We meet our hero, a spokesdude for Carl’s Jr., in the bread aisle of a supermarket, where he silently gapes at the hundreds of different loaves crammed together like so many bright, bewildering foreign-language manga at a Japanese newsstand. He blankly surveys the display, hoping to see a wrapper he recognizes, perhaps one that a former girlfriend liked, or his mom, but he sees neither Weber nor Wonder, Langendorf nor Van de Kamp. He slumps and retreats, empty-handed. In another ad, he freezes when his number is called at a delicatessen counter; in a third, he is overwhelmed by the task of breaking eggs into a bowl. He is hungry for guacamole, but forgets to peel the avocado before he puts it in the blender. He is the Dumbest Man on TV. He is an existential superman, our hero, a muscly, unshaven figure in his late 30s, dress shirt untucked from a day of corporate warfare and reduced to his primal self, an alpha-male hunter driven to befuddled incoherence (played by different actors like so many Darrens from Bewitched). The commercials, especially the one set in the supermarket, are shot in the flat, greenish light of an Andreas Gursky photograph, the chaotic joy of consumer choice rendered as garish and confusing. The Dumbest Man on TV tries to improve himself, to make himself a sandwich or a plate of eggs without the assistance of a mom or girlfriend (the luxury of his kitchen suggests that somebody must use it once in a while), but settles once again for the certainty of the Carl’s Jr. drive-through window. The ad’s announcer finally begins to speak: “Without us,” he says, “some guys would starve.”
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Now, in his newest adventure, the Dumbest Man on TV is unable to open a box without spilling Fruit Poofs all over his floor. The pudgy-bachelor stereotype is familiar from every sitcom of the last 10 years, a similar scenario played out not as tragedy but as farce. Everyone knows that single men are extraordinarily adept at manipulating breakfast cereal. They provide the entire target market, one assumes, for Chocolate Lucky Charms and Cinnamon Toast Crunch. No one ever taught him to microwave macaroni and cheese. Carl’s Jr. advertises what it calls its Six Dollar Burger, a $4.29 simalacrum of a TGIF cheeseburger, in many different ways. A lithe urban cowgirl chomps into one while riding a mechanical bull. A multitasking Paris Hilton licks at a dripping burger as she hoses down a sports car, no doubt cognizant of each one of its 1,120 calories. A businessman eating a sandwich in a child-infested coffee shop longs for his Six Dollar Burger, one-third pound of certified Angus beef cooked until it coalesces into a extra-well-done codpiece on a wad of wet bread. It is impossible to sit through almost any broadcast of SportsCenter or a ballgame without encountering our hero, the hamburger, or the Carl’s Jr. breakfast, or most likely all three. Sometimes it seems as if the Dumbest Man on TV, of the gaunt countenance and the thousand-yard stare, gets as much face time at Dodger games as Vin Scully.
At a food-industry conference a few years ago, a high-ranking executive of Taco Bell confessed that the company’s idea of introducing a lower-calorie menu was a failure. No dieter in her right mind ever set foot in a Taco Bell. The chain’s regular customers, many of them young men who lived on a steady diet of hard-shell tacos and Enchiritos, didn’t want to be associated with a restaurant that served diet food. The chain snapped out of its slump with a new menu of half-pound burritos and bacon-intensive tostadas. Carl’s Jr’s concession to the diet market is a low-carb Six Dollar Burger, basically a lower-catsup version of the 1/3-pound beast wrapped in lettuce instead of a bun. I finally decide that I must taste a Six Dollar Burger for myself. I have recently sampled a Jack in the Box Ciabatta Burger, a McDonald’s apple-walnut salad and that weird entree at Taco Bell that involves a tostada wrapped inside a flour tortilla, so I am not hopeful. The menu board at Carl’s Jr. is no doubt designed to be legible to regular customers, highlighting new menu items, presenting good-value combo meals and listing old favorites in a way that a regular customer can read in a flash. But it has been years since I last drove through a Carl’s Jr. (I do admit an occasional weakness for Jack in the Box), and to me it would be easier to read a menu in Tagalog, where I can at least decipher the names of most of the dishes, than it is to scan this frenetic list through the bug-splattered windshield of my truck. In the drive-through lane, hurried by an impatient counterman and the honking of the Escalade behind me, I manage, with some difficulty, to order a Six Dollar Burger and a Six Dollar Burger with Bacon and Guacamole, but I am frustrated in my attempt to get the extra-spicy whatever, the one that Paris Hilton likes.
“It’s the one that’s not for babies,” I stammer. “From the commercial?”
He doesn’t seem ever to have heard about that burger. I end up with a 99-cent Spicy Chicken sandwich. Which is not the same. For a moment, I am the Dumbest Guy.