By Gerald “Strib” Stribling
I don’t like puns very much.
Puns are the lowest form of humor, next to slipping on a banana peel. They’re never very funny. People don’t laugh at them so much as they roll their eyes and groan. Puns should be banned from the pages of The Tattooed Buddha. My appreciation of puns ends with em-bare-ass-ment, which actually was a pun written by the great author Robert Penn Warren in his classic novel All the King’s Men. So you can’t blame it on me. Even a pun made up by a great author is an embarrassment.
I love a good long joke with a great punch line. Some of my favorite punchlines include “Good. Go get your own damn blanket,” “Oh, no, you’re just the one that caught my eye,” “Okay, he’s dead all right. Now what am I supposed to do?” and the immortal “I never had five dollars before.”
They’re hilarious if you know the backstory.
And sometimes, you know, situations just present themselves, and one is inspired to add a punch line to an otherwise mundane conversation.
I used to work in human services with a Baptist preacher, who was the son of a relatively famous Baptist preacher who for awhile took a mission trip to Germany. My co-worker was about 12 years old, and he was placed in a very multicultural class at a school for non-German speakers. When his teacher told him to do something as he dawdled “quickly, quickly,” all the other kids started chanting “quickly quickly.” The whole time my friend (who was a chubby kid) had to walk to the front of the classroom from the rear of the classroom and back, and his nickname for the rest of the school year was “quickly quickly,” a source of deep humiliation for him.
He continued. “Sometimes I wanted to shake my fists in the air,” he said as he shook his fists in the air, “and say at the top of my voice, ‘I am not an adverb!’,” which he said at the top of his voice.
To which I added, at the top of my voice, fists in the air, “I am not an adverb! I am a human being!” You know. Like in the movie The Elephant Man.
I am not quick enough to successfully use “That’s what she said” very effectively, it always hits me about three beats too late. But it is one-of-a-kind opportunities like adverb-boy that have sometimes produced a snarky remark before I really have a chance to evaluate either its worth or its funniness. Believe me, I bite my tongue a lot. That’s why Facebook is so great. It gives you time to compose the perfect come-back wise-crack.
Humor puts people at ease. When I was the head honcho of a project called the “Incarcerated Veterans Transition Program” I ran all around the state to interview potential program participants in a 12-prison system. I couldn’t carry a laptop inside the prisons, and had to take all my notes on paper. I always used a big elementary-school notebook emblazoned with the biggest Hello Kitty I could find. When you sit down for a serious conversation with some murderer or guy who fell behind on his child care payments, and pull out a big pink “Hello Kitty” notebook, the guy can’t help but giggle, and the ice is broken.
All those cons were military veterans. When I ran into a Marine among them, which was fairly often as you can imagine, I said to them, “Didn’t anyone tell you? This program doesn’t serve Marines.” Then I watched their faces as the slow-witted jarheads figured out that I was messing with them.
The problem with life experiences is that there are so few punchlines to go along with them. Then there are the stories you only tell certain kinds of people, especially those of the male gender. It kills me to think that some women are convinced that all men talk about is sex and boobs all the time. I’ve never even been around Marines who talked about sex and boobs all the time. Don’t flatter yourself, ladies. The moon does not rise and set in your decolletage, which is French for “cleavage.”
They say that all great humor comes from suffering, but I don’t know that that’s true. Frequently humor is used to relieve suffering. And then there was this time in Hong Kong…
Well, actually it was in Guanzhou, but close enough to Hong Kong that you could take a ferry there. I lived on the 17th floor of an apartment building, and I had a Chinese friend, a woman friend. She was in her 30s, a lovely woman, surely, who during the month I knew her anguished over the eventual breakup of her relationship with a man, a married man. They spent one last torrid weekend together, and the next time I saw her, she was, as they say, fit to be tied.
She lived on the 22nd floor. It was after dark when I visited her. We’d spent many evenings in her apartment, eating Chinese food and talking mostly about Buddhism. There aren’t many Buddhists left in China.
I told her about the Eightfold Path, and how a meditation practice can make her mind stronger, so she’ll never have to be upset to that degree again. She said she knew all that, she just couldn’t make herself “do” it.
She was in bed in her flannel jammies, weeping despondently, the blanket pulled up to her chin. She was so sad. I wished we were drinking cheap French wine from the wine shop across the street, but we weren’t. It didn’t seem like my presence was doing any good. Still, when she wasn’t sobbing, she was at least talking. Talking about how much she hurt.
Humor. You know you’re saying something funny if you can make someone in the audience snort.
Finally she said, “I’m going to jump off the balcony RIGHT NOW!”
“Oh, you don’t want to do that,” I said, “halfway down you’ll change your mind.”
She snorted just then, and I knew the worst was over.
Editor: Dana Gornall