Wednesday, December 28, 2011

We're the Punchline: The Real Meaning of a Joke

When I first heard the joke ,years ago, I thought the subtext was something about American ingenuity, and the good natured P.T. Barnum con-men who gave America its lively carnival atmosphere – greed tempered with mischief and a devilish wink of the eye.

Now I know better.

Here’s the joke:

A man walks into a bar. He says to the bartender. I’ll bet you fifty dollars I can bite my own eye. Well, the bartender knows that’s impossible -- an easy fifty bucks. He puts the money on the bar and the man takes out his glass eye, bites it and puts it back. Then he says: I’ll bet you a hundred bucks I can bite my other eye. Well, no one has two glass eyes. Hoping to cancel his losses and double his original bet, the bartender slaps the money down. The man takes out his false teeth and bites his other eye. The bartender is furious. But the man offers him one last bet. “I’ll wager five hundred dollars that I can slide this shot glass all the way along the countertop here, and run beside it, pissing into it – and not get one drop on your bar!” Easy money: that IS impossible. So the man strips down and slides the glass and takes off. He pisses all over the bar. The bartender can’t help himself, he lets out a whoop of victory. But the man at the other end of the bar isn’t so happy. “God damn it!” he snarls. “What’s the matter, buddy?” the bartender asks. “What’s the matter?! This guy just bet me a thousand dollars that he could piss all over your bar and you’d be happy about it!”

Now I finally understand this joke. It isn’t about the good natured prankster and the rubes tricked out of the big tent by the words THIS WAY TO THE EGRESS, thinking it was some new kind of bird.

No this joke is in fact the story of American capitalism today. Set it to music and it could be the marching song of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

The con-man is a prototype of all the hedge-fund swindlers and Ponzi schemers, the dot com dodgers and credit default swap dealers.

The bartender is you and me, average Americans betting on common sense, expecting reasonable outcomes, and perhaps also the tea-party dupe, cheering on as his business is vandalized.

The guy the other end of the bar is the investor, the bubble-dude, the my-house-is-an ATM sucker, betting on a ‘sure thing’, always outsmarted by the Madoff mandarins of wall street. It’s a good laugh.

But the joke is on us.

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