Monday, March 30, 2015

Book Review: 101 Hamburger Jokes

Today, we're going to review a book: 101 Hamburger Jokes, by Phil Hirsch.

At first glance, thing are looking up. The gag on the cover is pretty solid: a medium burger! Ha! The tag line ("meaty jokes to be devoured with relish!") is corny enough but at least gives us an idea of what we're in for.

Sadly, it all goes downhill from there.

First, off, it's notable that this was written by one person. This was back before the internet, so there wasn't someone who was scraping internet sites looking for jokes about hamburgers. There was literally one guy who sat down one day at the typewriter and pounded out exactly 101 jokes about hamburgers. What can we say? It was the late 70s. That sort of shit happened.

To be fair, the illustrations were done by Don Orehek, so that meant that ol' Phil could concentrate on burger jokes and didn't have to dither around with ink and paper.

Things start off strong:

What is the hamburgers' most familiar song? "Home on the Range"!

Not bad. Next one is about the same:

When do hamburgers most enjoy watching TV? During prime time!

OK. A little awkward--that's a punchline looking for a joke--and I could do without that condescending underlining, as if only slack-jawed morons would be enjoying a hambuger joke book. Yeah, "prime" is a word used to grade meat, we get it. You don't have to be a slaughterhouse jockey to understand jargon like that. But otherwise it's not a bad joke.

But check out the third joke:

How do you make a hamburger green? Find a yellow cheeseburger and mix it with a blue one!

Now, stop the train, here. What? That joke doesn't even make sense. Why would 1) anyone ever want to make a hamburger green, and 2) is there really such a thing as a blue hamburger? They made a saving throw with the yellow cheese on the burger, but...what sort of setup is that? It's not even a hamburger joke, that's a "what happens when you mix primary colors" joke. Why would you ask how to make something that doesn't exist, and the punchline be something that also doesn't exist? Madness!

It just gets worse. I'm not going to run through all 101 jokes, but let's take a random sample:

Can you use the word "tenderloin" in a sentence? Burgers "tenderloin" faster than pizzas or hot dogs!

Why do burgers laugh when you surround them with pickles? Who knows--maybe they're picklish!

Who is a hamburger's favorite comedian? Milton Broil! (Berle)

THANKS FOR EXPLAINING THAT, PHIL! I thought there was an actual comedian out there named Milton Broil. Also, is there a pun with "tenderloin" that I'm missing? I mean, I get that they're trying to say "Burgers tend to do [something] faster than pizzas or hot dogs." But what is the something? Lie around? Loiter? Lean? I don't know, and all of the answers are equally unfunny.

Most of the jokes (I'm not going to be an asshole and put that in quotes) rely on puns, and that's OK--I'm appreciative of a good session of wordplay. But there's only about a half dozen terms he uses, and just re-uses them in different ways. It can be quite tiring. There's only so many ways you can re-word "Well done," "hot dog," "bun," "meat," and "loin."

There's also a lot of jokes that aren't really jokes at all, even in the lame-pun category. Take a look at this classic:

Why does Farrah Fawcett-Majors love hamburgers? Who knows--but we just wanted to mention her name!

Just remember, folks: there was a time in America in which it was culturally acceptable that simply name-dropping Farrah Fawcett was the minimum threshold required to quality as a joke. This is why ISIS exists.

There's also a section called "Rare Vampire Jokes" (get it?) which include these gems:

Which singer's records do they play at hamburger joints in Transylvania? Fang Sinatra's!

What did the Big Mac say when the Vampire attacked him? "You're a pain in the neck!"

How many burgers do you feed a ferocious, 14-foot-tall vampire? All it wants!

What the hell? These aren't even hamburger jokes! They're lame vampire jokes with an unsubtle hamburger reference thrown in. Did Phil run out of steam around joke 80 and just say "Screw it, the kids won't figure it out?" That's hardly professional. I was promised "101 Hamburger Jokes," not "A Modest Amount Of Hamburger Jokes Plus Some Other Stuff That Ultimately Add Up To 101."

But it's not all bad, of course. Here are some halfway decent jokes that stood the test of time:

Who can you always rely on in Burger Land during an emergency? Hamburger Helpers!

What kind of girl does a hamburger like? Any girl named Patty!

Which burger is famous for his long nose? Cyrano de Burgerac!

That last one was thrown in for all the classy intellectuals browsing the meat-based joke section of the local library. 

But that's not enough to save this book. Everything can be encapsulated by the back cover: there's a drawing of a snooty-looking hamburger, complete with top hat, cane, and monocle, sticking his nose up in the air. The joke?

How does a Burger acquire good taste? With a little seasoning!

That's it? That's the showstopper? That's what you're putting on the back cover of your book to move copies off the shelf? It even just barely makes sense--even back in the 70s, using the phrase "seasoning" for refined upper-class snobbery was already a bit of a stretch. There's some decent jokes in there, but they chose something devoid of sense and humor as the marquee knee-slapper.

