2104: Biff Tannen

Explain xkcd: It's 'cause you're dumb.
Jump to: navigation, search
Biff Tannen
I can't help myself; now I want to read a bunch of thinkpieces from newspapers in Biff's 1985 arguing over whether the growth of the region into a corporate dystopia was inevitable.
Title text: I can't help myself; now I want to read a bunch of thinkpieces from newspapers in Biff's 1985 arguing over whether the growth of the region into a corporate dystopia was inevitable.


Cueball is expounding a theory to White Hat regarding the alternate timeline seen in the movie Back to the Future II, in which the character Biff Tannen stole a time machine and used it to travel 60 years into the past to 1955. In that timeline, Future Biff gave his younger self a sports almanac containing 50 years of outcomes of sporting events, which enabled his younger self to earn millions from betting on horse races and other sporting events. The result is that the altered present of 1985 has become a corporate dystopia due to the actions of the exceedingly wealthy Biff and his company, BiffCo.

Cueball's theory is that the people now living in this dystopian 1985 would never know that their timeline was altered; as far as they are concerned, theirs is the true timeline. Because of this, they would seek to analyze every detail of Biff Tannen's rise to power, inventing their own theories as to his success and arguing with each other over the supporting evidence.

However, in the third panel, it becomes clear that this has all merely been Cueball's elaborate setup for a bad pun, causing White Hat to voice his disapproval.

Back to the Future II

This comic is based on Back to the Future II. In this movie, the character Biff Tannen steals the time machine, which is the main plot device, and uses it to go back in time from 2015 to 1955. He then gives Marty McFly’s sports almanac, containing the outcomes of 50 years (1950–2000) worth of sporting events, to his own younger self. His younger self uses this sports almanac to make millions by successfully betting on horse races. He then forms a company, and calls it BiffCo. In the movie, the protagonists reverse this, by going back to 1955 and stealing the almanac back soon after Biff delivered it. It is heavily implied that this universe, also called “1985A” in the movie, stops existing after this change.

The movie is set in the fictional town of Hill Valley, California. When the protagonists return to 1985, they find that Biff has turned the town’s “Courthouse Square” into a 27-story casino, and generally taken over Hill Valley. This has apparently resulted in the town being overrun by armed gangs, and beset by crime, violence, corruption, and an overall atmosphere of quasi-dystopian misery. This is what Cueball refers to as “the decline of the city, and general social decay”.

Further, a newspaper headline seen in that universe reads "Nixon to Seek Fifth Term; Vows to End Vietnam War by 1985". Nixon was a notoriously corrupt President of the United States who was involved in a burglary of his political opponents' campaign headquarters (either through directly ordering it or in covering it up), and implicated in various related illegal and unethical activities. While he was never impeached, he resigned in 1974 after he came to believe he would be be convicted by the Senate after he was impeached in the house.

The Vietnam War was a proxy war between the USA and USSR and their respective blocs, characterized by American efforts to eliminate communist-backed insurgents. In reality, real and perceived failures to make progress, and growing domestic opposition to the human and financial costs of the war, led to the withdrawal of all American armed forces by 1973.

This headline in the alternate timeline implies that Richard Nixon remained President until at least 1981. In reality, this would violate the 22nd Amendment, which limits Presidents to two four-year terms in office; hence, the headline implies that this amendment has been repealed or is being ignored. All of this suggests that the United States government has become much more authoritarian and corrupt in that universe. Further, the continuing Vietnam War would have resulted in millions more deaths and billions more dollars of additional direct and indirect losses than were caused in reality.


Cueball mentions that this universe – that is, the 1985A Back to the Future timeline – would not have any counterfactuals to work with. This is often short, in epistemology, for counterfactual conditionals, that is, conditional statements about what would be true if something were true that we know for a fact is not true. Randall’s what if? series is based on counterfactuals, since it explores hypotheticals — conditionals which are contrary to fact. For example, the first “what if?” post, about what would happen if you tried to hit a baseball that was thrown at 90% the speed of light, is a counterfactual, because we know for a fact that a baseball has never been thrown at such a speed[citation needed]. In the case of the 1985A universe, they would not have any information on the counterfactuals, that is, the facts about what would happen if Biff did not have this almanac.

