Tuesday, August 5, 2008

The Bell Ringer Joke Revisited

or:

If I'm Destined to Get a Pulitzer Prize for 02008, This is the Line of Thought That Will Earn It For Me

I'm pretty sure that it's been at least two decades since the idea of The Bell Ringer Joke started knocking around in my head. (I've mentioned the joke in a previous blog post.) There has been hope and despair, laughter and great disappointment, spread out over more than half my lifetime!

On Thursday morning, out of the blue, I had a few epiphanies regarding the joke for all of these years.

Epiphany #1: The first and second parts of the joke are spectacular, and if I had not been told at the time that I first heard them that there was a mysterious third part floating about in the ether, those two known parts would have been deeply satisfying. There would have been no disappointment associated with The Bell Ringer Joke whatsoever. The two parts stand together as a complete and brilliant story, riotously funny. Which is to say that the third part is only relevant if you know it exists. It is profoundly unnecessary to the success of the other two parts.

Having tracked down the missing third part, (since the internet made all such information readily available to all who seek it), I was precisely as disappointed by the third part as I had been warned I would be. For so many years, the rumor was not merely that there was a third part. Instead the rumor was that there was a third part and that it was a terrible disappointment to everyone who heard it. ("How bad could it be?", thought I, naively. The answer: Every bit as bad as everyone said it was.

This is why it took so many years to get to the third part: It was so bad that nobody who had heard it was willing to repeat it. In fact, there were claims of its being so bad that people completely excised it from their memories.)

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Epiphany #2: There is a reason why the third part is so horribly disappointing. And it's not really an intangible -- "you know it when you hear it" -- reason. On Thursday morning, I determined exactly why the third part is so disappointing. And I can articulate it simply. But first, as I tend to do so very frequently in this life, I feel the need to preface what I'm about to say.

Preface: I've never written a thesis on humor. I'm not very interested in doing so -- although I suppose if someone were to offer me a doctorate for doing so, I think there are certainly less appealing thesis topics to try to tackle.

I'm sure that many theses have been written on the topic of humor. I wouldn't be at all surprised to learn that The Bell Ringer Joke plays a fairly central role in at least a few of them. To be honest, I'm not terribly interested in reading any such theses. Although again, I suspect these would hardly be the most unpleasant theses to have to wade through.

It may well be the case that the more you try to figure out what makes something funny, the less funny it becomes. (This is the "dissecting a butterfly" argument, which applies also to poetry and beauty (and probably lots of other things).) That's not my point here. I'm not trying to provide a template that can be used to devise new jokes. Nor am I saying "if a joke doesn't fit this criterion, it's not funny". Rather, I'm pointing out where the disjoint is between the two successful parts of the joke and the unsuccessful third part.

So, here it is: The structure of the punch line in each of the two successful parts of the joke plays with the congruence of the literal and the figurative meanings of the idioms used. (In the first part, "I don't know, but his face rings a bell". In the second part, "I don't know, but he's a dead ringer for that other guy".)

This is not the same structure as the third part. The third part has nothing to do with bridging the literal/figurative gap. And for that matter, it has nothing to do with idiom. Frankly, I don't remember the third punch line, and I was so disgusted by it that I'm unwilling to look it up right now. But here's what I remember of it:

It was a pun.

Now, I've written before of my general distaste for the pun. I think it's a pathetic approach to humor. Rarely is it clever and almost never is it genuinely funny. That's my own bias, and I'll freely admit to that. However, that's not where my case against the third part rests.

Nor does it rest in my assertion that it is a horribly convoluted and horribly contrived pun. (Which it is!)

My case against the third punch line rests merely in its not being of the same type as the first two punch lines.

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If we can agree that the horrible third part should be thrown on the scrap heap [and I think all reasonable people can agree on this], we're left with the question of whether there should be a better third part that's properly designed and better fits with the other two parts. I am of the opinion that this is the case. Perhaps it's just based on years of frustration and pent up longing, but I really do believe that there should be a third part of the joke. That would provide closure, assuming that it's worthy of being matched with the others.

Epiphany #3: (This is the real shocker of the bunch.) I've been looking in the wrong place for the missing part. What's missing is not, in fact, the third part. What's missing is the first part! Logically, this makes sense.

The "second" guy is a dead ringer for the other guy. That's established by the fraternal relationship. The "first" guy's face rings a bell. Why? That deserves a set-up. Obviously, it's all in the telling, and it's easy enough to start out by establishing merely as a part of the narrative that the guy whose face rings a bell was taking over for a brother who died or retired or went missing. But I've come to understand that that's a cop out! "Easy enough" isn't necessarily right. Wouldn't it be better if there were a funny story to establish what happened to the first brother?

Of course it would!

So, now the task is not to establish not a new third part, but rather to establish a new first part, which would bump the other parts into the second and third slots. The end result is that you end up with a three-part joke (which, in my view, it deserves to be). And if it's built correctly, it will actually feel related to the other two parts, which is really what all of this longing and disappointment have been about.

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When I was in high school, I took a career assessment. The idea was that by asking a series of questions about a person's interests and personality tendencies, it was possible to make reasonable recommendations about what line of work that person might be best suited for. Much to my surprise, I was judged most suited to being a stand-up comedian.

