a blogumn by Ryan Dixon

In Which Applebee’s is Defended, the Minnesota Vikings Dissed and Saw VI Declawed…


Eating at Applebee’s

Photo Credit: Roger Isabell

Photo Credit: Roger Isabell

Are you an aspiring comedy writer? Do you need an easy joke to top off that last scene? Is mentioning George W. Bush a little too political and/or dated? Well, in that case, just say Applebee’s.

From Talladega Nights to the recently released (and abysmal) Couples Retreat, writers seem to think that having an actor just say Applebee’s—or any other chain name of casual dining—is cause enough to provoke a gargantuan wave of guffaws. “Who’s On First?” is now “Who’s going to P.F. Chang’s?”

Unfortunately, it’s just this sort of cultural ignorance and pretension that makes those in the middle of the country so resentful towards us on the coasts. While their multi-million dollar contracts probably ensure that they’re spending most nights chowing down filet mignon at Morton’s, Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh understand something that Keith Olbermann and Arianna Huffington don’t: The majority of this country enjoys eating at Applebee’s without irony.

Two weeks ago I was on assignment for a project that took me out of Los Angeles and into the surrounding farm fields near Williston, North Dakota, a small town of 12,512 about an hour east of the Montana border. As I had never seen the middle of nowhere, I eagerly embraced every site, sound and (often foul) smell.  One evening, as we drove past the mom & pop shop covered downtown area and towards the Wal-Mart Super Center, the familiar neon visage of Applebee’s appeared on the horizon.

“Applebee’s is really expensive.” said the man who was taking me around the area.

I chuckled to myself, thinking about all the Los Angelenos who have raised a disbelieving eyebrow when I have mentioned that in my own hometown of Johnstown, Pa, the local branch of Red Lobster is considered a destination spot only when one is celebrating a golden anniversary or proposing marriage. The genuine fondness that people living in the less populous areas of our country have for franchise casual dining establishments is a splash of cold water on the face to those accustomed to believing that Red Lobster is a “cheap” place where the food quality barely rises above the level of a Jack in the Box.

Of course, the snobbies who launch these volleys of scornful arrows at casual dining chain restaurants often do so while treating the small town corner diner as a reliquary of genuine, great-tasting Americana cuisine. Let me set the record straight: I grew up in a small town and I hated the local diner. The food tasted like dead rat and the waitresses often look like live ones.

When I wish to indulge in a bout of nostalgia, I reserve my rose-colored glasses for remembering the times our family drove 90 minutes to the South Hills of Pittsburgh to visit my grandparents. There I was transfixed by Century III Mall, a three-story consumerist Camelot that was the third biggest mall in the world when it opened in 1979.

While this type suburban mall complex, filled with a buffet of casual dining selections,  the mandatory multiplex, and a Barnes and Noble, Borders or, even better, both, may feel deadingly prosaic to those in Northridge, CA, Arlington, TX and Salt Lake City, it offered a kid from the country like me the opportunity–in those Antediluvian days of no internet–to purchase toys, books and movies I never would have had access to otherwise. It’s easy to make fun of Blockbuster Video if you’ve lived next door to one your entire life, but you really learn to appreciate what a treat it is to rent The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover when the only video store within 40 miles of your  house is run out of someone’s garage.

Once in a while, those of us living in urban and suburban enclaves should thank our lucky stars that we can choose not to go to Applebee’s.


Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Minnesota Vikings

Photo Credit: DJ Lein

Photo Credit: DJ Lein

For the past two weeks I’ve mocked the home city of each of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ opponents. While one may argue that making fun of Cleveland and Detroit is an even cheaper punch line than Applebee’s, many readers have urged me to include this city smackdown feature  in my blogumn for the rest of the season and (hopefully) post-season. Your wish is my command.

This Sunday, There’s Something About Mary’s Brett Favre leads the undefeated Minnesota Vikings into the Steel City to face the 4-2 Pittsburgh Steelers in what could be the best game of the season. Instead of insulting Minneapolis/St, Paul – a perfectly fine place to  
live if you’re in the mood for a dowdier, far-less-cool version of  
Pittsburgh with a lot more snow – I shall tell the tale of a  
friendship torn apart by my hubris and the ignominious, never-winning Super Bowl history of the Minnesota Vikings…

Photo Credit: Andy Emcee

Photo Credit: Andy Emcee

It was the night of February 5, 2006. The Pittsburgh Steelers had just defeated the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XL to earn their fifth Lombardi Trophy. I was re-watching the highlights in a giddy, champagne and beer fueled haze– Willie Parker was once again charging down the field during that record breaking 75-yard run, about to score the touchdown that would put the Steelers ahead 14-3. Just as Parker began his leap into the end zone, my cellphone sprang to life with one of the most memorable lyrical lines found in the  Meatloaf songbook.

…and objects in the rear view mirror may appear closer than they are…


“Ryan, it’s Brian.”

It was my college friend Brian B. He had moved back to his hometown of Minneapolis after graduation, so we hadn’t seen each other for several years, but kept in constant phone contact.

“Congratulations on your Steelers.”

“Thank you, Brian.”

In hindsight, I wish I stopped right there. If I had just accepted the compliment (not that I had anything at all to do with the victory), perhaps Brian and I would have spoken to each other since that evening, perhaps he would have returned one of the three-dozen texts I have sent him in the ensuing years.

But I didn’t stop. Couldn’t stop. The dynamic of our relationship was based in part on the bragging rights earned from the victories each of us procured during countless hours of cutthroat Madden Football combat. Those games were underscored by a mutual carpet bombing of put-downs, barbs and vituperation and now Brian had let his guard down. It was the perfect time to land the knockout punch—my Steelers, with five Super Bowl victories (up to that point, of course); his Vikings, with none (not to mention the fact that one of those heartbreaking loses came at the hands of my Steelers) — and so, I swung.

“I’m sorry that you’ll never experience the joy of winning a Super Bowl since the Vikings will never win the Super Bowl.”

The tension between the phone lines tightened like a noose around a hanging man.

“That’s it, Ryan. I was trying to be nice. “

“Brian, I was joking.”

“I’m sick of it. I was nice. You were rude. I’m done.”

“Brian, wait—”

“Goodbye, forever!”

Much like how the origin of Iago’s blinding hatred for Othello remains a question mark, I doubt I’ll ever really know which of my words and deeds over those preceding years built the festering swamp of rage and resentment from which Brian’s outburst blossomed. Unless he chooses to speak to me again and enlighten me with his inner workings, it will forever be, in the words of Winston Churchill, “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”

However, there’s one thing that’s definitely not a mystery: The Steelers rule and the Vikings suck. Sorry, Brian.

*For those wondering, much like the real-life history of the Steelers and Vikings, when playing our virtual “big games,” I always came out on top, while Brian remained  championshipless.


Saw VI

SawVILike a particularly annoying vampire, every October the Saw franchise crawls out of its film canister coffin and gleefully sucks the good taste and hard-earned dollars out of all-too-willing audience members. Last year I wrote that having to watch any more films from the putrid genre known as “torture-porn” (to which the Saw franchise is, was, and forever will be the Rosetta Stone) would be just that.

Guess what? They didn’t listen.

P.S. I’m off next week, but Fierce Anticipation guest blogumnist “Magic” Michael Gutenplan will be filling in with a great post about what to see on Broadway. If you really need to get a quick Ryan Dixon fix, feel free to follow me on Twitter.