Oral histories are a straight-from-the-horses mouth kind of reading we've come to love. They can offer insight into worlds we already know and love, or take us into communities we never knew existed. But maybe there can be such a thing as too much of the oral history — especially this year, when the form seemed to reach its peak, both in quality and volume, and not just from the usual suspects. So as part of our ongoing Year in Review at The Atlantic Wire, we've read (too) many of the pieces that came out in 2012 and picked a few favorites. (No Sopranos allowed.) The chronicles that follow are at times terrifying (Alicia Shepard's tale of the D.C. sniper shootings) and deadly serious (the Vanity Fair exploration of Guantánamo); they are also fun (Josh Schollmeyer's take on Siskel and Ebert) and they are, of course, nostalgic (especially in the case of Brian Raftery's history of Cheers). They will take time to read, so consider this a holiday-season reading list and a celebration at the same time. Print and learn.
"'The Best TV Show That's Ever Been;" by Brian Raftery at GQ
What it's about: Cheers
Why we loved it: It brought Sam and Diane back into our pop culture lexicon.
What we learned: Sam was originally supposed to be a football player, but Ted Danson's build and attitude prompted creators to change his sport to baseball. Nick Colasanto (Coach) wrote one of his lines—"It's as if he were with us now"—on a slat by the stairs the actors would use to enter, and the words became a tribute to him following his death. Woody Harrelson gave Ted Danson mushrooms for the first time one day they played hooky from set. Harrelson would sometimes stay over at Kirstie Alley's house and one time went to talk to her when he decided he didn't want to sleep with a girl he brought home. Ted Danson's then six-year-old thought his character's name was "Sam Alone."
"Terror in October: A Look Back at the DC Sniper Attacks" by Alicia Shepard at The Washingtonian
What it's about: The 2002 Beltway sniper shootings.
Why we loved it: It's an almost claustrophobic account of a terrifying period in our recent past.
What we learned: The shooting of 13-year-old Iran Brown "really demonstrated the evil." One FBI agent believes the final shooting occurred because there was no communication with the snipers. The day after the snipers were caught, the public brought food and thank you cards to the police.
"Hot Mess" by Brad Wieners at Outside
What it's about: The Burning Man festival
Why we loved it: It delivered method to absolute madness.
What we learned: In the early days, when the burns went down on Baker Beach, the main event was an effigy of co-creator Larry Harvey's ex-girlfriend, until the concept was deemed politically incorrect. During early festivals in the Nevada desert the main participants subsisted on granola bars and granola bars alone. Founders did not want the drum circles.
"Sisters Outsiders: The Oral History of the 'Bikini Kill' EP" by Jessica Hopper at Spin
What it's about: Bikini Kill and their eponymous EP
Why we loved it: It's an honest and direct account of an indie band's rise to semi-fame, for once.
What we learned: Kathleen Hanna said early on it was "fucking grim"—sound guys would "turn off the polarization or whatever it's called" and she would get shocked when approaching the mic to sing. The band was "really awkward" when they were in the studio, producer Ian MacKaye said.
"The Original Frenemies" by Josh Schollmeyer at Slate (an excerpt from The Chicagoan)
What it's about: Siskel and Ebert
Why we loved it: It's impossible not to keep loving these guys.
What we learned: The two argued so much that every executive producer had to carry around a quarter for a coin toss — their preferred method for hashing out an argument. One day Siskel, hiding under a long table in a conference room, redialed a phone call Ebert had just made to actress Nastassja Kinski scheduling an interview — and Siskel canceled it. They had their own language at screenings. Each taping began with a round of patty cake called “Pease Porridge Hot.”
"Guantánamo: An Oral History" by Cullen Murphy, Todd S. Purdum, David Rose and Philippe Sands at Vanity Fair
What it's about: The Guantánamo detention facility
Why we loved it: It's truly a history, not just more on what happened after things got bad.
What we learned: A guard treated an iguana better than a detainee, according to that detainee. About 40 to 50 percent of the interrogation assets were on Mohammed al-Qahatani, the "20th hijacker." Soap was deemed a "comfort item." Prisoners started chanting Obama's name the night he was elected knowing that he would close the facility.
"Queer to the Core" by Adam Rathe at Out
What it's about: The gay punk scene
Why we loved it: It's a little-known subject area for a form that too often goes for A-list topics.
What we learned: Lynn Breedlove of Tribe 8 began a tradition of "bringing a bag of rubber dicks on tour." When the band Pansy Division toured the Midwest and South they once encountered a 15 year old who wanted to run away with them. Green Day brought Pansy Division on tour.
"Worshipping At The Church Of Baseball" by Chris Nashawaty at Sports Illustrated
What it's about: Bull Durham
Why we loved it: It combines juicy behind-the-scenes details with the poetry that made the movie so great.
What we learned: Director and writer Ron Shelton, a former minor leaguer, hated baseball movies. Kevin Costner's audition took place at batting cages. Charlie Sheen was the original pick for Tim Robbins's role of Nuke, and Anthony Michael Hall was a backup. Robbins said he borrowed Nuke's pitching style from Fernando Valenzuela. The famous line about candlesticks (during an overly long meeting on the mound) was ad-libbed.
"The Sound and the Fury" by Alex French and Howie Kahn at Grantland
What it's about: New York sports-talk radio station WFAN
Why we loved it: It's a piece that's almost as chatty as its subject.
What we learned: There were intially tepid feelings around the whole enterprise, with Joel Hollander of Emmis Broadcasting saying 70 percent of the controlling interests were against the idea of making the station all sports. John Chanin's wife came up with the letters WFAN. Without YouTube and SportsCenter callers would disagree about what actually occurred during games. The office was described as a "shithole" with urin stains on the ceiling. Celebrity callers use fake names.
"The Oral History of the Tunnel" by Ross Scarano at Complex
What it's about: New York hip-hop club the Tunnel.
Why we loved it: It consumes you into its environment and doesn't let you out.
What we learned: Jessica Rosenblum, who first organized the Mecca parties that woud eventually go to the Tunnel is described as "is the original hip-hop hipster." Tupac had to put his weapon back into his car before he entered the club to party. The vibe of the party changed once Funkmaster Flex became its sole promoter. When the club closed crime numbers went down in the 10th precinct where it's located.
Bonus: Out online today Vanity Fair has the almost melancholy oral history of Freaks and Geeks, the seminal but short-lived television show produced by Judd Apatow in his early days. But then again oral histories always start with the early days.