Not really. Nothing all that funny actually happens on the way to the Thrift Store. Sometimes something mildly amusing might happen and then the little anecdote could be woven into an edifying sermon, but never anything rip-roaring funny. Mennonites do not fall over laughing in the aisles on a Sunday morning.
That isn’t to say that we don’t think about humour from time to time and ponder about our apparent humourlessness. Usually in earnest little essays or editorials that seek to explain away our earnestness. I had some hope when Geez magazine started out, what with its tagline being about “holy mischief.” Turns out, it’s not really the funny kind of mischief. Looks like they’ve dropped the tagline, anyway, perhaps admitting defeat. Every now and then someone will protest loudly that we’re not as not funny as everyone thinks we are. A guy named Matt Falk is making a film on that theme as I write. Yup. Good luck to him. I mean that earnestly.
There are some kinds of funny that actually are, if not widely prevalent, at least not frowned upon among Mennos. The youth and activities geared towards children are generally given some leeway. Writing and performing skits and songs that gently poke fun of our foibles while also holding firm to sound biblical and/or theological stands are good wholesome activities to keep the kids out of trouble. When I grew up, the Mennonite men who had any sense of humour at all, had a sparse dry sense of humour, arid as a Manitoba afternoon. They liked to make jokes without actually smiling, and with the least possible number of words. Women had a livelier humour that consisted of mundane stories and anecdotes made outrageous in the telling that, if done well, could take up the whole of an afternoon in the kitchen. There’s also a Low German sense of humour that crosses genders but not generations as I repeatedly learned from asking time and again for my parents to explain the jokes that had them in stitches. They appeared to me to be all variations of farmyard humour and not all that funny. Once every generation or so, someone tries on some satire to see if it’ll fit. In the 1980s, a spoof newspaper called the Mennonite Distorter lampooned the precursor of the Canadian Mennonite, the Mennonite Reporter. It didn’t last long. If you search, you can still find a few nuggets of satirical funny out there, like the short-lived Mennonot that included a reprint of a “news” item describing the controversy brewing over whether to allow same sex singing in Mennonite Churches. Even Youtube, comedy’s priesthood of all uploaders, has only a meagre offering of Mennonite humour. Sure, if you type Mennonite comedy into the search bar, you get more than 2,000 results but only about a dozen of those are Mennonites actually trying to be funny. A few even succeed. And anyway, 2,000 by Youtube standards is nothing. Mennonite singing gets more than 6 times that many results.
And then there are Mennonite jokes. For many years I thought that Mennonite jokes were a real thing that distinguished us as a people from other peoples. Turns out, no. Most of them were stolen from other cultures and just Menno-ified by throwing in a Mennonite last name and a goofy low German or Pennsylvania Dutch accent. For the most part, these jokes, hilariously, revolve around Mennonites as cheap, puritanical, simpleminded, and/or bureaucratic. And hypocritical. There’s everyone’s favorite joke: take one Mennonite fishing and he’ll (it’s always a he in this joke) drink all your beer; take two of them along and they’ll drink none. There is also that delightful subset of Mennonite humour that is all about Mennonite women being ugly. But we’ll get to Mennonite misogyny another time.
Every now and then, a joke does manage to pull together a few of our particular peccadilloes and speaks to something core about us, something worth laughing about. You can even get a bit of a sense of the Mennonite zeitgeist by looking at how the jokes have changed. For instance, here are 5 variations of the light bulb joke in chronological order of my hearing them:
Q: How many Mennonites does it take to change a light bulb?
- A: 27 — one to change the light bulb and 25 for the potluck for afterwards (c. 1975)
- A: 31 — ten for the committee to nominate the changer; ten for the committee to arrange for disposal of the old lightbulb; ten for the committee to purchase the new light bulb; one to change it upon being discerned for the task by the congregation (c. 1985)
- A: It takes the consensus of the congregation, or, failing that, a two-third majority vote (c. 1995)
- A: Change? (c. 2005)
- A: That depends. Our congregation is not currently of one mind on the need to change the light bulb. Although the majority wishes it changed, a sizeable minority is in loving disagreement. We are, therefore, entering into a year-long season of discernment during which we will prayerfully study the scriptures to seek guidance in our decision-making process. We will also be in dialogue with our area conference at this time to assure that any light bulb switching does not threaten the unity of our denomination. If we discern that the congregation’s will is, indeed, to switch the light bulb, we will then establish a task force to implement the bulb changing directive. So, yeah, we’ll get back you. (c. 2015)
Are you laughing yet?
I haven’t got a light bulb cocktail for you this week. Instead, I’ve got a cocktail that pays homage to another of my favorite Mennonite jokes. The cocktail’s called the Three Huts and it uses three types of rum in a slightly darker version of a Pina Colada. Yes, this one requires buying non-local produce unless you live in the land of Tikki drinks. Sorry. First the joke:
After many years of scrimping and saving, Hans and Elsie Epp (note the obligatory Mennonite name) decided to take a vacation and they went off on a boat cruise to the South Pacific. After a terrible storm, the boat was shipwrecked and they were the only survivors, left to their own devices to make do in an environment as unfamiliar to them as imaginable. They were, however, a resourceful couple and they managed to get on fairly well. It wasn’t exactly like home, but it wasn’t as different as you might imagine.
While Hans and Elsie were making a home for themselves, various people in the outside world were searching for the lost ship. Eventually — after maybe a month or so — a ship found the island and the shipwreck. The captain went ashore and, finding signs of human life, she continued to explore until she found Hans and Elsie. But one thing puzzled her. She noticed there were 3 huts. They all had nice workmanship and so she complimented the couple on their work and they beamed with pride. Then she pointed to the nearest hut and asked after the purpose of this hut.
“That? That’s our home. It’s where we eat and sleep.” and they happily showed her around their neat little home and garden. The captain nodded. She had thought perhaps that the couple had separate huts after the strain of too much time together, but she was wrong about this. They appeared the epitome of marital bliss.
“Then”, the captain asked, pointing to the hut a little to the left of the first, “what of this other hut?” The couple beamed, if anything, even broader than they had the first time.
“That is our Church.” They said and they offered to show her around their place of worship. The captain demurred but nodded again at this. Then she pointed to the third hut and asked about it. Suddenly, Hans crossed his arms and Elsa pursed her lips. For awhile, the captain thought they wouldn’t answer but finally Hans spoke. His countenance had fallen completely and his voice was now filled with bitterness and scorn as he put his arm protectively around Elsa and announced.
“That?” He might even have spit as he said it. “That’s the Church we used to attend.” And, as one, they turned away and wouldn’t speak of it again.
This post was first published for April Fool’s Day, 2015.
The Three Huts
1/4 cup coconut milk
1/4 cup fresh pineapple pulp
1 tblsp sugar (to taste)
2 oz white rum
1 oz dark rum
1 oz spiced rum
1. Puree the pineapple in a blender
2. Add coconut milk and sugar to taste
3. Add rum and blend
4. Add crushed ice and blend just until frothy
5. Pour into appropriate kind of glass and enjoy while regaling your friends with a string of Mennonite jokes. Don’t worry about laughing while drinking. They aren’t that funny.