Still, I can't be too hard on the book. It was a product of its time, I suppose. I'd like to say I'm not its target audience, but that's an excuse. And yet I still recommend it for one fact and one fact only, and that is due to this joke along with the accompanying illustration:

What do hamburger say on Monday morning? "Well, it's back to the old grind!"

It makes structural sense, it's a decent pun, and it actually has something to do with hamburgers. More importantly, it shows a cheerfully-sketched hamburger willingly trotting off to what will be the certain death of fellow hamburgers, gleefully grinding them to a pulp for a paycheck.  It's a sad commentary of the malaise of the Carter administration, as well as a proper dose of reality subtext in a tome peppered with frankfurter jokes.

Puns, perspective, and pathos? Now, that's a joke we can all laugh at.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

A Million Little Inconveniences

I had a very rough morning.

Not in like a Michael Douglas Falling Down type of morning, but one that’s just irritating enough as to make the rest of your day obnoxiously bad. You hate to complain about it, because you can look around and see other people in worse situations, but…c’mon.

So my task for the morning was to buy a bottle of Diet Pepsi for breakfast. Yes, I often drink pop for breakfast because nutritionally balanced breakfasts are for suckers.

Well, my place of employment has a few options: a few vending machines scattered about on the first floor, a cafeteria, and then a sort of coffee shop.

Well, since I have no sense of perspective or priority in my life, my preference is to buy from the vending machine. Why? Because the bottle is $1.50 in the vending machine and $1.59 at the cafeteria due to sales tax, and that nine cents is that important.

So I went through my pockets and found two quarters and pulled a greasy bill out of my wallet. I went to the vending machine and slid the dollar into the slot and plunked in my quarters. I press the button and—nothing. Sometimes in the morning the machines are out of stock, and sure enough, the machine blinked back at me with an ominous “OUT…OF…PRODUCT” message in scary blue letters. Of course, in return, I get nothing but quarters, so I get to walk around jingling like a Christmas elf for the rest of the morning.

So I go to the nearby cafeteria instead and grab a bottle. Then I look at the line, which is at least ten people deep, all with hilariously complicated breakfast meals in Styrofoam containers whose cost have to apparently be added up on a broken abacus. While waiting in line, for what was clearly a few hours, I glance over and see that the vending machine guy is talking with the clerk at the coffee shop; clearly, he’s done stocking at least the other machines in the building and working his way down. Huzzah! I’ll go there!

So I hoofed it down to one of the other vending machines. It’s not a long walk, by any means, but it’s about a minute or two. I get there, and I press the button first—it should tell you if it’s in stock or not before you put your money in, and it’s done this correctly 100% of the time that I’ve ever done it in my life. It says it’s in stock. Yay! I put my quarters in, press the button, and…OUT OF PRODUCT! What the hell, technology? I specifically asked you a very specific question and you lied! Are you one of those assholes in those logic puzzles where one vending machine always lies and one vending machine tells the truth, and you can only get your pop by giving money to the right one? And what was the vending machine guy doing? He’s supposed to be the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus rolled into one, and instead he’s just a soda tease!

So I hoof it back down to the coffee shop, where at least the line is only a few people deep, and I finally get my drink. No problems, either, except for that pesky nine cents.

And that’s how I spent my stupid morning taking fifteen minutes to get a stupid bottle of Diet Pepsi.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Why the Internet Has Ruined Everything For Everyone Ever

The internet is a wonderful place. People are better connected, business can provide personal service in an efficient manner, and the increase of total knowledge is at the fingertips of nearly everyone. What's not to love about the internet?

And yet there's something unfortunate about how we've taken the greatest invention of modern times and ruined everything.

Okay, "ruined everything" is probably a bit of an overstatement, but not by much. While you can easily find the awesome on the internet, it's also easy to stumble upon its seedy underbelly. I mean, have you ever read a newspaper article and accidentally scrolled down to see the comment section? It's like a cesspool of ignorance and bad judgement, except that would probably be unfair to cesspools.

Let's take a look at some of the things that the internet ruins on a regular basis. First, let's look at perfectly acceptable pop culture icons. I've already written about my annoyance that the internet has taken one of our icons of innocence and joyfulness, Kermit The Frog, and turned him into a passive-aggressive asshole. But tomorrow it will be something else, some other beloved character that should be nothing but kind and decent and will be turned into the modern-day equivalent of Calvin pissing all over a Ford logo. Even today, Facebook feeds are full of blurry pictures of Minions--you know, the incredibly cute creatures from the Despicable Me movies--and turned them into horrible, petty jerks who spout off bumper-sticker insults.

