Have you ever heard a joke that was so funny you wish you could hear it a thousand times? A quip, a phrase, an anecdote, anything – not necessarily for the first time either – that simply appreciates in value the more and more you hear it? Do you wish that there was a way for you to know if, upon the thousandth telling, you were laughing because you genuinely enjoyed what you heard, or if you were laughing because it was familiar, it was comfortable, it was routine. It was a warm blanket and well-worn novel that served in tandem as a mental treadmill. Somewhere you could feel very safe and proactive despite never moving a single inch forwards or backwards.
I’m prone to traveling on public transportation, both because I can’t legally drive a car and because there’s something so liminal about the experience. Existing in a concrete physical space – a bus, a train, a subway – that’s entire purpose is transitional speaks to so many facets of the ubiquitous and universal parts of the Human Experience, whatever that may be. One thing is certain, and that is uncertainty. A cliche that’s been put more eloquently by more people than I could ever count, but repetitions become standards for a reason. Probably.
One joke that I found unreasonably, genuinely funny for long after it wore out it’s welcome among my friends and family wasn’t even a joke. It was a simple line of text tossed off into the Void Internet that read simply “Swedish Dog: bjark”. There were months on end where even thinking about the word “bjark” and the implications of dogs from Sweden vocalizing the Scandinavian “Y” that would send me into fits of near hysteria. Then, all at once, with the force of an accidental walk-into-a-wall, I realized that I was only laughing at it because I was expected to. The person who said it, day in and out, said it because they liked hearing me laugh, and I laughed because I like making people feel good. As much as I treasure the fact that there are people in my life – along with me towards the end of one period of transition and into another – who can glean joy from my laughter alone, there was nothing genuine and nothing sincere about it from me, so I stopped. I haven’t even thought about dogs from Sweden until this very moment since I came to that realization, and now I laugh at other things that I think I find funny.
No one takes public transportation for fun. No one (hopefully) lives full time on Chicago’s L trains. Yet they exist, tangible, crowded, physical. How many thousands of people do you think have sat where you sit when you take the red line down towards the south side? Do you ever think about it? Honestly? Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes my mind is so wrapped up in itself I hardly realize I’m existing in a space alongside others, who more likely than not feel the exact same way I do. That this is temporary. This is moving. An L train full of Spotify accounts play hundreds of hours of ads into the designer headphones of most people you’ll ever encounter, and no matter how many times you listen to “Nowhere Is My Home” by The Replacements, you’ll never be able to describe exactly how you relate to that song to your more home-bodied friends.
If you wanted, you could probably find a hitpiece on the failures of “Millennial Humor” in about fifteen seconds. Probably by the same woman who wrote the incredibly melodramatic and incredibly entertaining piece on the death of plain, white Mayonnaise. Mayonnaise is as bad as a condiment as that woman is a writer, but that doesn’t make the concept any less funny. If I wanted, I could write that very hitpiece – Millennial Reactions To That Mayonnaise Article Is Proof That Humor Is Dead – but with a punchier, more algorithm-friendly name. You’re no longer laughing at a well-constructed, clever joke. You’re laughing at something because you don’t know how else you could react. There’s really no other way to process 700+ words about the death of a bad condiment, so you laugh. You don’t know how to react to South Park telling you the same joke for three seasons, so you laugh. You don’t know of any appropriate way to acknowledge someone who’s inappropriately drunk on public transportation, so you laugh. You laugh.
Every so often, you’re blessed-and-or-cursed by a conversation on public transportation. One of the more positive interactions that sticks out in my memory is a time I was taking Chicago’s L train – a mostly-above-ground subway that runs on an electrified third rail – on an hour long trip, from North to South. It was very late at night and I was almost entirely alone on that particular train. The only other person who joined me in the shared experience necessary use of public services was a man in a suit that didn’t fit quite right, in the way that only a person without access to a tailor could make a suit not fit. His briefcase was frayed at the seams, and his face was just as tired as I was.
A lot of times these conversations last about three sentences, each. You get just enough time for an insincere greeting, a quip about the weather, and then perhaps a joke at the expense of your friends slash family slash spouse slash some local sports figure or politician. After that, you both put in your headphones and forget you ever spoke to anyone. If you’re prone to anxiety, you think about how strange your voice must sound to a tired businessman, and if you spoke concisely or clearly enough to not make him think you were the kind of person who accosts strangers in public for more sinister or chaotic reasons. Every so often, something you say might stick. Every so often, the laugh your canned line about needing rain elicits pushes the needle from polite and automatic a bit too close to genuine, and you start speaking like human beings. Maybe you even get a chance to tell a real joke.
You can hear about his student debt. You’re not sure exactly how to react to that. It sucks. You laugh. Of course, you say all of your well-meaning and encouraging things first, and you make sure to stress how much you empathize with this man, but you still laugh. He tells you all about his two hour a day commute and about how he’s not spending enough time with his newborn son, and you laugh. You laugh because you’re uncomfortable, or you’re sad, or you wish that you could help, but there’s nothing you could possibly say or do that would change anything for either of you, so you laugh! And he laughs right with you, and you bond for a very tenuous hour.
When the train is going so quickly it blows right through three consecutive stops, we laugh together. I don’t know what’s going on, and neither does he, but his off-the-cuff comment about how little he cares as long as it stops on time for his. That kind of attitude is one I can get behind. There’s something inherently comedic about all of this anyway. I try my very best not to think about the conductor having a heart attack in the car ahead of us. I laugh.
When the train skids to a halt at my stop, I laugh, but it’s much more hurried and strained. Now the tired businessman is as white as a sheet, and even though he’s still about ten stops away from home, where he might rethink his commute, his job, his life, whatever – he gets off the train right next to me. When you step out onto the platform we both laugh as the cold air hits our faces. We laugh in relief that our night is over, and that we can both go our separate ways and never speak to each other again.
When you see the conductor stumble out of the lead car, brown paper bag in hand, swaying indiscriminately and hurling every racial slur that has ever existed at anyone and everyone who will listen, you laugh. You walk backwards but your eyes are glued to the scene. The transitional period is over, and you cannot wrench your gaze away from the fallout. You see the man who doesn’t like being called racial slurs throw a hard punch, and you see the conductor fall backwards, onto the electrified third rail. That’s enough. You turn, you walk very quickly, and you laugh. You can hear the people shouting, but you laugh. You laugh.
One joke that I genuinely enjoy, no matter how many times or in how many forms I’m exposed to it, goes something like this – the set-up involves a man and a woman going to their high school reunion, and the ending involves there not being any line to get punch from a large bowl on a table. It plays out differently depending on who’s telling it, but usually the man leaves to get punch to avoid an awkward conversation between his wife and a former classmate of hers. He returns early, and it leads to tension, and he declares “there was no punchline.” It’s a good joke. It’s one I’ll always like. My favorite thing about it is that you can tell it for as long as you want. You can set it up to be a half-hour long anecdote, and the anticlimactic finish will upset some and make others laugh.
Later that night when you turn on the TV, mortified at the events of the evening, processing the fact that you just watched a man die and laughed at it, you feel quite a bit better when the news anchor informs you that despite falling directly onto a high-voltage rail, the man driving the train was just fine, because he was a poor conductor.