Sense of humor in Seattle seems to be elusive

One day in July, while waiting in a long, sloooooow check-out line at a Bartell Drugs store, I started chatting with the guy next to me. Mentioning my New To Seattle status, I said, “Before I arrived, everyone told me that July here would be a wonderfully dry and sunny month. Everyone!”

At that particular moment, it was pouring outside. I quickly turned to address the rest of the line, which, of course, had been eavesdropping. “Everyone lied!” I declared, before breaking out in a wide grin.

To put it mildly–and honestly–my effort at humor was a bigger bomb than Hiroshima. No one in the line laughed. Not a peep. Most pretended not to have heard me (which, since I have a loud voice, was not plausible). I heard some tongue-clicking. A few shot me daggers with their eyes.

A very touchy crowd.

Henny Youngman in drier times

Now, I don’t claim to be Henny Youngman, the legendary comic famous for one-liners like, “Take my wife–please.” But friends and even foes tell me I’m funny, and I know how to deliver a punchline. For decades I’ve deliberately and routinely used humor in casual conversation and to make points. I’m often my own butt. Indeed, as a long-time referee of youth soccer matches, I’ve been known to disarm coaches and parents who think I blew a call by closing my eyes and gesturing with my arms like I’m feeling my way in the dark. If they start laughing, they stop yelling.

So far, this hasn’t worked for me in Seattle. For instance, I’ve had scant luck with jokes about the sweep and complexity of the local trash recycling rules. But that might have something to do with my calling my new home the People’s Republic of Seattle.

So I may have to revise my m.o. My initial judgment is that a collective sense of humor here is m.i.a.

Sure, there are comedy clubs and The Seattle Salmon, a new local humor site. But I find Seattlites to be a tough audience when it comes to getting someone to crack a grin.

Maybe that’s due to a greater sense of personal propriety or reserve here, a tendency to take such humor too personally or even some kind of a unspoken civic imperative to guard Seattle’s reputation against the onslaught of heathen newcomers like me.  (In a previous post I wrote about local defensiveness concerning the not-so-bad weather even when I wasn’t trying to joke.)  Maybe the cracks are too close to the truth. Maybe I’m not as funny as I used to be.

Perhaps I’m just spoiled. I grew up in New Jersey, where we howled at jokes we told each other about organized crime, corrupt politicians and the New Jersey Turnpike. Decades before Tony Soprano’s arrival on HBO, a local magazine ran a contest for a new state slogan to replace “The Garden State.” A strong runner-up: “New Jersey: More Than Just The Mob.”

During my seven years in Texas, we couldn’t tell enough funny lines at parties about awful summer weather, three-inch-long Houston cockroaches, that legendary Lone Star braggadocio or Texas A&M University graduates (one of whom, Gov. Rick Perry, now seems to be the leading Republican candidate for President).  The appetite for such barbs made my late colleague, Molly Ivins, the state’s best-known and most beloved newspaper columnist, even though her politics and therefore the targets of her humor were considerably to the left of the average Texan.

Southern California, where I also lived for seven years, might be the country’s most receptive area to deprecating civic humor. What with smog, bad traffic, mudslides, Hollywood, O.J. Simpson, and, of course, Arnold, there was a lot of material to work with. We relished it all. That’s undoubtedly one reason why Jay Leno became the top-rated comic on late-night TV.

To me, the apparent Seattle antipathy toward local humor more resembles that of similarly sized Albuquerque, which I called home for a dozen years. Folks there were also polite, almost to the point of formality. And they didn’t cotton much, either, to good-natured needling, or criticism of any kind. But that might have been due to chagrin over some factors not present around Seattle:  a very low per-capita income, a very high crime rate and even the fact that the state’s most famous historical figure was an outlaw killer (Billy The Kid).

My second year in Albuquerque–way back in 1993–I wrote a story for Forbes about the dreary nature of the state’s economy (Pizza Hut was among the state’s 20 largest private employers). The stinging headline: “A great place to visit but …” For the rest of my stay I was persona non grata in certain circles.

I also thought at the time that the Albuquerque touchiness about its wealth, or lack thereof, might have had woulda-coulda-shoulda origins. Bill Gates and Paul Allen started Microsoft there in 1975 before relocating four years later to the Seattle area, where they made tech history and created a gazillion multi-millionaires–including themselves–who don’t pay state income taxes.  In 1996 I co-authored for an Albuquerque alternative newspaper a list of New Mexico’s 25 richest residents. A mere $25 million got you a spot on that roster–a rounding error to folks with Seattle connections like Gates, Allen and, thanks to his Gates Foundation contributions, Warren Buffett.

