"...retrofitting classic novelty items with
a veneer of obsessive dorkiness..."
The company ThinkGeek has updated the practical joke concept to emphasize products that are humorous in-jokes rather than ones that play jokes on others. (Not that they don't have those, too.) From Wired Magazine:
Liotta is head of custom manufacturing for ThinkGeek, and on this mid-July day he’s leading a design session for a potential product: the Schrödinger’s Cat Executive Decision Maker. It’s a 21st-century update on the old Magic 8 Ball. Ask a yes/no question, open the box, and an LED randomly shines on one of the plastic cats.
The gizmo riffs on the most famous thought experiment in all of quantum physics—a scientific paradox. Of course, famous in the field of quantum physics is, well, relative. It’s a safe bet that most people wouldn’t get the reference. But for the sort of science-savvy Poindexter who’d actually order something like this from ThinkGeek’s ever-expanding product line, the obscurity of the gag is its central appeal.
Liotta is a balding, bespectacled 40-year-old who favors jeans and shirts with collars. Given the sartorial standard here at ThinkGeek headquarters in Fairfax, Virginia, it’s like he’s wearing a three-piece suit. The others in the conference room, all in T-shirts and shorts, make up the in-house R&D team called GeekLabs. They finally get Liotta’s concept, but there’s still much to sort out before they send a rough prototype to their manufacturer in China. Should the kitties emit a sound before you see the result, or would that betray Schrödinger’s theory of quantum superposition? “If meowing is observing, is that determining the state?” Liotta asks as he takes another long, loud swig of coffee.
It’s a weighty question for such a silly product, but it illustrates perfectly why ThinkGeek has become so popular. The company makes toys for adults, novelties designed to appeal to both your inner child and your inner grad student. These dorks have been retrofitting classic novelty items with a veneer of obsessive dorkiness for more than a decade, lavishing so much care and imagination and wit on their products that they sometimes seem more like conceptual art than cubicle kitsch.