmy, and that’s exactly what I found so compelling about both of them. Arkansas had no shortage of assholes, mind you. But most of them were redneck assholes. Racist assholes. Homophobic assholes. Or meathead assholes. But Timmy was a special kind of asshole: He was the sort of asshole that looked down on small-minded bigots, the kind that would shit-talk people for bad grammar, the kind that would think less of you if you hadn’t read certain books or seen certain movies. He was prickly, sometimes hostile toward lower forms of entertainment, and those who consumed it (the site’s original tagline, “Scathing Reviews, Bitchy People” was all Timmy, and described his attitude perfectly).

Part of that hostility, I would learn later, was because Timmy was gay, and being gay in Arkansas required layers of defense mechanisms, and Timmy chose assholery as his first line of defense. I didn’t know anyone else in Arkansas who was gay at the time, except my father, who didn’t know that I knew he was gay, and there was a certain thrill in befriending a guy who could help me to better understand my Dad.

But mostly, it was Letterman. In fact, during the summers after my sophomore and junior years in high school, Timmy and I would spend literally months planning, writing, and producing our own version of Late Night, Late Night with Dustin Rowles. We copied the show right down to the title cards, and spent days painstakingly editing the segments together using a camcorder and a VCR. I was the host, and Timmy was the producer — he was the Hal Gurnee of the show. I still have VHS copies of those shows collecting dust on a bookshelf, and for years, I would make all my girlfriends watch them, as if to say, if you don’t understand or appreciate this, it’s probably not going to work out between us.

The point is, the bond that Timmy and I had over David Letterman was so strong, and so formative, that it would follow us through for the next 15 years of our lives. But here was the thing about Timmy: My other friends disliked him intensely. My girlfriends hated him. And I understood why — Timmy could get on your nerves. You always had the sense that he was judging you, because he probably was. But I didn’t care. Because he was also the most honest, progressive, smartest dude I knew, and we came from the same town, the same background, and our families were made up of the same kind of people: Alcoholics, rednecks, minimum-wage workers, and we both wanted out more than anything in the world.

Timmy and I also developed a very weird, probably damaging codependent relationship, the sort where we took each other for granted far beyond the natural order of a friendship. We fought frequently, and still to this day, I think he’s the only other male friend with whom I’ve ever gotten into a shouting matches (in the normal course of things, most dudes do not fight. We don’t talk a lot about feelings, and if things aren’t going well, we just drift apart).

Moreover, whenever I would get a job, I’d get him a job at the same place, and Timmy — a year behind me in school — would follow me job to job, from high school to college and then to Boston, where he moved in with me and my partner in a tiny one bedroom apartment and then had the audacity to invite his boyfriend to stay with us, as well (in law school at the time, I eventually had to fake an eviction notice from our landlord to trick him into finally moving out).

We had a falling out after living together, but about a year later, I bumped into him on a subway, and we quickly reconnected. Within another year, I had moved in with him and his boyfriend, although by a certain point, we were more family members than friends, which is to say, our shared history, and our common love of Letterman kept us together, even when we stopped liking each other. It’s hard to explain, but we were just linked. He was the guy I sought out when shit went sideways at home, and when his Dad punched him in the face after finding out he was gay, it was my closet he hid in overnight.

In 2004, while living in Boston, I left the publishing house that I was managing to get in on one of those dot com bubbles. Another old friend of mine from high school and I formed a company, and after we got it going, I brought in Timmy — who I’d left behind at the publishing company — to join my new business. The company was basically an old form of Demand Media: We created a shit ton of content and leveraged it using arbitrage methods. It worked, too! By the end of the first year, we’d pulled millions of dollars in revenue out of thin air, or so it seemed at the time (you can write things on the Internet, and Google will just send you checks! Amazing!)

That’s when I decided to start Pajiba. Modeling ourselves after Google, our company had decided to put aside Fridays to devote to passion projects. I decided to create a website that, at the time, was devoted to liberal political commentary and book reviews. Timmy — who had dabbled in film criticism and was a huge Pauline Kael fan — decided he’d provide the movie reviews, although it quickly became apparent that writing movie reviews was a lot more fun than writing about politics, especially after John Kerry lost the 2004 election to George W. Bush (relative newcomers to the site may wonder why we filter our views on the entertainment business through politics so much. Now you know: We were originally a progressive political site).

