“If someone says, like, if you’re at dinner, say we’re at dinner together, and I go, ‘L, what are the odds that you’ll pretend to trip and fall on the ground on the way to the table?’ and you have to say, um, 1 to 25, you make up a number, like an end number, depending on like, how badly you wouldn’t want to do it, or you would want to do it. So I will count ‘1 . . . 2 . . . 3 . . .’ and on the count of three, you say a number between 1 and 25 and I say a number, too. Like a number as well. And if we say the same number, then you have to do it. So like say you said, ’13,’ and I said, ’13,’ at the same time. You have to trip and fall on the floor on the way to the table. But say I say, ’12,’ and you say, ’13,’ then you don’t have to do it. But, um, D gets mad at me because when he does it, he gets mad if I do anything over 10. He’s like, ‘K, what are the odds you’ll eat your dinner with your hands?’ and I’m like, ‘1 in 12,’ and he’s like, ‘No!’ and like he’ll try to get me to go lower, and try to convince me that like the odds are like too big or something like that and there’s no way he’s gonna guess my number. And so he’ll count, ‘1 . . . 2 . . . 3 . . .’ and I have to say a number . . . if he gets it right, then I have to do it. If he gets it wrong, I don’t have to do it and I’m stoked. But he does it to his family . . . everyone! It’s annoying. So annoying.”
The informant was a 21-year-old USC student who studies communication and minors in dance and is a part of a prominent sorority on campus. She grew up in a relatively small town in southern California and was the captain of a prominent sports organization. She has danced for her entire life and, when she was growing up, would often drive for long stretches of time with her family to dance competitions. This interview took place late one night in my apartment’s living room when I began asking her about different games she knew. When I asked her who she learned it from, she said, “I learned it from [her boyfriend] and he learned it from his [hockey] team. I guess they just . . . I don’t know who on his team came up with it, but they do it all the time. When I went to go visit them, everything was like, ‘What are the odds?’ It’s like, ‘What are the odds you’ll turn the TV off?’ It’s like a stupid thing! It’s like it makes no sense, like I’ll just turn the TV off, there doesn’t need to be a game about it.”
When asked why she thinks people play this game, the informant said, “Just ‘cause they’re frickin’ bored, or if they don’t wanna do something they’ll be like, ‘What are the odds you’ll buy me dinner tonight?’ If they don’t wanna do it, then they’ll play ‘What Are the Odds?’ in hopes that they get it right. ‘Cause they don’t lose anything if they get it wrong, ‘cause everything’s the same as before they even played the game.” She also said, “I shows how much a person is willing to do something based on like a number that they come up with. So like, if you really don’t wanna do it, you’ll say an outrageous number like, ‘Thousand, like 1 in 1,000,’ and it’ll show, obviously, you really don’t wanna do something. If you say like, ‘1 in 3,’ then you’re saying, ‘I don’t really care if I have to do that, like I’ll do it. I’ll do it without even really asking, you know? But it’s just another way to turn life into a game, I guess.”
The informant also noted that, to her dismay, “What Are the Odds?” has spread to her family and her boyfriend’s family. It is an interesting game because, in addition to showing how much someone does not want to do something, it shows how well the person guessing knows the person answering the question. It is almost as though the reward for someone knowing the other person well enough is getting to see the other person do something they would prefer not to do. This game also appeals to the gambling spirit in people. In this case, however, there is no consequence for losing and it is exciting and fun when you win. More than anything, “What Are the Odds?” is a fun (for some) way to pass time, build relationships, and pass an unpleasant or hilarious task on to someone else.
Have you ever slept at the foot of the bed
when the weather was a-wizzin’ cold?
The wind was a whistlin’ through the cracks
the moon was a-yeller as gold
You’d give your good warm mattress up
to Aunt Lizzy and Uncle Fred
Too many kin folks on a bad night
so you went to the foot of the bed.
I always liked it when the kin folks came
and the children brought brand new games
See how fat all the old folks was,
learn all the babies’ names.
They’d eat biscuits and custard and chicken pie,
they all got Sunday fed.
But you knew darn well when the nighttime fell
you was headed for the foot of the bed.
They say some folks don’t know what it is
havin’ company all over the place.
Fightin’ for cover on a winter night,
big foot stickin’ in your face.
