Whatchoo Talkin 'Bout


I know of a guy who has a saying, which as far as I can tell he made up. So, kudos to this guy.

The phrase is “Don’t joke the joke,” and he uses it to refer to people, usually on Twitter, who try to augment his perfectly witty little tweets with their own attempts, which are never as funny and are rude, in a sense.

Let’s say he wrote, “Donald Trump seems to think that if he builds this wall, they will NOT come. How’s that working out?”

I mean, I just made that up. I’m not as funny. Shooting for an example only.

And some guy (or gal, but it’s a guy) comments, “Yeah, like he’s never seen Field of Dreams even once,” and thus the retort, “Don’t joke the joke.” I like that.

A joke is a joke, you see. It either works or it doesn’t. It can kind of work. You know about jokes. They don’t need help; it negates the jokiness.

Yesterday I was writing a column, and in one paragraph I was commenting on our long history in this country of voter suppression. This was a serious paragraph but honestly, the whole thing was leading up to a joke so don’t think better of me. I will throw American History under the bus for a laugh.

Anyway, I pointed out some stuff that happened in the 19th century, and then I said that this was nothing surprising and continued today, and was as American as...

Again, I wasn’t giving a history lesson. I was actually talking about words that had unsavory origins, inspired by a post by my friend Liz. And the whole thing, again, was leading up to a jokey column, not a serious one.

But when I got to as American as... I paused. There are plenty of good examples, and clever ones. If it hadn’t been a throwaway, just a line to get me to the next paragraph, I might have spent some thought finding an excellent, unexpected Americanism.

The alliterative urge is strong, though, particularly with this phrase, and it practically screams “apple pie.” So just write “apple pie” and move on.

But but but. I like clichéd phrases as much as the next guy, but did I really just want to leave this sitting at the end of a paragraph, a pedestrian comparison when surely I could do better? My first draft said, “...as American as apple pie (or Apple, I guess).” Kind of lame, but probably the most I was willing to work for this. I had places to go.

On review, though, that seemed awkward, so I thought for a bit and then changed it to, “...as American as Apple products” and let it go. Forgot about it. Throwaway line, as I said.

And I submitted it, and a while later my editor emailed me, asking if I really wanted to conflate Apple with voter suppression? He suggested “apple pie.”

I would rather not conflate voter suppression with apple pie, actually, but of course I’m not conflating anything. I was just saying that we have a long history of this, part of our civic culture. It’s ugly and sometimes violent, but it’s now built into the system. If you have voters voting against you, it’s in your interest to keep them from voting at all if you’re that kind of a person. I’m just saying it’s true-blue American. We have flaws, people.

And nothing kills a joke faster than having to explain it, which is almost as bad as joking the joke. This is a specific kind of person who does this, usually, but I don’t understand. Maybe they’re just pleased that they got the joke, and it makes them feel clever. Whatever.

In this case, though, I had to explain the joke to this editor, although I didn’t spend any time on it, just mentioned that, in fact, I was looking for an alternative to “apple pie” and I made a rash, wholly spontaneous decision to focus on the folks in Cupertino. People know about them, I think.

I told him to do what he wanted. It’s a hard job for editors to try to edit me, because they’re really not supposed to in this particular situation. I’m an independent contractor, a freelance contributor to this publishing company. I sell them an opinion column and they print it. They’re not supposed to change it, although they still have responsibilities as editors and publishers, standards and style guidelines.

They’re also used to editing journalists on their payroll, which is a different animal but the tendencies to bleed over into editing me are understandable. I rarely pay attention if they change a few things, which is all that ever happens, although it makes me crazy to see how they chop up my words into paragraphs that were never intended to be paragraphs (this is mostly, I think, for justification purposes, since they’re trying to fit the whole thing into a single space; it’s still irritating).

I’ve worked with very accomplished editors at major publications, and those have been the best experiences. They help polish, take out the nonsense, shore sentences up, and it was always a partnership, a back-and-forth about how to make the piece better.

This editor is a fine journalist, and there are no hard feelings. He didn’t get the joke, and my first response is always that it must not be a very good joke. I’m always surprised by someone who doesn’t understand jokes, because mine aren’t all that sophisticated. I’m just trying to lighten things up.


More than anything, though, this just points out my current concern, which is that I just don’t communicate very well these days, if ever. I’m comfortable with humor; I understand that it’s hit or miss. I’m not doing standup or writing a humor column.

I have an undisciplined mind, though. It juts off at oblique angles at the drop of a hat, and I’m not nearly as good at tying up the loose ends as I used to be, maybe. I’m also lazy.

I’m not ruling out age here, either. Maybe I should slide into my slippers and bathrobe and write warm nothings, meditations on the seasons and how well my roses are growing. I wouldn’t be the only one. It may be time to hang up the keyboard, too.

In the meantime, I guess I need to work on writing better jokes. Or finding a funnier editor. Or baking apple pies, something.

Apple pie, mmm. What was I talking about?

Chuck Sigars1 Comment