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THIS IS WHY WE CAN'T HAVE NICE THINGS!
January 27, 2010 2:58 AM   Subscribe

Please explain the meme "THIS IS WHY WE CAN'T HAVE NICE THINGS!"

I think it's hilarious, naturally. But, I'm curious --
- Where did it originate? Is there a specific pop culture source?
- What is the most appropriate use for it? It seems to be something used for people who spoil events, but it also seems to have other, subtler purposes as well? (I'm an idiot.)

Thanks for the LOLZ.
posted by the NATURAL to Computers & Internet (24 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
I think it's older, but the oldest for-sure use I can find is from a Feb 1999 episode of SNL. Linky. I hear Lisa Simpson's voice saying it in my head, but that was 2001.

So there's a starting point, anyway.
posted by rokusan at 3:17 AM on January 27, 2010


No idea of its origins I'm afraid. Some thoughts on useage, though:

There's a sense in the phrase of a parent coming upon a boy who has broken his favourite toy, or ripped his Sunday best clothing. It sounds disappointed and a little patronising, with a side of I'm-always-telling-you-not-to-play-like-that and you're-only-hurting-yourself-here.

Like all memes, part of the humour in its use is the juxtaposition between the tone of the phrase and the situation that you're applying it to. Using it to describe a boy who has actually just destroyed his favourite toy would be pretty straight-up and dull. Using it in, say, the context of Lyddie England pointing at a tortured prisoner creates a powerful disconnect between the tired chiding of an authority figure and the horrendous transgression of the puported ideals of the perpetrator; "This is why we can't have [democracy in Iraq/a good reputation internationally]". The nice thing is comically different from the sorts of nice thing that a schoolboy might like. The 'why' is an horrific act.

The point in all memes is there isn't a definitive 'approriate use for it.' Memes are usually an image or a phrase that has a particular resonance, which resonance operates differently in different contexts. The joy of memes is in the different effects they create as they're placed in different contexts. Try applying this particular phrase to each story on the news this evening, just in your head, and see where it makes sense, where it doesn't make sense, and if it does work for two or more stories, try to understand which is funnier to you.
posted by Cantdosleepy at 3:26 AM on January 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


My first memory of it is hearing Paula Poundstone use it in a bit where she breaks a Flintstone's jelly glass as a kid. Then her mother laments "We can't have nice things". Late 80's?
posted by genefinder at 3:30 AM on January 27, 2010


My Mom used to say this back in the sixties whenever we made a mess. She grew up in Iowa.
posted by RussHy at 3:49 AM on January 27, 2010


"You're trying to explain a meme AGAIN? THIS IS WHY WE CAN'T HAVE NICE THINGS!"

Just kidding. I think part of this meme's effect also comes from the use of "we", because it patronisingly asserts the speaker's right to speak for both themself and the party they are addressing. And that's why we can't have nice things.
posted by nihraguk at 4:51 AM on January 27, 2010


"One of the funnier uses, though definitely not the first, was in Jane Austen's Mafia! (1998). Tony (Jay Mohr) is having an argument with Pepper (Pamila Gidley). She hurls a crystal bowl or something at him, it shatters, the argument continues, she hurls her poodle at him, it shatters, and Mohr says "This is why we can't have nice things, Pepper!""
posted by Jaltcoh at 5:10 AM on January 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


Don't know from where, but as for why it's funny, in part:
the humor in the phrase "nice things" is drawn out by this meme. It is funny because it voices the earnest class aspiration of a dupe who believes that "things" are "nice" (a humorously innocuous word) based on some standard class grid. Then anything that goes wrong points to the larger (comic) frustration of not being able to achieve the standard class-inflected goal. Like Ralph Kramden or Lucy in I Love Lucy. The decontextualization of the phrase makes the writer or speaker (not the character) and the audience in cahoots against the position of class dupe.
posted by fullofragerie at 5:18 AM on January 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


Ditto genefinder's comment. Even if there are earlier uses, I think Poundstone's standup routine popularized it.
posted by mattbucher at 5:21 AM on January 27, 2010


My mother said a version of this when I was growing up in the sixties, in a martyred tone.

