Violating the posted rules of the conference room, Saturday had brought liquor.
And a stack of red ribbed plastic cups, a bag of ice, nonalcoholic mixers, bar tools, and plastic containers of olives and sliced lemons and limes. Wednesday looked at the collection and scowled.
“I assume coffee will not be necessary,” Wednesday asked.
“Not unless you want an Irish Coffee.”
Monday walked in, balancing a pile of papers. One sheet fluttered off the top and escaped through the open door. A split second later came Tuesday, clutching the apprehended sheet in one raised hand.
“Thanks”: Monday to Tuesday. Then, noticing the makeshift bar, to Saturday: “I do not suppose it would be worth my time to remind you of the explicit rules regarding alcoholic beverages.”
“You suppose correctly…or, is it, you do not suppose incorrectly? Really, Monday, your language could use a colonic.”
Friday and Thursday entered next. Sunday, last.
As Saturday had already taken residence at the head of the table, the others filled in as per order: Sunday to the chair immediately right of the head, then Monday and on through Friday. Monday closed the door and glanced clockwards: “It is early still, but because everyone is here, why don’t we begin? It is Saturday’s turn at the front and it seems we are to be treated to happy hour in addition to a joke.”
Saturday just smiled, unscrewing the top off of a bottle of gin. “What can I get started for everyone?”
Protests…requests for nonalcoholic drinks…claims of I’m not thirsty…were all dismissed by Saturday, who commenced to mixing whatever came to mind for each of them. Soon a filled red plastic cup sat in front of each; eventually, in all cases, one sip followed another, all protests forgotten.
Said Monday, “Before you get started, do we have any old business?”
A few moments of silence were broken by Wednesday. “Will you please let us know who is to get coffee next time? Will we skip whoever’s turn it was supposed to be this week, or will we proceed where we left off last?”
Monday consulted notes, while around the table came the sounds of sips and sighs. “That would be me, if we do not skip. Oh. But that is the day I have that meeting to go to and—”
Tuesday, quickly: “I’ll be happy to take your turn. Then I’ll do next time as well. It’s fine.”
“Alright. Thank you, Tuesday. So, moving on—”
“I would just like to ask, then, Monday, what your plans were for today. Since it was to be your turn and you apparently had not made plans to get the coffees.”
“Yes, Wednesday, I was running late today. But I had still planned to make the run. Perhaps we should set aside this topic until a later date and move on to new business. Anyone? No? Then, Saturday, the front is yours.”
“Fan-tas-tic! First I’d like to make a toast.” Holding up a cup and waiting for the others to do the same. One by reluctant one, they did. “A toast to Tuesday, who always knows just the right thing to say, and when to say it. Usually, of course, right after Monday. To Tuesday!” Saturday sipped. The others repeated, less enthusiastically, “to Tuesday,” before sipping.
Tuesday said, “Thank you, Saturday, for that unexpected, if somewhat backhanded, compliment.”
“Yes, Saturday, as the…’compliment’ engaged me by implication, I ‘thank’ you as well.”
“No need to—” here Saturday demonstrated exaggerated air quotation marks— “thank me, friends. That was quite sincere. And now, for another. A toast to Wednesday, for keeping our toes to flame on such important matters as coffee and tea! To Wednesday!”
“Alright, we can all see where this is headed. I think you should stop with the toasts and just—”
But Thursday interrupted, red ribbed cup held high, “To WEDNESDAY! Who I follow with GREAT honor!” Thursday’s loud, prolonged gulps were barely heard over the reluctant, non-unison mumbles of “To Wednesday” from around the table. Sips, less brief than previously, filled the space between this exclamation and Saturday’s continuation.
“And to all the rest! My peers and friends! Without whom I would be nothing! Here-here!”
“Here- here,” in unison, this time, if not all as enthusiastically as Saturday’s cheer.
After this round of sips, Saturday began refilling all of the cups—with little logic, it seemed. No questions this time about what everyone was drinking; indeed, no one received the same drink as the first time. But this time, no protests.
