Thursday, September 2, 2010

Sometimes the joke's on you. Sometimes you're the joke.

My favorite joke is this:

One day, I'm golfing, I step up to the second tee, tee up my ball and pull out my three wood. And from somewhere down on the ground I hear a tiny voice say, "Ribbit. One iron." I look down and I see a frog looking back at me. I didn't know what to do so I said, "What?" And again, the frog said, "Ribbit. One iron." I swear, it was like I was hypnotized. I slid my three wood back into my bag, took out my one iron and swung. Bang. Knocked my ball two inches from the cup. I looked back at the frog and said, "How did you know that?" And the frog replies, "Ribbit. Magic frog." Well, I pick the frog up and carry him with me. On the next tee, he says, "Ribbit. Driver." I use my driver. Hole in one. This went on all day. I started making bets with other golfers and won every single one.

I put that frog in my bag, headed straight to the airport, and bought a ticket on the next plane to Las Vegas. I walked right into Caesar's Palace and said, "Magic Frog, what should I do?" And he said, "Ribbit. Roulette." I walked up to the nearest roulette table and again the frog spoke. "Ribbit. 22." I put it all on 22. All my golf winnings, everything in my wallet. My watch, my mortgage, everything in my savings account. All of it. Sure enough. Winner. The lights started ringing. Everyone was slapping me on my back and shaking my hand.

The pit boss came by and comped me a night in the hotel's fanciest suite. And when I got there, I took that magic frog out of my bag, set it on my bed, and said, "Magic Frog, you have made me rich and happy beyond my wildest dreams. How can I repay you?" And the frog said, "Ribbit. Kiss me." I said, "Kiss you?" And the frog said again, "Ribbit. Kiss me." Well, what could I do? I took a deep breath and leaned down and kissed the frog. Immediately there was a big poof of smoke and the frog turned into a beautiful, totally naked girl. And that, your honor, is how she got into my hotel room that night.

I have been telling this joke for at least 15 years. It's not that it's so, so funny. (Although if you tell it right, it always gets a laugh.) And it's not that it perfectly illustrates the elements of clear storytelling. (Although it includes three distinct acts, climax, denouement, character arcs, allusion and all the rest.)

No, the real reason I love The Story of the Magic Frog is that it relies not on a clever punchline, but on a twist that rivals anything you'd find in film or literature.

Throughout the joke, listeners assume they are just passive observers waiting for a laugh. This perception is encouraged by familiar elements like a talking frog, and reinforced by the repetition of the word, "Ribbit." But The Story of the Magic Frog doesn't work like a conventional joke at all. At the last moment, listeners find they are in fact active participants. They are a character. They are an accomplice. They are the punchline. And they have to readjust their perceptions not just of the unlikely story, but of their own complicity in it.

It makes me wonder. How many things in my own life have I gotten wrong because I've misunderstood myself?

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