Cold toe nails scratchin’ your back,
footboard scrubbin’ your head
I’ll tell the world you ain’t missed a thing
Never sleepin’ at the foot of the bed.
The informant was my father, a 49-year-old engineer who currently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, but who grew up in the area surrounding Austin, Texas. His parents owned various pieces of rural Texas land, ending with a cattle ranch an hour outside of Austin. This is a song his father would sing to him and his siblings. This was not a “nighttime song,” because his job wasn’t to put them to bed. Often, his father would sing it “on the road, whilin’ time away driving to the ranch.” He says his father had forgotten most of it and was toying with it when they first started singing it together and “over the years, we had worked out what the entire song was.” The informant has no idea where it came from, but he says he tried to “consciously collect the songs” from his parents and wanted to “know the full version of every song that they sang to us.” He says his mother would listen to his father singing it and say “’Yeah that’s pretty much exactly the way it was, growing up.’ That this was sung as a joke, but that this was actually a real practice, that you’d have a full size bed in the house and two kids, or three or four kids, sleeping next to each other in the bed, and they weren’t actually long enough to fill up the bed so you’d lay another one cross-wise across the bottom of the bed . . . and, uh, you know, that was always the worst place to sleep. You know, in a cold, a drafty house, you didn’t want to be on the floor.” He likes that it feels like a joke, but that it is actually just a part of Southern culture.
This song was collected while I was home for Spring Break and performed in my living room. It was interesting to me because my father also used to sing it to me and my sister when we were children. I think it is meant to be an entertaining representation of something that happened occasionally in the South, although I don’t think it happened as recently as the informant thinks. On the other hand, his mother grew up in extreme poverty, so there is a chance that what she said about it was true. I think it was mainly composed for comic effect and represented an exaggerated version of something that happened among poor Southern families at one time.
In fact, this song has been performed by country singers since at least 1949. Little Jimmy Dickens released it as a single that year (“A-Sleeping at the Foot of the Bed”), although it was quite different from the song that was presented to me. In Dickens’s version there are two extra verses, the verses are in a different order, and many of the words are different. The song is recognizable, even though the tune has been somewhat changed. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_tkEotkyjHU
Dickens, James. "A-Sleeping at the Foot of the Bed." Raisin' the Dickens. Columbia Records, 1949. CD.
“M” is 21 year old male student at the University of Southern California, where he is a Junior studying Animation and minoring in Philosophy. M is originally from the outskirts of New York state where he describes himself as living in a rural area. He described himself as going to a high school of ~60 students, where cliche formation was rare as students could ‘jump from social group to social group’. He describes his parents as ‘hippies’ that were very relaxed in their parenting style as well as their personal approach towards life. He is of Irish descent on both sides and describes this aspect of his life as very active in his life.
“M: There was this kid my friend heard about, he would pretend to carry a lizard around and show people his lizard. Um… but obviously his hand’s empty so no one can actually see this… lizard. Most people that knew him were like, alright, here’s this lizard, just say hi… than like fuck off man
He met a new guy once who had no idea about the imaginary hand-lizard. So he held out his hand, and looked at him [the man who was ignorant of the lizard] and the guy gave him a high five.
Me: (start laughing, ends up interrupting his talking)
M: From that day on, the kid just talked and didn’t have a lizard… the lizard died and he became a normal human being.
Me: How did you hear about this?
M: From a kid in high school, he said it was one of his friends.
Me: Do you think it’s real?
M: No way, someone like that can’t really exist haha.”
The appeal of the legendary figure above appears to be the absurdity of the original gesture, introducing an imaginary lizard to people who obviously knew it was no real. This contrasts sharply as well with his apparent transformation into normalcy upon having his imaginary lizard killed by an ignorant stranger. Though the contrast itself isn’t interesting, the further claim that this may have been an actual person makes the situation peculiar and something that peaks interest. It seems to contradict our basic assumptions about how a person normally acts, and acts as a source of speculation (could he have been joking, suffering from mental illness, was the story made up?).
Some further aspects that make the legend fascinating is the apparent non-reaction of the lizard carrying man to having his lizard killed, despite the massive time investment in keeping the gesture going. It’s an abnormal reaction for someone who sees a pet killed, but not for someone who may have been joking. At the same time, why would he invest so much time into something he did not believe to be true? This abnormality, mixed with the humorous parallel serve to make the tale interesting to the listener.
