Why the Long Face?

Humor is a very different animal from place to place, or so it would seem. Certain brands of comedic endeavor transcend geographical boundaries, to be sure: Monty Python, Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp, Inspector Clouseau, to name a few. Some other varieties don’t easily bridge the culture/language gap. Case in point: there is an old chestnut about a horse who walks into a bar. The bartender looks up and goes, “Hey baby, why the long face?” Of course this will be a funny joke only in places where “long face” is synonymous with sadness, thus giving it a double meaning appealing to fans of wordplay. Years later this joke was famously revisited featuring modern-day celebrities sporting long faces, such as John Kerry, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Celine Dion. John Kerry walks into a bar, and the bartender goes, “Hey buddy, why the long face?”

So several years ago I tried this joke out on my Japanese friend, Saki, and she looked at me like I was the beyond-a-shadow-of-a-doubt unfunniest person on earth. “It’s funny?” she asked, incredulous. The humor is lost if you have to explain it, but she requested that I try nonetheless, as she is eager to pick up American nuance to complement her already reasonably good English grammar skills. So I gave it my best shot (long face = sadness, John Kerry has a lo-o-o-ng face), but it still didn’t elicit even the faintest blip on the laugh-o-meter.

Anyway, a couple of Christmases back, she and I were invited to visit my brother Thane and his wife Carol for the holidays, and I came up with what I thought was a hilarious suggestion for their first in-person meeting. (But first I must make a tiny digression to offer a bit of necessary background: neither my brother nor I have ever been accused of missing a meal, and of all the ways we might meet our respective ends, malnourishment would not likely find a place on the list; this seeming non sequitur will make all sorts of sense shortly. Now, back to the thread of the story.) On the train to Narita Airport I mentioned to Saki that if she wanted to impress Thane with her growing English skills she should try telling him a joke, and the one I immediately thought of was a variant on “long face.” John Kerry and Celine Dion walk into a bar, and the bartender goes, “Hey you two, why the long faces?”

“I’m not going to tell that joke,” she said dismissively.

“Why not? It’s really cute, a little bit of a variation from the norm, and it will really show off your English skills,” I replied.

“It’s stupid, that’s all. It’s not funny.”

“Trust me, it is. If you tell that joke to Thane, it will absolutely crack him up.”

“It’s not going to happen.”

“Oh, come on,” I wheedled.

“I have an idea,” she said. “I will tell him a different joke, but kind of the same. It will be funnier.”

“That sounds good; let’s hear it.”

“Okay. Bruce and Thane walk into a bar, and the bartender says, “Hey you two, why the big bellies?”

Game, set, match.

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One Response to Why the Long Face?

  1. Anonymous says:

    I came up here for an explanation of ‘Why the long face’, only to find an essay written about a joke. The only question that I wanted to ask the writer is, “Why the long face?”

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