The gumball aliens

Sunday’s (2/20) Bizarro strip, rich in symbols, references, and allusions (“semiotically dense”, as I’ve started to say):

(#1) (If you’re puzzled by the odd symbols in the cartoon — Dan Piraro says there are 9 in this strip — see this Page.) One of Piraro’s secret symbols is a miniature space alien, which you can find in the upper righthand corner of the cartoon

First things first. What the strip is primarily about is an encounter between two space aliens and a gumball machine (a 25¢ machine, which means it’s a modern one), which the aliens recognize, because of its physical resemblance to them, as one of their kind. Eliminating everything except the encounter:

(#2) The encounter as a free-standing gag cartoon

The gag cartoon. In the world of the space aliens, the contents of their (spherical) heads are their brains (cartoon space aliens being roughly analogous in form to human beings, who have brains in their heads); while in our world, the contents of the transparent top compartment of such a machine (this compartment often being spherical, as here, though other shapes are available) are gumballs (NOAD on the (compound) noun gumball [also gum ball]: ‘North American a ball of chewing gum, typically with a hard colored sugar coating’).

The gumball machine is (visibly) almost full, indicating to the space aliens that they have encountered a very brainy individual (their own stocks of brains are small). Meanwhile, the space aliens have a form of acoustic-auditory communication much like human speech — it might actually be modern English — the content of which is represented in the cartoon by an English sentence in a speech balloon; but the gumball machine remains inert, unresponsive, which the space aliens, understandably, find puzzling.

Background for the gag cartoon. From Wikipedia:

A gumball machine is a type of bulk vending machine that dispenses gumballs, usually for a small fee.

(#2) From the site: the Titan Classic Bubble Gum & Candy Machine

Originally one penny, the standard cost of one gumball in the United States is now one quarter [25 cents in US currency].

(#4) An assortment of brightly colored 1ʺ gumballs from; ½ʺ gumballs seem to be known as mini gumballs

Although vending machines for stick or block-shaped gum were seen as early as 1888, the first machines to carry actual gumballs were not seen until 1907 (probably released first by the Thomas Adams Gum Co. in the United States).

Piraro’s Space Alien secret symbol. For comparison to the Gumball Aliens:

(#5) The Flying Saucer of Possibility: a definite family resemblance to the Gumball Aliens, including the two antennae and the single eye in the front of the head (corresponding to the price label on the actual gumball machine), but with significant differences in details

But then all the rest. The full cartoon in #1 is a tapestry of jokey stuff. There’s the dog and fireplug theme. And the poster for a LOST HOG, rather than a LOST DOG.

And a cluster of stuff in which two of Piraro’s secret symbols — the Bunny of Exuberance and the Pie of Opportunity are folded together into another theme of #1: Bunny’s Pie Repair shop.

Give the gift of PIE!
Make Pie Not War!
Quality Pie Repair “Since who knows when”

The bunny doesn’t seem to be especially relevant to the repair-shop theme — it’s just one of Piraro’s things — but the pie, or at least the word pie, might be.

Before that, however, the repair-shop theme. Once upon a time, small repair shops — for repairing shoes, watches, tv sets, (small) appliances (like toasters and coffee makers), typewriters, and so on — were a regular feature of city neighborhoods. You brought the ailing object in, left it with the repair guy (the fixers were nearly all men), and then picked it up when he’d fixed it . Back in those days, there were, within two blocks of my Palo Alto house, small specialist repair shops of all five of the types I just listed, and I used the services of all of them at one time or another. All of those are gone.

Cobblers’ shops (where you can have shoes repaired) remain, just not in my immediate neighborhood. Specialized watch repair shops seem to be gone forever, but people still need cleaning and repair services for watches and clocks; now they get these services from jewelry shops or stores selling watches and clocks.

At least one of the former flourishes in my neighborhood: the very upscale Arnoldi Jewelers (“custom Italian and estate jewelry”) at 255 University Ave. in Palo Alto; in addition to fine jewelry, they provide a number of services, including jewelry repair, stone cutting and setting, jewelry and watch cleaning, and, yes, watch repair.

Meanwhile, the store that (years back, when I wore a watch) I used to use for watch cleaning and repair and watch battery replacement — a store close to the dementia care facility my man Jacques lived in from 1998 until 2003 — survives: Menlo Clock Works at 961 El Camino Real in Menlo Park; in addition to selling clocks and watches, they (still) do cleaning and repairs.

Hurry up, please, it’s time! I focus on watch repair here because I’m inclined to see a time subtheme in #1, suggested by: (a) watch — timepiece — repair shops as a particularly common type of repair shop; (b) “Since who knows when” as, yes, a joke on “Since 1910” and similar claims for commercial enterprises, but also a reference to time; and especially (c) “Give the gift of PIE”, which brought “Give the gift of time” to my mind — and, once I’d gone there, to the close half-rhyming relationship between pie and time.

Up to this point, everything I’ve said about the cartoon in #1 is something I think Piraro consciously intended to be in his text and intended to be seen and recognized (at some level) by careful readers, but now I’m moving into a liminal area of creative work, involving subtler content, even interpretations that the creator might not want to claim. The time subtheme is something I see that loosely knits together several features of the cartoon, but it might have no resonance for Piraro at all. But I’ll press on.

What especially moved me to time as a subtheme was the slogan “Give the gift of PIE!”, absurd on the face of it for a repair shop. I had a strong recollection of “Give the gift of time” as an advertising slogan for some brand of watches; a friend I mentioned the slogan to had the same recollection, adding that they thought it was for Timex. Apparently, we both recollect incorrectly; I can find no evidence of its use in advertising. It could be a warm slogan, but apparently it’s not.

(Brief digression on “give the gift of time”, which does indeed have a life as a sort of slogan, referring to the practice of formally promising your attentions, services (in housecleaning, babysitting, yard work, etc.), or care as a gift to someone.)

Now for a bit of phonology, on the pietime relationship, which is one of half-rhyme (aka imperfect rhyme, slant rhyme, near-rhyme, etc.). The pair would work nicely in a couplet like this one:

Then came the time / To have some pie

Real examples of pietime in rhyming positions are hard to find, simply because pie rarely appears in verse. (No, there are no examples in Don McLean’s “American Pie”, which uses full rhyme throughout.) On the other hand, the very similar dietime has surely been used many times; but I’m not in a position to search out the examples.

In any case, the pair pie /paj/ – time /tajm/ illustrates both flavors of half-rhyme: both subsequence rhyme (zero coda vs. coda /m/) and feature rhyme (/p/ vs. /t/, two voiceless stops differing only in the feature of position). (See the Page on this blog about my postings on half-rhyme.)

The payoff here is that the gift of pie and the gift of time are excellent imperfect rhymes, phonologically quite close to one another.

In any case, watch repair plus the gift of piegift of time relationship, spiced up a bit by “Since who knows when”, suggested to me that there might be a (subliminal) time subtheme in the cartoon. Which made it even more satisfying.


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