Informant H is 19 years old and was born in Inglewood CA, and moved to a place near Valencia just outside of LA soon after she was born. After 5 years, her little sister was born, then her little brother, and then her youngest sister. The family then moved to Bakersfield. H homeschooled for many years and then transitioned into a public high school.
So my Dad always says this thing, ‘Said the blind man to the deaf monkey’. And I don’t know where it comes from, he might have even made it up, but you can really use it in any case. He says that all the time and we have this running joke because I’m always like ‘that doesn’t make any sense, the man he blind…the monkey is deaf…’ You use it when you tell someone you like see, like you understand them. So you’re talking to someone and they’re like, ‘Oh I see’ and then you’d say ‘Said the blind man to the deaf monkey’. He uses it mostly to be facetious I think. I guess it’s supposed to be like when you understand but you don’t really. And he always says it with this wink and a smile. At this point he just says it to be funny, just him being himself.
This proverb is a family specific one that helps to bring the family together in a funny and lighthearted way. The informant H always laughs when she hears her Dad say it and thinks of him fondly when she tells of this proverb. Although this proverb doesn’t teach much of a lesson, it helps to bring H and her Dad closer together through this unique and silly proverb.
About the Interviewed: Max is a twenty year old college student at Pasadena City College studying Architecture and Fashion Design. His ethnic background is remotely Swedish, though his family has been in America for a couple generations.
My subject, Max, plays tabletop Role-Playing Games (RPGs) . He discussed a joke tradition with me among RPG gamers that I found quite humorous.
Max: “When you play D&D [Dungeons and Dragons, popular tabletop RPG] you get into a lot of situations where you get stuck and have to make a “Skill Check”. In a “Skill Check” you roll a die and check your result to see if you overcome the challenge. It’s a twenty sided die, a d20 for short. You roll your die, and the number you get determines the outcome. 20 is the best. If you roll a twenty, that’s called a critical success, a critical hit. That’s really good. But if you get a 1, if you get the lowest number, that’s bad. Really, bad. That’s called a Critical Failure. When you land one of those, something really bad has to happen.”
I ask what that is.
Max: “Critical Failure means that not only does the opposite of your goal happen, it happens so badly it screws you over. Players like to think of creative ways for the screwing to happen, but most times people just get silly.”
“For example”, he goes on:
“Let’s say your character is fighting a wizard. Like, an evil wizard. And he summons a rain of knives to fall upon you. You’d have to make a Dexterity Check [type of skill check] to see if you dodge. You roll the dice and OOP. You got a 1. So what happens?”
“You swallow a knife and it explodes. You die forever. Game over. (laughs) Your character may not actually die, he’d probably just get stabbed a little. But the joke is the same. You miss. Bad thing happens.”
“There’s a ton of examples of these. They just sort of come-up during games.”
A short time after this meeting, I met with my D&D group and asked them to come up with/ remember their best crit. fail stories. Here’s what I got:
1. You try to unlock a door
- You miss and the door unlocks you instead.
2. You try to slay a vicious goblin.
- You miss and stab yourself. Multiple times.
3. You scan the darkness to search for traps.
- The darkness sees you and gets very angry.
4. You try to climb a rope.
-The rope is now 500 snakes.
Players of the game “Dungeons and Dragons”, as well as similar RPGs have a tradition of jokes surrounding the concept of the “Critical Fail”, the worst outcome of a single dice-roll.
I find that a lot of these jokes take a form of dark comedy, which can reflect the overall mood of failing a crucial roll. Taking something serious and making it silly may seem trivial, but they’re a way that players enrich in the fun of the game. This is a trend that has been observable since the dawn of pen and paper RPG’s in the mid 1970’s.
You can find more of them here and here:
I had signed up for a surfing lesson while on Spring Break in Maui with my parents. When we were learning about how to stand on the surfboard – on the beach of course; we started on dry land learning how to get on the board and how to stand up once we were on it, as well as the proper stance when on the board – when the instructor noticed that I was in a stance for a lefty. He then called out and said something along the lines of, “You’re a goofy foot!”
