Will the real Zippy please stand up?

Yesterday’s Zippy takes us to Littleton (NH, not the more famous CO — or, for that matter, IL, IA, KY, ME, MA, NC, or WV), where our Pinhead falls into an identity crisis:


Everybody, including the counterman, is Zippy, or at least a Zippy. And the strip begins with a stretch that is both two panels, each with a Zippy in it, and one full-diner-view panel, with two Zippys in it. We’re in the nightmare world of clones — who am I?

Then there’s the observation in the last panel: No one brings small problems into a diner. Certainly, an interpretation of what happened in the strip before this, though as that it’s crucially ambiguous. But maybe also a moral that we should take away from those events, a piece of advice about what we should or should not do.

The diner. I’ll start with the setting. Of course, a real diner. On its website:


Built in Merrimack, MA in 1928 and transported to Littleton, NH – where it opened in 1930. In 1940 a new Sterling Diner was constructed on the original site, where the Littleton Diner has been an integral part of the community since.

Littleton Diner History: On January 16, 1930 the Littleton Courier newspaper reported that workmen for the Stone Brothers of Bethlehem Junction had begun to put in the foundation for a modern parlor car diner in Littleton next to the Masonic Temple. Today, many can still remember the excitement as the diner arrived by rail and was transported to the site. Eugene Stone and his wife Stella opened the Diner in mid-1930. The history of the Littleton Diner had begun. The new restaurant had a seating capacity of 25 and an open kitchen in the dining room just behind the counter. It was an instant success.

In 1940, the Stones purchased a new Sterling Diner and erected it on the original location after selling their first “parlor car”.

And on Littleton itself, from Wikipedia:

(#3) Littleton within NH; QC to the north, NY to the west, MA to the south, ME to the east

Littleton is a town in Grafton County, New Hampshire… The population was 5,928 at the 2010 census. Situated at the northern edge of the White Mountains, Littleton is bounded on the northwest by the Connecticut River.

… History: Called “Chiswick” (Saxon for “Cheese Farm”) in 1764, the area was settled in 1769. The town was part of Lisbon until 1770, when it was granted as “Apthorp” in honor of George Apthorp, head of one of the wealthiest mercantile establishments in Boston, Massachusetts. The land was later passed to the Apthorp family’s associates from Newburyport, Massachusetts, headed by Colonel Moses Little. Colonel Little held the post of Surveyor of the King’s Woods, and the town was named in his honor when it was incorporated in 1784, the same year New Hampshire became a state.

No one brings small problems into a diner. The question is what’s in focus in this sentence from Observer Zippy (OZ), small problems or just small:

(a) ‘people might bring all sorts of things into a diner, but not small problems’ (implicates bringing no problems at all)

(b) ‘people might bring all sorts of problems into a diner, but not small ones’

If OZ is making the first observation, he’s noting that people are in fact bringing problems into the diner, by arguing over who’s Zippy and who’s not, and he’s expressing disapproval of the practive.

If OZ is making the second observation, he’s noting that people are bringing problems into the diner and he’s accepting that practice, concluding that since people brought these problems into the diner, they must not be small or trivial, but large and significant.

Now, Bill Griffith might well have intended OZ to be conveying just one of these thoughts, or he might have deliberately introduced uncertainty (that would certainly be in character), but when I got to the end of the strip I found my mind flicking back and forth between (a) and (b).

Will the real? The title of this posting is a play on the title of a classic tv quiz show, which has lived on in syndication and new incarnations since 1956. From Wikipedia:

To Tell the Truth is an American television panel game show in which four celebrity panelists are presented with three contestants (the “team of challengers”, each an individual or pair) and must identify which is the “central character” whose unusual occupation or experience has been read out by the show’s moderator/host. When the panelists question the contestants, the two “impostors” may lie whereas the “central character” must tell the truth. The setup adds the “impostor” element to the format of What’s My Line? and I’ve Got a Secret.

