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.
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.”