Tuesday night at the Boston Market on East Bay Drive in Clearwater: Guys behind the counter are slinging Chuck Norris jokes.
"You know what kind of furniture Chuck Norris has in his house?" says Matt Kindred, 18.
Matt tells another: "Chuck Norris never blinks his eyes. Never."
Behind him, manager Richard Moody, 22, echoes: "Never!"
Matt executes a pirouette and whips a finger at countermate Evan Heebner, 19. Evan tells the one about how Chuck Norris' tears cure cancer. "Too bad Chuck Norris never cries," Evan says.
"Ooooh, good one," everyone says.
+ Teenagers all across the country, many of whom have never even seen Walker, Texas Ranger, are telling Chuck Norris jokes.
They're really bad. If you want to blame someone, the guilty party is a Brown University freshman. Since last summer, Ian Spector has been spreading jokes like: "Chuck Norris has already been to Mars; that's why there are no signs of life there."
Ian has collected 40,000 jokes like that. Every day he gets more than a half-million hits on his Web site, The Random Chuck Norris Fact Generator (www.4Q.cc/chuck/). His jokes have been picked up by Saturday Night Live.
Customer walks into the Boston Market.
"How you doing tonight?" says Matt.
"You know who else is doing good? Chuck Norris."
The guy browses the selections, asks for turkey.
"We're out of turkey, sir," Matt tells him. "Do you know why we're out of turkey? Chuck Norris."
+ When the craze started, Norris was more befuddled than angered or amused. He let his publicist handle the newspapers. He stuck to his Walker persona, which is, you know, brick wall. On his Web site, he basically took this position: I. Get. It. Ha. Ha.
"It's so new, he may not have figured out what it means yet," his Los Angeles publicist Jeff Duclos said on Tuesday.
The phenomenon surprised everyone. Norris' series ended in 2001. You see him now on Total Gym infomercials and reruns. He was old news to kids.
Then last summer, Ian Spector - the freshman from Brown - invented his Random Fact Generator. He started with Vin Diesel (www.4Q.cc/vin/). Sample: "When mortals rub two sticks together, we get fire. When Vin Diesel rubs two sticks together, we get Christianity."
It went over modestly well. Ian asked his Web audience to nominate a successor. Chuck Norris was the overwhelming favorite.
"It exploded," Ian said this week. "Since last summer we've had 50-million hits. We generally get between 500,000 and 800,000 hits a day."
How come? "It's interesting, most of the people don't know his work, but they know his character," Ian said. "He's cool and calm, but he can kick butt."
The jokes are anything but ironic or mean-spirited. They celebrate and enlarge the myth, through the demented lenses of teenage boys. Only a 17-year-old computer geek like Ian could have done it.
+ High school girl approaches the front door at Boston Market. Matt likes what he sees.
"Hell-o, hell-o," he says under his breath.
She orders for her and her mother.
Matt says, "You know why Waldo is hiding all the time? Chuck Norris."
The girl gives Matt a look. She just read one of these jokes on an away message from a friend. "What is it with Chuck Norris?"
Matt: "Chuck Norris is God."
"Apparently," she says. "I don't know, he's got that funky moustache. It just kind of gives me the willies."
+ About a week ago, Ian Spector looked straight into the flinty eyes of his craggy, but still seismic butt-kicking foil at a casino in Connecticut. You might say Ian was staring into the face of death by karate chop.
Ian brought his dad, a business lawyer, to the get-together Norris had requested. Norris ominously brought his own lawyer, plus his business manager, plus his wife.
"It was all a little surreal," Ian said.
Norris may be 65, but "he looked like the kind of guy who could handle a tough guy," Ian said.
As for Ian, "I'm no eighth-degree black belt by any stretch of the imagination." (Norris is working on his ninth.) Ian looks like what he is, a kid from Rhode Island, studying the supremely esoteric field of "computational biology." He wears glasses. Chuck kills about three computational biologists every day. Then he eats their glasses.
Norris looked him up and down. "You look like a young Bill Gates," he said.
The two talked for about an hour. "It was very informal," Ian said. "He asked me about my plans, and he hinted at some promotion of merchandise."
For some reason, Norris decided to let him live. For now.
+ The high school girl at the counter is getting into the spirit of things. She tries to tell the one about Chuck Norris and the steaks. She gets it all wrong.
"Chuck Norris walked into a restaurant, ate four steaks, did five roundabout kicks, and then had sex with a waitress."
Matt: "It's "roundhouse' kicks."
+ Thursday afternoon, I tracked down Chuck Norris in Dallas. His publicist said he had decided to talk. I figured 1,200 miles was a safe distance. But then, he's Chuck Norris.
"What do you make of this, Mr. Norris?"
He sounded jovial. Maybe he'd just ripped out someone's spleen.
He said he now has his personal 20 favorite Chuck Norris jokes. His No. 1: "When the boogeyman goes to sleep every night, he checks his closet for Chuck Norris."
At first, he said, he didn't know what to make of the jokes, or Ian Spector and his Web site.
"I don't do computers," Norris said. But he has a 19-year-old stepson who does. Friends have e-mailed jokes to his wife, Gena.
Norris heard about the 50-million hits on the Web site. "I don't know what that means, 50-million hits," he said, "but 50-million of anything is impressive."
He said he could turn up in Tampa one of these days. He has a martial arts World Combat League that's growing. Tampa might be a good fit. "I heard there's some great boxing there."
Then he said, "Well, maybe I'll give you a call."
I put down the phone very carefully. Times staff writers Thomas French and Kelley Benham contributed to this report.ON THE WEB Ian Spector's Random Chuck Norris Fact Generator: www.4Q.cc/chuck/.
BE WARNED: It's not for the easily offended.A FEW OF CHUCK'S FAVORITES From a list of Chuck Norris' favorite Chuck Norris jokes:
+ Chuck Norris can lead a horse to water and make it drink.
+ When the boogeyman goes to sleep every night, he checks his closet for Chuck Norris.
+ Chuck Norris doesn't read books. He stares them down until he gets the information he wants.
+ When Chuck Norris does a pushup, he isn't lifting himself up - he's pushing the Earth down.
+ Chuck Norris does not sleep. He waits.MORE OF CHUCK'S FAVORITES
+ There is no theory of evolution. Just a list of creatures Chuck Norris has allowed to live.
+ Outer space exists because it's afraid to be on the same planet with Chuck Norris.
+ Chuck Norris is currently suing NBC, claiming Law and Order are trademarked names for his left and right legs.
+ Chuck Norris does not get frostbite. Chuck Norris bites frost.
+ There is no chin behind Chuck Norris' beard. There is only another fist.
+ Chuck Norris is so fast, he can run around the world and punch himself in the back of the head.
+ There is no such thing as global warming. Chuck Norris was cold, so he turned the sun up.
+ Chuck Norris doesn't wear a watch. He decides what time it is.
+ Chuck Norris gave Mona Lisa that smile.
+ Chuck Norris can slam a revolving door.
+ Chuck Norris is the reason why Waldo is hiding.
+ Remember the Soviet Union? They decided to quit after watching a Delta Force marathon on Satellite TV.