I've long maintained that the internet--rather than bringing us all together--actually does the opposite. The literal worldwide connection that everybody has with everyone else is overwhelming, and thus, instead of expanding our horizons, we retreat to our comfort zones and surround ourselves with those who already think and feel and believe exactly like we do, which is incredibly easy.

In previous generations, you were more or less forced to engage your ideas with other people. Your ability to bounce ideas off of individuals was limited to who you knew, and chances are you knew a relatively wide range of personalities; moreso if you went to college or the armed forces. If you had a stupid opinion, you were probably going to have it challenged by someone at some point, and while you may not change your mind you were at least exposed to different viewpoints. No, not everyone was like that--it's very easy, especially in small towns and in certain regions, to be surrounded by like-minded people, but it was far more common to normalized your opinions.

Today if you have a stupid opinion, you can easily go online and find hundreds, if not thousands, of people who will back you up, and you can easily isolate yourself so you only ever engage with people who agree with what you already have. Thus you will never critically question your own beliefs. If hundreds of people in the internet agree with you, how could you possibly be wrong?

And the internet, in its quest to be efficient (and rightfully so), also has the effect of exacerbating this isolation. When you search for things on Google or shop for things on Amazon or bid on things on eBay, your computer tracks you, finds out what you like, and tries to refine your searches and behavior to match what you want. At first glance, this is awesome--the internet is going all the hard work. And yet that also means you'll never be exposed to new things or stumble upon something different yet awesome, which has the exact opposite effect of what the internet should be doing. (This is especially true when dealing with political issues--you often get caught in a circular feedback loop, since your search results will respond with things you already believe, giving you the perception that everything everywhere agrees with you.)

I'm a decidedly enthusiastic consumer of the internet age and social media; the far does, in fact, outweigh the bad. But let's all not pretend that the bad doesn't exist, and in fact the trends may be adversely affecting the younger generations who have not been exposed to any other system. There's a certain value in stepping away from the isolated world.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Blurred Copyright Violations

So apparently, Blurred Lines, the creepy summer anthem from a few years ago, was found to be suspiciously similar to a Marvin Gaye song from a few decades ago.

I've listened to both (sadly in the former, noncommittally on the latter) and, well, I just don't see it. Well, hear it, anyway.

Now, the normal caveats apply: I wasn't in the courtroom with the people who deal with the actual laws and listen to the actual technical parts of the songs. I'm sure there's a lot of information that I'm not getting. And yet, from an outsider's perspective, it's extraordinarily difficult to listen to both songs and think they have anything more than the most fundamental basics of music theory. At the very least, if this is copyright infringement, so is every single song in the Top 40 for the past half of a century.*

Copyright is a funny thing. In our guts, we understand why mechanisms get patents, but it's a little more difficult to understand the legal protection of intangible things like ideas--which, in the end, is what novels, music, and artwork ultimately is. It's more difficult given the longevity of creative work; a thing will only last a certain amount of time, but an idea is forever, for better or worse. And so the western world has sort of teased out this more-or-less arbitrary set of rules as to how long an owner can control something before it belongs to the ages.

It's not a perfect system, but it's a necessary one, and one I more or less agree with--people should be rewarded for their work, ideas or not. The current laws seem a little out of whack--Disney keeps strongarming the copyright law writers into extending it to the point of absurdity, and eventually we'll have to come to the slow realization that the world will have to accept Steamboat Willie fanfic as legal. I'd rather reform it rather than extend it--say, characters who are still having active material being produce continue to be protected, but the works themselves fall into public domain sooner. So, for example, the movie Star Wars itself might fall into public domain, but as long as they keep making Star Wars movies Darth Vader is still protected. That might get sloppy, but I think it's worth exploring.

Anyway, the point of this is that copyright cases like the Marvin Gaye/Robin Thicke one are difficult to defend, because creativity can be...nuanced in how it is derived from other works. In this case, the contribution from one to the other (and for such a short period of time) makes the case almost laughable. Still, the answer isn't to toss out all the old copyright laws, but to reform them.

And thus ends my incredibly sexy post about copyright law.

*Or, more accurately, anyone who isn't an African-American blues singer from the Depression Era.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Player One Joins The Game

I am, in nearly every sense of the word, a nerd. Sure, there are some gaps in my interests—I really have close to zero interest in comic books, for example, and I find nearly all anime to be lame—but by and large I have subscribed to nearly the entire list of acceptable facets of nerd culture. 

That said, I like to at least pretend that I’m reasonably moderate with my interests. Sure, I’m a fanatic about certain things--like Team Fortress 2, Sid Meier’s Civilization, board games, geocaching, or the old INWO CCG—but I like to pretend that I’m not obsessed with any of them. Relatively speaking, of course.

That said, I just don’t get video game culture.

I’m not talking about someone who simply likes video games. Video games are a big business; they generate more revenue than the movie industry, for starters. Everyone is a video gamer now, as anyone who plays Candy Crush can tell you. (And they have, because they beg me to give them lives on Facebook every single day. Every. Day.)

