The humor concocted in parish kitchens can aim surprisingly low. One afternoon in December of 2009, I was hanging around, helping someone do something, when the the subject of upcoming changes to the diocesan marriage prep program arose. As is often the case with Church scuttlebutt, nobody had a very clear idea what was coming, but everyone feared the worst.
The muse came upon me. I told the group: “The bishop’s going to start pulling people’s credit scores,” elaborating that he would require both partners to have a 720 middle FICO and a 35% front-end debt-to-income ratio. I also claimed to have seen the draft of a pastoral letter where he declared that if Catholics were going to spend like the beasts of the fields, they might as well rut like the beasts of the fields.
I had everyone’s attention. About half the kitchen hands were shaking their heads in disgust; the other, nodding vigorously and murmuring, “Prophetic.” But then I got carried away — call it conqueror’s hubris — and told them that, going forward, male candidates for marriage would be expected to stand 35% taller than their partners, since the difference corresponded to the Church’s ideal of gender complementarity and tended to support the traditional nuclear family. Everyone said, “Aw, applesauce,” and refused to talk to me for the rest of the afternoon. The jockey-sized guy who’d married the volleyball star looked ready to punch me in the groin.
Of all existing varieties of practical joke, the “Just Kidding,” the two-minute hoax, has got to be the least sportsmanlike. Unlike, say, Saran-Wrapping somebody’s car, it requires no logistical genius. Unlike stealing and freezing somebody’s brassiere — something a young woman I know did to one of her boarding-school frienemies — it doesn’t require the jokester to face the risks involved in violating private property. All it takes is an understanding, instinctive or acquired, of what people hate or dread to the point where their critical faculties will short-circuit.
Psychologists call this “negative empathy,” and cite, as an example of its practical application, the whistles fitted into the wings of the Luftwaffe’s JU-87 dive bombers. Even by 1940s standards, the planes were dangerously slow, vulnerable to fire from the ground. The whistles, which screamed when the planes dove, terrified both artillery horses and gunners, lending the pilots a vital edge. However I came by that quality, it’s as much a part of me as my Isle of Langerhans. If I’d been working with the Luftwaffe’s R & D department, I’d have been begging the brass to upgrade to a recording of some guy cackling in falsetto.
The more persnickety moral theologians will disagree, but I contend it’s possible to use this power for good, or at least to teach someone a lesson. During another tour of duty in the kitchen, the woman whose scullery maid I’d volunteered to be demanded my help in cooking something. I reminded her that what she wanted me to do would violate union rules, since I’d signed on as a dishwasher, and that, in any case, I didn’t know how to cook. “Oh, for crying out loud,” she said, sighing theatrically. “I’m not asking you to whip up a sauce béarnaise — just to crack some eggs, like you learned to do at summer camp.” When I told her I’d spent my time at summer camp sailing and riding horseback, she sneered that the place sounded like “a little Jewish country club.”
Game on, thinks I. “Well, yeah, they did treat us pretty well,” I said, explaining how the camp directors bused black kids up from Newark and Camden to wait on us at table and hold our stirrups as we mounted. The chef’s eyes popped open as if on springs. “Are you serious?” “Of course,” I answered. “They used to advertise it as a ‘personal growth experience’, and I think it really was one. The admissions director at Howard later said it was my recommendation that got my guy in.”
My friend took this in with a frown, her arms folded against her chest. She was not expressing disbelief, but disgust at my unthinking paternalism. That killed the joke — it’s no fun to trick an easy mark. Rather than go on about how I’d dressed my young orderly in a turban and slippers, or how he’d sworn his straw pallet was the comfiest bed he’d ever slept on, I huffed, “Just KIDDING already. Right before Vatican II, they elected this guy named Lincoln.” And then, ashamed of having gulled a ninny, I went ahead and broke some stupid eggs.
My last word: “Just Kidding“ jokes can be a regular laff riot, but they’re not for the tender of heart.