Tag Archives: occupational

Psychiatrist Light Bulb Joke

--Informant Info--
Nationality: Canadian/American
Age: 20
Occupation: Student
Residence: New York City
Date of Performance/Collection: 02/14/20
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s):


Informant: How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb?

Collector: I don’t know, how many?

Informant: One, but the light has to want to change. 

Context: The informant was sitting next to me while I was doing homework in his living room. He turned over to me and posed the joke. The collection occurred in the piece’s natural performance setting.

Background: The informant is Canadian born, but has lived the majority of his life in the United States. He is the son of a psychologist and has frequently interacted with psychiatrists. To the informant, the joke is incredibly humorous based on the common principle in therapy and mental health treatment that a patient has to want to change for the treatment to be effective. He is unsure of where he learned the joke, but guessed that he may have heard it in a television show. 

Analysis: The joke is a variation on “How many ___ does it take to change a lightbulb?” jokes that often build upon existing stereotypes. This particular joke  relies on the common principle of mental health treatment that a patient has to want to change for the treatment to be effective. It also plays on two interpretations of the word change. On one hand, it relies on change as literal replacement as in the case of the lightbulb. On the other, it relies on change being understood as a mental transformation. Ultimately, the joke plays upon an understanding of Western psychiatry and the idea that a psychiatrist would approach everyday tasks the same way as he/she/they would approach his/her/their work. 

For another version of this joke, see:

Wikipedia. 2001. “Light-Bulb Joke.” Last Modified May 3, 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Lightbulb_joke&dir=prev&action=history

You Can’t Put 6-Pounds in a 5-Pound Bag

--Informant Info--
Nationality: American
Age: 52
Occupation: Administrator (previously Architect)
Residence: Los Angeles, California
Date of Performance/Collection: 4/15/2018
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s):

Item (direct transcription):

You can’t put 6-pounds in a 5-pound bag.

Background Information:

The informant learned the proverb from her architecture mentor whom she worked for during her education. He would tell the proverb to his clients when they were requesting the impossible of him. In the context of architecture, the proverb means that there is only so much that can be fit into a finite amount of space, regardless of the skill or ingenuity of the architect.

The informant continues to use the proverb in the same way when consulting about architecture.

Contextual Information:

The informant says she would use the proverb when someone has unrealistic expectations for what can be fit into their house plans.


This saying meets all four of the canonical criteria for a proverb. It is (1) short, (2) fixed-phrase, (3) rhetorical, and (4) metaphorical.

This proverb is an example of occupational folklore for the occupation of architects.

Film Company Hazing

--Informant Info--
Nationality: Moroccan
Age: 19
Occupation: Student
Residence: Los Angeles/Tucson, Arizona
Date of Performance/Collection: 4/21/16
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s):

SS interned at a production company, and experienced occupational folklore in the form of hazing. When someone at her company messed up as bad as she did, they would be forced to coil cables indefinitely.

SS: Once upon a time when I was a wee lassie, young, naive, full of enthusiasm for the art of filmmakimg, I in my ignorance accepted an internship at a local prod. company in Tucson, Arizona. The production company was supposed to train me in grip and electric work on film sets in addition to giving me a better understanding of how film industry worked. one evening, the most useful work they could put their intern to do was to go through the email of the previous owner of the company. This owner never ever understood how technology worked. This man is a modern dinosaur. It was astounding he could even turn on the computer. So when I was given the task to clean out this guys email (had had it for 10+ years), tidy it up, and find contacts I knew it would be daunting, but never knew it would be impossible. As I ventured to the abyss of this inbox, I realized there were over 15,000 unopened emails in which I have to find any important filmmaking connections. So I’m going through and trying to set up a system. I learn this guy’s entire life, lots of personal details just by going through his email. My boss comes in and says ‘Hey if you find any pics, download those as well.” So sure enough I find a few emails with pictures and try to download. It doesn’t work. I keep clicking download, download download. The I realize the computer is frozen. Completely overloaded and overworked. Ok, just gonna take a step back and give it some time to breathe. An hour goes by. The little rainbow wheel of death is still spinning. The boss comes in and asks “Are you done yet?”

“Fuck no, also the computer’s frozen.”

“Turn it off and back on.”

