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The Meme-ification of That One Time Mr. Belvedere Sat on His Balls

How a partially confirmed Hollywood legend became a mantra for the digital age

April is Testicular Cancer Awareness Month, and we’re grabbing it right by the balls. Every day for the entire month, we will be publishing a new story aimed at getting men to better consider — and cherish — their family jewels in hopes of helping prevent a diagnosis that, if caught early enough, shouldn’t prove fatal. Read everything here.

Unlike many urban legends, the one about the star of 1980s sitcom Mr. Belvedere sitting on his own balls is more or less true: a producer and writer of the series recalls a production hiatus after the English actor, Christopher Hewitt, lost his balance while standing in a car for the Hollywood Christmas Parade and fell in a way that crushed his nuts. It’s a stranger-than-fiction tale from the world of showbiz, though hardly the strangest — so why, decades later, did Soundcloud rapper Tennessee Skilliams release a track titled “MR BELVEDERE SAT ON HIS BALLS”?

The answer, I believe, is a kind of institutional memory, or a collective urge to never forget this, even though none of us directly experienced the incident. In fact, it seems to be our distance from Hewitt’s accident — temporally and culturally — that gives the anecdote such power. Even I, a geriatric millennial, cannot summon an impression of Mr. Belvedere. Truthfully, for many years, whenever I saw the character mentioned, I mixed him up with Mr. Belding, the principal from Saved by the Bell. The ABC comedy, which saw a butler attempting to bring order to an unruly Pittsburgh family, was never a ratings powerhouse or touchstone, and the very idea of being hooked on Mr. Belvedere was incongruous enough to inspire a Saturday Night Live sketch just months after it was canceled in 1990. It takes place at a meeting of “The Guy Who Plays Mr. Belvedere Fan Club” — note here the absence of Hewitt’s name, subsumed by the role — and presents their shared obsession with the TV figure as proof of morbid psychosis. 

Adam Sandler, who has a few lines in that scene, supposedly told a half-true version of the Mr. Belvedere balls story recounted by SNL castmate Jay Mohr in his 2004 memoir Gasping for Airtime: Two Years in the Trenches of Saturday Night Live. This account inaccurately described Hewitt squishing his sack when he sat down for a table read, then being carted off in a stretcher. 

But the popularization of the myth is more commonly attributed to the comedian Doug Benson, who had often relayed it from another actor on the show and in 2011 explained on Mohr’s podcast Mohr Stories that Sandler must have been retelling this iteration, in which Hewitt injured himself on-set (untrue) and had to go to the hospital (unconfirmed). Benson also alluded to a second scrotal mishap, which seems to have led to a contemporaneous claim on the sports website Deadspin that production of Mr. Belvedere was halted on “multiple occasions” due to Hewitt’s bruised gonads. While the Urban Dictionary entries defining “Belvedere” as a verb meaning “to sit on one’s testicles” came in the mid-aughts following Mohr’s book, it was these podcasts and blogs of the early 2010s that rekindled the legend, turning it into a proper meme.       

As Mr. Belvedere’s balls became canonic lore on Twitter and Tumblr, the specifics mattered less. Whereas guys like Mohr, Sandler and Benson situated the episode in the context of a familiar sitcom and a posh, portly actor, to the next generation Mr. Belvedere simply became “that old show where the guy sat on his balls.” Eventually, only two pertinent facts remained: some nads were flattened, and the show had to shut down for a while as a result. 

Probably no one has done more to keep the bit alive in recent years than comedian and podcaster Patrick Monahan, who uses it as a sort of incantatory non-sequitur. No matter the moment, you can always remind people that “one time the guy who played Mr. Belvedere sat on his own balls and they had to stop filming for a couple of days,” and that’s what he’s done, with tireless devotion:

In this terminal phase, Mr. Belvedere’s misfortune is a reassuring perversion of nostalgia, the abstract, borrowed recollection. The humor of Monahan’s deadpan reminders has as much to do with the story being third-hand knowledge as it does with the slapstick physicality described — you are always getting it from someone who got it from somewhere else, and somehow it’s much funnier for being the end result of a 35-year game of telephone. It’s as if the oral tradition of keeping the truth alive, long after Hewitt has passed away and any reference to Mr. Belvedere feels deliberately dated, is the actual joke. 

Which places it among the best category of memes: Those that endure for their own sake and no other reason — that we cannot let go, even as we lose any framework for relating it to our lives. Who was Mr. Belvedere? A guy who managed to sit on his balls. How does that happen? All that matters is: it did. That alone will satisfy.