Comedy. Slot machines. Do they work well together? We sent Christopher Davies to gambling mecca Las Vegas to find out …
We’ve talked before about the often-fractured relationship between comedy and gaming here at Illegitimate Theatre – and covered the fact that the two haven’t historically gone in hand in hand.
It’s just one of those combos doomed never to hit it off. There are plenty of them. Orange juice and toothpaste. Eczema and nylon. Tinder and dignity. Aaaaaand ….
… comedy and gambling?
Take a trip to Las Vegas. Step out onto the casino floor. What’s the first thing you see? Chances are you’ll be dazzled by dozens of franchise-based slot machines: big brash gambling overlords based on media titans like The Walking Dead or Game Of Thrones or Sons of Anarchy.
This makes sense. The drama of gambling is particularly well suited to the drama of … well, drama. Such shows are full of bullets and explosions and dramatic musical stings – and so are their slot machines. “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die,” Cersei Lannister snarls from a six-feet tall screen when you cash out, a hundred pitiful dollars down. The Walking Dead’s severed zombie heads explode out of fishtanks for every bonus you win. Motorcycles rev through monolithic speakers for each seventy-cent spin on Anarchy.
So far, so aesthetically matched.
Surprising, then, that Vegas is also absolutely packed with betting machines based on comedy franchises.
Maybe it shouldn’t be surprising – certainly not given Sin City’s innate ability to make moolah off of anything – but it does raise a big question. Just how well does comedy translate to the world of slot machines?
Armed with an alarmingly dwindling supply of cash, I took advantage of a recent Vegas trip to find out for myself …
The Big Bang Theory
It’s fashionable to slate The Big Bang Theory, just as it was fashionable to slate Friends during its tenure as America’s Favourite Sitcom™. The reasons given for hating it are generally the same too: it’s all so inoffensive, it’s all so interchangeable, the characters could never afford the pricey big-city apartments they live in (which is about as fresh an observation as saying ‘heh, actually, it does snow in certain regions of Africa’ whenever Band Aid kick off their Christmas radio rotation).
I don’t care. I don’t give a good goddamn. I like The Big Bang Theory. True, I haven’t seen it in about five years, but the early episodes I did see were slick and fast-paced and funny: a shining example of why the US TV writer’s room format works so well. People in Britain like to sneer at the fact that Big Bang is the biggest comedy in America. Whenever you hear this, remind them that the biggest comedy in the UK is Mrs Browns’ Boys – and then watch that smug grin vanish from their face sharpish. If the Americans are indeed ‘dumb’ (another ultra-lazy observation), then frankly the collective cultural IQ of the UK is sub-microbial.
Anyway. The slot machine. It’s just like The Big Bang Theory – lightweight, engaging after a few beers, junk food you wouldn’t want to live on but is fine in moderation. Sheldon says a few funny things when you scramble some bonuses. Penny has a few funny comebacks when you win some pennies. Occasionally – after getting the right matching symbols to progress to a spinning jackpot wheel – the whole cast will chime in with some witticisms.
Nothing remarkable. Nothing earth-shattering. Nothing to change the face of comedy.
But not Mrs Browns Boys. And, by God, we need to appreciate that. Show us the way, America. We need you now more than ever.
Anchorman is the Austin Powers of the noughties – a film so bastardised by Halloween costumers and snipped for sound-drops by local radio DJs that it’s easy to forget: it’s a pretty funny movie in its own right.
Really. It is. Look at it this way – imagine if you’d never heard a billion rugby-club pissheads yelling ‘I Love Lamp’ outside Wetherspoons every Friday night. Go on. Imagine. Pretend it’s wiped from your memory. Now go back and watch Steve Carrell say it. It’s funny, right? Objectively. It’s really good comedy.
The trouble is: you can’t wipe your memory. The co-opting of its screenplay by people with neck tattoos has been deeply unfair to Anchorman – and it’s deeply unfair to this slot machine too. Maybe, in a parallel universe, hearing “I’m in a glass cage of emotion” and “it’s so hot, milk was a bad choice” every time you rack up three of the same reels would be a comedic joy. Sadly, it’s all been tainted. Thanks a bunch, General Public. Another pleasure ruined.
(Note: the above applies to every Anchorman quote except for that one line about how someone’s cologne “smells like Bigfoot’s dick”, which still remains one of cinema’s all-time greatest zingers).
As above, just not as good as Anchorman.
Now this is a weird one. As far as I know, Ellen is the only talk-show host to have been granted her own tie-in slot machine. One would expect that Oprah would have seized this privilege first (surely her ‘you get a prize!’ annual dish-out of goodies to a baying mob would make for the perfect jackpot screen?). And the very notion of a Dr Phil slot machine makes me giddy with delight as to what the results would be (multiplier bonus for tearful self-actualisation?).