Anyway, before we could launch the site, we needed a name, and coming up with one was easy. I knew exactly what I was going to call it. Back in college, where Timmy and I worked in the university library together, we had this long-running Letterman-esque gag. We each invented our own word — I invented Pajiba, and he invented Jalabada — and we used those words in ordinary conversations with people, and allowed them to guess what the words meant based on context. However, if someone asked, for instance, “What does Pajiba mean?” I’d deflect, or say, “Oh you know.” But we wouldn’t provide an actual definition for the words, because of course we couldn’t. We had made them up.

We also had a sort of competition about who had the better word, and we would informally poll those who came into the library, asking them “Do you prefer Pajiba or Jalabada?” and though we wouldn’t reveal the meaning of either of those words, we strongly suggested that the they had very sexual connotations.

In the midst of this competition, however, I once suggested to Timmy that my word was so much better than his that, when I got older, I would start a company, and I would name it Pajiba, and my word would definitively win our competition.

Seven years later, that’s exactly what I did.

Now, if I’d known that the dot com company I was running was about to go belly up, and that Pajiba was all I would have remaining after the dust settled, and that the site would still exist 11 years later, I probably would’ve gone with a name that was easier to pronounce, or at least a name that was more synonymous with pop culture. But like Toad the Wet Sprocket, it was a name with which I was stuck, whether I liked it or not (and though it’s a name that’s still very difficult to brand, I’m nevertheless thankful that it is the name of the site (and even more thankful that we don’t consider ourselves as Jalabadans).

And that’s, ultimately, how Pajiba came to be. In fact, the reason why we refused press screenings for so many years early on was because a publicist had gotten peeved with Timmy because he’d used profanity in a review, and rather than bend to the publicist’s will, we decided against working with them all together (most of us still do not attend press screenings, but given the economic variables of movie reviews, it doesn’t make financial sense to deprive our critics of free screenings).

But what happened to Timmy? I haven’t really spoken to him in eight years now (save for a brief interaction at a film festival six years ago), and this very site is at the center of our falling out. Formally, we fell out because he made fun of my newborn son’s name (and he emailed me a “break-up letter” after the argument that ensued), but that was really just the rock that broke the monkey’s back. There were a hundred different other reasons that we would’ve eventually fallen out, but it was this site that generated most of the conflict. We had started it together, but it was my site, and we had different visions for it. Mine involved creating a profit, and his involved spending a week to write a movie review (granted, he was very good at it).

Mostly, though, after growing up together, and with him being considered the smarter of the two of us (which is absolutely true), I think he resented that I was his boss, and I resented that he refused to treat it like a job. (If the roles were reversed, however, I suspect it would’ve led to the same result, only would’ve gone under eight years ago because you can’t make a living on movie reviews alone).

I do know that Timmy is doing incredibly well for himself now. He writes for the Boston Globe. He wrote a book about the Orange subway line in Boston. He even teaches journalism now. Ironically, he’s doing what I set out to do in college — be a reporter — and I’m doing what he inspired me to do after law school: Write about pop culture. I also suspect that Timmy — like Letterman — is not nearly the asshole he once was.

Professionally, ending our friendship was probably the best thing to happen to either one of us, but with Dave retiring tonight, I can’t help but feel not only a sadness about losing Letterman, but a pang of nostalgia for a friendship that formed over a shared affection for the man, a friendship and an idol that would partly define who I have become.

Finally, here’s a picture of my bedroom growing up. That’s my drugged-out father in the Bluto T-shirt a few years before his crack overdose, my little sister (before she got pregnant), and then myself and Timmy, both of us wearing Late Night with David Letterman caps that Timmy created himself, because neither one of us could afford an official one. And that’s Willard Scott in the background. We stole the banner from a Burger King in the middle of the night because Letterman so often liked to make fun of Willard Scott back in the day. It helped us feel closer to Dave.