I leave work at 5 o’ clock usually. Clock hits 5, gotta go, man. I think it might just need to figure itself out overnight. Later, I realized what I had done was download 6,000 copies of this picture to the desktop. The next Thursday, I get back to my internship. No one is speaking to me. This guy goes “Hey do you know what you did to the computer? Well, you completely destroyed that computer.” Whoa danger zone, unprotected. Long story short, they had to take computer into apple store, because it wouldn’t respond for 3 days. Took some cray diagnostic.

“We aren’t going to let you do anything on the computer today, instead we have a different assignment for you.” They’re obviously pissed.

Keep in mind, it’s a casual 100 degree day in Tucson, Arizona. My new job: go outside and recoil a bunch of massive cables that were coiled counterclockwise. I had to recoil them all over, in clockwise direction.

They told me that “we know you’re not really good at coiling cables, so we thought this would be good practice.”

It was ACTUALLY ABUSIVE I went home and listened to music people picked cotton to I felt like I could relate for the first time in my life to slaves. I couldn’t move for 2 days. It’s the heaviest cable that exists. Also, I still can’t coil cord.

Paper Stretcher

--Informant Info--
Nationality: Caucasion
Age: 40s
Occupation: Handyman (Formerly Printer)
Residence: Altadena, CA
Date of Performance/Collection: Apr 14
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s):

The informant worked as a professional printer for over twenty years at several different shops in the Los Angeles area.

The Story:

Well, used to be, when I was printing, they, ya know, we’d get the new guys, and obviously, you know, we’d need to, to go get something or, ya know, we’d send them on errands here and there. And, uh, every once and a while, we’d we’d tell a guy to go get a paper stretcher. Ya know, and uh we’d tell ’em “Oh, ya know, go check the sheet-fed department for a paper stretcher.” And they’d take off and twenty minutes later, they come back. “Ah I can’t find it. I’m looking for it ya know, all over the place.” And ya know, sometimes the other department would send them to another department to go get it and, usually we’d see how long they would go with it. But uh, obviously, ya know, he got the clue after a while, after he, ya know, couldn’t find it that uh, there was no such thing. [chuckles] And uh, paper does a lot of stuff but it doesn’t stretch.

The prank was fairly common at all of the shops the informant worked at.
They pulled the prank on new workers because “The older guys, they knew what was up.”

This is a perfect example of occupational folklore, and a liminal phase prank. It is assumed that once you can’t be fooled by the prank, you know what paper is capable of, therefore making you an experienced printer.

Feet First from the O.R.

--Informant Info--
Nationality: Italian-American, Puerto Rican
Age: 56
Occupation: Registered Nurse
Residence: San Diego, California
Date of Performance/Collection: 3.23.12
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s): Spanish, Italian

When transporting a patient on a gurney out of an Operating Room, you must have them exit the room feet first. Never head first, because that means they’re dead.

Informant’s description of the practice verbatim:

“I was called overhead in my surgery center where I work as a Registered Nurse, to please come in and help in the moving of the patient from the O.R. table into the recovery room, which is where I work. And so I walked in and I hadn’t been there very long and I went to move the patient from the table of the O.R. to the gurney for transportation and as I went to pull the patient out it was natural for me to have the patient come out of the O.R. room door head first. And I was immediately pulled, they pulled back on the gurney they turned it around and said, “Oh no, no, no. You’ve gotta make them come out feet first.” And I said “What are you talking about?” and they said “It’s just what we do we never allow a patient to come out head first because when you’re coming head first out of the O.R. it means that you’re dead” and so I don’t know where that comes from and I don’t know if everyone uses that but the people in that O.R., in those operating room suites believe it.

I don’t believe it and I respect it so I wouldn’t do it any other way because they all believe it so I’m not going to change that. I would never dream of changing that… And they are very adamant about it. Really adamant about it. They’re like “OH NONONO” (laughs) I’m like okay, “Sorry!”

When you’re feet first your like about to step on the ground, so you would like. I dunno, so if you were to walk, you would step out, so if you were coming head first you were falling? I dunno but if you were to come feet first I guess you’re walking on your feet so then you’re not dead, you’re alive.”