Funny, that.

I think I could probably come up with a funny routine and get some laughs if I were to put some real effort into it. Doing an open mic night is something that I've long contemplated but never bothered to look into. Maybe I'll get to that before I die. Maybe not.

I don't think anyone who knows me actually thinks of me as being "Mr. Funny". I'm not a cut-up and I've never really put much effort into my joke-telling skills. I hardly ever actually tell a joke, and when I do, it tends to be a very simple joke--largely because I have such a terrible memory, it's just so difficult for me to remember any very complicated story jokes. I'm not terribly comfortable in front of crowds -- I get nervous. And I am naturally a very reserved person, largely keeping quiet and not saying a lot. I am not what you would call a raconteur. (I write at length, but I really don't talk a whole lot at all.)

All of this suggests that if you want me to provide you with a new joke, you're probably looking in the wrong place. However, that's just what I'm about to do.

Again, this must come with some warnings.

1) I'm actually just going to provide you with an outline of a joke -- a skeleton, if you will. In order to become a genuinely good joke, it would need some flesh on its bones. Part of that is simply having a joke teller who knows how to "sell" the story. But part of it is in the actual wording, and (at the moment) I'm just not ready to invest the effort in trying to perfectly craft it.

2) Part of what makes The Bell Ringer Joke so special is that it isn't in the least bit blue. That is, there's no bawdiness in it at all. Now, if you know me, you probably know that I rarely ever cuss. Frankly, I came to realise a lot of years ago that cussing is just a lazy habit. It's easy to do, hard to avoid once you establish the habit, and really doesn't accomplish much. So a long while ago, I decided to make an effort to get out of the habit. In realizing just how lazy a habit it is, I think I came to really appreciate people who don't use it as a crutch for expressing themselves. This has extended to an overall appreciation for civility and a bit of disdain for crassness. You may call me old-fashioned, or call me a prude, or accuse me of being against free speech. That's your right. But the truth is that I think people can do better and I believe that the Jerry Springerification of America is one of the worst things that has happened in our society during my lifetime. I'm not as old as some, but I'm old enough to remember when adults were generally responsible enough to not expose children (in public, anyway) to foul language. I think that was a better time.

This is not to say that I can't appreciate a well-placed cuss word. One of my favorite movie quotes of all time comes from Friday, when Smokey says, "You got knocked the f*** out!" That's a hilarious line! Part of it is Chris Tucker's delivery. But delivery alone does not make the line. If you take the F-bomb out, it just isn't funny, no matter how well delivered it is. I understand this, and I appreciate it. I'm not "above" foul language, I just think it's altogether too overused in today's society. The unfortunate downside of this is that it loses its power and just becomes so much noise instead of providing any real emphasis.

The reason why I mention this is that my joke, while quite tame by today's standards, is still considerably bluer than is appropriate to be a truly good match for the other two parts of The Bell Ringer Joke. This is part of its downfall. I'm putting this out there right up front because I want it to be absolutely clear that this is a flawed "attempt". There should be no confusion about this point. I am not providing this outline of a joke as a proposed addition to The Bell Ringer Joke. Rather, I'm putting this out there as a bad example of how easy it is to do better than what's currently out there, and as a provocation in hopes that somebody out there will take up the challenge of doing even better than this.

3) My outline does take the approach of using the literal/figurative interpretation of an idiom as the basis for its structure. So here are a couple of other parts of its downfall: (a) The literal interpretation isn't literal enough. (b) The idiom I have gone with is too obscure and outdated.

For the existing two successful parts of the joke, the literal interpretations of those punch lines are absolutely literal. My punch line is not truly literal. It's close, in its own way. But it's not quite there.

As for the idiom, I think "his face rings a bell" is very widely understood. I suspect the phrase "dead ringer" is probably a bit less widely understood (and probably becoming ever less widely understood with each passing year). But for now, I think it's probably in common enough parlance to count as being part of the general American vernacular, and will probably remain such for quite a long while. My idiom was probably pretty widely understood 30-50 years ago, but I think it has pretty rapidly dropped out of common usage, and I suspect that in 50 years, it will be considered archaic usage. If I am right about these things, my joke simply does not have the appropriately broad appeal that The Bell Ringer Joke deserves for all of its parts to have.

So, here's my sketch:

Just after the start of the year, the bishop was at the cathedral to interview candidates for the position of bell ringer. The ancient bell ringer had decided to finally take his pension. He had served for quite a lot of years. His back could no longer handle the constant pulling of the ropes and his legs could no longer handle the constant climbing of the stairs that were requisites of the job.

One candidate stood out among the rest. He was young, but had an impeccable résumé, great references, and was a member of the most well-respected family of bell ringers in all the land. His father, grandfather, great grandfather, and great great grandfather, as well as countless uncles, were all widely known to have served the church with distinction over many years. The man was hired, without audition, and the bishop left the cathedral with confidence in his choice.

