This week I started a day early. And I took notes. I wanted to explore the idea that jokes are always partly true, so what we think is funny about ourselves must also be partly true. So I wrote a recap of the local jokes told at the 13th annual Laff-Off. Once I completed the draft (which I’ve copied for you below), I saw two problems. No, three. Of the 21 comics on stage that night, only seven made any local jokes. And one comic, Chris Castles, did almost his whole routine about local issues. So the early draft was a little lop-sided toward Chris. My second problem was that some of the jokes were mean — not at the time, mind you, but the standards for a daily newspaper don’t match well with what people would find acceptable at a comedy club. (The Glenwood jokes were funny, but I don’t know how people sitting in Glenwood reading the paper with their morning coffee would feel about them.) Third, the piece read too much like a news article for my taste — like I was simply reporting what was said. Maybe that’s OK, but I wanted to riff on the topics myself, because humor is infectious that way. So I revamped it somewhat dramatically (as you’ll see if you compare this post with the next one.)
You can tell a joke that’s completely not funny, but there’s no such thing as a joke that’s completely not true. It’s the truth in a joke that makes us laugh, usually because of how it’s been twisted. Even jokes which are the opposite of true work because they point to some truth that’s been inverted. Good humor is serious business — and not just for the ice cream man.
So I happily agreed to judge aspiring comics at Leigh Anne Jasheway’s Laff-Off at the Actors Cabaret on April 1, 1996. I was new to town then and publishing the Comic News. Leigh Anne wrote for us, and at the rate I could pay our columnists, I couldn’t not do her a favor.
Last Sunday was our thirteenth Laff-Off and I’m still judging. Some people never learn. This year I paid careful attention to what people on stage were saying about Eugene and Springfield. I wondered what a stranger might learn about this place if they only knew what people think is funny about it.
Only about a third of the stand-up acts referenced our hometown in specifics. It’s not because these people are hesitant to name names, but most focused their attention on national issues, long waits at airports, trouble with bosses, bathroom automation gone awry — the usual suspects.
Sara Ulrich confessed to making up home improvement dilemmas only to meet the helpful hardware men at Jerry’s Home Improvement. Somehow she imagined a conversation there that started with power drills and ended with dimmer switches that feature big knobs.
Cheryl Camillo wondered aloud why Market of Choice doesn’t have loan officers on duty to help customers who can’t quite make their organic ends meet.
Angie Riley imagined her Minnesota mother stopping in at the Equine Supply Store by Gateway to pick up some Oregon gifts, and then wandering into the Castle Superstore beside it to finish her gift shopping.
Daniel Borson spoke openly (and honestly) about his medical marijuana card expiring and his becoming unemployed, both in the last two days.
Only one comic drew most of his material from what’s unique around us, and he alone ventured beyond Eugene to Glenwood and Springfield. Chris Castles performs regularly at Black Forest Tavern in Eugene and he’s fairly new to the area, so he sees things that many of us have taught ourselves to overlook.
When he first came to Oregon, he saw irony in food stamps being distributed with “Oregon Trail” cards, pointing out that “those are the folks who are not quite settled.”
He believes Springfield’s crime rate would go down if the city removed all those “urine-colored streetlights.” It does make everyday chores seem like a David Lynch movie. (He’ll be glad to know those bulbs are indeed being replaced, but probably not at his behest.)
Castles imagines that Springfield was originally called just “Field” (maybe without a capital “f”), and some Mettalica-style band gave a concert there. After the band left, people looked at one another and decided not to leave and they started a town instead. He offered no theory on where the “Spring” part came from.
Glenwood he described as some weird demilitarized zone between the two towns, with its cultural center being near the triangle of land near the river, just west of the bridge into Springfield. “It’s the only time I’ve ever been driving and felt I’d better lock my doors while looking at white people.”
He laughs at how often people in Eugene love to ask themselves if their downtown is on the rise. “Look,” he says, “when your tallest building is an old folks’ home, it’s time to give it a rest.”
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 often enough that these comics had to dig deeper for original material. But I won’t ever be able to look at Ya-Po-Ah Terrace quite the same way.