Tuesday, December 15, 2020

The Four Essentials

Amidst all the long list of things one misses during this sheltering time, here’s a surprising one: I miss telling jokes. Well, I suppose I could tell some over Zoom, but mostly the occasion for joke-telling comes up for me during dinners with groups of people. I have a healthy repertoire of both the acceptable and the naughty ones (Santa, hope you’re not reading this!) and once I get going, one joke suggests another. Or better yet, someone else comes back with their joke and the ping-pong game is on!


I’ve long been a fan of independent learning, the kind that insists that all needed information is stored in your own body and mind, ready to pull out at a moment’s notice without having to thumb through pages or scroll through your phone’s screen. To that end, I’ve learned some 25 myths and fairy tales that are ready for the next campfire I find myself in, or more commonly, that are in my back pocket during long walks with kids who start whining about how tired they are with 3 more miles of our little “adventure” (i.e., hike) left. The story serves as a welcome piggyback ride that carries them through to the end. 


Then there’s 25 or so poems that are handy when you want to say what you really mean and bring the room to a hushed silence. There’s the 200 plus folk songs with guitar accompaniment that can gather a group together instantly and the 300 plus jazz standard songs with piano accompaniment that bring such comfort when visiting Homes for the Aged. 


I think of stories, songs, poems, jokes as the four essentials of enlivening any social situation. I’ve spent my life learning and memorizing these kinds of things and the payoff is exponential. In the past few months, the jazz standard repertoire at my fingertips has been wonderfully useful in my recent Jazz History class, the folk songs with guitars just perfect for both the neighborhood sing and the Zoom music class with my granddaughter’s 3rdgrade, the poems coming up occasionally in my online Orff workshops and the stories were perfect for the four weeks this summer with the grandchildren.


But it’s been a long time since I’ve told jokes. 


I’m not exactly a virtuoso joke teller—for one thing, I’m horrible at accents, which often comes in handy for certain kinds of jokes (not talking about the insulting ethnic stereotypes here, just the kind where it gives a little flavor and color). But I do have a feel for the musical side of the story, paying attention to rhythm and phrasing and accent and the artistic use of silence, the just-right pause before the punchline. And so jokes, like poetry and stories and music, can be written down and still funny, but it is the live three-dimensional performance in which they truly live. 


And so I stumbled upon a Youtube of Buddy Hackett telling a few jokes on the Johnny Carson show and that is what made me realize how I miss telling jokes. So I’ll re-tell one of his here, but without the physicality, it won’t carry as much punch. Here goes:


The city man goes hunting out in the country and shoots a duck. The duck falls from the sky, hits a barn roof and falls to the ground. The man comes to retrieve the duck and a farmer walks out of the barn. 


“What are you doing?” he asks.


“I’m just going to get the duck I shot.”


“Not your duck. It hit my roof and fell on my property, so it’s my duck now.”


“But I shot it!” the hunter protests.


“Doesn’t matter, Mr. City Man. Out here in the country we respect private property. If the duck is on my property, then it’s mine.”


“But like I said, I’m the one who shot it. It doesn’t matter where the duck falls.”


“Well, I’ll tell you what. Let’s settle the matter the way we do out here in the country. I’m going to kick you in the groin as hard as I can, then you get to kick me in the groin as hard as you can. We keep taking turns like that and the last man standing gets the duck.”


“Well, that’s a pretty strange way to settle a dispute. But okay, let’s do it.”


“Good,” said the farmer, “I’ll go first.” And he kicks the man and the man doubles over with pain and writhes around on the ground groaning and moaning for a full ten minutes. Finally, he slowly gets up and says, “Okay, my turn.”


The farmer replies, “That’s okay. You can have the duck.”


Like I said, you just have to be there. 

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