The next day, as scheduled, the new bell ringer did his duty, ringing the bells exactly at the turn of the hour, every hour. Over the next months, he never missed a chime, never struck a wrong note, performed spectacularly for every mass, at every holiday. He was widely regarded as the best bell ringer in anyone's memory.

About ten months after the new bell ringer arrived, the church's old housekeeper retired and was replaced by a pretty young lady, who again had a wonderful résumé and unimpeachable references. The new housekeeper was diligent in doing her duty, and the church had never before been cleaner. Everything was spotless and sparkling. When the bishop came through on his annual visit, he was extremely impressed by what he saw and heard. He was even notified that church attendance had been steadily increasing in recent months, and was pleased.

But then one spring day, things started to go a little funny. In mid-afternoon, there was a surprise ringing of the bells. The priests had such faith in the bell ringer that they took this as a call to prayer, perhaps a special mass that they didn't realise was on the calendar. The quickly scrambled to prayer and did their duty.

A week later, there was another "special mass" at the same time of day.

And then the next week.

After that, the special masses started to occur still more frequently. It got to where there was a special mass every day, and their times started to vary.

One day, there were two special masses, one in the morning and one in the afternoon.

One of the younger priests couldn't take it any longer. He had consulted every calendar he could find and was convinced there was no justification for these unscheduled bell ringing sessions. "Glory be to God, and the more prayer the better. Nonetheless, we have a schedule for a reason", he told the head priest. So the next day, with the head priest's blessing, he snuck up the bell tower and hid in a little closet one floor below the bells. He showed up early, before the bell ringer arrived for the day. And he waited.

He heard the bell ringer arrive right on time. Every hour, on the hour, the bells were rung, just as scheduled. The priest said his prayers as scheduled, there in the closet. Then at about 3.30 he heard some light footsteps outside the door, heading up the stairs. "Who could that be?" he wondered. And he peeked out, too late to observe the visitor. But he did notice that the banister seemed slightly shinier than it had been earlier in the day.

A couple of minutes later, the priest started to hear some whispering voices, one female and one male. He heard some giggling, which gave way to muffled grunting. The grunts intermingled with squeaks and then moans, getting slightly louder as the minutes passed. Just as they were reaching their crescendo, the bell rang, almost completely drowning out a scream in praise of the glory of God, still 12 minutes before the hour!

The priest cracked open the door to the closet yet again and peered out, waiting for the visitor. When she did pass by, he saw that it was the pretty young housekeeper. She was tidying her hair and straightening her skirt as she headed downstairs. When the hour came, the bells rang on schedule, flawlessly. By this time, the snooping spy had already arrived at the office of the head priest to make a report on what he had seen.

Early the next day, a local man was surprised to see the head priest wandering through the city posting signs in shopkeepers' windows announcing that a new bell ringer was needed for the church, and applicants should come to the bell tower the following Thursday.

The man walked into one of the shops and asked the shopkeeper if she had spoken with the priest. She confirmed that she had.

"So what's the story?", he asked. "The bell ringer we had was so good! Everyone agreed he was the best in our city's history. And especially in recent days, he has had such a big smile on his face when I have seen him going to work. Always so cheery, like he really loved his job."

"Well," said the shopkeeper, "it seems they had to fire him for making time with the housekeeper."

This, of course, leads pretty naturally to the next part of the joke, with some slight adjustments for a proper segue:

The following Thursday, the bishop arrived at the base of the bell tower to perform the interviews, hoping to redeem himself for his previous lapse in judgment. When he got there, he was surprised to see only one applicant. "You look very familiar", said the bishop.

"The last bell ringer was my kid brother" responded the applicant.

"Ah, I see. I must say, I do have some reservations about hiring you", said the bishop.

"Please", said the applicant. "I must restore my family's honor. My brother was a bit of a black sheep, who had strayed from the flock. He was always a bit of a rebel, which is why he was home schooled. Unfortunately, he never really got proper exposure to society before he came here. As you can see, I graduated with honors from bell ringing college. I had perfect marks in all my classes, and my Theory professor has provided you with a letter of recommendation testifying that I was the best student he has had in forty years of teaching. Plus, unlike my brother, I am happily married and would never cheat on my wife. I am a good Catholic, and I want to serve God. Ringing bells is my way of doing this. Please give me the opportunity to restore my family's honor."

"You make a convincing argument," said the bishop, "but I cant help but notice that you have no arms. Won't that be a problem?"

"It's never been a problem before", responded the applicant. If you won't take my word for it, perhaps we can climb the tower and I can audition for you. It's almost time for the hour to turn, anyway."

[. . . .]

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As I said, my own contribution above is meant at least in part as a provocation. I'm sure it's not a great joke, and I'm sure someone out there can do better. I advise you to keep in mind the guidance I have provided in terms of what makes the existing third part such a failure, and in terms of the failure points that I have already identified in my own joke. And so, with that, I invite (I implore) you to put on your thinking cap and please try to outdo me. Please contribute your own "missing first part" of The Bell Ringer Joke. I'm sure someone out there can do a bang up job! And I am desperate to read your offerings. So please post them here as comments to my blog. I look forward to reading what you have to offer. I can't promise fame or fortune. But if you do really well, I can promise you undying gratitude!

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