“Soooo, my selection today involves this joke I heard. But this isn’t about the joke per se. Instead, I would like to…to deconstruct a joke and the joke-telling and joke-creating process. And I would like this to be participatory.”
“Sounds like it might be fun,” said Friday, reaching for a lemon wedge.
“So long as you are open to the criticism such participation may entail,” said Wednesday.
“Oh, perfectly open. In fact, that would help me a lot. See, it occurs to me that my jokes have not been as funny lately as I would like them to be. At first I thought, well I just need more jokes—better jokes—jokes no one has heard before. But now I’m thinking it might not be quantity or even quality, but delivery. I’ve been obsessed with this. I think about it all the time. I can barely sleep and my eating’s been off, too. I even considered medication…like, maybe I’m clinically depressed or something.”
Saturday paused, and everyone’s eyes focused front, computing this unexpected show of reflection and self-doubt. Then Thursday spit out a spray of rum- and spit-laced fluid halfway across the table in an unsuccessful attempt to stifle a laugh. Saturday kept the straight face for a moment, but then joined Thursday’s guffaws.
“OK,” said Saturday. “I haven’t exactly been depressed. But it has been bugging me.”
“Saturday,” Wednesday said, sliding an empty cup across the table to Saturday for refilling, “have you considered that the context for humor has changed? Frequently your jokes are, well, questionable, at best, when it comes to…race and gender.”
“And sex. And profanity,” interjected Sunday.
“Or stupidity and childishness,” said Monday.
“Actually, what I was getting at, is that there was a time when you could depend on marginalized groups not being able to speak out against some jokes. Not to mention,” continued Wednesday, “that the contexts in which jokes are told are much more likely to be diverse now. Which means it is harder and harder to tell some jokes without them offending someone listening.”
“I hear what you are saying, Wednesday—I hear what all of you are saying. But I can usually deal with aspects of a joke that might make it…problematic for some audiences. Here, I’ll give you an example. Let’s say I want to tell a joke that involves two little old African American ladies arguing in church.” To Monday, who was taking notes in between sips: “Now, this isn’t my actual joke, I’m just giving an example.”
Then, back to group: “This is an old joke; you’ve probably heard it. But it’s a good example. OK. So there’s two Black old ladies arguing in church. Now, I would only tell this joke in front of people who’d already get that these are specifically two Black church sisters. I’d make my voice do like,” and here Saturday’s voice transformed—more nasal, “dis like I hab a mouf full of faws teef or sometin an ima ole lady—see, that’s how the audience would already know.”
“Yes.” Friday’s voice was as laced with sarcasm as with vodka: “and we all know how much Black audiences love to hear themselves sound like that.”
“Ah. But this is a joke originally told by a Black person. Context. Like Wednesday was saying. This would have been a Black joke told by a Black joke-teller to a Black audience. So—where was I?” Sipping: “Oh. So this joke’s about these two old church women arguing and—sorry, Sunday—in the original version, there’s a dirty word repeated. You could use lotsa words, some dirtier than others. Like, if you wanted to tone down the dirtiness, you might use ‘dick’—again, sorry, everybody. I’ll just say ‘the d-word.’ OK. But to amp it up you could say co— I mean, the c-word, for…you know…that part of the male anatomy.”
“Will you be actually telling the joke, Saturday,” asked Thursday, pushing an empty cup down for a refill.
“Yes. Sorry. But just as an example, right?” Saturday did not miss a beat, pouring, mixing and talking simultaneously. “I explained that the original joke is contextual and involves profanity. And part of the humor comes from the image of these two little old ladies, in church, talking in this funny voice, saying this word—either the d-word or the c-word. But I could change all that, easily, to remove the racial aspects, the profanity, the religious stuff. And the joke would be just as funny. So here’s the joke in it’s new form:
I ran across my neighbors, old Mrs. Johnson and old Mrs. Jones, the other day while I was walking Rex. They were arguing on Mrs. Johnson’s front porch.”
