New plates? Same old thing

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Phil Brown
OPINION EDITOR

Cable television comedy writers have a new trick up their sleeve. If it’s a particularly slow news day, just boot up Twitter and search for what’s trending in Nebraska. The results are sure to be good for a 30 second segment of cheap laughs from audience members who can constantly conclude that no matter the state they live in, at least they don’t live in this one.

Their targets can be more or less justified, as in John Oliver’s dedicated lampooning of Gov. Pete Ricketts last summer on his HBO show: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. The diatribe, more or less over Ricketts’ opposition to the legislature’s repeal of the death penalty, gifted the nation’s Ricketts-haters a glorious new insult vocabulary, including “enormous human thumb,” “unpeeled hard-boiled-egg with teeth,” and the cream of the crop: “dollar-store Lex Luthor.”

Much lower on the plane of comedy genius was Chris Hardwick’s Nebraska riff on his Comedy Central show at midnight early last week. The focus of Hardwick’s would-be comic mischief was Nebraska’s new license plate design, which Ricketts unveiled on March 22nd. After some light-hearted jabs about Larry the Cable Guy and population density, Hardwick took a passing swing at the governor, questioning why his name is “Ricketts” if he “does not actually have Rickets” (a disease caused by Vitamin D deficiency).

The joke, while remarkably poor, garnered a few scattered laughs from Hardwick’s eager studio audience, and Hardwick waded into license plate aesthetic criticism.

Starting strong by criticizing unoriginal font choice, Hardwick’s punch line compared the Sower, the sculpture atop the state capitol building rendered as the new plate’s centerpiece, to a “muscular Quaker jerking off on the cupcake.” It’s not that the plate is above criticism, but it’s a bit disappointing to have one’s state brought up on cable comedy and subject to such an abject lack of any sort of comedic rigour. Hardwick, or Hardwick’s writer, could only come up with the very crudest and most cursory connections.

Of course, the plate is boring and dull. But when was the last time a license plate excited someone? Especially a Nebraska license plate? Hardwick could’ve brought that into his bit, or even made fun of the Sower graphic by pointing out it’s artistic similarity to any image in a clip-art CD from 1999. But cable comedy can turn anywhere for artistically lacking license plates. Florida’s twin oranges seem ripe for a prurient comedian’s picking. Myriad Pro Black may be a boring font choice, but have they even seen North Dakota’s? If one sets out to make fun of license plates, one may as well take half an hour’s research to make a better joke.

Ultimately, it’s not that being featured on a cable comedy show is a big deal. Let’s face it: sometimes Nebraska deserves it. But a license plate with a boring, artistically uninspired design isn’t what sets the state apart from its national neighbors. In fact, with the continual controversy he manages to stir up, Ricketts may have intentionally picked a dull design just to fit in.

For Mavericks, if the license plate design personally matters to you: consider shelling out the $70 and signing up for a UNO-personalized Nebraska plate. It can safely be considered a better design, and your money will go towards promoting your school. But it’s a safe bet most Nebraskans will do what they’ve done for decades: forget the controversy within a few months and bolt on the new plates without a second thought.

Editors Note: At press time, state authorities have halted production of the license plates, as it was revealed to be based on a 2002 design from local Omaha man. Due to a mistaken Google search from the artist, the sower depicted on his submission and retained in the recent proposal was not the sculpture on Nebraska’s capitol at all, but one on a bell tower at Michigan State University.

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