A perilous journey through the anti-joke zone
By Nury Vittachi
My face brightened as I saw the sign at the security check area at an airport in Australia. In large letters on a board were the words: “We Take Jokes Seriously”.
“Look,” I said to Eddie, the guy I was travelling with. “These are people after my own heart.”
I take jokes seriously too. I spend my days dealing in jokes. I make lists of things which make Easterners laugh and things which make Westerners laugh. I study theories of humour. I discuss laughter-generation with researchers in neuroscience.
“If they want jokes, I can deliver,” I said. “When the guard asks me if I have a laptop in my bag, I’m going to say: ‘No room, because of all the bombs.’”
“NO!” shrieked Eddie, eyes popping. “The sign means strictly no jokes allowed.”
“But that’s not what it says,” I argued.
As we inched along the queue, he explained that “We Take Jokes Seriously” signs meant airport officials immediately arrested anyone who tried to be funny. “They actually put people in jail for being mildly amusing,” he said. “Even if no one laughs.
I frowned. “Then it should say the opposite of what it says,” I argued. “It should say ‘We Do Not Take Jokes Seriously’, since they’re refusing to recognize jokes as jokes.”
Eddie looked at the sign again and decided that technically I was right.
“And what about human rights?” I continued. “The right to be funny is surely a fundamental freedom covered by the United Nations Bill of Rights.”
“I don’t think it is,” he said. “It’s probably not even mentioned.”
I was rendered speechless by this inexplicable omission.
As we edged closer to the security gate, I suggested we help the Australian Government by re-wording the sign to say what they intended it to say.
Eddie said: “What they are trying to say is that if you make a joke at the security gate, they will treat it as a terrorist threat.”
I understood. “So what the sign should really say is: ‘This is an irony-free zone. Any statement intended ironically will be misunderstood.’ ”
“Correct,” said Eddie, starting to look worried. “Listen, mate. Airport officials have their senses of humour surgically removed when they get their jobs. So please don’t try anything funny.”
He then dropped back to let other people go in front of him. This was to put some distance between himself and me, in case I committed humour in public. I had never seen him so terrified, except for all the other times he has to do anything with me.
Five minutes later, we were both through the security gates and met up at the airside coffee shop.
“I was right,” I said. “It was an irony-free zone.”
“What do you mean?” he asked. “You didn’t try joking with those guys, did you?”
I nodded and pointed to a chubby guard with an ill-fitting uniform, a 1975 haircut and a plastic digital watch.
Eddie winced. “You’re crazy to take risks like that,” he scolded. I could tell he wanted to change the subject, but he couldn’t help but ask: “So what exactly did you say to him?”
“I said, ‘Cool uniform. Nice haircut. Wish I had a watch like that.’ The guy nodded and thanked me. So I was right. It really is an irony-free zone.”