My name is Gary, and I am a recovering compulsive kidder. Yes, it’s true. No fooling, I mean it.
Probably my ultimate attempt at “pranking” took place at the university. See, what happened is, I managed to get my hands on some official college stationary. I didn’t boost it, by the way! It seems to me that we found it in the trash. Anyway, I used it to write a fake letter to a student who had previously pranked me; in the letter, the department told him he might be getting suspended for being so immature.
Another incident: years back I plotted out what would have been my definitive prank. A nearby Christian ministry was thinking of buying a piece of land, and it got me thinking: I started designing a mock-up for an “old newspaper article”, which was to recount how the property was the site of an old Indian burial ground and that, well, there was a long history of spectral appearances. I was going to stain it with some tea to age it, and then “discover” and share it with the purchasers at some point during the negotiations. And shortly afterward, of course, reveal it as a gag. But, I decided to wave it off. The Indian Burial Ground Prank was, I realized, beyond the pale even for me – I had finally found my limit. Or perhaps hit bottom. There are other anecdotes, but I think I’ll just hold off on telling them.
But those were years ago. Really, I don’t do that stuff anymore. Still, long after I stopped launching these weapons-grade pranks, I was still known as a “kidder”, and this is the gist of my confession here. Mind you, I’m not talking about the guy who makes some horrific racist statement and then tries to squeeze out with a “Hey, I was only kidding! Can’t you take a joke?” I’m talking about actual wit.
The kidder is not limited to any region, but New England seems to be especially rich in this personality type. This is because we have deep roots in English humor, which tends to be subtle and underplayed, in a word, dry. “What New England is, is a state of mind, a place where dry humor and perpetual disappointment blend to produce an ironic pessimism that folks from away find most perplexing.” (from humorist Willem Lange).
A favorite Yankee joke reveals the dryness and the ironic pessimism:
I had to shoot my dog.
Was he mad?
I guess he weren’t so darn pleased about it.
If Yankee wit is dry, then “kidding” is the pellet of desiccant that protects the rest of our wit from the damp. And clever joshing is not designed to amuse others, but to amuse and maybe flatter ourselves. And if once in a while some New Englander manages to move abroad (i. e., west of the Hudson), he or she discovers that those “folks from away” or as we Rhode Islanders call them, “outta-statuhs”, lack the sensory equipment to detect our dry-as-dust humor. We seem to pick up Kryptonian comic super-powers in the light of the yellow sun; and therein lies danger.
The tightly-managed straight face, the just-this-side-of-plausible statement, given without a wink, and of course, meticulous timing. These are the tools of the “kidder”.
“I got mugged today,” I once told an audience, for some reason I now barely remember.
Once I gave a speech to “roast” a fellow-worker. Into his biography I inserted such fascinating nuggets as: “It was he who, as a child, popularized the children’s counting rhyme ‘one potato, two potato’”. I also revealed that he had auditioned for the role of William Wallace in the movie Braveheart, but narrowly lost out to Mel Gibson. Stuff like that. Of course, in this case, I let the audience know up front that there would be “stretched” truths in my talk.
A short while ago some people from our mission borrowed our house for a meeting with some folks who didn’t know me. When I came home, I broke into the living room and shouted, “Who are you people, and whaddya doing in my house?” Good clean fun, no-one was hurt. Sometimes I invent funny new Greek words and try to pass them off to my students. Again, pretty harmless.
What broke me of my two-pack-a day joshing habit? Or if not stopped me cold, what made me cut way back?
Two things. First, a woman whom I often kidded – and O!, dear reader, she was such an easy target – hit me between the eyes with this one: I had just mentioned a sad, and true, part of my history, and she responded: “Gary, are you kidding me?” I answered No. She responded: “You know, I can never tell if you’re kidding or telling the truth.”
Is that how I appear to others? I asked myself.
Another rebuke came to me from the play Love’s Labours Lost. In the concluding scene, Rosaline says to her would-be suitor Biron: “Oft have I heard of you, my Lord Biron, before I saw you; and the world’s large tongue proclaims you for a man replete with mocks…” She promises him a shot at romance, but only if he will use his prodigious gift for humor, cheering up sick people in the hospital for the next 12 months. Biron reluctantly accepts: “A twelvemonth! Well; befall what will befall, I’ll jest a twelvemonth in an hospital.”
“Oft have I heard of you, before I saw you” – is this the reputation that was going ahead of me? “Replete with mocks”?
And of course, the third by authoritative word comes from the Bible. First, Jesus is teaching about “straight talk”. Although he says this in the context of swearing an oath, his statement has a broader application to “kidding”.
All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one. Matt 5:37 NIV
Or as the GW translation has it, “Simply say yes or no.”
And Jesus’ teaching is echoed elsewhere:
All you need to say is a simple “Yes” or “No.” Otherwise you will be condemned. (James 5:12 NIV)
This too, I think, applies to kidders.
And Proverbs, as one would guess, has a word about “harmless” joshing:
Like a maniac shooting flaming arrows of death is one who deceives their neighbor and says, “I was only joking!” (Prov 26:18-19)
A maniac? And the New Jerusalem Bible is pretty sharp on v. 19: “…so is anyone who lies to a companion and then says, ‘Aren’t I amusing?’” Of if the Bible were a tweet, “so is the one who deceives their neighbor and says J/K!”
Roland Murphy says in his Proverbs commentary (WBC):
A trigger-happy madman, who deals out death indiscriminately by his actions, serves as the comparison for the one who recklessly deceives a neighbor, and tries to pass it off as a joke. Such an ‘excuse’ is totally inadequate…
A couple of posts on this blog are spoofs, are “kidding”, but they come with a warning label. (See “Have They Discovered the Lost Prayer Diary of Elijah?”; also “Dear Paul: We are sorry, but you are unqualified to be our apostle…”)
I like joking around with my friends and colleagues. I still play the occasional prank; in fact, I have been planning one for a seminary luncheon that we have scheduled for tomorrow (Shhh! Don’t tell!). But it won’t hold a candle to the ones I used to do. And “kidding” is marked in my mind with a yellow flag, if not a red. Lord, teach me to value and gauge my words, so that people will know that they can expect the straight truth from me.
“Are you kidding me??” by Gary S. Shogren, Ph.D. in New Testament, Professor at Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica