Quit While You’re Ahead

Subject: Folk speech. Humor.

Collection: “There once was a boy who was born with just a head. His parents were initially shocked at this but with the right medical treatment and enough time they got used to it. Every day he would wake up, and his mom would pick him up and put him on the windowsill so he could watch the other kids play outside. Every night the boy would pray and pray that he could just have arms so he could throw the ball around with his friends, and one day he woke up and had a fully connected torso with fully functioning arms. He woke up and yelled: “Mom!! Mom!!” His mom ran in the room and saw him and went to the dad’s closet to get him a shirt. She put the shirt on him then brought him out the front yard so he could play catch. However, the boy realized he couldn’t run around after the ball because he didn’t have legs, so he started to pray and pray that he could have legs so that he could run and play with the other kids. And one day, he woke up and had legs and shouted: “Mom!!” and his mom ran in and freaked out and grabbed him pants from his dad’s drawer. Then the boy ran out to go play with the other kids across the street, and as he was crossing the street, a car drove by a hit him, killing the boy instantly. The moral of the story is… quit while you’re ahead.”

Background Info: J. Ingraham is a freshman enrolled at Chapman University pursuing a Bachelor of the Fine Arts in Theater Performance. He attended Dana Hills High School and is still a permanent resident of Laguna Niguel, CA. The speaker first heard this story from his father who would frequently trick him and his sister into listening to the story again by saying, “Did I ever tell you the story about the kid who was born with just a head?”.

Context: I first heard this story in a car on a road trip to Big Bear, CA in December of 2016. It was relayed as friends jumped in to try to one up one another with their personal stories, and for general entertainment. I contacted the active bearer of this narrative upon being assigned the assignment to collect folk speech. The account of the story was given over email.

Analysis: This story begins with a long set up that creates the false expectation for the story to be a typical piece of narrative. However, it then breaks the genre’s mold with a final punch line which relies on the play on words. This subversion of genre adds to the surprise, causing the joke to be more humorous than if it had not had the preface.

In the narrative portion of the of the folk speech, the structure follows typical archetypes. The repetition in the story occurs three times; this follows the Western tradition of storytelling elements coming I threes. Multiples of threes appear frequently in Abrahamic religions; for example, the Holy Trinity or three days between death and resurrection. In this model the boy openly beseeches God for his desires which God delivers on. However, on the third repetition, the gift God has given him leads to his death. Not only does the content mock religion since it is God’s gift that lead the boy to his premature end, but also it subverts tradition.

The pun itself is a clever play on words. It takes a traditional English proverb and subverts it so its meaning becomes literal. It also physically embodies the meaning of the proverb in which the idea is that it is better to stop altogether if your endeavors are going well before something goes wrong. The harsh outcomes of not quitting in this situation reinforces the meaning of the traditional proverb while the absurdity comments on the potential for quitting to be equally foolish.