My father’s struggle with punch lines
“Hey, I got a joke….”
The lively chatter subsides. My father adjusts his large glasses, trifocals big as picture windows on a lake home. His cheeks are perpetually pink, pinker now in anticipation.
“Why do…?” He giggles. “No, wait....”
He has to think a moment.
It is just the four of us: my parents, my husband, and me. We are dawdling at a hole-in-the-wall barbecue joint, our bare elbows sticking to the plastic red-and-white-checkered tablecloths. Bits and pieces of conversation float over the table as we talk about nothing and everything. My father throws in a joke.
“Honey, how does it go?” Perplexed, he turns to my mother as his fingers tap his shiny head. The punch line suddenly goes off somewhere in his brain and he starts laughing.
“Okay, when lawyers eat,” he stops short. “Hold on….”
The rest of us sit quiet, waiting. This is rare, just the four of us, simply spending time together. The evening lays ahead of us. Right now there are none of the demands of daily life plucking at us like crows on corn. We’ve had a name-brand novelty cocktail or two. Now and then, my mother will command my husband, “Ron! Get some more Mike-aritas!”
“Yeah, that’s it!” Suddenly, it comes to him and he starts laughing again.
My father can do anything. He is a master craftsman; he builds gorgeous pieces of furniture. He can lovingly and calmly tend to an owie on a wailing grandchild. He can identify the sound of a 1939 Farmall tractor from 100 paces. He will stop to help a stranger change a flat tire.
Yes, my father can do anything—except tell a joke.
“Why do....” His arms straighten and he wags his hands before him, like a magician preparing to pull a rabbit out of a hat. He shifts in the hard wooden bench, moves a bottle of barbecue sauce, and adjusts a fork ever so slightly, a stagehand at his own performance.
“Why do sharks eat their young?” He says. Before it’s even out of his mouth, he begins to road with laughter. He laughs like he sneezes, sonic booms, startling and amazing in their sheer scope, resounding blocks away. The three of us are baffled into silence. It sounds kind of familiar, this joke, but something somewhere has gone horribly wrong.
My father has known for 50 years that he can’t tell a joke, at least without a team of able assistants standing by, ready to sort through rubble and salvage what they can. My husband carefully asks his new father-in-law, “Do you mean, ‘Why don’t sharks eat lawyers?’”
“Yeah! That’s it! Okay! Whatever!” Overcome with laughter, he waves away my husband’s nitpicking. Only petty philistines would split hairs like this. For him, the setup is simply an annoying roadblock to the punch line. Nouns and verbs, niggling details.
“All right, all right!” He concedes. “Why don’t sharks eat lawyers?!” He holds his breath, waiting for us to share in his enjoyment. He is undaunted. In fact, the endeavor has taken on a life of its own, strangely beautiful in its own right. I marvel.
There are very few things I will try if I don’t think I’ll be able to acquit myself successfully. And if I attempt something and it doesn’t come off perfectly, chances are I will never try again, mired in debilitating self-consciousness. Yet here is my father: His work as an accountant, and his avocation as a woodworker, call for precision. But here and now, he celebrates the imperfection, joyful in the moment—happy and willing to fail.
Though the punch line has yet to be delivered, we all collapse in laughter. It’s a corny old joke, but my father has made it utterly—spectacularly—his own, and the conclusion is irrelevant, really. His artistry lies in the trying. Maybe one of these days a joke will come out of his mouth, words in order, delivery, set-up, and punch line executed perfectly. When and if that happens, I think I’ll be a bit sad. In the meantime, Mike-aritas for everyone!