There's a comic artist you've probably never heard of, despite his being one of the most talented single-panel creators of all time. A man without whom we'd never have had The Far Side, and all that followed in its wake. B. Kliban's cartoons appeared in Playboy in the States from 1962 until his early death in 1993, and the books collecting his work are worth whatever the second-hand book shop is charging. (He's far more than just some cat drawings, for those who've encountered that side of him.) And amongst them is a recurring theme which Kliban called "Sheer Poetry".
These consisted of six-part strips which told a poem with appropriate sketched diagrams. I would like to bet some money that the creators of You Don't Know Jack were fans.
A Kliban poem goes:
- bird bath, pie
- Cat hips
- fish lips
- poke you in the eye
A round introduction song for 1995's original You Don't Know Jack Vol. 1 goes:
- beauty queen
- ruptured spleen,
- Hoooooo! It's question fifteen.
I'm just saying.
A nonsense song being sung to introduce a question captures You Don't Know Jack perfectly. This is the game in which question 4 ("You're my question 4, forever more, I love you, my question 4,") is "the question that cares", for no discernable reason.
It's a quiz game. And wow, do those usually suck as videogames. The late nineties and early 2000s were a time of great darkness, as those who cared about gaming looked at the best-seller charts and saw inane, lazy crap like the Who Wants To Be A Millionaire and Weakest Link games sitting in the top spot, presumably bought by the masses resulting from a mad scientist splicing slug brains into humans.
And everyone else would look at those games and their customers in bewilderment, screeching, "BUT DON'T YOU REALISE THAT THE GAME CAN'T ACTUALLY GIVE YOU A MILLION POUNDS?" And then just sob.
But You Don't Know Jack was something else. First and foremost, it began as a videogame, despite a few attempts at making television shows out of it. It was intended to be played this way. Yes, it pretends to award prize money, but here it acts as points for a high score. And it was really damned funny.
In fact, it still is. The latest 2011 version - very sadly only available in the States - is utterly hilarious, the writing if anything sharper than ever before. Over its eighteen-or-so English versions, it has learned and improved. But it's also remained extremely true to itself, as is revealed by heading all the way back to the original version from 1995.
Now, I must confess I'm extremely late to the YDKJ party. It was the title that put me off, if anything. The title and the stupid cover with the bald man. It just looked wrong. But I was. Because what these games represent is the funniest series in gaming history. (Two and a half good Monkey Island games isn't enough.) So I was intrigued to play the original to see how it had begun.
Doing so isn't so simple if you're running a 64-bit version of Windows. One virtual machine, Windows 2000 installation, and confusing bodging of CD drives later, I was finally in. And it's well worth it. For the Question Fifteen song alone, really. But there's an awful lot more.
The format is a series of questions that combine two elements to make one lateral confusion. For instance:
Let's say for some odd reason the AMA decides that all penises should have another hole. What medical procedure would they devise to accomplish this?
If you were to undergo the same change as Gregor Samsa in the short story "The Metamorphosis," which of these might you most want to avoid?
- glue factory
- roach motel
Each round has a title, which you can choose from a selection of three. Looking through my screenshots, I see that I have a disturbing habit of picking those that are to do with genitals. "Toys That Haven't Gone Through Puberty", "Cooking Shows Hung Like A Horse", Sphincters & You" (in which I learned that the eye contains a sphincter), "Stroke 'Em If You Got 'Em", and one I couldn't be blamed for that turned out to be leading a class of pupils to watch you pee into blue water, asking what colour it would turn, "Primary Colors & Inappropriate Teaching Methods".
Every question is voiced by the show's host, Nate Shapiro (played by Harry Gottlieb), but unlike so many other quiz games the delivery sounds natural. A slick delivery is accompanied by plenty of sarcastic remarks, sneers at taking too long, and very often unique jokes written for each of the three wrong answers.
That's the emblem of the dedication that defines this series. Even bothering to write lines for wrong answers is huge, but they don't stop at just spoken. Sometimes they're accompanied by sketches, sound effects, even songs sung to mock you. All for one wrong answer to one of hundreds and hundreds of questions that a player may never click on.
This extends throughout. Start the game and you'll hear the behind-the-scenes banter with the show's imagined crew, including future host for further games, Cookie Masterson (Tom Gottlieb). In the background you can hear the spoofed adverts that would be playing on television before the episode begins. And each time you load the game this is all different. A really lovely moment comes when the director's voice instructs the windowed menu screen to "okay, go to fullscreen", and it takes over the desktop.
It's not family friendly, either, which is another blessed relief. A question about Onan (that is itself wrong, as it happens - Onan spilt his seed when withdrawing from his ladyfriend's ladygarden too soon, not because he was playing the solitaire version) concludes with Shapiro adding, "But Onan wasn't the first to spill his seed. I've got to think that Adam did a lot of jerking off before Eve came along. It's just there was no one there to catch him."
Yes, it's often puerile. But here's some important information: puerile can be very funny. As is proven if you choose to abuse your ability to type in answers to what it calls "Gibberish Questions" (or indeed "FLICKERPISS NOSECUM"). Here you're supposed to work out what a nonsense phrase rhymes with, and type it in. If you're old enough to remember the parser-based Sierra adventures of the 80s, you'll know what you have to do next. So of course I typed in "f*** you".
The game stopped for a beat. Then Shapiro speaks, mimicking De Niro. "You talkin' to me?" Then he adds, "F*** me? No. F*** you!" and my score drops to -$64,000. I laugh, thinking what an excellent punishment. But he's not done. "Did I say f*** you? I meant, F*** YOU!" and my score drops to $-164,000. My second laugh is again interrupted. "Oh, and another thing," he barks. "I don't think I like your name." And I'm called "Dork" for the rest of the game.
Because the games have never been about graphics, the simplicity of this 16-year-old version makes no odds. The only loss by going back is the lack of variety in rounds. This is before they invented Dis Or Dat, or questions based on angry letters developers Jellyvision may have received.
But it does have songs that go,
- Flush your head down the latrine,
- Ease your way with sour cream,
Which makes it okay.
It's when you get to the credits that the secret behind its success is revealed. In an industry where many major studios don't even have in-house writers, let alone writing staffs, Jellyvision knew that good, fast-paced, prolific comedy comes from having a big team of talented people contributing. By my count, You Don't Know Jack Vol. 1 featured an incredible 23 writers on the staff.
It's odd that attempts to televise it haven't worked. But then the 2001 US attempt, starring Paul "Pee-wee Herman" Reubens as the host, did look like something made for MTV in 1991, which might be where they went wrong. It lasted six episodes.
But the game series is with us forever, and with so many incarnations over the years, and one out this year (if you can get it from abroad) that's every bit as brilliant as it's ever been, this is a triumph of videogames that we all too rarely celebrate. So let's do that. Find a friend and ask them, "Suppose I Can't Believe It's Not Butter! comes out with a 'Five Stages Of Grief' line of products. After I Can't Believe It's Not Butter!, which product would come NEXT in the line?
- I'm Very Angry That It's Not Butter
- I've Lost All Hope Because It's Not Butter
- I've Come To Terms With It Not Being Butter
- I'll Do Anything To Turn It Into Butter