My informant’s guess as to why feet first is necessary and head first means the patient’s dead is what I would think as well. I think that bodies at morgues are pulled out of temporary storage head first. Bodies in caskets are carried head first into churches and funeral cars. Maybe this practice has something relation to not handling post-surgery-bodies (which in a way resemble the dead) like the dead. A lot of folk belief exists among health professionals, but the O.R. is a particularly important place because every procedure, every surgery is dangerous and gravely serious, whether it’s for a boob job or something life-threatening. My informant has been an R.N. for thirty-odd years, and has been married to a surgeon for the same length of time, this was her first time hearing this rule.

Theater Occupational Superstition: Macbeth (Version I)

--Informant Info--
Nationality: American
Age: 63
Occupation: Adjunct Faculty at the University of Southern California
Residence: Los Angeles, CA
Date of Performance/Collection: April 20th, 2012
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s): German, French

Interview Extraction

Informant:”Now the interesting thing about a lot of old stories is- and this is actually something we mentioned in class, how there are often two or three explanations that might not even relate to one another for many of the old stories or traditions.  The Macbeth legend that I know, there are two- no, three variations of the Macbeth legend.  One is the story that the incantations used are actual witch’s incantations so therefore if you believe in witchcraft you do not want to evoke them.  The second one on Macbeth is that, Macbeth being an old ‘war horse’ and an audience favorite, was frequently the play that would replace a show that wasn’t doing well.  So if you heard someone talking about Macbeth, you didn’t like it because it meant that the play you are doing might be closing early, and be replaced by a revival of Macbeth.  I kind of like that legend the best.”


The Macbeth superstition is among the most common superstitions that people working in theater follow.  The legend of Macbeth is that it is bad luck to say ‘Macbeth’ in the theater.  To prevent unlucky things from happening such as the set falling over, people are encouraged to say ‘The Scottish Play’.  If you do make the mistake of saying ‘Macbeth’, you have to cut the curse by performing some kind of protection ritual.  This ritual changes based on who you talk to due to the fact that it is such widespread legend and many people have different ideas about the curse.  The first time I heard about the legend was in Boston when I broke the rule of not saying ‘Macbeth’ in the theater, and the people I was with made me run around the theater three times to cure the curse.  The next time I heard about ‘The Scottish Play’ legend was in Los Angeles, where the cure for the curse was to spin around three times and spit over your shoulder.  It is hard to say if the cure changes based on your location because people in theater often travel for work, so the ideas on the legend would be mixed.  There are many different origin stories behind the legend of Macbeth, and the stories my informant mentions are only some possibilities.

I am familiar with the legend that Shakespeare might have used real witch’s incantations in his play, but I am not sure if this is true.  It depends on your beliefs about witchcraft.  I think the reason why this particular legend is so popular is because witchcraft and magic hold such a high place of fascination in our imaginations, and believing in them is fun.  People are attracted to theater because it is about the magic of storytelling.  Therefore when people in theater participate in these kind of belief systems, they are doing so because it is an extension of working in an occupation that is full of play.  Theater is like magic in the fantastical sense, we rely on illusions to invoke a spectacular idea in the imaginations of the audience.

I was not familiar with the idea that perhaps Macbeth has transformed into a superstition based on the idea that it is a show that frequently replaces unsuccessful productions.  It is very possible that this legend is the true reason behind why the play has become part of theater lore.  This is because Macbeth is a very popular production and you can always find it being performed during a production season, so I can easily see it replacing a show that didn’t prove to be popular.  If this is true, then Macbeth probably evolved into a superstition of bad luck because it has it’s origins in bad luck.

My informant was born in 1949, Connecticut.  He works as a costume designer in the entertainment industry occasionally, and serves as the head of the USC costume shop in addition to being a faculty member for the USC School of Dramatic Arts.  He has more than 40 years of experience in the theater.

Sailor Story

--Informant Info--
Nationality: American
Age: 21
Occupation: Student
Residence: Los Angeles, California
Date of Performance/Collection: April 2012
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s): None

“My grandpa’s best friend, who is a sailor, always tells this story about a seagull. There’s this couple or this sailor out on the water and it’s a beautiful day and they’re sailing along. And the swell starts to pick up and it’s so rocky that his fake teeth fall into the water. And he can’t get it. And I guess they go back to the harbor, to the bay, and tie off the boat, and a seagull flies back over them and has the biggest smile you’ve ever seen. And it’s the man’s teeth.”