“—Now, see, this is something else I did with the joke,” said Saturday in self-interruption. “I put myself in it. That’s personalization. Makes it even funnier. And I could even make it funnier by giving the dog a name the listeners all know. Say…my dog, Wednesday—”
“—Except, that might not be funny to Wednesday,” said Wednesday in self-reference.
“Ah, but a joke doesn’t have to be funny to everyone listening, as long as it is funny to most. Joke-tellers often make an audience member the joke’s butt, for more laughs from everyone else.”
“AND…” Monday, making an exaggerated tapping motion with fingertip to wristwatch face.
“Oh, sorry. So:
I ran across old Mrs. Johnson and old Mrs. Jones the other day while I was walking Rex, arguing on Mrs. Johnson’s front porch. ‘I says, ‘What’s going on?’ Mrs. Johnson said, ‘What’s going on is that she said that my late husband, rest his soul, had warts on his wee-wee.’
Notice how now I am just talking in a high-pitched, frail, universal old lady voice? And notice how calling it a wee-wee is still funny?
‘I did not say your late husband had warts on his wee-wee,’ said Mrs. Jones. ‘I clearly heard you say my late husband, rest his soul, had warts on his wee-wee.’ ‘Bertha, I did not say your husband had warts on his wee wee!’ Well, by now Rex is straining on the leash, and I’m thinking I could be here all day.
So I says, ‘Look, you two have been best friends for so long. Why can’t you just let this go?’ ‘But I can’t let it go! Sheee said that my late husband, rest his soul, had warts on his wee-wee!’
‘For the last time, Bertha, I did not say your late husband had warts on his wee-wee. I said it always looked like he had warts on his wee-wee!’ “
Saturday paused, and a split second later the laughter began—first a small trickle, swelling to a sustained outpouring.
“For the record,” said Wednesday, laughs subsiding, “there remain problematic aspects even after you have removed the d-word and the racial elements. Age-ism, for one. The joke depends on a myth of elderly women not being sexual beings. Not to mention the implication of infidelity.”
“But,” said Tuesday, “even you, yourself laughed. That would seem to suggest that a significant portion of the populace accepts these tropes as humorous. Which, of course, is not to say that they are less problematic. I guess I am just trying to say…” Trailing off. Less sure. “Well, anyway, I think that this is a good example of how a joke could be adapted.”
Said Sunday, “I like the use of wee-wee,” followed by chuckles and more beverage spray.
“Yesss,” said Monday, “When all else fails, resort to toddler-influenced potty language. So. Saturday. Example noted. But are you going to get to your point? We only have the conference room for—”
“One hour fifteen minutes. I know.” Saturday poured seven new drinks in fresh cups and passed them out. Most had not finished with the drink in front of them. Moments of indecision round the table were resolved by strategies of quickly downing existing drinks, adding old contents to new cups, or setting aside old cups in favor of the replacements.
“As I was saying. I don’t think good joke-telling’s a matter of context or times. All that can be overcome. It’s the delivery. And I think it just took a good joke-teller—someone even better than myself—to make this clear to me. And here’s where I’m gonna tell this joke I heard, but I have to give you the background first—” Here Monday again turned watch-checking into high drama— “But it will only take another few moments.”
“It happened the other day when I caught a cab to go uptown. I’d just climbed in when this woman piles in beside me and asks if she can share the ride with me to J Street.”
“Wait just a minute,” protested Tuesday. “This is a joke, right? You’re going to say that her right breast was exposed and she left her baby on the bus.”
“Nooo, that was from last time. And it was her left breast. This isn’t a joke. It was a a real woman and she wanted to be dropped off at J Street uptown. Fully clothed. Oh. And she was wearing clown make up.”
“Clown make up?” Monday’s note-taking paused, pen in mid-air.
“Yes. Clown make-up.”
***End, Part One***