Of course, I asked them what the term meant. “Goofy foot” is a blason populaire term used by surfers for left-handed (-footed?) surfers. It is not all that surprising that surfers would have their own term for lefties, since lefties are much less common than right-handed/-footed people. Most of the human population is right-handed/-footed, and in the West at least (Europe, America) left-handedness was considered to be negative, unlucky, incompetent, socially wrong, etc. So, to a population that was 9/10ths right-handed, being among the 1/10th of the population that was left-handed/-footed would look awfully weird, and thus “goofy,” to the “normal,” right-handed/footed people. Furthermore, since handedness in surfing is shown through the stance, the let-handed surfing stance – meaning the feet – would be “goofy footed” to a right-handed surfer.
The informant is one of five children. He has two older sisters (one of which is now deceased), one older brother, and one younger brother. His mother is in her 80’s, and his father has been deceased for many years. The family has been in southern California since the children were born. The family frequently gets together at his mother’s house for holidays like Easter and Christmas and family jokes present themselves often.
The joke explained here is one that started in the 1960’s by the informant’s maternal grandfather. In addition to asking the informant and his siblings questions like “Are you married yet?” and “So where are you working?” when they were children much too young to have a spouse or a job, he would also tap their shoulders and say “Forsee did it!” Forsee was the grandfather’s wife. Other small things like accidentally bumping into something or dropping something would also be explained by saying that Forsee did it. This was done in a teasing manner, not a mean-spirited manner. My informant remembers his family talking about his grandfather saying this joke moreso than remembering specific incidences where he witnessed his father saying that Forsee did something. This continued long after the grandfather and grandmother had passed away. Though the frequency of the joke has lessened in the last few years, the informant also tells the joke even when he is not at an extended family gathering and is just in his own home with his own wife and children, though he does so rarely. Though the joke is told relatively often at family gatherings, it is almost always followed by a discussion of how that joke started with the grandfather, even though it is discussed at almost every family gathering. I think it is explained mainly for the benefit of whatever new friend or boyfriend one of the younger generation has brought to the gathering, to bring them “into the family” just a little bit.
This joke speaks to the relaxed nature of this family. Joking around is encouraged, even by the older generation and many family dinners end with loud laughter. There is also a lot of teasing that goes on, both by younger members and older members of the family. Family gatherings are never formal, and the younger cousins often eat on the couch in the living room instead of bothering to get a folding chair out of the closet. Overall, the jokes like the one focused on here and the informal nature of the events really show the relaxed and comfortable nature of the family relationships.
“Emperors seem to be really whimsical people, who also have a lot of time on their hands. Actually, I don’t know if it’s all emperors or just Akbar. Anyway, one day, on a whim, Akbar decided that he wanted to find the ten biggest fools in his kingdom, because he’d had enough of being surrounded by clever and scholarly men. What a novel idea, don’t you think? So he sends his incredibly smart and witty minister Birbal, solver of every problem in his kingdom, out to retrieve these ten foolish men. He eventually returned with eight men, among whom some were supremely idiotic. Let me enlighten you. One of these guys was carrying a bale of hay while riding a horse. So Birbal goes up to this dude and asks him why he’s carrying the hay when he’s riding a horse, and so the guy replies that it’s because his horse is really, really old and weak and that he doesn’t want to burden him any further. I know, right? Now listen to this. Another guy was running down the road really fast and he collided with Birbal. The minister asks the guy where he’s off to in such a hurry and you won’t believe what the guy says. He says that he was saying his prayers in the mosque that morning and wanted to see how far his voice reached. So, duh, the first thought that came to his mind was chasing his voice. And okay, okay, last one. This third genius is looking for something in the street at night, and he can’t seem to find it. He’s looking under a streetlamp. Birbal stumbles across him, quite literally, and asks him what he’s looking for so frantically. He explains that he lost his wedding ring in a dark galli (alley) a short ways away. So obviously, Birbal is confused and asks him why he isn’t looking in the alley, and in the street instead. Get this. This brilliant guy says that he’s looking in the main road because there’s more light there. Isn’t that hilarious? And so he takes these supremely stupid eight guys back to Akbar, who is upset that there’s only eight of them. So Birbal says, quite frankly, that Akbar is the ninth fool for thinking of such a pointless task. Offended, the Emperor demands who the tenth one is, to which Birbal just deadpans: ‘Me, of course, for agreeing to carry out such a pointless task.’ Ha ha ha!”
