Friday, December 10, 2010

Rhyme and Reason

The following post contains some strong language. Just so you know.

With the Christmas season upon us, it's no surprise that Christmas specials are coming our way as well. More often than not, some of the specials pay homage to or outright poke fun at some that come before them that are considered all-time classics for good reason: A Charlie Brown Christmas, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, A Christmas Story, A Christmas Carol, It's A Wonderful Life, A Visit From St. Nicholas (aka "The Night Before Christmas"), How the Grinch Stole Christmas! Those last two in particular have something special to them, however- something that I was surprised to find it's extremely difficult for people to replicate well.

For those not familiar with How The Grinch Stole Christmas!...really? There are people out there who aren't familiar with it? If you're from outside the United States, you get a pass, but if not, REALLY? Anyway, the simple-yet-charming story, written by Ted Geisel- better known as "Dr. Seuss"- in 1957 and probably best known for its animated adaptation directed by the great Chuck Jones in 1966, is a simple tale about a fellow who, as the title implies, is so fed up with the Christmas season that he tries to steal the holiday by stealing everyone's presents, but discovers in the process that there's more to Christmas than physical goods. Because of the popularity and familiarity of the story, it has been often parodied or inferred to in other Christmas-themed tales in varying degrees. The aspects most often parodied or picked up on elsewhere are, not surprisingly, those most familiar- the Grinch's physical appearance, green color*, and mannerisms as depicted by the legendary Jones and his team; the memorable songs "Welcome Christmas" with its faux-Latin chorus and cheery tone and especially "You're A Mean One, Mr. Grinch"; and the signature rhyming style of Dr. Seuss himself. It is this last one in particular I want to highlight- particularly how hard it seems for some parodists to master it.

For those unfamiliar with him (which may be larger and more understandable than those who may not with the Grinch), an introduction is also necessary to filmmaker James Rolfe and his alter-ego, the Angry Video Game Nerd. Mr. Rolfe, a filmmaker from the Philadelphia area, has literally ever since childhood been a fan of both making and watching movies. In 2004, Mr. Rolfe made a few light-hearted reviews of bad NES games for the amusement of himself and others. The first of these featured only a voice-over, while the second featured Rolfe himself, wearing a white shirt and drinking beer, speaking directly to the camera. Starting in 2006, this eventually evolved into a character by the name of "The Angry Nintendo Nerd"- later renamed "The Angry Video Game Nerd" for legal reasons. Rolfe himself has branched out and done other videos, such as film reviews and top ten lists, as himself, but also continues to portray the Nerd, as it is that character's success that helps him pay the bills- he's gotten so successful thanks to this that it is quite literally his day job.

When it comes to most actors who are best known for playing a character, such as Stephen Colbert, it is hard to tell where the character ends and the actor begins (or vice versa). This is not the case with James Rolfe and the Nerd. (Although, of course, most of the morons on the Internet who are responsible for his success don't even realize he's a character, one even going so far as to accuse Rolfe of being an Angry Nerd ripoff.) With Rolfe and the Nerd, that isn't the case. Rolfe's videos as himself are usually laid-back and very informative. With the Nerd, that's usually the case as well. But the Nerd- who, unlike Rolfe, actually appears on-screen- is much more enraged than Rolfe is, hence why he's called the Angry Video Game Nerd, venting his frustration with the poorly-programmed video games he plays by combining his constructive criticism with unique combinations of profanity (such as his now-signature "shitload of fuck"), sometimes getting so enraged that he ends his review by destroying or even shitting on- literally- the source of his frustration. The Nerd's reviews can be hit-or-miss- personally, I like the more in-depth ones where the two personas (Rolfe and the Nerd) are somewhat combined and we get a good balance of history/criticism and foul-mouthed venting- and perhaps in the future I'll highlight some of my personal favorites. But I'm here today to talk about the Nerd as he relates to the Grinch.

This week, Rolfe released this year's Angry Nerd Christmas special. Rather than going in-depth on Bible-themed games as he has in past years, he went to the tried-and-true method of poking fun at the Grinch- and didn't do a bad job of it, either. Mike Matei's artwork really shines here, both giving a perfect Seuss look as well as some great caricatures of Rolfe. The take on "Mr. Grinch" is just great (though not perfect- more on that later), not only in the lyrics but in the music as well- I love the addition of 8- and 16-bit sounds and I really hope he makes this available to download as an MP3. Although it's a fun parody of the story with a definite Angry Nerd twist, there's one department in which it falls flat- perhaps one of the most important when it comes to a parody of its sort.

For some reason, it seems incredibly hard when it comes to people who are parodying Dr. Seuss- and, for that matter, "The Night Before Christmas," which has the same rhyme scheme and rhythm- to get the rhythm exactly right. For most people, it seems that they think all it takes to sound like Dr. Seuss is "rhyme words together and add a few words that don't exist." Well, that's only part of it. Much as Shakespeare had his iambic pentameter, Seuss had his own rhythm- Wikipedia says it's anapestic tetramater, but that's not important to me. To paraphrase that famous quote about pornography, I know what it is when I hear it. Let us take, for example, the opening lines of How The Grinch Stole Christmas!**

Every Who down in Who-ville liked Christmas a lot…
But the Grinch, Who lived just north of Who-ville, did NOT!
The Grinch hated Christmas! The whole Christmas season!
Now, please don’t ask why. No one quite knows the reason.
It could be his head wasn’t screwed on just right.
It could be, perhaps, that his shoes were too tight.
But I think that the most likely reason of all,
May have been that his heart was two sizes too small.