Then again: Ellen is a comedian, unlike Oprah and Phil. I say ‘she’s a comedian’ in the same way I say ‘Anna Netrebko is an opera singer’: I know nothing of their work, am a thousand miles detached from their target audience, and therefore don’t really feel fit to comment on their skills. She was quite endearing as a talking fish in Finding Nemo, if that helps. (Ellen, not Anna).
As for her slot machine? Same rules apply. Ellen’s digitised voice beckons you over to the console by hissing “hey … over here … you”, which is kind of unsettling. Apart from that Black Mirror tribute act, it’s (I gather) Ellen business as usual: quips that aren’t really quips but said in a slightly quip-like tone, accompanying every minor reel-match or big jackpot win.
I dunno. I don’t get it. Ellen’s show(s) might well be pitch-perfect comfort TV for some people – and if that’s the case, more power to her. But asking me to engage with her style is like asking Peter Hitchens to review To Pimp A Butterfly.
“Don’t forget your jacket,” Ellen implores, after I’ve sunk sixty wasted dollars into her machine. As it turns out, I don’t forget my jacket. Maybe she’s more resonant than I give her credit for.
Rating: aw man, literally, I have no idea/10
National Lampoon’s Vacation
The most interesting thing in A Futile and Stupid Gesture, Netflix’s recent biopic of National Lampoon magazine co-creator Doug Kenney, is that it hinted towards a critical takedown of the National Lampoon films. Kenney (played by Will Forte) often appeared wholly unimpressed with the movies his media brand was eking out, and almost appeared suicidal when Airplane! came along and nailed irreverent Baby Boomer comedy like nothing before and after. The National Lampoon movies weren’t terrible, per se. They were just … kind of … nothing.
Don’t get me wrong: I’d love to see a slot machine based on the archives of National Lampoon as a magazine, possibly tied with The Onion as the greatest humour publication of all time. I’d love to see multiplier bonuses and jackpot mini-games based on the Hitler beach photoshoot and cover-story threats to shoot a dog – any of the joys you can see collected in Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead (book version) and reflected upon in Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead (documentary movie version).
I also realise, however, that I am the only person in the world who would like to see this. Which leaves us with the more marketable – though perhaps only slightly, I would wager – National Lampoon gambling option: a machine based on the 1983 movie National Lampoon’s Vacation.
I mean, sometimes there just isn’t enough shrugging in the world.
Capsule review: Chevy Chase says some funny stuff here and there while the reels are spinning. The rest just drifts by. A bit like the movie.
Maybe it’s a Boomer thing.
Orange Is The New Black
Speaking of Netflix productions, there’s a couple of other slot machines dotted around based on their shows. One of them is House Of Cards, which – as well as functioning as a time capsule to a strange and different world where Kevin Spacey had a career – is perfectly pitched to its source material: silly, bombastic, full of pompous dialogue strangely convinced of its own profundity.
The other is Orange Is The New Black, the slow-burning comedy-drama about inner and outer character conflict in a women’s prison. And if you’re thinking what I’m thinking – how exactly can a slow-burning comedy-drama about inner and outer character conflict in a women’s prison be turned into a viable gambling experience – then I’m afraid I have no real answers for you.
Orange has its wonderfully funny moments as a TV show. Unfortunately they’re all reliant on subtler, wider context – not the sort of wild one-liners that other media properties have the luxury of dropping every time a bonus reel gets knocked up. And – given that Orange often deals with downright tragic subject matter – playing a lightweight gambling machine based on the franchise just feels downright … odd. Sort of like slamming down dollars in the hope of winning big on a Singing Detective bonus round.
You get to hear that Karen O theme tune a lot though. Catchy.
Of course there was going to be a Simpsons game. There’s a Simpsons everything: including, remarkably, entire unauthorised biographies of the show dedicated purely to examining why it is isn’t as funny as it used to be. ‘Zombie Simpsons’, they call it – a shell of its former self, a walking cadaver, pretty much like half of the people you’ll see when you go for a 4am jetlagged stroll on the Linq Promenade.
What do you get in a Simpsons gambling machine? Everything you’d expect, really. Homer is Homer, sitting by the side of the reels at his power plant command station. Bart and Marge and Lisa and Ned Flanders and Mr Burns and Lenny and Carl and Comic Book Guy and Insert-Character-Here all pop up to crack wise whenever the player gets a bonus. Win big and Homer will congratulate you. Lose badly and Homer will commiserate you.
So. Is it a funny experience? Well … it’s … it’s … I mean, come on. It’s The Simpsons. These characters are cultural shorthand for ‘comedy’. Asking if Homer is ‘funny’ is like asking if Morrissey is ‘indie’.
The fact that this game isn’t really funny as of itself is a misnomer. The Simpsons has humour in its very DNA. It is, in fact, one of only two shows – along with Red Dwarf – that achieved such peak, never-bettered performance in their nineties heyday that I’m willing to forgive the sad, sad epitaph of their recent years.
Plus I won the most money on this one. So there’s that.