A Brief History of Gen-X Food Humor

The trailer for the new Ben Stiller movie, Greenberg, features a glimpse of the title character firing off a caustic letter to Starbucks.  It reads, in part:

In your attempt to manufacture culture out of fast-food coffee, you have been surprisingly successful, for the most part.  The part that isn’t covered by “the most part” sucks. 

The movie itself appears to be another in a continuing series of attempts to address America’s fascination with “aging hipster” syndrome.  Stiller is a 40-something former slacker who is “rootless” (i.e. has yet to marry and add a couple of kids to the census rolls), and is thus poised for a life of alienation and misery should he continue to refuse “growing up.”  Curiously, the slightly older George Clooney appears to have come down with the exact same anti-social disease in Up in the Air (meanwhile, TNT’s Men of a Certain Age threatens to generate serial drama out of a group of 50-something men in crisis because they did get married and have children—so truly, you can’t win). 

I suspect this genre is more appealing to women than men, and has its roots in that familiar romantic convention of women “taming” men into suitable marriage material.  Whereas that once meant having them abandon a life on the high seas pillaging Spanish frigates, now it involves demonstrating the advantages in liquidating a collection of action heroes so as to secure a real job and a steady conjugal relationship (i.e. The 40-Year Old Virgin). 

What makes the Greenberg scene interesting, however, is the explicit reference to Starbucks, and in turn, the apparent function of this scene in defining the “arrested” quality of Stiller’s character.  While it’s true I haven’t seen the film yet, I imagine the logic at work here will be as follows:
*Greenberg = Gen-X slacker now hitting mid-life.
*Gen-X slackers were suffused with irony and hated all attempts to market pseudo-authentic experiences (like the diner scene in Ghost World).

*Starbucks’ translation of coffeehouse culture into a mass commodity-experience was particularly loathsome to slackers, who always fancied themselves true coffeehouse bohemians.
*To still be obsessed with the “fakeness” of Starbucks, at age 40, is a sign of pathetic (though comic) regression.

Inevitable conclusion: In addition to marrying and breeding, being an adult involves giving up one’s futile resistance to the embarrassing stupidity of consumer culture, whatever guise it takes. 
This trend toward “commodity/life-stage” jokes has been developing for quite a while now.  In the unexpectedly influential Old School (2003), “Frank the Tank” (Will Ferrell) finds himself challenged by a bunch of frat dudes to hit a beer bong.  At first he tries to beg off, telling the room of befuddled 19-year olds that he and his wife have a “big day” planned tomorrow at Home Depot and maybe, “if they have time,” Bed, Bath, and Beyond.   Ferrell revisited this gag in last year’s Step Brothers.  Once man-child Ferrell realizes, yet again, that he is little more than an arrested adolescent, he embarks on a strategic campaign to transition into sober adulthood.  One marker of his growing maturity is a newfound ability to appreciate the Outback Steak House. 

Stiller’s participation in this “real men simply accept the horrors of manufactured consumer environments” convention is ironic considering his own involvement in “The Legend of T.J. O’Pootertoot,” a sketch from his short-lived Fox television series in 1993 (the salad days of X irony).  The sketch explores the soul-destroying atmosphere that comes with working in a “themed” restaurant. 

Two co-stars in this sketch, Bob Odenkirk (the overly obedient waiter) and David Cross (the rescuing boyfriend) would go on to write and perform the highly acclaimed HBO series, Mr. Show, where the horrors of themed consumption popped up once again in “Marilyn Mozzaerlla’s Pizza Rella Pie Parlours.”

After Mr. Show, Odenkirk went on to produce and occasionally perform in Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim’s two series for Adult Swim, Tom Goes to the Mayor and Tim and Eric’s Awesome Show, Great Job!  Once again, the indignities of themed dining were often at the center of the humor (in fact, the premiere episode of Mayor centered on Tom’s dream to open a WWII themed restaurant).  Below is a compilation of three separate bits involving “Gravy Robbers,” a restaurant gag running through a first-season episode of TEASGJ.

As is often the case with Heidecker and Wareheim, this bit starts in conversation with a familiar gag (the horribly misguided theme restaurant) and then disintegrates it through formal play and a type of hyper-infantilized performance (courtesy, in this case, of Zach Galifianakis—who invites us to imagine that his character’s creation of the unlikely “gravy robbing” restaurant was a reaction formation stemming from some childhood trauma).   Given Heidecker and Warehiem’s post-X status, it is not surprising that their food humor is less “satirical” than abstractly negating—the fundamentals of the themed restaurant joke are still there, but the emphasis is less on the humiliation of eating and/or working at “Gravy Robbers” than in the duo’s characteristic interest in histrionics and outmoded video formats (like the training tape).

All of the above sketches, it should be noted, are also (if not more so) about the indignity of performing sincerity in the minimum-wage food service workplace, of really having to believe in O’Pootertoot product, of being a good team-player in Marilyn’s “breakin’ all the rules” pizza joint, of perfecting one’s gravy-robbin’ crouch technique.  That such sketches should become so ubiquitous within Gen-X humor is testament, not only to the so-called “ironic” mindset of that generation, but also to the historical demographics of the fast-food workplace.  Like mowing lawns and washing cars, flipping and serving burgers in period costume is increasingly work that Americans (i.e. middle-class white kids) will not do.  More than likely, many of the above performers once had to work in such a restaurant, an unavoidable conscription into the ‘70s/’80s teen labor army captured so deftly by Judge Reinhold’s fast-food humiliations in Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1983).

In this respect, Stiller’s Starbucks gag invokes not just a familiar brand name, but also the vestiges of a previous affective order that truly believed (albeit ironically) that certain “eyesores” of American consumerism might actually be ridiculed out of existence.  Since this ironic disengagement rather predictably did little to actually change a world wherein Wendy’s employees are still forced to say “hot crispy fries” and “ice-cold soda” when interacting with customers, this scene suggests the time has come at last to move on, to simply accede to the crappy marketing campaigns that seek to ensnare you, to quit worrying about it and just get married already. 

If hippies had to deal with Jerry Rubin going to work for Wall Street, Gen-X apparently must deal with hauling the family down to The Cheesecake Factory without smirking. 

Bonus:  For those too young, too lazy, or too privileged to remember fast-food work, below is an actual McDonald’s training film from the 1970s presenting a lesson on “courtesy” in classic “Goofus and Gallant” style.  

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