Not only does each line rhyme with each other, but each line also has the same amount of beats in it. There's a rhythm. Let's compare this with the opening of the Angry Nerd's version:

Every gamer down in Gameville liked Christmas a lot
But the Nerd, who lived just north of Gameville, did not.
He stood there on Christmas Eve, staring down on his cave with a sour nerdy frown
At the warm lighted windows below in their town.
"Ugh, Christmas, that time of year when everyone gets an awesome new video game
But the ones I always get are so unspeakably lame!
Wall Street Kid is a game about cash and stocks.
Might as well fill my Christmas socks with trash and severed cat cocks!
Toki: Going Ape Spit, I admit,
You can't move while spitting and die in one hit.
Killing Time on 3D0
Doesn't give you enough ammo!
Your parents paying 50 bucks
For a game where you shoot the fuck out of ducks
Really sucks."

From the first two lines, Rolfe has trouble in keeping with the traditional Seuss rhythm- by taking the exact opening from the original story and replacing the one-syllable word "Who" with the two-syllable word "gamer," he immediately breaks the rhyme scheme. By removing the word "down," the Seuss style could have easily been kept. The second two lines aren't that much better, but it's where the Nerd himself starts speaking where it really gets...well, as the Nerd might say, fucked up the ass with a diarrhea dog dick.*** Although the Nerd himself has a unique manner of speaking (not just in his use of profanity), it shouldn't be that hard to keep the traditional pattern just because the speaker is being changed. The Nerd's opening lines have far too many syllables and, in many cases, far too many rhyming words****- although the line "You can't move while spitting and die in one hit" fits perfectly, the line before it has an extra rhyme and is too short. I've rewritten most of the opening to fit the Seuss standard to show what I mean (I couldn't get a good rewrite in my mind for the Killing Time bit):

Every gamer in Gameville liked Christmas a lot
But the Nerd, who lived just north of Gameville, did not.
He stared from his cave with a sour nerdy frown
At the warm lighted windows below in their town.
"On Christmas, they each get an awesome new game
But the ones that I got were unspeakably lame!
Wall Street Kid is a game where you trade cash and stocks.
I'd rather my stocking was filled with cat cocks!
Or the Genesis game Toki: Going Ape Spit,
Where you can't move while spitting and die in one hit!"

There are a few lines here and there that actually fit the pattern- for example, "one minute I'm here, one minute I'm there, I just reappear anyplace, anywhere," which gets bonus points for sounding like something Dr. Seuss actually might have written (see, for example, Green Eggs and Ham and One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish). The other highlight is the Nerd's take on the Grinch song. "You're A Mean One, Mr. Grinch" is kind of a hard song to not get right when writing parody lyrics for in the first place, for some reason, and for the most part, this take on it follows the same pattern, with one exception:

You're a vile one, Mister Nerd
You've got demons in your soul
You're wacky and you're wicked
Your crap is full of coal
Mister Nerd...
You're as charming and fun as a grizzly bear with a gun!

Rather than having the second, fourth, and sixth lines rhyme with each other- as in the other verses as well as in the original song- Rolfe has the second and fourth lines rhyme with each other, then creates an additional different internal rhyme in the sixth, which just doesn't sound as good.

I realize it's a silly thing to be complaining about, but...
The video itself as a whole is a gem
And a year-end highlight for the AVGN
But it brought to my mind the question most perplexing
As to why the Seuss rhyme scheme to most is so vexing.
It always has been second nature to me
Which if you read these lines, you can most likely see.
Like bad games for the Nerd, I guess it makes me sting-
Though I won't cuss or shit or drink crates of Yeungling.
I'll just point out my qualms, and sign off saying I'm
Hoping your Christmas is filled with games, fun, and rhyme.

*It should be noted that the Grinch's coloring was an invention of the animated version- given the high cost of color printing at the time, the book was printed in only a few shades of red and pink. Thus, the Grinch himself was white with pink eyes. The animated depiction of the character as green with yellow eyes- which become regular white eyes with blue pupils once he discovers the Christmas spirit- has become so familiar, however, that it is how the character is usually depicted, including on licensed merchandise. The irony of the overmerchandising of a character whose main message is "Maybe Christmas doesn't come from a store" is another matter entirely, one which could also be compared to the anti-commercial message of A Charlie Brown Christmas, which itself is also heavily merchandised (and was commissioned at the request of the Coca-Cola Company).

**How The Grinch Stole Christmas! was written by Dr. Seuss (of course) and is ©1957 by Dr. Seuss Enterprises, L.P. Published by Random House. Along with other great books in the Seuss canon, it really is a book everyone should own- I especially recommend the 50th anniversary edition, with a nice afterward by Seuss historian Charles D. Cohen about the Grinch's predecessors in Seuss lore and the Grinch's place in history (including other parodies along the lines of the sort I write about here).

***Which brings me to one other surprising qualm I had. The Nerd is known for his dabbling in profanity. Of course, there are times when he takes it a little too far over the top, but I'm by no means a prude when it comes to these things either, but since this IS the Angry Video Game Nerd we're talking about, why not add a bit of profanity here and there where it might give it a bit of an "Angry Nerd twist" as it were? For example: rather than the Nerd getting a "wonderful, awful idea" taking the line from the original Seuss verbatim, why not a "fuckin' ingenious idea" or something along those lines?

****Seuss sometimes used rhyming triplets to break up the monotony, but still in the same rhythm as his couplets.


  1. Wow!! This is an incredibly thorough, descriptive and philosophical analysis here! I really like how you back up your points with detailed descriptions and analysis. Very professional and interesting!