(This appeared last year (2014) in issue 6 of Gigantic magazine. Make of it what you will.)
A MILLION BEES
I know one joke. I learned it from my husband, who cracked me up every time he told it. When I tell it, nobody cracks up. I’m horrible at telling jokes. Some people are just no good at it, and I’m one of them. Here’s me telling this joke:
Once there was a man who claimed he had a million bees.
See, this is a bad start. The sentence is too formal in structure, plus it starts out with “once,” like a fairy tale. Fairy tales aren’t funny, on top of which the man turns out to be a farmer, so you have to make that clear right away.
A farmer claimed he had a million bees.
Kind of abrupt. Still too formal. “Claimed.” It’s like the hilarious “writ of mandamus.”
There was this farmer who said he had a million bees.
A reporter for the local paper was assigned to write about the farmer and the million bees.
No. You don’t need “for the local paper,” since we can assume he didn’t write for the Times, and we don’t care whose idea the story was anyway, plus “assigned” blows.
One day a reporter drove out to the farm and approached the farmer and said—
Of course he approached the farmer. He didn’t bellow at the man across a field of wheat.
So this reporter drove out to the farm and said, “I hear you have a million bees on this farm.”
So this reporter drives out and says to the farmer, “I hear you have a million bees on this farm.”
And the farmer says, “Yup.”
And the reporter looks around and says, “Are they outside in this field of wheat?” And the farmer says, “Nope.”
The farmer is standing in front of a red barn. “Are they in this barn”? The farmer says–
Nobody cares about the color of the barn.
And the reporter looks around and says, “Well, they gotta be in this barn.” And the farmer says, “Nope.”
I’m on a roll.
“Well,” says the reporter, “—
Too many wells.
“Are they in the house then?”
“Then” ruins it. Act it out instead. Oh god.
“Are they in the house?” [I attempt to look puzzled and skeptical. My voice rises on “house.” My performance is grotesque.] The farmer says, “Yup.” So they go into the house.
The reporter looks around. “Are they in…the kitchen?” “Nope.” “Are they in the living room?” The farmer says–
God, why don’t you go through every room on the first floor.
The reporter looks all around and doesn’t see any bees. “Are they in the basement—
The reporter looks all around and doesn’t see any bees. “Are they in the fruit cellar—
The reporter looks all around and doesn’t see any bees. They must be upstairs. “Are they…upstairs?” The farmer says “Yep.” So they go upstairs. The biggest room is the master bedroom–
Seriously? The master bedroom?
The reporter looks into the farmer’s bedroom. “Are the bees in here?” “Yup.”
“Are they under the bed?” “Nope.” The reporter is getting steamed.
Steamed! That’s good!
“So, are they in this bureau?” “Yup.” [I attempt to convey exasperation. Eyeroll, maybe, exaggerated slump, maybe. Both. I wish I were dead.]
The reporter first tries the biggest drawer, then the—
The reporter goes through the bureau drawer by drawer until—
It’s one of those old bureaus you see in farms. It’s got these huge drawers—
Turns out nothing’s in the bureau drawers. All that’s left is a large jewelry box on top of the bureau. The reporter says “There aren’t a million bees in that jewelry box…?”
[Wearing what I hope is a look of profound disgust, I stare directly at the imaginary farmer. I sigh, desperately.] The reporter yanks open the jewelry box. Inside there’s some pearls and buttons and pins and a tiny velvet ring box—
That is so very wrong. But I can see that ring box, it’s very small and of course it’s cheap velvet, black, and the top is worn and shiny. It’s shimmering right there in front of me, a goddamn ding an sich, unknowable and indescribable, yet like an idiot I strive to make it magically appear in another’s mind, so that the two of us can hold hands and gaze at it together and for one precious moment not be mistralswept and utterly alone, and if I were writing instead of telling a joke I’d strive like hell, but nobody cares about the ding an sich
Inside there’s some pearls and buttons and pins and a ring box.
“Are you telling me you’ve got a million bees in that ring box?”
“Are you serious? A million bees?”
“You’ve got a MILLION BEES there in that tiny box?”
Here we go.
“But you couldn’t have a million bees in that box! They’d all be crushed!”
AND THE FARMER SAYS—
Why can’t I stop now? Why? We’re all drowning in flop sweat. I haven’t made eye contact with anybody since we got to the stupid master bedroom. The Funniest Punch Line in the World, delivered by me to these innocent people, would be cringeworthy. We are united in one hope: That the ordeal is almost over.
We need a new style of joke, one which ends just before the punch line. I could kill with jokes like that. Who the hell cares what the farmer says?
The whole damn point is that there are a MILLION BEES. Just the phrase “a million bees” gets funnier every time you say it. Even when I say it, it gets funnier. Bees themselves are not funny—they’re not funny at all. They make annoying sounds and sting you. But the sound of the word “bee” is funny, maybe because it sounds like the letter it begins with, also when you pluralize it it even sounds a little like buzzing, and of course the number (a million) is perfectly hyperbolic. There are larger numbers, but they don’t work. Try it. “A billion bees” is just tiresome.
So ideally the whole joke could just be boiled down to
There was this farmer who said he had a million bees.
If I only had the strength of character to just say that and back away.
Fuck ‘em. That’s what the farmer says.