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Thursday, June 23, 2011

Third time unlucky - now it's beyond a joke (Joe Bennett)

Third time unlucky - now it's beyond a joke

Last updated 09:37 22/06/2011

'Here,' he said, 'I've got a good one for you.'

I didn't want to hear a good one. I was on my way to the internet cafe to check email for the first time in a few days. But the speaker was the concierge of the block of flats in London where I am staying and it is wise to stay onside with concierges.

Besides, he's a good guy who's led a full and varied life. He's been a butler, a ship's steward, a gentleman's gentleman - jobs that have taken him all over the world.

He's told me about fighting three ladyboys in a bar in Thailand and that in black South African churches under apartheid the Lord's prayer began "Your father".

I enjoy such tales but what he wants to tell me now is a joke. These days I don't find many jokes funny. There are only a few set patterns for jokes and once you've spotted them they become predictable. Comedy depends on unpredictability.

Also the announcement of "a good one" is a poor introduction to a joke, because it both reduces the element of surprise and increases the risk of failure. But, I repeat, the concierge is a good guy, so I said, "Go ahead. I'm all ears".

"There's this bloke in Australia," said the concierge, "and he's dying of some tropical disease and the doctors have given up on him and then he hears that the Sister of Mercy nuns have developed a miracle cure. He's got nothing to lose so he catches a train to their convent in the middle of nowhere. When he arrives a nun gives him a cup of something warm. He peers suspiciously into it.

" 'What's this?' he says.

" 'Tea,' says the nun, 'made from the flesh of one of our local marsupials'. He sips, splutters, and spits it out. 'It's full of bits of hair and bone,' he says."

At this stage, of course, I was thinking ahead, trying to work out how all these spectacularly absurd elements would come together. But it was beyond me and anyway we'd reached the punchline. Though contrived, it was mildly amusing.

I laughed a little more vigorously than the joke deserved then said I had to be on my way.

"You're from Christchurch, aren't you?" said the concierge as I turned to go. "I see you've had another earthquake."

A minute later I was reading emails. The quake had happened a day and a half before. A friend wrote that when the quake struck she was with a plumber, looking for leaks around her house which has been red-stickered since February.

They crawled to a barn, the ground cracking under their hands. Boulders were crashing off the hills behind. The house is red-stickered because of alleged danger from boulders, but just as in all earlier quakes, none came within cooee of her house.

From other friends I learned that my dog's a mental mess once more; that the theatre we'd battled to reopen is now closed again; that the Timeball is gone for good, and so on. And for the first time I felt the guilt of the absentee. If there's a mess going on, I ought to be in it.

And behind several of the emails I sensed a change of tone. There was a weary gloom there. The reason, I suspect is mathematical. Three is a very different number to two. Two major earthquakes are bad luck. Three, however, form a pattern.

There's an exact parallel with jokes. In those old-time jokes about nationalities there were always three characters: an Englishman, say, a Scotsman and an Irishman.

The first two were there to establish a pattern which the third somehow subverted to create the comic surprise. If there had been only two characters the joke wouldn't have worked.

I suspect this third major quake will be one sick joke too many for a lot of people. They will sense that we've gone beyond bad luck and that nasty is the new normal. Some will leave Christchurch and not come back. You can't blame them. As far as I know the series of quakes that has struck our city is unprecedented anywhere.

The flip side of disaster remains opportunity. But with every quake it becomes harder to keep that in mind and harder to joke about.

But the jokes will come back eventually, and with any luck they'll have better punchlines than "The koala-tea of mercy is not strained".

- The Press

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