T’aint Funny, McGee!
Now that Will Ferrell has won the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, I have to admit, at long last, that contemporary humor has left me all at sea. I always thought somebody in Hollywood lost a bar bet, and that’s why they had to make films starring Mr. Ferrell. I honestly don’t know any other reason for their existence, or their profitability. As H.L. Mencken quipped: “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.”
But there, it’s probably just a bad case of sour grapes on my part. Having worked in the entertainment industry for many years prior to moving to Thailand, it has always been in the back of my mind that someday a committee somewhere would belatedly recognize my contributions to the gaiety of nations; an envelope would arrive at the house announcing my election to some prestigious Hall of Fame, along with a big fat check. That is hasn’t happened yet doesn’t mean it can’t happen – it’s a harmless daydream of mine, along the lines of the long lost uncle who passes on and leaves you his carefully nurtured fortune. It’s a comforting thought on those days when I’m reduced to eating fried rice, yet again, because there’s nothing but a few moldering leftovers in the ice box and no money for a night out on the town.
But getting back to humor . . .
Ever since I arrived in Thailand as an ESL teacher I have made a study of the Thai sense of humor. Sometimes it is effervescent, sometimes it is heavy-handed, and sometimes it is as inexplicable as a mutating quark.
When I first began teaching English in Thai schools I decided on some kind of noise maker to help restore civilization when my class became too rowdy. A colleague of mine had a wooden clapper, used in Kabuki plays in Japan, that he would strike repeatedly when chaos threatened to overwhelm his lesson plans. The Thai students would instantly cease their shenanigans, fascinated by the weird noise. You don’t find too many abandoned wooden clappers from Kabuki plays around Bangkok, so I hit on using a cheap chrome dinner bell I picked up in Chinatown. Its clang was loud and penetrating.
But when I tried it out on my students they burst into uproarious cheers. Instead of settling down to conjugating verbs, they skipped about like lemurs, laughing their heads off.
That was my first lesson in the Thai sense of humor; if you want to make a Thai laugh, just ring a loud, cheap bell. It gets ‘em every time!
Next I tried a coach’s whistle, which did the trick neatly. My pupils dropped back into their seats as if they had been shot. Nothing funny about a whistle to the Thais.
Over the years I have confiscated numerous Thai comic books from lackadaisical students. When I began to learn how to read Thai script I asked my Thai friends to translate some of the more obscure episodes in these periodicals, which left them limp with giggles, but only puzzled me. These graphic representations always had a fat kid with a topknot who wore glasses, a buxom lady in a sarong that could not hold in her embonpoint much longer, a demon or ghost who was dentally challenged, and a bucket of night soil. Peripheral characters included men who sat around drinking beer and breaking wind.
I never really got a satisfactory explanation about these risible stories, except that they all involved a character named Wayne Gum. It is only recently that I came to understand that the word for karma in Thai sounds exactly like ‘Wayne Gum’.
All I can say with certainty is that Thai comics out-Rabel Rabelais. Farting, peeing, pooing, mooning, belching, vomiting, drunkenness and gluttony are featured prominently on each page. Nowadays I just look at the pictures and supply my own dialogue.
One last anecdote before I retire for the night with my warm milk and curdled memories . . .
I was recently at the beach with my Thai fiancé Joom. The waves looked threatening, but, still, once I took my glasses off, they appeared to be manageable. Joom encouraged me, chanting “mai pen rai” (it’s okay) like a mantra. I plunged in, and immediately realized I was in serious trouble. The waves towered over me, knocking me about until my teeth rattled and my heart hammered.
I was drowning.
What did Joom do?
Laughed her head off.
She was doubled over with merriment while my life passed in front of me. Just as I was recalling my first parking ticket a huge wave lifted me up and deposited me, sputtering, on the beach, so black and blue I could have passed for a Halloween zombie.
When I demanded why she had not attempted to help me, she wiped the tears of merriment from her eyes to say: “You looked so funny I didn’t want it to stop!”
Maybe she would enjoy Will Ferrell . . .