But now I’m in Seattle–with Microsoft nearby–and people are still sensitive to jibes. So the next time I’m caught during a rare bout of Seattle precipitation–maybe while refereeing soccer this fall–I’ll just look upward, raise my hands, and loudly declare, “Take this rain–please.”

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Sense of humor in Seattle seems to be elusive — 21 Comments

  1. I am new to Seattle too, 2020. I’m a midwesterner. I am constantly finding myself perplexed and frustrated by two things politics and humor here. One there is too much of and the other seems not enough of. I just got out of a zoom meeting where I was trying to create some community and levity so I made a joke about the saying “to kill two birds with one stone.” Only to be corrected ‘with the facts’ by a twenty something explaining the ‘facts’ of the saying regarding farming etc….I just held my tongue rather than state what is obvious to me…”it was a joke”

    • I wrote that post in 2011 within two months of arriving in Seattle. Nine years later, I’m not sure I would change any of it. I now realize that what I ran into were a lot of folks who would serve wonderfully as the straight man in the Dilbert comic strip. I should note that I moved away from Seattle in 2016 and now live in Las Vegas.

  2. Oh God. I don’t even know if you read this anymore but paragraphs 1, 2, 3 are the perfect snap shot of the 4 years I lived in San Francisco. I also yield from NJ and assume that has something to do with it. It’s so hard to explain to normal people the weird social mores. It used to make me crazy trying to understand why everyone seemed to hate me but I eventually just stopped attempting to be sociable at all. SF killed my soul. So glad to be back East.

  3. (continued)

    In the second story, I didn’t actually say anything; I just went to see a local production of “Bengal Tiger in the Baghdad Zoo,” which is a darkly funny play that asks serious questions. The Seattle production was terrible. The director decided that, at every moment, the play had to be serious OR funny. And more serious than funny because war. The problem is, a lot of the “serious” lines, delivered in serious voices by actors wearing serious expressions, were funny, so I laughed. Alone. Throughout the play, I laughed about three times as often as everyone else, and the people seated around me started glowering at me for laughing in the serious parts, but I couldn’t help it. The lines were funny! And the fact that nobody, including the director, recognized that was also funny!

  4. You are right about Seattle! I landed here after NYC, London, and New Haven, where, when you say something funny, people generally laugh–or say something funny back. That happens very rarely in Seattle, and I’m going to tell two stories to make my point.

    In the first, I mangled my left index finger with a stick blender (no, that’s not the funny part, but go ahead and laugh) and had to go to the ER for stitches. During the stitching, I cracked jokes with my sister, who had driven me to the hospital. Three days later, I received a hand-written card from the nurse who had assisted the doctor. She thanked me for being so entertaining and said she had never had so much fun in the ER. (The doctor thanked me by giving me a script for Vicodin, even though I told him my pain level was only a “3.”) Here’s the thing: I’m funny, but I’m not THAT funny. The only logical conclusion is that humor is so rare in Seattle that it warrants a thank-you card and narcotics.

    (continued below)

  5. Oh my goodness!!! My husband and I are constantly talking and laughing. In general, people in the Northwest just look offended and terrified at all times. We don’t get it. We got tired of trying to explain sarcasm and jokes after the fact. We finally got to point of splitting our life between here and the midwest. We come here to chill and escape reality. We go to the midwest to “live and laugh”.

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  7. I have family in Seattle and your observations are spot on. The use of wit and humor is mostly met with indifference or mild disdain from local inhabitants. In the midwest where I live, humor is a way of life and laughing at oneself is a virtue not a weakness. I do love Seattle, but people do take themselves a bit too serious…….if ya axe me!

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  12. Well, yes, of course you heard crickets – everyone *knows* that September is the best month!

    I’m a native, but am still experience disappointment that strangers can’t lighten up and chat with each other waiting in line. You are right-on with that observation.

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  16. Well, Mr. Barrett, I can sympathize, being a person capable of bringing a joyous public gathering to a pin-drop pause with a line that I thought was Comedy Hall of Fame worthy. Cue the crickets. (Those old enough to remember the “when EF Hutton talks, people listen” ad campaign are nodding knowingly).
    Having spent a considerable amount of time in the Emerald City, I think your assessment is probably accurate: some kind of caffeine-fueled hyper-sensitivity.
    I’m reminded of the boisterous bragging of Alaskans, so quick to assail the visitor with tales of overcoming the hardships of the Great White North, hoping to find validation in their own proclamations.
    Ahhh Seatlleites (and Fairbanksans, and Albueque-whatevers): chill, wouldja’?? I don’t get upset that when I leave my house in LA every morning, “my wife and kids wish me heavy traffic”.

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