The informant told me that her grandpa’s best friend is a sailor with a really corny sense of humor and she said she is pretty sure that he has fake teeth. She said that her grandpa also has fake teeth. Thus, the two of them really like retelling this story because it contains elements that they can relate to and identify with. However, the story seems to have a deeper meaning. Sailors can never be certain of how the sea will treat them and sailors can develop a rocky relationship with the sea. Sometimes it’s smooth sailing and other time’s things don’t go your way. In the story, the day starts out beautiful and the water is smooth, but then something changes and the water is suddenly rocky. The story seems to be saying that regardless of how the waters are, you need to maintain a good sense of humor about it. After all, the sailor is lucky to survive the rough conditions. Sure, he loses his teeth, but he makes it out alive, and despite the unfortunate fact that he is now toothless, he can get a good chuckle from seeing the seagull with his teeth.

Lawyer Joke

--Informant Info--
Nationality: American
Age: 56
Occupation: Attorney
Residence: Oceanside, New York
Date of Performance/Collection: April 2012
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s): None

“If you wanted to have all of the answers before you got there, you should have gone to medical school.”


This occupational joke, often told by lawyers, is disparaging of doctors. It’s funny because usually one would think that doctors have a more difficult job than lawyers because they are dealing with life and death situations, but the joke implies that doctors learn everything they need to know at school. Supposedly, all of the diseases and conditions doctors will encounter are in their medical textbooks. While this is not entirely true, it is clearly a belief held by many lawyers who tell this joke. Those lawyers believe that their jobs are more difficult because they can often deal with situations that have never happened before or have never been documented before. Even if their cases are really just a variation of previous cases, they seem to believe that each situation is unique, whereas, in their opinion, an illness is always the same.

The informant is fond of this joke because she is a lawyer. I have heard her tell this joke multiple times, usually when she is talking about a difficult work-related situation. She seems to tell this joke to remind herself that having a difficult job comes with the territory and that not everything is so cut-and-dry.

Occupational FOAF Stories

--Informant Info--
Nationality: Mexican-American
Age: 33
Occupation: IT Manager
Residence: Westlake, Los Angeles, CA
Date of Performance/Collection: April 19, 2011
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s): Conversational French

When the informant worked in a tech support job at the University of Southern California, she heard the two following occupational FOAF stories about ridiculous problems customers had called in to friends of her fellow workers:

The most common story the informant heard was that of the worker who complains, “I broke my cup holder,” not knowing that the so-called “cup holder” is in fact the CD drive on his CPU. The other oft-retold IT question she heard was, “Where’s the ‘any’ key.” This question relates to a common program prompt: “When a program says, ‘Press any key to continue, uh, some individuals—they may not have a full grasp of the English language or of a computer—are looking for an actual key on the keyboard that says, ‘Any key,’ as opposed to just pressing any key on the keyboard.”

The informant considered these two stories to be pure invention until she later encountered them herself as an IT manager: “At first I thought that it was, you know, just kind of a joking thing—ha, that’s funny, who, who would ever actually ask that?—but I did encounter it twice . . . somebody put a cup in the CD drive and the CD drive is not built to hold cups with liquid in it. And it broke.” She recalls her response to the first time she got the “cup holder” question: “I tried to be very—I’m sure I was—maybe chuckled a little bit? But I try to be very professional in my response, saying that’s not a cup holder and that the person had broken their computer and would need to get it repaired.” As for the “any key” question, she now calls it “something that is commonly encountered . . . I’m not kidding.”

Like her former co-workers, the informant now brings out these stories to share with other tech support workers: “I would tell it—I’m sure I would do it in a way if we were doing, uh, pretty much like battle stories from a war . . . but from the front lines of tech support.”

Since the computer problems in these stories actually happen, it is likely that the stories themselves have a polygenetic source—multiple users who have probably never seen anyone else use the CD drive as a cup holder do so of their own accord. Folklore about the personal computer, of course, has a terminus post quem of its invention; tech support for personal computers is a relatively new concept and thus the occupational folklore associated with its practitioners must of necessity also be rather new. However, these two stories do seem to be widespread, appearing in user manuals, technical textbooks, and even fiction books, as a passage from a short story by Carson W. Bryan demonstrates (71).

Source: Bryan, Carson W. Let’s Find Out. New York: Xulon Press, 2010.