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The Uni-Files

A candid look at EFL life and lessons from a university teacher's perspective.

May 29, 2012

Ya ya- We university teachers laugh too!

If you are a Western male of certain age you probably grew up watching Benny Hill, Monty Python, and later, the Canadian contribution to the 'D'ya remember the one where...?" culture, SCTV. Watching this stuff was almost a rite of passage. In fact, you might remember the following exchange from Benny Hill, with a mother extolling the virtues of her dubious son to a doubter:
“He’s a good boy. There are twenty-five pubs in this town and he hasn’t been in one of them!”
“And which one is that?”

I like this little gem for the interesting word play which means it has some (albeit minimal) value in an English classroom. Analyzing linguistically as to why the ‘joke’ works is, of course, socially forbidden—but you might enjoy the mental exercise anyway. Now I certainly don't recommend a class, let alone a course, for English jokes and comedy but some do have a place in the more informal teacher-student moments and settings.

"I told you not to mention it!"

Benny Hill was ripe with this stuff although Hill had at least as many misses as hits. While Hill was more of a punchline guy, Python and SCTV went for absurd concepts and oddball characterizations that are not really reducible to ‘jokes’. Not surprisingly, they don't translate as well.

Another ta-dum moment from Benny Hill:
(Describing a renaissance music concert) "There were lutes and mandolins, not to mention a cittern."
"A cittern?"
(Sharply) "I told you not to mention it!"

Bad, sure-- but in a good sort of way. And very good for helping us realize some of the absurdity or oddities in our language. And yes, the old, oft-quoted 'assume as ass-u-me' gag first came from Benny.

My all-time favourite Benny Hill gag was one of his 'poetry readings', which starts in a somber tone which starts:
They said that it could not be done,
He asked them “Why?”,
“Other men have tried and failed” they said
But he said, “Not I”..

(The Kipling-esque, My Way-ish motif slowly builds up to a dramatic crescendo as we expect our protagonist to emerge from his quest victorious. And so to the ending…)
… So he faced up to ‘that which could not be done’--

Not only the abrupt change in register (from the British Empire laureate to the bloke in the pub) but the bursting of the hackneyed, pretentious, highly-expected “you can do it if you try your best” bubble is somehow liberating. This one translates into Japanese well too.

What doesn't work? Well just look at this painful attempt at telling a wordplay joke to the Dalai Lama . You don't need an MA in Linguistics to figure out why the poor Lama is lost.

'How is his odor?'

It may be telling that one rare Python item that catches student interest is the German counter-joke, the deliberate epic fail (I’m channeling my inner 16 year old when I write that) concocted by the notoriously unfunny Germans as a response the Britain’s wartime ‘killer joke’. It goes:
My dog has no nose”
“How does he smell?”

Now no one, certainly not the Pythons, thinks that this is clever-- its doltishness is precisely the point-- but just try telling this ditty to your Japanese friends. Then try it in Japanese if there is no response. It will probably come out something like this:
“My dog has no nose”
“How is his odor?”

Doesn’t quite work, does it? Sigh. The Japanese have no sense of humor. Oh, wait a second…

Ann Elk-- and committee meetings

One Python over-the-top character that does draw a knowing response in Japan is Ann Elk, John Cleese’s dinosaur ‘expert’ who can’t get to her pithy point about dinosaurs being very big without elaborate preludes and evasive coughing while the program host, Graham Chapman, grows increasingly fidgety and agitated. This works because officials of every type in Japan have a habit of conveying the pithiest or most obvious of points using incredibly elaborate frontings.

In fact, just yesterday I attended the initial meeting of this year's entrance exam committee. Every time the committee leader referred to the test he called it, ”The 25th year of Heisei's Miyazaki University entrance examination” as if the attendees needed constant reminding as to the year, the university they work at, and what the test is for. The actual body of the text following this prelude would typically be something like, “will take place on March 4th from 10 to 2” followed by an equally tortuous denouement, “so I would hereby like to humbly request the cooperation of all 25th year of Heisei Miyazaki University entrance exam committee members in carrying this out… I think”. (Is anyone else reminded of the Counting of the Number of the Holy Hand Grenade here?) .
So much for the zen-like minimalist mystique of the Japanese language.

'I sure did that thing'- Cardinal Richelieu

The beguiling dissonance of certain off-kilter lines have stayed with me for thirty-plus years. Can you remember the court in Monty Python summoning a swaggering, gum-chewing Cardinal Richelieu as a witness? (jump to about 5:00 in) To ascertain his background the prosecutor asks him, among other things:
Did you take stern measures against the great Catholic nobles who made common cause with foreign foes in defense of their feudal independence?”
To which Richelieu, ridiculous French accent and all, replies:
“Yeah. I sure did that thing”

This has since become my default response to elaborate accusations, especially those I can’t really comprehend. But explaining how the final “thing” takes all the pompous wind out of the question and reeks of irreverence and diffidence… well, that’s another matter.

Interesting, oddball funny stories of about two minutes’ length are also good openers or attention getters in classrooms (provided you know how to tell a story, can modify speed and lexis to make it meaningful to second language learners, and remember that the classroom is not your American Idol platform for mesmerizing captive audiences). For your amusement, here are a few of mine that have worked:

Is Yasui Sokken following me?

Story 1: When I lived in Tokyo there was a small day care center and park across the narrow alley from my home. In this park was a monument. It was the gravesite/memorial of Yasui Sokken, the great Confucian scholar of the early 19th century. When I later moved to Miyazaki, there was a protected monument and preserved building in a small park next to my new home. It was the birthplace of ... that great early 19th century Confucian scholar Yasui Sokken.