I always thought it was an Irish thing.
posted by readery at 5:30 AM on January 27, 2010


Paula Poundstone back in the 80's was the first time I heard anyone but my mom say it. I think it's just one of those phrases that is in the Mom's Handbook, like "you'll shoot your eye out" or "You keep making that face and it'll get stuck like that."
posted by bondcliff at 5:42 AM on January 27, 2010


I remember it from the '60s. Cantdosleepy is correct:
There's a sense in the phrase of a parent coming upon a boy who has broken his favourite toy, or ripped his Sunday best clothing. It sounds disappointed and a little patronising, with a side of I'm-always-telling-you-not-to-play-like-that and you're-only-hurting-yourself-here.
He's also correct that "there isn't a definitive 'appropriate' use for it."
posted by languagehat at 6:15 AM on January 27, 2010


My first memory is my mom saying it to my little brother and me on an almost constant basis starting in the early 90's.
posted by timdicator at 6:36 AM on January 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


I don't have a clue to its origins, but my favorite usage of it was in one of those reality tv shows where they revamp a person's house in order to give them more self-confidence (in this case, I think Queer Eye). An average joe wants to propose to his sweet girlfriend, but he's embarassed by his bachelor's pad, which is covered in the usual dudely interests. This guy is super sweet but kind of a nervous goof. So, they redecorate his house, give him sleek clothing, provide him with a set of expensive drink glasses, and teach him how to make several mixed drinks to impress his girlfriend. They leave him be and put a couple of hidden cameras around to watch the result.

The problem is, the guy is totally ill at ease with his new self. The clothes are itchy, he can't find any of his stuff in his new pad, and he's starting to sweat at the prospect of proposing to his girlfriend. He's looking pale. He goes to the kitchen to try out his mixing skills and presumably calm his nerves. But he blows it... and totally smashes a couple of the super expensive glasses while trying to make some fancy drink. As he's cleaning up the shards of glass, he says, "This is why I can't have nice things!"

The proposal goes successfully, but I still use that example when people try to lend or give me expensive things. It's also a good reason not to have secret cameras around your house.
posted by ajarbaday at 6:36 AM on January 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


It seems to be something used for people who spoil events, but it also seems to have other, subtler purposes as well?

The way that I've heard it used it was right after someone destroyed/ruined/broke a thing that was considered to be nice. "We had a nice thing, but then we destroyed/ruined/broke it, and now we don't have that nice thing anymore. This is why we can't have nice things." Not that I think you're wrong or anything, but could you give examples of your usage for ruining an event?
posted by 23skidoo at 7:21 AM on January 27, 2010


Ajarbaday - I totally remember that episode of Queer Eye. He was also entertaining the girl's parents that evening (which is another reason he was a nervous mess) and he tried to make them mixed drinks once they had arrived. Sadly, he was so addled that he forgot to add the tonic and just served them straight gin on the rocks. It was priceless to watch them try to casually drink them without gagging. What troopers...they seemed like they would be nice in-laws.
posted by victoriab at 7:54 AM on January 27, 2010


4000 years ago, when the first porcelain was made in China, someone put that vase on a table, and stepped back to admire how well it complemented the room.

Just then, a little kid ran through chasing a goat, and knocked the vase off the table onto the ground, where it shattered into a thousand pieces.

Guess what was said?
posted by Aquaman at 8:21 AM on January 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


That's straight out of my childhood in the 1960's. I am the reason we cannot have nice things.
posted by cross_impact at 9:02 AM on January 27, 2010


It's not a "meme". It's what your mom would say in the 70's if you broke a vase or something.
posted by Zambrano at 9:03 AM on January 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


People who "can't have nice things" keep the plastic on their sofa suite and lampshades so that they stay "nice."

I'd guess that it probably originates from 1940s-ish on when people who hadn't ever had "nice things" could suddenly afford "nice things," and all the anxiety that came with that. Off-limits all-white living rooms, entombed "curio cabinets" of Precious Moments figurines, etc.

If I'm saying it to be serious/bitterly humorous, it's to myself in my head or bitching to someone about how my roommate was always breaking/ruining my "nice things," eg, non-stick pans. If I'm saying it to be kidding, it involves someone ruining something that's not-at-all a big dea, and also includes (I'm ashamed to realize as I write this) an amount of mockery of the type/class of person who would say this for real.
posted by thebazilist at 9:10 AM on January 27, 2010


I remember my mother saying this in the 1970s after I tried to use her egg slicer on an ice cube. I say it in her honour to the kids today whenever they break something.
posted by sagwalla at 9:54 AM on January 27, 2010


Dang, I really thought I was going to see a Seinfeld reference. I can't recall it actually happened, but it seems like something Mr. Costanza would've inevitably yelled at George.
posted by bozichsl at 11:41 AM on January 27, 2010


I'm the reason my mother "couldn't have nice things". I think she heard it too often when she was growing up, and then used it on me and my sisters.

I think the real lesson is, if you want to be able to have (and keep) nice things, don't have kids.
posted by MuChao at 11:57 AM on January 27, 2010


i loved that scene in Mafia!
posted by nadawi at 3:27 PM on January 27, 2010


Interesting. I was expecting an answer that was much more viral and techie. Thanks, MeFi.
posted by the NATURAL at 5:19 PM on January 27, 2010


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