The Laffer Utilities

Hi, it’s me. The one who didn’t play all the Leisure Suit Larry games. Not to say that I haven’t played some of them, or that I didn’t enjoy those that I did. But I’m certainly not the Larry aficionado of the site, nor am I deeply versed in Sierra’s many products of the time. And I certainly didn’t have “lazy productivity software” on my Al Lowe bingo card.

I was a bit young for the office 9-5 in the 1980s, but I am dimly aware of a subset of computer software existing solely to 1) pass the time instead of working, and 2) not get caught. If the game had a “boss button” that threw up a vaguely spreadsheety screen of data at the panicked strike of key, then this is what I’m talking about. The first three Larry games even parodied this idea, but at some point after Larry 5, Sierra must have decided they could get some side money by putting out an actual slackerware product. And who better to host it than the wisecracking king of 80s snark and pop references?

Well, they didn’t have Dennis Miller, so you get Larry Laffer.

The man. The myth. The mensch.

The Laffer Utilities are a group of 18 “unproductivity” applications. These can roughly be divided into three categories: jokes, semi-useful apps, and Things You Can Print. Interestingly, none of these could be considered actual games. The front cover jokingly suggests the name sounds official so it can get past the purchasing department, but I assume having no games is a conscious decision by Sierra to not put out software that could get their customers in trouble. However, its raunchiness still presumes your company didn’t have a Human Resources manager.

The marquee application is literally called “Jokes” and seems like a spin-off of Larry 3′s mad-libs nightclub comedian. You set meters for “filth” and “laffs” and the game pulls from its database of patented hilarity to present a random joke. These can play out over multiple pages of text, letting longer jokes be set up. There’s a lot of these, definitely over 100, so I guess there’s value here. Pity to the poor staffer who had to transcribe one or more entire joke books.

Jokes do indeed range from tame, to spicy, to the usual suspects of blonde and lawyer jokes. I generally agree with the rating system (shown by thermometers on either side of the stage) but elements do seem broken. Max out both meters and a grand total of TWO jokes qualify. Keep both meters down and you’ll get a much greater variety. The game also lets you type in your own jokes. Hear a great zinger? Add it to the database, rank it appropriately, and save it for posterity (who are we kidding, it’s just for yourself).

“There are only two things I can’t stand in this world: People who are intolerant of other people’s cultures, and the Dutch.”

Laffer Utilities also lets you “customize” its jokes. Basically, this gives you a prompt on what you want certain phrases to be replaced with. Given the time period, and the prompts, it seems pretty clear what the joke originally had for, say, “Homosexual Male.” Like Larry 3, you can put anything you want in these fields, including your own odd meta humor. But ultimately, the purpose is transparent. Sierra can’t ship a game that features your favorite World War II-era ethnic slur, but you’re free to fill it in yourself and watch Larry spit it out with all the cultural sensitivity of Andrew Dice Clay.

“Sayings,” “Horrorscope,” “Headline,” and “Excuses” also fall under the “jokes” category I’ve made up. All similarly pull from their own limited databases of gags. Fire up Sayings and you’ll receive a random bit of garbage-tier wisdom from Larry. Horrorscope (yes, it’s spelled this way) gives a Mad magazine-style sarcastic fortune based on your astrological sign. Excuses is a random excuse generator, usually no better than “My dog ate it.” Headlines seem to be a true Mad Libs generator, tossing out nearly nonsensical newspaper headlines like a first-generation ChatGPT bot.

All of these are extremely low-effort offerings. Flipping through them, I didn’t get a single chuckle. But to be fair, I wasn’t using them in the intended setting. Generating an intentionally eye-rolling excuse when a colleague asks for the TPS report might cause the comedy stars to align. But this also doesn’t change the fact that they’re obvious filler, trying to add value and failing more often than Larry in his games.

It’s the phone book of THE FUTURE… Future… future…

“Semi-useful apps” is an interesting category. I’d say the main one here is the integrated phone book. Fire it up and you can fill in and store all your contacts digitally. Throw that creaky old Rolodex right in the bin! It’s even cross-referenced by the Birthday application. Check Birthday daily – or set it to run in autoexec.bat – and it will let you know if it’s any of your contacts’ cake day.

