All That And A Ham Sandwich
Big money's at stake over psychic talking deli meat

It's a ham sandwich awright, but it talks. And it tells the future."

See also...
... by David Cassel
... in the Scope section
... from August 17, 1999

It was one of many improbable plot twists in a futuristic detective serial called Vodka City. Now it's Exhibit A in a lawsuit seeking a jury trial. In a television ad campaign in September of 1998, the Florida Department of Citrus began using a similar talking ham sandwich urging consumers to drink more orange juice. Too similar, say the creators of the loquacious sidekick in Vodka City.

"Stealing a completely unique character from our original, illustrated fiction is a shameful way for an advertising agency to make its millions," argued Charles Hornberger, the editor of Tabloid.Net -- the sandwich's Web home -- in a February press release. Soon Tabloid was brandishing a Web log indicating their site had been accessed by the Florida group's ad agency, just one month before the ads premiered.

Coincidentally, Vodka City had already mentioned the state of Florida -- and not in a flattering light. "Somebody dosed a batch of Florida circus clowns a few years back," its detective remembers, "and the ones who lived ended up in Vodka City, condemned to their own pathetic madness, and to the broken sewage lines and the giant rats who owned the night."

The Richards Group's Dick Murray, who presided over the Florida ad campaign, insists they developed their ham sandwich independently, much earlier that year. And besides, Murray argues, originally it wasn't even a ham sandwich. "When we got to filming, we realized pastrami didn't photograph nearly as well as ham."

How could a copyrighted sandwich be in two places at once? Did the advertising agency have an alibi? Maybe not, according to the district federal judge who, on June 30, refused to grant a motion to dismiss the suit. That's a positive development, says Paul Kiesel, lawyer for Tabloid's San Francisco-based sandwich. "If you think of a lawsuit as picking up a phone and having a conversation, you need to both be willing to talk," he commented that afternoon. "They basically refused to pick up the phone." Now he estimates a two- to three-month period of discovery.

Meanwhile, the complete text of Vodka City has become Exhibit B, as a San Francisco courthouse has archived its dark story of a future with poison fog, papal intrigue and "joyless clone hookers with smartcard readers swaying on their hips."

It was all created by Ken Layne, a self-described "recovering journalist" whose previous work for "myriad bankrupt news services and English-language papers" included stints in Prague, Budapest, Slovakia, "and the broken Balkan graveyards of ex-Yugoslavia," according to an online biography on the Tabloid site. Tabloid itself -- which premiered in 1996 -- now limps along on a reduced publishing schedule. "The paying jobs eventually win those wars, as we know," Layne sighed from Washington, D.C. The "recovering journalist" trail continued, and "One day I woke up covering Clinton administration press conferences in D.C."

And the ham sandwich he created? The serial ended long ago, after completing its eighth installment. Vodka City's detective found a tidy conclusion, reminiscent of the final scene in Casablanca, when the mysterious femme fatale offers to send him off for a new case in Turkey:

"You take that filthy talking sandwich off my hands and I'll go wherever you tell me."

David Cassel is Interactive Media Editor for GettingIt. He last interviewed the creator of the Hamster Dance site.