Hillbilly Elegy

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis is a book, published in June 2016, that gives an account of growing up in a poor Rust Belt town, and gives a broader, probing look at the struggles of America’s white working class. This comic is a play on the title of this book, which has been described as explaining the “social, regional, and class” issues in white working-class America. The white American working class was a key factor in the election of U.S. President Donald Trump, and many critics have interpreted the book as an explanation of his election, which was deemed improbable by many analysts before it happened. Netflix had purchased the rights to an upcoming film adaptation of the book three days before this comic, prompting another wave of criticism of the book’s theories.

Cueball is proposing a similarly-titled book, set in the Back to the Future II 1985A timeline, that would describe the supposed factors leading to the rise of Biff Tannen in Hill Valley. In that universe, while the rise of Biff — and the subsequent decay of the city and other issues discussed above — is the result of his using a future sports almanac to cheat at sports betting, the rest of the population would have to guess at the structural societal issues that might have caused these otherwise inexplicable trends. Thus, Cueball compares such blind guessing with the analysis contained in Hillbilly Elegy.

White Hat’s reaction

This makes White Hat angry. This may be for various reasons:

  • Because it’s such a painfully long setup for a really stupid pun.
  • There is a decent chance that the book White Hat is currently reading is Hillbilly Elegy. If he is enjoying it, this would make the joke more insulting to him, as it compares the book to useless theorizing about an event which was really caused by time traveling.
  • After seeing the similarity alluded to by Cueball between our current reality and a reality where the book Hill Valley Elegy is written, he might imagine that we may be living in a world in which Trump’s election was predetermined, just as Biff’s rise to power was predetermined by time travel. If he opposes Donald Trump politically, it would probably frustrate him to imagine that being optimistic for the future would be in vain, as any social change he might hope for may be simply predetermined not to happen, perhaps by time travelers.
Relationship to political events

Randall is known to have supported Hillary Clinton, the main opponent of Donald Trump, in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, having made a comic just to promote her. This may add to explaining the comic in the following ways:

  • Randall may have made this comic to disparage a book which supposedly explains the election of the candidate he opposed, by comparing it to useless (and wrong) theorizing.
  • The comic may be intended as an insult to Trump himself, by comparing the dystopian 1985A universe, where Biff rose to power (albeit not as President) to the actual universe, where Trump was elected to the presidency.
  • The comic may be an allusion to alleged Russian tampering of the 2016 U.S. elections: Randall may be proposing that it is futile to attribute Donald Trump’s rise to power to any set of structural societal issues that may have acted indirectly, while ignoring the hidden, speculated, but far more direct cause of foul play, just as it would be futile to analyze Biff Tannen’s rise to power by similar means, ignoring the impact of foul play via time travel and a sports almanac.

The title text continues the comparison to the election situation by mentioning thinkpieces from newspapers that would appear in the Back to the Future II 1985A universe in which Biff has taken over. Various thinkpieces did appear in real life newspapers in an attempt to explain Trump’s rise to power after his election, and asking whether it was inevitable.

As Back to the Future II’s important October 2015 setting date approached, commentators began noting the similarities between the older version of the character Biff Tannen and then presidential candidate Donald Trump. When the comparison was brought to the attention of the film’s writer, Bob Gale, in an interview, he claimed that elements of Tannen’s personality were actually based on Trump, who was already well known in the late 1980s for his work in real estate and tabloid controversies. Thus, there is a real connection between Biff Tannen and Donald Trump. This supports the comparison between the two made by Randall. That being said, actor Tom Wilson has denied that his performance of the role was in any way based on Trump.


