Jokes Telling About Us

Published Friday, April 4, 2008 in The Register-Guard.

What could a stranger learn about our community from the jokes we tell about it? This was the question in my mind last Sunday for Eugene’s 13th Annual Laff-Off. Leigh Anne Jasheway-Bryant has staged this event to raise money for Greenhill Humane Society ($15,000 plus, so far) and to locate the funniest person in Eugene.

Although anyone can compete in the Laff-Off, the evening also serves as a post-graduation final exam for students of her popular Lane Community College course “Stand Up and Make ‘Em Laugh,” which teaches everyday people about the value of humor in everyday life.

My goal for the evening was to take Jasheway-Bryant’s prescription and apply it to the entire community. As she says, “If you can laugh at it, it can’t hurt you.” Eugene and Springfield may not need regular irony supplements, but our civic health can’t be hurt by an occasional guffaw at our own expense.

Daniel Borson won the contest this year. You can see a video clip of his and other routines on The Register-Guard’s Web site. But a second prize could be bestowed on Chris Castles, who spent his entire five minutes noticing quirky things about this place we call home. If Borson won the title of Best Local Comic, Castles might be crowned Best Local Comic.

“Dude,” began Castles, a 20-something who can begin sentences with Dude and still sound intelligent, “Springfield could reduce its crime rate just by removing all those urine-colored street lights.” The man has a point. Walking around Springfield at night, you can feel like you’re in some weird neurotic flashback inside a David Lynch movie. Castles will be happy to learn that the city has made plans to swap out those bulbs for ones that cast a whiter light. No word on whether Eugene plans to install full-spectrum street lighting to combat Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Comedy requires noticing details the rest of us have learned to overlook. Only a comic’s land of plenty would emblazon food stamp cards with a symbol of the state’s can-do heritage. Castles asked, without a hint of meanness, whether the Oregon Trail card sends the right message: “These people aren’t quite settled yet. They’re still pioneers.”

Granted, Oregon doesn’t mind mixed messages. The city of North Bend is 225 miles southwest of Bend.

Castles hosts a comedy showcase every Sunday at Black Forest Tavern, which is free to the community. He hears Eugene constantly wondering about the future of its downtown. “Dude,” there he goes again, “when your tallest downtown building is an old folks’ home, it’s time to give it a rest.”

Yes, but we do have “Peace on Earth” hoisted on that building, shining down on us for three months every year. That’s still a reliable knee-slapper.

Have you ever driven into town at night and imagined yourself a weary traveler, driving to Eugene for the first time after flying into Portland, wanting nothing but a place to rest your bones? Follow the signs into downtown Eugene over the Ferry Street Bridge and be welcomed with a bright neon sign atop a building that looks to be straight ahead of you: “Eugene Hotel.”

Do our senior citizens have a mean streak or what?

Who wouldn’t feel drawn to the stately manor that still calls itself the Eugene Hotel? Newcomers are told, “we left the light on, but not for you.” Want your feeling confounded compounded? Look across the street. The equally resplendent First Baptist Church building is abuzz all through the week, but mostly quiet and empty on Sunday mornings.

More telling on Sunday night might have been what was not said. Almost two dozen comics had five minutes each to make people laugh. Two thirds of them made no references to Eugene or Springfield at all.

I didn’t hear a single joke about the University of Oregon or the Ducks. None about our leaders or our squabblings or our potholes. I’d like to believe that’s because we laugh at ourselves enough that these comics had to look elsewhere for original material. But I won’t ever look at Ya-Po-Ah Terrace quite the same way again.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) performed comedy in Chicago in the 1980’s. He published the Comic News in Eugene until 2005. He’s been a Laff-Off judge since it began in 1996. He blogs right here.