I was told the background of this story in due time: “There are several versions of this story, but the one with Birbal and the Ten Fools is the most popular. There’s a few other ones, though, like The Four Fools and Birbal, and also one that’s more or less the same as the one I just told you, except that the Rajput Birbal is replaced with a South Indian clever minister figure called Tenali Rama and the Emperor Akbar is replaced by the corresponding king – Raja Krishnadevaraya. I just chose this one because I like Birbal more than Tenali Rama and it’s funnier, because there are more idiots. I think the point that’s proven here is that a person who chooses to record the number of idiots in his vicinity is a bigger idiot than all of them combined, because there is no end to the idiots in any given part of the world.”
The notable point here is that the active participant, who is relating the legend, acknowledges that there are several versions and variants of this story, making the main frame of the story a taletype, and the multiple specimens of this story, told all over India, oikotypes. He also relates the story in a very humorous manner and involves the audience directly by laughing with them and asking them rhetorical, “Am I right?”-type questions to keep them engaged. In addition to this, he mentions two different (in region) but very similar (in character) elements to the story – the half-historical and half-legendary characters of Birbal and Tenali Rama, who are well-known all over the Indian subcontinent and are vehicles for many similar stories. Another point to be noted is the presence of a wedding ring in the story. The wedding ring is a traditionally Western and Christian concept that is a modern introduction into Indian culture, where a mangalsutra (wedding necklace) is more prevalent. It’s interesting because this variation in the story must have been quite recent, and also must have been engineered for the story to appeal to a wider audience.
Finally, this story is, essentially, a joke, but also a legend, because it takes place in the real world and may well have happened. Its humor mainly relies in the supreme stupidity of the people Birbal encounters, and the punchline, in which both the minister and the emperor realize that they were pretty idiotic themselves by wasting a week on such a nonsensical quest. The narrative poses the idea that one may have one’s moments of sheer brilliance, but no matter a person’s stature, an emperor, a clever minister, or a mere pauper, everyone has their own unique quirks, whims, and the capacity to be almost mind-numbingly idiotic when given the opportunity.
“A Hindu man is in a rowboat in a particularly stormy section of the river. All of a sudden, his boat rams into a boulder, and he goes flying into the icy water. The rapids are carrying him away, and so he holds onto a small fragment of the wooden boat, trying to stay afloat. This doesn’t help him for very long. Just as he’s about to drown, therefore, he has the brilliant idea to pray to Ganesha, the deity of overcoming challenges and obstacles. Ganesha appears before him, and asks him what he wants. The man tearfully begs the elephant-headed god to get him out of the water, to which Ganesha replies – ‘Hah! You drown me every year, without even asking me what I want, and then when you’re drowning, you expect me to help you out of the water? Yeah, right!'”
The informant, a devout Hindu and an avid joke-teller, related the history of this joke – “This is one of the most hilarious jokes I have ever heard. A lot of Hindus know the joke, and know the significance of the joke. It’s funny because it puts the festival and rituals of Ganesh Chaturti into the perspective of the god himself, turning the joke around on us and making us wonder what the gods actually think of what we do to them.”
This joke mocks the rituals of Ganesh Chaturti, a traditional Hindu festival in which earthen idols of Ganesha are immersed in the nearest holy river or lake, symbolizing his return to his mother, the goddess of the earth Bhumi Devi, amid a spectacular celebration. It personifies the idol of the young, elephant-headed god, and switches the positions of the drowner and the drownee, putting Ganesh in the position of power here. In addition to this, the god is portrayed hilariously immature and vindictive, diminishing his deified dignity and showing him to be actually disgruntled by the rituals of a festival which celebrates his birth and ascent to heaven, a situation which people don’t really consider when performing these grand and honorific traditions.
흥부놀부 (Heung-bu Nol-bu) – Good Sir, Bad Sir
Sung is in his early 50s and works as an engineer. Born in Incheon, South Korea, he immigrated to the United States after he married in 1990. He heard the story of Heung-bu and Nol-bu when he was in the first or second grade in elementary school.
흥은 붕해 뜻이야 – 잘 된다는것이야. 놀은 잘 못 된다는거야 (노는 사람들을 놀부라고 부를듯이).