[Cueball talks while walking up behind White Hat, who is reading in an armchair.]
Cueball: You know, in the universe where Biff Tannen took Marty McFly’s sports almanac back in time, the people wouldn’t have any counterfactuals to work with.
Cueball: Their world would be the world.
[In a frame-less panel White Hat turns his head to look at Cueball as he keeps talking.]
Cueball: They would have spent decades debating which structural problems enabled the rise of BiffCo, the decline of the city, and general social decay.
Cueball: Everyone would find reasons it confirmed their pet theory.
[White Hat turns his head back to his book.]
Cueball: I'm going to write a book set in that universe. I'll call it Hill Valley Elegy.
White Hat: ... I hate you.

comment.png add a comment! ⋅ comment.png add a topic (use sparingly)! ⋅ Icons-mini-action refresh blue.gif refresh comments!


I thought Biff jumped from 2015 to 1955, not 1985...? Young Biff had the Almanac in his pocket at the High School dance and the tower he built was already in place in 1985.

This is an old unsigned comment. I would like to add for posterity that this has been fixed already. This guy tried to fix this information while the article was young and edits were happening super fast, so his edit got reversed as someone tried to add his edit over someone else's. It has since been fixed for good. 04:50, 30 January 2019 (UTC)

Collusion with a time traveler would bring a few things into focus. 15:24, 28 January 2019 (UTC)

You inspire one house painter to change careers & suddenly everyone blames you for everything.
ProphetZarquon (talk) 16:23, 28 January 2019 (UTC)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hillbilly_Elegy 15:39, 28 January 2019 (UTC)

Do we keep the “cheat at sports betting” wording? I don’t know if this is cheating. 17:22, 28 January 2019 (UTC)

Cheating is generally heald to be using something unavailable to anyone else in the normal course of play to gain an advantage. I'd say using the almanac towards those ends definitely applies. Mjm87 (talk) 19:07, 28 January 2019 (UTC)

If anyone questions the fact that newspapers in real life did attempt to assert that the rise of Trump was inevitable, various newspaper articles may easily be found as proof with a Google Search for [Donald Trump inevitable], preferably restricted to results before 2017, so as to remove results about things he did later. I don't know how best to incorporate such results as a source in the article, as the number of citations could easily be made too big, and also I don't know if anyone cares. 17:30, 28 January 2019 (UTC)

I am from Europe, and I do not understand the issue. If event X happens while you predicted Y, isn't researching and hypothising a good way to find out why, possibly learning new things in the process? Saying you don't want to debate the issue is like hating politics. 18:27, 28 January 2019 (UTC)

Many people who understand politics hate it. On behalf of my fellow continenteans, I apologize for, who apparently believes that politics overlaps with political science. 18:51, 28 January 2019 (UTC)
Note that Hillbilly Elegy could not have been intended to explain the Trump election, having been written before it. However, it was interpreted this way. I have attempted to make this clear in the explanation. 18:53, 28 January 2019 (UTC)
I understand the animosity toward far fetched explanations. It doesn't take election fraud or particularly unique societal circumstances for a Republican to win after two consecutive Democrat terms. Both candidates had horrible turnouts and the Republican candidate won. The more interesting question is about Trump winning the primaries and to understand this phenomenon one must dig deep and will find a reasonable yet complicated and boring chain of events inside the Republican party. Mitt Romney failed with lots of votes because Obama was incredibly popular and got even more in a climate when Democrats were reasonably afraid that they might lose the election. Trump pulled off the exact opposite of Romney.

If I'm not mistaken, Biff is based off of Donald Trump, so the Donald Trump analogy may be more likely than not. I can't quite recall where I read this, but there are quite a few similarities between the two. 19:14, 28 January 2019 (UTC)

Added 19:24, 28 January 2019 (UTC)

Why does this article go out of its way to avoid mentioning Hillary Clinton by name? 20:25, 28 January 2019 (UTC)KingLeary

Beats me. Fixed it. 04:47, 29 January 2019 (UTC)

XKCD on XKCD: "The word 'thinkpiece' sounds like a word made up by someone who didn't know about the word 'brain'." 01:00, 29 January 2019 (UTC)

The explanation should include info on what a "counterfactual" is. 04:49, 29 January 2019 (UTC)

Done 12:33, 29 January 2019 (UTC)

So I guess we're just construing this as a polarized editorial now. Appropriate context or no.