The show was created by Bob Stewart and originally produced by Mark Goodson–Bill Todman Productions. It aired, on networks and in syndication, continuously from 1956 to 1978 and intermittently since then, reaching a total of 28 seasons in 2018.

… Three challengers are introduced, all claiming to be the central character. The announcer typically asks the challengers, who stand side by side, “What is your name, please?” Each challenger then states, “My name is [central character’s name].” … The panelists are each given a period of time to question the challengers. … After questioning is complete, each member of the panel votes on which of the challengers they believe to be the central character … Once the votes are in, the host asks, “Will the real [person’s name] please stand up?” The central character then stands, often after some brief playful feinting and false starts among all three challengers.

Two shows available on YouTube:

(#4) from 4/28/58 with Ted Geisel (Dr. Seuss)

(#5) from 2/18/63 with Polish spy Pawel Monat, who defected to the US in 1958, with a surprise ending

On the show, as in the Zippy in #1, there are competitors claiming to be X, where X is a contextually unique individual picked out by a proper name: Zippy, Ted Geisel, Pawel Monat. Somewhat more generally, in Will the real X please stand up?, X can be picked out by a definite description, as in the title of this episode from The Twilight Zone, from Wikipedia:

“Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?” is episode 64 of the American television anthology series The Twilight Zone. It originally aired on May 26, 1961 on CBS.

… Plot: Two state troopers, investigating a report about a UFO, find evidence something has crashed in a frozen pond: footprints in the snow from the pond lead to a nearby, isolated late-night diner called the Hi-Way. Upon arriving, the troopers find a bus parked outside the Hi-Way Cafe. Inside the Hi-Way, the troopers find a cook …, a bus driver, and his passengers.

The troopers … announce a suspected alien from a nearby crashed UFO may be among them, and asks for everyone to identify themselves. … The bus driver counted *six* passengers. The company gave him six, and he’s supposed to deliver six. The troopers make a quick count, and there are *seven* passengers…

These, and some others you can find, are playful variations on the signature phrase of the tv show, asking who the real X is and instructing them to show themselves. Several things to note:

Note 1. Though disputed identities are a staple of imaginative fictions of all kinds, the situation is rare in real life, especially for disputes over the bearer of a proper name; disputes over the referent of a definite description are somewhat more common (as of this writing, 4/20/19, there are two competitors for the referent of the president of Venezuela). But these situations are so unusual that they would hardly seem to merit having a formula for a procedure to resolve such disputes.

Note 2. In real life, the resolution procedure in To Tell the Truth is utterly unworkable: the typical disputant believes in their claim, so they won’t accede to someone else’s; and even if they’re dissembling, they’re unlikely to recognize an authority who directs resolution of the claims. If some non-Zippy character — say, Griffy — were to enter the scene in #1 and ask Will the real Zippy please stand up?, that would only deepen the chaos of the scene; it could only end badly.

The resolution formula worked in the tv show because the show set up a miniature social world whose inhabitants agreed to abide by a specific set of social conventions, including submitting to (certain) directives from the announcer.

Note 3. At some point, for some people, the formula becomes detached from its tv show origins; for these people it’s just a bit of formulaic language — who knows, or cares, where it came from? — that you can use for playful purposes.

At this point it can develop into a snowclone, but no longer asking about actual identity (as I noted above, for that purpose it’s stupid), instead asking about personas, or presentations of self: which aspect of the person you project yourself as being is the most authentic, which is the true you? I’d deny that there is such a thing, and maintain that we’re all assemblages, congresses of personas, deployed according to context. But most people hold to an ideology of the authentic self, so that it makes sense (to them) to ask which of your presentations is the real one.

Which brings us to snowclonic instances of the formula. As here:

(#6) Which presentation (in different tv contexts) of Mitt Romney is the real one?

And here:

(#7) Which version of the rapper Eminem’s (Marshall Bruce Mathers III) Slim Shady character is the real one? (A sly question: how can you tell them apart?)

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