Commentary: 'Topps' a blatant vanity project

Michael Eisner may have fallen in love with own reflection

No CEO gets to their lofty perch without a healthy dose of narcissism. But when watching the first episode of the new online series "Back on Topps," it might appear that Michael Eisner has not only fallen in love with his own reflection but fallen off his rocker.

"Topps" would seem a blatant vanity project on multiple levels. For one, a comedy series about executives trying to bring innovation to a baseball-card company feels autobiographical coming from Eisner, who actually bought Topps last year for $380 million with the mandate of rejuvenating the brand. Of all the subjects Eisner's digital studio, Vuguru, could have devoted a Web series to, he just happened to pick another company he owned. In addition, Eisner himself is a recurring offscreen character in "Topps."

But here's the catch about this study in self-absorption: "Topps" happens to be both an exercise in executive egomania and a very funny Web series (a rarity) to boot.

In "Topps," twin comedians Randy and Jason Sklar play the fictional Leyland and Leif Topps, potential successors to the throne at the not-fictional Topps company. But the brothers get a rude awakening when informed that their beloved Uncle Marvin Topps has sold the company to the not-fictional Eisner, who has installed a proxy functionary to ride herd on them.

Of course, Leyland and Leif are total nincompoops who spend every episode following through on every pipe dream they've ever had about Topps, like "avant cards," in which they suggest hiring Diane Arbus to shoot pitcher Randy Johnson. Whereupon they are informed Arbus is dead and therefore unavailable.

With the workplace zaniness of "30 Rock," Topps doubles as solid online entertainment and a promotional platform for the baseball card company. But Eisner himself gets more than a few plugs. Although he doesn't ever actually appear, someone playing him pipes in via speakerphone and barks orders. There's even the casting of a black version of Eisner, who is referred to as "Bleisner" (don't ask).

Yes, he's just poking fun at himself, but the fact Eisner injected himself at all into "Topps" is still telling. For the record, Eisner told the Associated Press in a recent interview that he sought to play down his prominence in the series. Regardless, "Topps" comes off like an indulgence on his part, a comedic reworking of the very dynamic that's probably playing out in the real Topps boardroom.

Why Eisner thought that might constitute public entertainment is anyone's guess. On paper, "Topps" seems like the kind of thing you shoot on a shoestring for a corporate retreat.

But that's the weird thing about Internet programming: It is so niche by nature that what might seem too -- pardon the pun -- inside baseball actually can have enough viewers to survive. "Topps" is what original programming on the Internet should be: Funny enough to be on TV but too niche to survive on even basic cable.

What's even stranger is that as self-glorifying an impulse as "Topps" may be driven by, it is far and away better than other series Vuguru has done.

If anything, "Topps" underscores what an odd moment Eisner is at in his career. Here's a pretty Internet-savvy guy who happens to be investing in a company that couldn't seem any more old-media: Topps, a 70-year-old purveyor of cardboard pictures of baseball players.

There's always been something kind of daffy about Eisner's Topps acquisition, down to his assertion that the company's mascot, Bazooka Joe, had the potential to be a media property akin to Mickey Mouse -- he of Eisner's previous employer, the Walt Disney Co.

Perhaps the bubblegum fumes wafting off Topps' core product are starting to get to Eisner. Although Bazooka Joe's Q rating isn't public, my guess is his brand equity ranks somewhere between the Maytag repairman and Chef Boyardee. Attention "Entourage" writers: Vincent Chase cast as Bazooka Joe -- you can dine out for an entire season on that joke.

And if you ask Eisner nicely, something tells me he'll be up for a cameo.