흥부 하고 놀부는 형재야. 근데 놀부가 형이야. 잘 살아, 부자집. 흥부는 가난한 집이야. 형이 동생을 잘 못 챙긴거지.한국에서는 첫재만 재산을주는거지. 흥부는 둘째니까 많이 못 받은거지. 어느날 흥부는 놀부한테 밥을 달라고 했는데, 놀부의 부인이 식은 밥을
준거지. 제비 (새) 가 날라와서 집을 만들었지, 놀부 집 밑에.옛날에 집 바로밑에 처마가있었어. 근데 제비가 떨어져서 다리가 부러졌어. 그래서 흥부가 다리를 고쳤어. 고마운 마음을 제비가 어떤 씨를 가져왔어. 흥부가 그걸 심었었지. 그 후에 박을 쓸려고했는데 도깨비가 튀어 나온가요. 그 도깨비가 물어본거야 “너는 뭘 갓고 싶으니?” 흥부가 밥 달라고해서 밥을 줬어. 돈도 달라고해서 돈도주고, 옷도주고, 집도주고. 흥부가 잘된거야, 그래서 그 형이 배가 아픈거지. 놀부가 일부로 처마를 떨어뜨려서 다리를 또 부라뜨리고 제비가 이번엔 놀부한테 씨를 가져온거야. 그래서 똑같이 씨를 심어서 이번에도 도깨비가 나타났어. 똑같은 질문을하는대 놀부가 “난 돈이 많이 있지만 흥부보다 더 많이 갓고싶으다! 돈 더 줘!” 라고 했다. 결국 나쁜 마음을 가진 놀부에게 돈을 다 잃었고 가난해졌다. 잘 살던 놀부는 평범한 인생을 살고 없었던 흥부는 좋은 인생을 살게됬다.
Heung is a word that means good luck. Nol means bad luck. In light of this tale, people who simply play and don’t work are called “Nol-bu”.
Heung and Nol are brothers. Nol is the firstborn and Heung is the second child. Nol is rich and wealthy while Heung leads a life of poverty. In these olden times, the father passes on most of the inheritance only to the firstborn son and the second son is lucky to have received anything. One day, Heung goes to his brother’s house and asks for rice to eat. Nol’s wife gives him cold and old rice. These old houses there are eaves built under the roofs. A swallow comes and builds his nest there. The swallow fell and broke its leg. Heung came across it and fixed its broken leg. Out of thanks, the swallow returned to Heung and gave him a seed. Heung planted the seed and one day using a gourd to water it, a dokgyebi (Korean bogey) springs out. It asks Heung “what do you want?” and he answers that he is hungry and wants rice. The dokgyebi gives him rice. Heung says he wants money and he is given money. Heung says he wants clothes, a house, and it is all granted to him. The brother sees this and his stomach hurts out of envy. Nol purposely drops the eave so the swallow breaks its leg again. This time Nol fixes the leg and the swallow once again returns and gives Nol a seed. Nol plants it and waits for the dokgyebi to appear. It does. It asks Nol “what is it that you want?” and Nol answers “I have a lot of money but I want more than Heung. Give me money!” In the end, the dokgyebi sees his evil heart and Nol is stripped of his money and wealth. The brother who once was rich is now poor and the brother who once was poor is now rich.
이 의미는 남들이 잘되는걸 따라가려면 잘 안 된다는거야. 있는걸 있을대 만족해라. 욕심 내면서 살면 망한다. 착하게 살아라.
그리고 사람들이 없는대로 복만받으면 “흥부심뽀다”라고 얘기해.
돈이있고 남을 안 도와주면서 살면 “놀부심뽀다”라고 하지.
The meaning behind this story is that you should not live trying to chase after those who are better off than yourself. In doing so, you will simply lose what you already have. Treasure what you are given and be content. By becoming greedy, you will only end up losing what you already have and can end up in a worse state than where you initially stood.
My dad told me this story after I talked to him about my aspirations for the future. In light of my future, he meant to tell me not to put too much on my plate. In becoming greedy not only for money but also in my activities, I can end up burning out or losing more than what I think I can gain. He also meant this story to be a reassurance that all will be well. Instead of becoming lost in the competition against others for a job or for a better future, it’s always best to focus on my life and myself.