This seems maddeningly pointless from a modern perspective, but there wasn’t a standard organization software like Microsoft Office back in the late 80s. Windows and Mac would eventually get contacts apps right in the OS, but DOS never had this. Borland Sidekick was maybe the most popular “personal information manager” software, but it definitely wasn’t a standard. Point being, there’s a pretty good chance your office computer didn’t have this functionality, so the Laffer Utilities might actually end up… useful?

“Announce” falls under this category as well. It’s a simple collection of screensavers with the option to display scrolling text and lock with a password. It’s a quick way to hold your current screen in private stasis, while letting other office drones know where you’ve stepped away to or when you’ll be back. You get 14 full-screen Larry artworks, themed around smoke breaks, doctor’s appointments, or out to lunch.

It comes preloaded with a few addresses I presume are Sierra faves.

Did someone say lunch? Enter “WDYWTGFL,” which is basically the contacts app for your nearby lunch options. You can rate them by cost and quality, and similar to the Jokes, set a range you want the randomizer to pull from. Spin the wheel (there’s no wheel, just a button) and Larry will decide where everyone’s going for chow. Larry’s word, of course, is final. No clicking the button until you find a place you actually wanted to go to. Literally – the “Next” button is disabled.

If you’ve made it this far, the final category is Things You Can Print. Games in the 80s and early 90s were slightly obsessed with Things You Can Print™, so true to the era, The Laffer Utilities has no shortage of tree killers. Similar to Announce, “Fax” and “Signs” gives you a selection of Larry and Patti clipart to post around the office or plant on cover sheets. You pick a theme, then a handful of layouts, then a piece of art usually based around Larry and an expression. Did the Birthday app remind you of someone’s big day? Send ’em a Larry-themed birthday fax! Whew! It almost looked like you forgot!

I have to pause a minute and question the usefulness here. Ignoring that the sign templates are often inappropriate – because of course they are – are most office workers going to be familiar with Larry Laffer? Are they going to look at a smudgy dot matrix reprint of Larry’s rapier nose and say “Wow! That’s the star of Sierra’s world-renowned smutty adventure games! Whoever printed this must a really hep cat!” Or, more likely, are you going to be known as the creepy dude wasting office supplies by taping fliers around that make everyone uncomfortable?

Post what you’re bringing to the potluck in the comments.

Fear not, for the remaining Things You Can Print are a little more socially acceptable. “Pool” lets you randomly assign numbers for an office betting pool. “Bracket” lets you fill in and print out a tournament bracket, again to surely bet on. “Signups” prints out forms people can, you guessed it, sign up on.  “Forms” are… well, they’re actual forms, like daily schedules, routing slips, and petty cash receipts. There’s some sassy ones in there, but generally, they’re real forms that might actually see use. Laffer Utilities is a weird product.

The last two programs don’t get a category, because they’re the most blatant filler. “Windfall” is a lotto numbers generator. Yawn. “Sounds” is a soundboard. That’s right, pick from the list and your computer’s speaker will bleep out a corresponding effect. These aren’t sounds used within the program, they don’t even really match the descriptions – it just seems like a handful of square-wave samples Sierra had laying around and they decided “Fuck it, 18 programs looks better than 17.”

Criminally, none of these sounds is a rimshot. Maybe the PC speaker can’t do it? But it means you can’t even read a dumb joke from your Dumb Joke Program and follow it up with a ba-dum-tiss.

Is The Laffer Utilities fun? Not… really? Definitely only in a middle management sort of way, and definitely only in a business not traded on the NASDAQ. This is a product I could see a used auto salesman having on their computer. Or the owner’s twenty-something kid. But just when you think it’s juvenile and pointless, it hits you with a pretty decent phone book. Or a set of forms that actually look nice. Or more jokes than you figure they’d have bothered with. So, thanks, Sierra? I guess? It’s still better than Box Office Bust.

 

The Good

More jokes than I expected. More utility than I expected. A Windows 3.1 version is available on Al Lowe’s site.

 

The Bad

Lots of useless filler apps. Throwing in a real game would have been nice.

 

Our furniture goes back to Louis the Fourteenth — unless we pay him by then!”

 

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