High Scores: SMB Underground

Q: What kind of overalls does Mario wear?

A: Denim denim denim. Denim denim denim.

If you can hear the tune of the punchline above—if you can count the beats between the period and the capital D—then you get it.  At least, you think you do.

It was during a Respectful Workplace meeting at my former job that I learned this chestnut, offered as an example of “office-appropriate humor.” That seemed right: the joke was about as threatening as an upside-down Koopa Troopa. Hearing Koji Kondo’s tune from the lips of my HR Director was one of the first times I really felt my age. She knew her audience: a tableful of millennials, me and herself included. Without realizing it, she was canonizing the stuff of our childhood. Everyone laughed politely.

I get a little cranky when people tell this joke. More than its cutesiness or its reminder that I will someday die, my frustration has to do with how it mishears the original song. The joke-teller sings each “denim” as two identical notes: CCAABB. In the original, the odd notes are clearly much lower than the evens (a whole octave, to be exact). It’s nearly impossible to fit “denim,” a trochee, into this pattern: “de-NIM de-NIM de-NIM.” The punchline ought to be iambic: “bro-CADE bro-CADE bro-CADE,” “la-MÉ la-MÉ la-MÉ.” Whatever lyric you propose, the song is hard to sing, leaping up the staff three times per measure. The purist in me shudders, but subbing in identical notes is a smart change that accommodates both the human voice and Mario’s iconic fashion. Gold-lamé overalls wouldn’t be very practical.

Part of the joke’s poetry (such as it is) comes from how the “Underground” theme fits into the game’s progression. We hear it after Mario squeezes down his first green pipe and lands in his plumber’s element. The denim-denim-denim uniform protects him against the various encroachments of vermin, lead, and the Mushroom Kingdom’s flushables. We may hear the famous “Overworld” theme as the quintessential Mario motif, but it’s down here in the Underground where we really learn what Mario’s made of. The spaces between the notes are stark yet irregular, like the spaces between bottomless pits. The “denims” jump octaves just as Mario himself leaps to superhuman heights again, again, again.

If you’re going off the remixed “Underworld” theme in Super Mario. Bros 3 or one of the many, many, many other adaptations of this tune in the Mario multiverse, your concept of the song is probably a little more palatable, a little less edgy, than the original. This has to do with time signatures: the original is in a prestissimo 3/4 time (though I’ve seen it transcribed in 6/4, too, or a mixture of 3/4 and 4/4); in SMB3 and elsewhere, the song is in a much slower 4/4 time, with an extra quarter-rest between each denim-denim-denim, plus percussion and bass lines to make the rhythm more legible. These changes really tame the original. They polish off its rough edges, break it in, make it nice and cozy, not unlike a well-worn pair of jeans.

In its raw form, denim is incredibly resistant—workwear not streetwear. In the 19th century, when denim first gained popularity in the United States, a single pair of blue jeans would often be shared among several different workmen, just as a lab coat or artist’s smock might be today. The jeans’ characteristic distress had to be earned. Today’s denim is almost exclusively pre-distressed. Most jeans are stonewashed—literally, thrown in a machine agitator with stones—to speed up the breakdown. I hear these stones in the thudding bass of SMB3’s “Underground” or the lovely clacking claves in Mario 64’s underrated version. The raw song has grit. It’s hardy, durable enough to accommodate extremely varied movements, styles, and instrumentations.

And like blue jeans, the song is cool—classic, iconic, somehow all-American. Its melody is extremely similar to the bass line in Miles Davis’s funky, genre-defining, half-hour-long “Calypso Frelimo.” (If you listen closely, you’ll hear hints of the “Overworld” theme in the Davis jam, as well.) Having had the Mario franchise for four decades now, we take its various themes (visual, musical, narrative) for granted. But the game is weird—trippy, even, with its magic mushrooms, airborne fish, and Gamera-like turtle brigands. It reminds me a little bit of H.R. Pufnstuf or Pee-wee’s Playhouse. The game is hardly risqué, but it’s not squeaky-clean, either. It wouldn’t have captured our collective imaginations for so long if it were.

Underground, of course, is a synonym for cool—out of the mainstream, not quite suitable for polite society. The worlds of video games are often underground, quite literally: Mario’s sewers and Link’s dungeons and Samus’s extraterrestrial underworlds. Playing video games in the real world may require a descent—into Mom’s basement, for instance. My favorite barcades are at least partially underground, echoey caves reeking of spilled beer and coins. But even in a sunny penthouse, gaming feels more like descent than ascent. The scale shrinks and the frame is enclosed, no matter how “open” a game’s world. Underground may also mean “private,” “intimate,” “exclusive.” The underground loses something with exposure.

I think this partly explains my mixed feelings about the “denim, denim, denim” joke. It’s a little disappointing to hear the theme of my beloved underground voiced in the overworld of a corporate conference room. But ultimately, I’m glad this joke and jokes like it exist. We’ve gotten to a point where video games have become like blue jeans—ubiquitous, democratic, perfectly at ease in low and high places, depending on style and quality. Through the journey to the surface, something’s bound to be warped. But the original will still be there, in all its stubborn strangeness, the next time I make the descent.