Seems fun. 01:50, 30 January 2019 (UTC)

Isn't the title text making a reference to Orwell?

Back to the Future is such a nice movie trilogy. If anyone is discouraged by the discussions over possible relations to Donald Trump, don't be. Those relations are pretty dim and do not worsen enjoyment of the movies, neither for Democrats nor for Republicans. I recommend that everyone here who hasn't watched these movies watch all three. They are a lot of fun. 04:58, 30 January 2019 (UTC)

Regarding politics

Wow, all this Trump stuff feels like a real stretch... 21:00, 28 January 2019 (UTC)

Nah21:42, 28 January 2019 (UTC)
It's pretty obvious to me, personally, that this is an analogy to the idea that if Trump rose to power via means nobody was aware of at the time, the book would seem a little humorous. I guess that seems like a huge stretch to some and obvious to others. The references to the roughly-two views on this in the article feel painful to read, controversial, and like the issues aren't really honestly and fairly laid out. I wish there were some way to really give respect to both views. Even if many disagree with Randall, I think for many it is clear this is the subject of the comic.

Note there is a (joke?) conspiracy theory that Trump is a time traveler, using technology provided by his uncle John Trump... 23:06, 28 January 2019 (UTC)

That would explain why he was able to do so well in the electoral college despite losing the popular vote. He knew which states would be close, so he could focus his efforts on narrowly winning those instead of narrowing losing them, and not worry about states like CA that would have such wide margins of victory that campaigning wouldn't affect who won them. 07:06, 29 January 2019 (UTC)
I think if Trump were a time traveller, he should be much richer, because he would have bet on sports, or invested in big companies while they were small. Instead, he invested in real estate, which was not a good option if he knew about the housing crisis beforehand. The only way I can think of to attribute his life choices to time travel meddling is: if the general public knew that time travel exists, this is the best way not to draw suspicion. 13:06, 29 January 2019 (UTC)
Or to provide reasonable doubt for a super-secret Temporal Court that recognizes the right to presumed innocence. I think I would enjoy reading that story.-- 21:58, 29 January 2019 (UTC)

Note that Biff Tannen was explicitly modeled on Donald Trump (reference). -- Resuna (talk) 14:14, 8 February 2019 (UTC)

The Trump stuff in this comic is completely irrelevant - Kynde had a thing for making as many articles about Trump as he could, even when there is no connection. (For example, this page used to link to his Sad comics page, which I have since disconnected from every article it was linked in). The Relationship to political events subheading - added by a well-meaning contributor who I'm sure just wanted to preserve the page's content and make it easier to follow - is unnecessary, since this comic clearly has no relationship to political events as read. People who say that it does, are trying to forge a connection that does not exist. Biff Tannen being modeled on Trump is an interesting piece of trivia, to be sure, but it is not relevant to the explanation of this comic. Hawthorn (talk) 13:04, 9 October 2019 (UTC)

List layout

In the two instances where the article considered alternative reasons for a feature of the comic, I have turned these reasons into a list, as this makes it easier to understand and cuts down on the repetitive "Alternatively" and such. 04:15, 30 January 2019 (UTC)


I have changed instances of "the universe where BiffCo exists" to "the 1985A Back to the Future timeline", or simply "1985A" for short. This is for three reasons:

  • To keep the article cleaner.
  • To keep future misreaders of the article from either:
    • cutting down on the words because they seem unnecessary
    • adding a comma between "universe" and "where", which would ruin the construct.
  • To be consistent with the terminology used by Doc Brown himself.

I have established this wording at the beginning of the article. 04:19, 30 January 2019 (UTC)


I have added subheadings. If you don't like subheadings then remove them. This wiki has no style guide. I think they help distinguish the structure of the document. The guy who removed the part about counterfactuals can now more easily skip that part, and we can now more easily talk about specific parts of the article here in the talk page.

Also I know that this is the third topic I have added in a row and that the button says "use sparingly", but these are major changes to the article, and therefore I expect someone to come by and complain and make a huge thread out of it. 05:28, 30 January 2019 (UTC)