What I’m talking about are people who loooove video games. They can’t wait for each new release. They complain bitterly when a button on a controller is moved when the new generation is announced. They voluntarily watch videos of other people playing video games. Writers who mess with a character are heaped upon with scorn. If you don’t make a sequel the exact same thing as the original players complain that it was ruined and if you do make the sequel the exact same thing players complain they were ripped off. The perfect video game is whatever came out when they turned 11. So help you if you get into an argument about who makes the best console game system.

And it is a culture. A generation, maybe two of people feel the same about video games and older generations felt about books and movies. It was like that one video game was made just for you, just like every preteen is the very first person to ever understand the lyrics of a Led Zeppelin song and now they are a combination of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and the Oracle of Delphi at the ripe young age of thirteen.

Hey, I get it. Everyone has their thing, and if it ain’t hurting anyone else, why should I care? And there’s a certain level of validity to that. I got things that I obsess disproportionately about, too. (Just ask my poor wife. Hopefully you have some time.) Still, I feel like the video game industry is hostile to people like me; I wouldn’t consider myself a “casual” gamer, yet I couldn’t fathom actually paying cash money for a PC specifically built for gaming. I do like certain titles that come out but if I have to wait three months for the price to drop in half I am perfectly happy with that.

But, you may ask, how is this different than people who love movies, or cars, or sports, or television? People get stupid about those things, too, and spend too much money on them. In many ways, it’s not all that different, really. But there are a few things that seem to set it apart. Time invested tends to be higher for video games, especially given the large number of formats, systems, and titles that get released. (Movies can be watched in two hours; most video games can be replayed for weeks, months, and years.) Second is the demographic: the enthusiasts in this hobby tend to be frustrated, angry teenage boys with little ability to translate context into reality or have any frame of reference to compare anything to.* (I should know because I used to be, and some would stay still am, in this demographic.) There’s also a permeating attitude that the normal rules of media consumption no longer apply to video games; I’m willing to chalk this up to the fact that a lot of video gamers are…shall we say, less experienced in how society works and how businesses operate. Finally, there is a horrid streak of elitism (casuals vs. hardcore) that reinforces every bad stereotype of the video gamer. There is always some sort of elitism in any hobby, naturally, but video games haven’t had quite the cultural longevity to let the snobs get away with it for very long without coming across as tantrum-struck fanboys.

There is still debate about exactly what video games are. Roger Ebert famously declared that they were not art, while most video game enthusiasts obviously feel otherwise. (I am mostly in the middle; I think there’s a spectrum between “simple coding” and “near-movie experience” that is not easy to define, but I think a line delineating art from non-art does exist.) I generally view games as “interactive content,” where the user has the freedom to “create” the minutia of a plot, while the creator/programmer restricts the range of options available to force the story they have written. This narrative would be much different from, say, Tomb Raider or Bioshock than it would be for Angry Birds, but generally speaking that is the experience for most gamers.

All this said, I can’t feel but left out. I read video game articles or browse the magazines and I am constantly astounded at the amount of moral outrage people are able to produce for things that matter so very little. I see petitions being raised to make Character X do something. People don’t like the ending to Mass Effect 3 and the internet is flooded with outrage and scorn, and then feel vindicated when the company does, in fact, change it. I hear people say a video game "changed their life," and upon playing it the writing seems to be at best on par with a C-grade straight-to-video rental.

I suppose, in the end, it’s not so horribly different than anything else. Sports fanatics can be pretty obnoxious; gearheads can be elitist and argue endlessly about shit that doesn’t matter, and movie snobs often make me want to punch them in the face (metaphorically, of course). It’s just that video games haven’t quite built up the cultural cache to get away with a lot of the obnoxiousness. Sports, cars, movie theaters—they’ve all been around for nearly a century, and the mass market versions of these have spanned many generations. Those facets of culture have elders, they have a rich history, and they have built a diverse library of perspectives. Video games, on the other hand, have really only been a mainstream hobby for one, maybe two generations at most (and only in the last five years or so would it be considered anything close to mainstream.)  Video games haven’t gotten to the point where the user base is diffuse enough, and its history isn’t diverse enough to support all of the baggage of being an elitist, mouth-breathing train wreck of a support system. It certainly won’t take long—maybe in the next 20 years or so, when the people who played the first Pokemon game become grandparents—but it’s not quite there yet.

The Pledge: Video game fans are kinda dicks. Sports fans, car enthusiasts, and movie buffs are also dicks, but at least that stuff has been around for a while that they can get away with it. Video games need to grow up.

*I know the actual demographic for video games is much different: the average video game player is in early- to mid-thirties and is no longer simply a male audience. But I'm specifically talking about the enthusiasts who, by force of their fanaticism, are the face of video game culture.