So a Facebook addict, the husband of a Jew, a divorced mom, a Puerto Rican Yale grad, a fat guy and a beat-boxing Jamaican American from Bridgeport walked into a bar on a Monday to tell some jokes.
The bar is called Cafe Nine and the occasion was the Fistful of Jokes Comedy Showcase, which is hosted there once or twice each month. I was sitting with my friend David at the bar stools we’d claimed long before the lights went down, and we were sipping Shock Top and snacking on free popcorn, waiting for things to get interesting.
Cafe Nine is hidden gem on the eastern edge of New Haven’s historic Ninth Square district. With plenty of exposed brick, a fully stocked bar and live music almost every night, it’s definitely worth the walk, but since it’s tucked into the distant corner of Crown and State streets, it’s relatively unknown by the Yale crowd. Most shows are drinking age only, which means that you probably won’t hear about it when you’re a freshman and, having already determined your favorite watering holes, probably won’t look for it when you’re a senior. And anyway, despite the sign out front, it’s easy to miss because the only time there are people around is long after dark, and that’s not the time you’d be wandering around that side of New Haven by yourself.
That’s why I’d brought David along. We’d walked over together just after dusk, right when all of the shadows off-campus start to look sinister. Admittedly, I was a little nervous but not because of the shadows. I was nervous because any good friend should be a little nervous when she asks someone to give up valuable homework time on a Monday to watch people tell jokes. I was praying that it would be funny, that he would laugh a lot and that I hadn’t just wasted an evening for both of us.
There is a specific taxonomy to humor at Yale. First you have your genus “caricature”, species either “lighthearted” or “disparaging”, e.g. fake emails from Dean Miller or Ronnell, quips about the eccentricities of deans and masters and rants about the hysterically impossible demands of certain professors. Then you have dirty humor — the double entendres, the crude metaphors, the serendipitous phrasing in some science textbooks and the jokes about why someone is or isn’t getting laid. You have what I’ll deem the “higher-order joke”, in which understanding the punch line requires knowledge of some obscure politician, chemical formula or Greek demigod.
And finally the most common and the most comfortable: self-deprecation mated with irony or jadedness. “I’m going to fail my midterms!” Haha! “This is my third all-nighter in four days!” Teehee! “I’m trying to double major in Biology and English!” Ho ho ho! “I want to be a writer! an artist! a parent! a restaurant owner! But I’ll probably just go into consulting.” Lawlz.
In some ways, it’s good to know that we don’t take ourselves too seriously. After all, laughter is a crucial coping mechanism for stress, and there are many of us whose egos could take a beating. (Hi, my name is Kalli.)
But still I worry that we sometimes don’t take ourselves seriously enough. It’s one thing to be a Yale apologist to the outside world, but when we can’t own up to who we are and what we want even to each other, where does that leave us? I don’t mean that we shouldn’t make fun of our foibles and fantasies, but I’m convinced that there is a way to laugh about our lives without simultaneously depreciating them.
“So I went to Yale,” explained Roberto Velez, the Puerto Rican, at the beginning of his act. “I know it’s hard to believe because I’m here” — he gestured around the bar and at the mic, smiling helplessly. The crowd chuckled — “but I did.”
He paused. “Are there any Yale people in the crowd tonight?”
I started to raise my hand until I realized exactly what a Yalie might look like raising her hand and grinning proudly in the middle of this little bar. I shrunk back into my chair. Then I felt badly about judging the audience for how they might judge me and about not acting proud of Yale, which I am, so I smiled again, raised my beer half an inch and nodded ambiguously.
This whole internal conflict took about two seconds and probably went entirely unnoticed by the people around me. Velez continued with his act and soon I was laughing again, but my hesitation stuck with me.
I have laughed a lot in my time at Yale and, criticism aside, I’ve imbibed humor at all points on the spectrum. But there was something about the jokes — and the resulting laughter — that felt different at Cafe Nine on Monday. When the comics told stories about their failing love lives, their moving mishaps or their imperfect parenting, they were definitely getting giggles at their own expense. And yet somehow they still managed to be courageous instead of apologetic and earnest instead of ironic. When they grinned at their own punch lines, they weren’t flashing staged smiles but real Duchenne grins, eyes lit up and crow’s feet wrinkling. Somehow they managed to be proud and humble and amused all at once, and it was hilariously inspiring.
It turns out I didn’t have to worry about David enjoying himself. Even without taking my eyes off the stage I could hear his laughter, and when the lights came on after the final comedian’s act, we were both beaming in the afterglow of happy hormones.
“That was so much fun!” we kept saying to each other as we practically skipped back home down Crown Street. We’d both had a few pints, but we weren’t drunk. It was after eleven, we both had work to do and we should have been discouraged by our dwindling potential for sleep, but we weren’t. We were just purely, completely happy.
So a Facebook addict, the husband of a Jew, a divorced mom, a Puerto Rican Yale grad, a fat guy and a beat-boxing Jamaican American from Bridgeport walk into a bar to tell some jokes. Three hours later a twenty-one-year-old girl leaves the bar humbler, happier and prouder.
Laugh all you want. I’m still smiling.