Groundhog Day in Morioka?

Story 2: About 18 years ago I took a winter trip up to Tohoku. My then-GF was back in her hometown for Christmas and I wasn’t invited so I was doing a little Snow Country tour. On Christmas eve I arrived in Morioka, Iwate and found a cheap ryokan. The ‘Okami’ also ran a bar in town and suggested, this being Christmas eve and all, that I might find some happy company there. So I followed her advice.

The bar girl spoke English surprisingly well and told me of her dream to study law abroad. When she moved away to serve other customers, a salaryman beside me, soft-spoken and articulate, struck up a conversation. The piano man all bifocals and buckteeth but with silky fingers gave me a friendly nod as he launched into “Take Five”. And at that moment the front door opened and a loud drunk—the kind you keep a corner of your eye on because he might become trouble—clambered his way in.

Fast forward exactly ten years ahead. It’s Christmas eve again and I’m on my way by train to see a friend in Aomori. But snow is blocking the tracks and there is an announcement that the train will go no further than Morioka. Damn! I’ll have to spend the night there! I remember the reasonably-priced ryokan I stayed at before. They have one room available so I take it. I’m alone on Christmas eve but I remember the old bar so I think, why not?

As I enter, I hear the piano and, taking my seat at the bar, I see the bifocals and the teeth of the piano man but now a ponytail has sprouted. The bar girl comes over to take my order… Could it be...? Why yes, she speaks English and…it’s her! I wonder what happened to the dreams of law school? I decide it might not be kosher to ask. I mention to her that we met here before—about ten—wait a minute, EXACTLY ten years ago. That was Christmas eve too! Then, the piano guy starts playing “Take Five”. (maybe it should have been the Twlight Zone theme) I turn to the guy next to me at the bar. “This is weird”, I say. “Exactly ten years ago on the same night, I met the same bar girl here and the same piano guy played the same tune”.
“And you talked to someone here at the bar?”
“Uhhh… I think that was me”
At that moment, there was a noise at the door as a loud drunk walked in…

A small restaurant-- in the dohyo

Story 3: Some readers may have read this one elsewhere before.
In a Tokyo classroom a loooong time back, I was asking students to tell me about someone they admired. “Chiyonofuji” offered up a student. Being new to Japan then I didn’t know who he was so I asked the student to tell me about Chiyonofuji.
“He is a small restaurant,” came the response.
“Sorry,” I corrected him, “He runs or manages a small restaurant”. The students gives me a look of confusion mixed with agitation, “No. He is a small restaurant!,” he insists. Another student then interrupts, “Chiyonofuji,” he clarifies, “is a sumo wrestler”.

But then again some sumo wrestlers could be considered small restaurants.

Unintentionally taunting the police

Story 4:
Everybody likes a police story, right? So, about two years ago I was driving home after having spent a hot summer day outdoors. I decide to pick up a can of beer at a convenience store and put it in the back seat where the shaded windows should keep it relatively cool. I drive down a steep hill but just before I reach the intersection the light turns red. I have to brake hard and the beer rolls off the back seat and splatters onto the floor. As the light turns green and I advance, I hear a telltale hiss and smell the brew.

The fall has ruptured the can and now it is spewing out a crack in the side all over the back seat. I reach around to grab the beer, which now resembles an epileptic fountain of sorts, and roll down my window—beer in hand—and stick it outside to keep the liquid flow and smell out of the car. So there I am driving through a major intersection with my window down, holding a spouting beer outside.

You know where this is going, don’t you? A cop is stationed just on the other side of the intersection. He gapes at the sight—it is apparently so in-your-face that he appears almost paralyzed. I see him get in his car and turn the key but I think, why even bother? I pull over almost immediately. I get out of my car carrying the offending brew for all to see. Trying to hide it would implicate me. You know what? The cop laughed. He could see that the side was cracked and spewing and that there was liquid all over my right arm. He told me to dump the beer and put things like that on the floor next time to avoid the same thing happening again. Like it ever would.

'You'd think a police officer would notice details like that!'

I’ve generally had good interactions with cops. Perhaps because I look agreeable, speak Japanese well enough, and simply don’t have a defensive look about me. Touch wood. I had one disagreeable experience of note though. My wife was driving with me as a passenger one evening. She had an imported car so the steering wheel was on the ‘other side’. Suddenly, a cop siren rang out behind us and indicated that we should pull over. The middle-aged cop came to the window on my side, looked in, and said to my wife, “Your tail light isn’t working. Pull over just ahead”. She did so and got out of her car to check the light. I stayed inside.

But the same cop came up to my window again. “Get out of the car” he bellowed. “Why?”. “You are required to get out of the car”. Hesitantly, and looking doubtful, I got out. “Give me your license!”. “Why? I wasn’t driving!”. Then he got nasty. “Don’t give me that bullshit ‘ I wasn’t driving’ I mean, come on!”. Just then his junior partner, who had been doing the paperwork with my wife overheard us, “Ummm. It’s an imported car, sir. The steering wheel is on the other side. He wasn’t driving.”

The older cop looked down and shuffled his feet, mumbling an ‘apology’ that sounded more like, ‘I knew that but I’m just going by the book to be sure,’ and sauntered back to his car. The junior guy shrugged his shoulders and smiled sheepishly at me. “Sorry about that”, he said, gesturing towards his truculent partner. My wife couldn’t resist a parting shot, “You’d think someone like a police officer would notice a detail like which side the steering wheel is on and who is driving when he stops a driver and talks to them through the window”. The younger cop nodded. I think he had probably been on the receiving end of a few barbs from his partner too.

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